The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Alexey Pichugin
On June 4, 2020, the Orenburg Region Administration’s Commission on Pardon Issues denied pardon to former Yukos staffer Alexey Pichugin, who has been in jail since 2003. Memorial Human Rights Center has acknowledged him as a political prisoner. Pichugin is serving life in prison, and this is his third pardon denial.
UPDATE: On March 10, 2020 Alexey Pichugin, who has been wrongfully imprisoned for more than 6,100 days, filed a new petition for clemency addressed to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. His two prior pardon requests made in 2015 and 2017 had been rejected. In his request, Pichugin stressed that he has already spent more than 16 years and 9 months in prison.
He asked to take into account that his mother turned 81 in February, and that the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers recommended pardoning him.
The European Court twice – in 2012 and 2017 – found that Article 6 of the European Convention, which guarantees the right to a fair trial, was violated during Pichugin’s trials at Moscow City Court. The Strasbourg court therefore noted a need to hold a new, fair trial for Pichugin. However, Russia refused to do so.
Several years ago, Memorial Human Rights Centre recognized Alexey Pichugin as a political prisoner.
On June 04, 2020, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe passed a Resolution CM/ResDH(2020)100 concerning Alexey Pichugin. The resolution “exhort[ing] the Russian authorities to adopt the individual measures necessary to erase as soon as possible the consequences of the applicant’s convictions resulting from the criminal trials found by the European Court to have been in violation of the Convention,” giving them the deadline of 30 November, 2020.
Alexey Pichugin is the Kremlin’s longest serving political prisoner. At the time of his arrest, Pichugin was a mid-level security manager at Yukos, then one of Russia’s biggest and fastest growing oil companies. Although he was never himself political, Yukos’ CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky was publicly critical of Putin’s government and was actively funding opposition parties. In what was widely seen as politically-motivated retaliation, a number of Yukos leaders and employees were arrested and charged with various crimes, and Yukos itself was broken up and sold to state-controlled Russian energy firms.
Pichugin was convicted of multiple counts of murder and attempted murder (Criminal Code Article 105), as well as robbery (Article 162), in two trials marred by blatant due process violations. There was no non-hearsay evidence introduced in his trials that linked Pichugin to the underlying crimes – only the statements of jailhouse “confessors” who claimed that they had been told by third parties that Pichugin was behind the crimes. In the first trial, the judge closed the proceedings to the public and prevented the defense from cross-examining the key witness against him – one of the Kremlin’s confessors who at one point stated that his future was now in “in the hands of the President of Russia.” In the second trial, the state developed “expert” reports without participation of the defense, and the court did not allow the defense to introduce an expert report exonerating Pichugin or to cross-examine Pichugin’s four co-defendants (all of whom had originally implicated him but later recanted, explaining that investigators had provided them Pichugin’s name). In addition, Pichugin was arrested without a warrant; interrogated without and denied access to counsel; given limited access to case materials and time to prepare a defense; held in extended pretrial detention; drugged by interrogators; and publicly denounced by government officials before he had been convicted.
Confirming the political nature of the charges against him, Pichugin was also repeatedly pressured to falsely implicate Khodorkovsky and Khodorkovsky’s partner, Leonid Nevzlin, in criminal activity. The European Court of Human Rights ruled, in two separate cases, that Pichugin’s convictions violated his right to a fair trial. In addition, leading organizations, such as the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and the Lantos Foundation, have recognized Pichugin as a prisoner of conscience.