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A new generation of Russian political prisoners

This piece originally appeared in Issue 5 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

33-year old Ildar Dadin is a former security guard who got married in a Moscow detention centre last February. Cameras were not allowed for the short ceremony but journalist Anastasiya Zotova, now his wife, came out smiling to the well-wishers and reporters waiting in the snow. At that point, Dadin had been under house arrest or behind bars for a year, having neither had any previous convictions nor a particularly high pubic profile. The judge at Moscow’s Basmanny Court had sentenced Dadin to a total of three years of prison.

September 29, 2016 - Janek Lasocki - Articles and Commentary

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Anastasiya wrote on her blog about Dadin and the conditions he faced. Determined to stay in high spirits, he had been studying law textbooks he managed to obtain (with the hope of one day finishing a law degree) but it has not been easy. In one of the other detention centres he stayed in, he joined other inmates in catching mice with empty milk cartons in order to pass the time.

His crime had been holding demonstrations in small groups or on his own, repeatedly and without permission. He organised and held a one-man picket in support of the peaceful protestors in the “Bolotnoe Delo”, a three man protest against Russian military involvement in Ukraine, and, on a separate occasion, in support of oppositionist Alexei Navalny. After each of these little acts was noticed, he was either fined up to 15,000 roubles or served 15 days in prison. When the authorities decided to combine these acts, he was found to be violating a new law restricting peaceful assembly. He was punished for exercising a fundamental right in Russia’s own constitution. Today, Dadin is part of a new generation of political prisoners in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, punished for their beliefs and for having the courage to express them. The Russian human rights organisation Memorial maintains a list of those it considers political prisoners and at last count, the number had reached 87. Alarmingly, it is rising.

Gradual deterioration

Recent Russian history is no stranger to political prisoners. The Soviet era dissidents Sergey Kovalev, Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn are just some of the better known prisoners among the thousands who were imprisoned in the Soviet Union for their political or religious beliefs. In Tsarist times, many of the first inhabitants of Siberia were critical writers or political dissenters who had drawn the ire of the Tsar and been sent into exile. However, post-Cold War Russia was supposed to be different. A signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights, Russia adopted the rhetoric of the West when it came to that issue. After the fall of the Soviet Union, civil society blossomed and independent media outlets multiplied.

After Vladimir Putin first took his seat in the Kremlin, the sanctity of fundamental freedoms gradually deteriorated and efforts were made to once again rewrite history. Even so, a few high profile cases aside (such as that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky), the situation ten years ago was not as bad as it is today. Demonstrators would face small fines or 15 days behind bars, but little more. The “white ribbon” demonstrations that rocked Moscow after the 2011 parliamentary elections changed everything. Legislation was passed against peaceful demonstrations and criticism of the government. State media began broadcasting even more aggressive propaganda (particularly after the events in Ukraine) and the number of political prisoners dramatically increased.

Although the Memorial Human Rights Centre keeps the authoritative list, there is no universally agreed upon definition of a political prisoner in Russia. The Moscow-based SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis publishes lists of those who are unjustifiably behind bars for so-called “crimes of an extremist nature”; Amnesty International prefers the term “prisoner of conscience” and uses it sparingly, while a number of far-right nationalist groups have called jailed members of their organisations political prisoners. However, Memorial bases its decisions on who to define as a political prisoner according to a 2012 resolution by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). This includes those prosecuted exclusively in connection with belonging to an ethnic, religious or other group or for convictions or views. They also include those who have been prosecuted selectively or sentenced disproportionately when a case is politically motivated.

Those Russians who are currently behind bars are a good representation of the country that Putin’s Russia has become. They are being punished for exercising their fundamental freedoms, including any political opposition, for exposing the web of corruption on which the state is built and for threatening local barons loyal to the Kremlin. Often, they are imprisoned for all three. 

Ukrainian hostages

However, it is symbolic that the best known political prisoners over the past couple of years are Ukrainian. Since the end of the EuroMaidan demonstrations in Kyiv and the onset of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, at least 30 Ukrainian nationals have been detained (often subject to torture) and imprisoned on charges including terrorism, murder and espionage. The most famous among them was the fiery Nadiya Savchenko, who was captured in Donbas and transferred to Rostov where she endured a farcical trial, including being accused of complicity in the murder of Russian journalists. As a result of a prisoner exchange, she was returned to Kyiv amid much fanfare in May 2016. This was in no small part thanks to international support and the success of the “Let my people go” campaign.

Even so, many remain behind bars, including Ukrainian businessmen accused of espionage and others accused of genocide or participation in the first Chechen War. There are also a large number of prisoners from Crimea, including Oleksandr Kolchenko, Oleg Sentsov and many Crimean Tartars, who have been given astonishingly long sentences. As Amnesty International wrote at the time, this whole process “played into Russia’s propaganda war against Ukraine and was redolent of Stalinist-era show trials”.

Russians themselves have faced a curtailing of their basic rights, with the freedom of assembly being heavily restricted. The most famous case, the so-called “Bolotnoye Delo”, involved 30 participants in the peaceful post-election marches of 2011-12 that were violently broken up by police. Denis Lutskevich was 20 years old and finishing his first year at university when he was detained and ultimately sentenced to three and a half years in prison. “After my arrest, I thought that surely I would be released soon. I was not guilty; I believed it must be a misunderstanding and that they would find me innocent. Yet they did not let me go… it was very frightening.”

Lutskevich spent two years in a detention centre, in a small, stuffy cell with up to 10 other inmates before finally being released. He is now trying to rebuild his life. Four years after the demonstrations, arrests continue to be made. In April 2016, Maksim Panfilov became the latest person to be taken into custody.

Expressing one’s views online, in print or creatively, is now more dangerous than ever. Rafis Kashapov, a Tatar activist from Tatarstan, was charged in 2015 with extremism and inciting ethnic hatred after condemning the annexation of Crimea on social media. Similarly, Andrei Bubayev, a 40-year old electrician from Tver, was sentenced to two years for sharing an article critical of Crimea’s annexation and aphoto of a tube of toothpaste with the caption “Squeeze Russia out of yourself”. Vladimir Podrezov was jailed for taking part in a stunt to paint a Soviet star on top of a Russian skyscraper with Ukrainian national colours.

Keeping up appearances

Opposition politicians, though generally very weak, are targeted if they are considered to be a threat or suddenly gain a lot of support. Oleg Navalny, the brother of anti-corruption activist and oppositionist Alexei, was sentenced to three years for embezzlement in a case which Memorial claimed was really about stopping “Alexei’s public activity and the threats his activities create for the current government”. Similarly, Andrei Pivovarov was a campaign manager in the only region where the opposition was allowed to compete in the 2015 local elections and found himself charged with bribery.

Those who uncover local corruption or question a regional oligarch’s propaganda are also punished. Evgeny Vitishko, an environmental campaigner who investigated damage caused by the Sochi Winter Olympics, was imprisoned after looking into the unlawful seizure of land by the governor of Krasnodar. Sergei Nikiforov was found guilty of bribery after leading protests against a gold mining company in the Far East region of Amur. While in Chechnya, the police framed Ruslan Kutaev, “finding” drugs in his home which lead to a four-year sentence. He was targeted because of his efforts to highlight the tragic history of Stalin’s deportations of the Chechens, an event that Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, has tried to downplay.

For all its increasing restrictions on personal freedoms, the Kremlin is keen on maintaining the appearance of a developed country with democratic legitimacy. There are three things that are enabling Russia to maintain this facade: control of the courts, a growing amount of legislation that can be used to justify its actions and the people the state is choosing to put behind bars.

Sergey Smirnov is chief editor of the online portal Media Zona, which monitors the judicial and prison system in Russia. As he explains, “For a long time, Russia has lacked independent courts. The justice system today has a clear chain of command. The head of a regional court has total control over his judges and he makes no decisions himself without consulting his superiors. It is the same at every level. In politically-motivated cases, this is especially noticeable: sentences are passed in agreement with the Kremlin.” Hard evidence of this is hard to come by, although in February 2011, following Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s second show trial, Natalia Vasilyeva, an assistant to Viktor Danilkin, the judge in the case, gave an interview to Gazeta.ru describing how Danilkin had to consult with the higher-ranking Moscow City Court throughout the entire trial. She claimed that ultimately, he had the verdict imposed on him from above, after his first draft was rejected.

Today, Russian courts are able to use a wide array of new criminal legislation that, although unconstitutional in the way it restricts basic rights, has armed judges with the legal means to imprison anyone the Kremlin deems a threat. For example, Article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code (multiple violations of the established order of organising or holding gatherings, demonstrations and pickets) was used to charge Ildar Dadin. Article 280.1 (which broaches public calls to violate the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation) was introduced to punish anyone criticising the annexation of Crimea. The broad description and interpretation of the definition of “extremism” has also given a lot of space to silence activists such as Vadim Tyumentsev, a video blogger from Tomsk who was sentenced to five years after calling on people to attend a protest against high transport fares and for criticising the Russian intervention in Ukraine.

High price

The Kremlin has also been careful about who it chooses to put behind bars. Unlike Egypt, which jailed thousands of government opponents, or Azerbaijan, where political prisoners have included the most prominent human rights lawyers, investigative journalists and political activists, by and large, the Kremlin seems to have intentionally targeted individuals or small groups with a low profile. These are people without networks in the West and who are not household names, even among the liberal opposition-supporting minority. The better-known leaders of civil society are instead hit with hefty fines, their work is obstructed and their reputation attacked on state TV. Meanwhile, Russians across the country are getting the message that life is possible, but expressing any sort of opposition risks a high price.

Any real change of direction towards openness and judicial reform is now unimaginable under Putin. Indeed, the growing trend of locking opponents away is directly linked to how threatened those in the Kremlin feel; this has been compounded with sanctions and lower oil prices, making the economy less stable than it has been for years. In many areas, wages are being delayed and the number of strikes and protests is increasing. Naturally, this will only continue to unnerve the government. The best that can be hoped for is that it does not get any worse, although under current circumstances, it is hard to be optimistic.

Ultimately, beyond the manipulation and politics are ordinary people, whose lives have been shattered. Most of them never imagined they would have to give up so much for expressing themselves peacefully, a right that is guaranteed in the Russian Federation’s constitution. Organisations like Memorial and Open Russia have been able to provide them and their families with some help, and information about their plight is spread in the independent media. Yet outside of Russia, even less is known about this new generation of political prisoners. International pressure and attention can achieve small victories, as was demonstrated with some of the Ukrainians who were released. Therefore, if we ever want Russia to change, it is important that we do not neglect them.

Janek Lasocki is a senior programme officer for Europe and Central Asia with Article 19, an international human rights NGO. 

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