Varya Mikhaylova: Legal Nihilism

varya-morningDawn outside the October District Court, on Pochtamskaya Street in Petersburg’s Admiralty District. The Central Post Office is visible in the background. Photo by Varya Mikhaylova

Varya Mikhaylova
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May 7, 2018

I greeted the morning of the day Vladimir Putin started his new term as president in a way that was more than symbolic. At five in the morning, as the first rays of the sun were peaking over the horizon, I left the October District Court, where for the past thirteen hours I had defended people detained during the He’s No Tsar to Us protest rally in Petersburg.

I was afraid to go to court, because what happened in March could easily have happened again. The police had then tried to detain the activists who had come to support their friends right in the courtroom. But by Sunday afternoon this excuse seemed utter rubbish, and I rushed to the October District Court.

Friends of the detainees stood outside the courthouse with bags of food and things. They were not allowed into the courthouse, and the bailiffs refused to take their care packages and give them to the detainees. It was a miracle that me and another human rights activist, Maria Malysheva, were let into the courthouse. By current standards, that was a cause for joy.

There were five detainees in the courthouse. Some of them had been consciously involved in the protest rally and made no bones about it, while the others had come along for the ride, had come to gawk or had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One of my future defendants was an amazing mathematics teacher who, at that point, had not eaten or drunk water for twenty-six hours. After we arrived, we tearfully persuaded the bailiffs to at least send in the food and water brought by the people waiting outside.

A policeman in the courthouse refused to give one young woman her telephone. He sat next to her holding the phone in a cellophane packet and was very proud of his perserverance. After I called the police HQ hotline, however, he handed over the phone to the detainee while looking down at the floor.

After four hours of waiting, we went into the first hearing at 7:15 p.m., while the final hearing commenced at four in the morning. We made around fourteen motions total during the hearings, and all of them were rejected except motions to admit a social defender to the hearings and view a video. Our motions to summon a prosecutor, witnesses, and public officials, request access to a video, enter evidence into the record, and transfer a hearing to another jurisdiction were all turned down. The last motion led to a particularly funny exchange with the judge.

“Defender, why do you think the case should be transferred to another jurisdiction?”

“Your honor, the alleged violation came to light in the area covered by the 78th Police Precinct, and the case should be heard by the Kuibyshev District Court.”

“Why do you say that? It came to light in the 1st Police Precinct.”

(In other cases, it would be the 77th Police Precinct, the 34th Police Precinct, and so on.)

“So, it turns out my defendant was detained and delivered to police custody, but only subsequently, at the police station, did the violation come to light?”

“It turns out that was what happened.”

Neither the judge nor her female clerk concealed their contempt for the protest rally in the slightest.

“You, an educated person, a professor, what induced you to go there?”

“If I had been in your shoes, I would have left as soon as I saw what was happening.”

“Schoolchildren with time on their hands.”

“You should have thought about the possibility of jail time, your job, and your pupils when you were going to the protest, not now, when you ask me not to pass this sentence.”

And so on, and so forth.

The video that was introduced into evidence in every case deserves special attention. It was very long (over an hour), but it contained no footage either of the rally’s beginning, in the Alexander Garden, or its finale, when the police detained protesters. Two of my defendants, who insisted they had not taken part in the march, were not in the video. Another of my defendants was in the video, and the video corroborated exactly what he said during the hearing: that he was involved in the march, but he had not chanted any slogans and was not carrying a placard. So, the video was on our side in absolutely every case, but this did not ruffle the court at all, because the principal mantra that all judges repeat in such cases is, “There are no grounds for not trusting the testimony of the police officers.”

The police are a separate conversation. They have learned to do a better job of compiling the case files than in 2012, but they still make a royal mess of it. Therefore, in the case files of the people I defended, there was no mention of a single witness to the alleged administrative violations or a single official attesting search witness [i.e., a “poniatoi,” as required under Russian law], although all of them had their personal effects confiscated. But the most enchanting episode had to with my defendant Yulya, whose case was heard last, from 3:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. I will write a separate post about it now.

The outcomes of the court hearings in which I served as a social defender were as follows. My defendant who was in the march, but did not chant any slogans, was sentenced to a fine of 15,000 rubles [approx. 200 euros] and three days in jail. The two random bystanders were each sentenced to a fine of 10,000 rubles and three days in jail. In the courtroom next door, a female protester who was heavily involved in the rally was sentenced to four days in jail and fine of 10,000 rubles, while another innocent bystander was slapped with two days in jail and a fine of 10,000 rubles.

We plan to appeal all the verdicts, of course.

I gather that the point of these court hearings against people who are involved in protest rallies is not to intimidate everyone, but to inculcate total legal nihilism in each and every one of us. People who deliberately go to a rally, waving flags and bearing placards, are sentenced to four days in jail and 10,000-ruble fines, while random passersby receive the same sentences or worse. Human right defenders who attempt to give detainees blank court appeal forms are slapped with fines of 170,000 rubles [approx. 2,250 euros] and fifteen days in jail.

***

Recently, I was asked how activists could establish links with human right defenders who would stand for them at hearings. My reply was that life in 2018 is such that activists and human rights defenders are quite often one and the same people.

These were the first hearings in which I defended detainees on my own, so feel free to congratulate me.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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