Pavel Chikov: A Managed Thaw

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Is a new thaw on the way?

A Managed Thaw: What the Reversal of Verdicts in the Dadin and Chudnovets Cases Means
Pavel Chikov
RBC
March 6, 2017

The Kurgan Regional Court quashed the verdict against Yevgenia Chudnovets and released her from a penal colony, where she had served four months of a five-month sentence for, allegedly, disseminating child pornography on the web. The Russian Deputy Prosecutor General almost literally copied the arguments made in the appeal by Chudnovets’s attoreny. Previously, during its consideration of the appeal, the selfsame Kurgan Regional Court had refused to release Chudnovets at the request of both the prosecutor and defense attorneys. The same court then denied the appeal against the verdict. The verdict was reversed only after the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Supreme Court intervened. Now Chudnovets will have the right to compensation for the harm caused her by illegal criminal prosecution.

The Chudnovets story unfolded at the same time as the even more high-profile case of Ildar Dadin. Dadin’s case was the first criminal case filed under the newly minted law on violating the law on public rallies, the first guilty verdict handed down under the new law. Dadin was taken into custody in the courtroom. Then came the shocking sentence of three years in a medium-security penal colony for a first offense, a moderately severe offense whose underlying cause was purely political, in a case tried in Moscow under the glare of all the media. During the appeals phase, the verdict was altered slightly, and the sentence reduced a bit. But then there was the drama of Dadin’s transfer to the penal colony, his arrival in a Karelian prison camp infamous for its severe conditions, the immense scandal that erupted after he claimed he had been tortured, and the harsh reaction to these revelations by the Federal Penitentiary Service. Then Dadin was secretly transferred to a remote penal colony in Altai over a demonstratively long period, after which the Constitutional Court, in open session, ruled that the relevant article of the Criminal Code had been wrongly interpreted in Dadin’s case. After this, the Supreme Court jumped quickly into the fray, granting a writ of certiorari, aquitting Dadin, and freeing him from the penal colony.

Politically Motivated Releases
The judicial system acted with phenomenal alacrity in both the Chudnovets and Dadin cases. Chudnovets’s criminal case was literally flown round trip from Kurgan to Moscow and back. Given current realities, this could only have been possible under the so-called manual mode of governance and with authorization at the highest level.

It calls to mind the instantaneous release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky from the same Karelian prison colony in December 2013, and the same sudden early releases, under amnesty, of the Greenpeace activists, convicted in the Arctic Sunrise case, and Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, two months before their sentences were up. Of course, the record holder in this sense is the Kirov Regional Court, which in the summer of 2013 quashed Alexei Navalny’s five-year sentence in the Kirovles case.

In all these previous cases, the causes of the system’s sudden softness were self-explanatory. The thaw of December 2013 was due to the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Navalny’s pardon was clearly connected with his being able to run in the Moscow mayoral elections. It was hard not to doubt the narrowly political, tactical objectives of these targeted releases.

The latest indulgences—the sudden releases of Dadin and Chudnovets, the transfer of the last defendant in the Bolotnaya Square case, Dmitry Buchenkov, and the Yekaterinburg Pokémon catcher, Ruslan Sokolovsky, from custody in pretrial detention facilities to house arrest—have been greeted with a roar of approval from the progressive public. The liberal genie would have burst out of its bottle altogether were it not for the eleven-hour police search of the home of human rights activist Zoya Svetova in connection with the ancient Yukos case. The search was as sudden and hard to explain as the releases described above.

Federal officials have not tried to dampen the talk of a thaw. On the contrary, they have encouraged it. The president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, Supreme Court Chief Justice Vyacheslav Lebedev, federal human right’s ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova, and Justice Ministry spokespeople have publicly supported decriminalizing the Criminal Code article under which Dadin was convicted.

Putting the Brakes On
Even earlier we had noticed that the number of politically motivated criminal cases had stopped increasing. Twelve years of defending grassroots activists, human rights activists, journalists, and heads of local NGOs mean we are sensitive to changes in which way the wind blows. It would be wrong to speak of an improvement. Rather, the brakes have been put on the slide into deterioration. There are still dozens of political prisoners doing time in Russia’s prisons.

Political scientists have spoken of an unloosening of the screws; lawyers, of necessary legal reforms. One way or another, it is clear these events did not began in February, and the changes have been implemented from the top, quite deliberately, but without any explanation.

Given the tactial objectives pursued in previous reversals of high-profile cases, there are serious grounds for assuming recent events are due to next year’s main political event, the presidential election.

Preparations for the election began last spring with a shakeup of the law enforcement agencies. The superfluous Migration Service and Gosnarkokontrol (Federal Agency for Drug Trafficking Control) were eliminated. A new political special forces unit, the National Guard of Russia, was established. The influence of the Investigative Committee has been sharply reduced, although from 2012 to 2016 it had been the Investigative Committee that served as the main vehicle for domestic political crackdowns.

The old framework has gradually ceased functioning. The effectiveness of show trials has waned. Leading opposition figures have grown accustomed to working with the permanent risk of criminal prosecution hanging over them. Some have left the country and thus are beyond the reach of the security forces, but they have exited politics as well. Protest rallies have not attracted big numbers for a long time, and NGOs have been demoralized by the law on “foreign agents.” The stats for cases of “extremism” are mainly padded by the online statements of web users in the provinces and “non-traditional” Muslims.

In recent years, the state has delegated its function of intimidation and targeted crackdowns to pro-regime para-public organizations. Navalny is no longer pursued by Alexander Bastrykin, but by organizations like NOD (National Liberation Movement) and Anti-Maidan.

Under a Watchful Eye
The foreground is no longer occcupied by the need to intimidate and crack down on dissidents, but by information gathering and protest prevention, and that is the competence of different government bodies altogether. It is the FSB that has recently concentrated the main function of monitoring domestic politics in its hands. FSB officers have been arresting governors, generals, and heavyweight businesmen, destroying the reputations of companies and government agencies, and defending the internet from the west’s baleful influence.

Nothing adds to the work of the FSB’s units like a managed thaw. Bold public statements, new leaders and pressure groups, and planned and envisioned protest rallies immediately attract attention. The upcoming presidential election, the rollout of the campaign, and good news from the courts as spring arrives cannot help but awaken dormant civic protest. Its gradual rise will continue until its apogee in March of next year [when the presidential election is scheduled]. Information will be collected, analyzed, and sent to the relevant decision makers by the summer of 2018. And by the autumn of 2018 lawyers will again have more work than they can handle. This scenario needs to be taken into account.

There is, of course, another option: the Kremlin’s liberal signals may be addressed not to the domestic audience, but to a foreign one. Foreign policy, which has remained the president’s focus, is in a state of turbulence. Vladimir Putin is viewed by the western liberal public as a dark force threatening the world order. Sudden moves toward democratization can only add to the uncertainty and, consequently, the Kremlin can gain a tactical advantage in the game of diplomacy. Considering the fact there are lots of politicians in the world who are happy to be fooled, the ranks of the Russian president’s supporters will only swell.

Pavel Chikov is head of Agora, an international human rights group. Thanks to Comrade AK for the heads-up. Translation and photograph by the Russian Reader

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Alexei Gaskarov Released from Prison

Alexei Gaskarov and his wife Anna Gaskarov. Photo by Anatrrra
Alexei Gaskarov and his wife Anna Gaskarova, October 27, 2016. Photo by Anatrrra

Bolotnaya Square Defendant Alexei Gaskarov Released from Prison
Ekaterina Fomina
Novaya Gazeta
October 27, 2016

Alexei Gaskarov was released from Penal Colony No. 6 in Novomoskovsk today. He had served his entire sentence: three and a half years in a medium-security penal colony. Gaskarov was twice denied parole.

“I don’t think it was possible to change anything under these circumstances. I said at the trial that if our way runs through prison, we have to go.  Personally, everyone who went to prison lost a lot. But if you compare that with the public interest, someone had to go through it, someone had to have this piece of ‘good’ luck,” Gaskarov said after his release.

Alexei Gaskarov (left). Photo courtesy Ekaterina Fomina/Novaya Gazeta

“The risks are clear, but I don’t think there is an alternative. I don’t think that the path, the values that were professed on Bolotnaya Square can be put on the back burner. Yes, these are complicated times, and we have to wait them out somewhere, but I don’t think you can impact this vector by intimidating people. When I was in prison I read about a hundred history books. Everyone had to go through this. We are just at this stage,” he added.

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy Ekaterina Fomina/Novaya Gazeta

“The point of my attitude is this: don’t be afraid, guys. Our little undertakings will merge into a river that will lead us to the right path. Prison is not the end of life,” Gaskarov concluded.

Prisoners of Bolotnaya: Alexander Margolin, Vladimir Akimenkov, Alexei Gaskarov, Alexei Polikhovich, and Ilya Gushchin. Photo courtesy of Ekaterina Fomina/Novaya Gazeta

Gaskarov was accused of involvement in “rioting” and being violent towards police officers. However, Gaskarov  claimed he had himself been assaulted on Bolotnaya Square. During the mass arrests, an unidentified policeman pushed him to the ground, beat him with his truncheon, and kicked him.

Gaskarov is a graduate of the Russian Federation Government Financial University and has worked at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Dmitry Ishevsky and Ivan Nepomnyashchikh are currently serving prison terms after being convicted in the Bolotnaya Square case. The latter has lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. He has complained that Russian authorities have violated three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In October, citing a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the arrest and imprisonment of Bolotnaya Square defendants Ilya Gushchin and Artyom Savyolov had been illegal. Earlier, in June, after a complaint had been filed with the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court declared the arrest of Leonid Kovyazin, a defendant in the same case, illegal.

Anarchist Dmitry Buchenkov awaits trial in a pre-trial detention facility. According to police investigators, he was violient toward lawful authorities and “tried to destroy a portapotty.” Buchenkov himself claims he was not in Moscow during the so-called March of the Millions.

Maxim Panfilov is also awaiting trial. He was charged four years after the opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow—in April 2016. He is the thirty-sixth defendant in the Bolotnaya Square case. In October, Panfilov was declared mentally incompetent.

Translated by the Russian Reader. You can read more about Alexei Gaskarov and the other prisoners in the Bolotnaya Square case on this website.

Leonid Tikhonov Freed!

Leonid Tikhonov (second from left) after his release from prison. Photo courtesy of Ivan Ovsyannikov and MPRA
Leonid Tikhonov (second from left) after his release from prison. Photo courtesy of Ivan Ovsyannikov and MPRA

“Leonid Tikhonov, leader of the Dockers’ Union of Russian local at Vostochny Port in the Maritime Territory has been released from prison. In 2014, Tikhonov was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on false charges of embezzlement. (The port’s management accused Tikhonov of stealing funds allocated, according to the collective bargaining agreement, for New Year’s gifts for union members.) The real motive behind Tikhonov’s criminal prosecution was management’s desire to take revenge on the union local for being “too active” in keeping them from capitalizing on the dockers’ worsening work conditions. Charges were filed against Tikhonov after the workers held heavily attended rallies and other public protests in June 2012.”

Source: MPRA Facebook page

For more details on the Leonid Tikhonov case, see “Free Leonid Tikhonov!” The Russian Reader, January 14, 2015.

Andrei Barabanov: The Bolotnaya Square Case Destroyed Everything I Had

Andrei Barabanov: The Bolotnaya Square Case Destroyed Everything I Had
Sobesednik.ru
January 5, 2016

Sobesednik.ru spoke with Andrei Barabanov, a prisoner in the Bolotnaya Square case who was released before the New Year. The 22-year-old Barabanov was handed one of the longest sentences in the case, three years and seven months. On December 25, he was released and answered our correspondent’s questions.

What plans do you have for your first days of freedom?

I plan to get my health back in order and rest. Before I was arrested I had just finished college. Now I plan to get a higher education and, in the future, if it works out, start my own business.

Do you have any desire to continue your involvement in politics or public life?

I wasn’t involved in them as it was. I went to the rally on Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, as an ordinary citizen. It was the second rally I had attended. I didn’t know the organizers or anyone else there. I was there with my girlfriend. Later, another friend of mine joined us. Of course, I could not imagine it would end that way.

The riot policeman who were you accused of assaulting had no beef with you. Why, then, were you put away for three and a half years?

There was a video that, allegedly, showed me kicking the riot policeman from behind. In fact, I didn’t kick him. On May 6, the police roughly detained people, grabbing them and throwing them, and we ended up at the very heart of the action. I don’t understand myself why I acted that way: it was a spontaneous reaction in a thorny situation. When I was in the remand prison I wrote a letter of apology to the riot policeman. He even wrote me back, saying he accepted my apology. At the trial he did not make any demands. He had not suffered any injuries, and had not sought medical attention. But none of that mitigated the sentence.

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Andrei Barabanov in the courtroom. Photo courtesy of RosUznik

I think the authorities wanted a criminal case to emerge from the Bolotnaya Square incident, a case with tangible prison sentences. So in my case there was a striking video showing me “kicking” a riot policeman.

On May 6, I was jailed for twenty-four hours, and then let go. I was rearrested three weeks later. Ultimately, I was convicted of rioting and violence against a law enforcement officer at a show trial. It transpired that I was, as it were, a malicious bully and instigator, which personally I had a hard time getting my head around. I had always been considered a pacifist, and I was opposed to violence against anyone else. I think I was sentenced not for violence but so that people would think ten times before taking to the streets and protesting.

Has the sentence greatly changed your life?

You could say it has destroyed what I had. Before May 6, I had a girlfriend with whom I lived, a hobby I loved, aerography, which I dreamed of turning into a business. Then all of it was gone. All that was left was the support of my closest loved ones, my mom and my friends. By the way, several complete strangers wrote me letters and sent me care packages, and this was also a huge moral support.

What health problems have you had?

The standard problems after several years in prison: the effects of inactivity, an eye injury I got in the remand prison, and problems with my stomach and teeth.

Would you now take part in protest rallies if they were to happen in Moscow?

Not now. I am not planning on going to protests. I also do not believe that elections are the way. Now I need to recover, relax, and learn to live again on the outside.

Translated by the Russian Reader