Marrying the Mob

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On Facebook, I regularly push stories about Syria and, especially, Russia’s criminally disastrous involvement there. Unfortunately, it has had no visible effect on any of my Russian Facebook friends with one exception.

I should thank Allah for that many “converts.”

In international politics, marriages of convenience among dictators and wannabe dictators always lead to mayhem and unintended fallout for the innocent bystanders in their immediate vicinity.

Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that Trump and his campaign really did not collude with Putin and other Russian government officials to sway the 2016 US presidential election.

Even if that were the case, Trump’s overweening admiration for Putin’s style of bad governance has still had catastrophic effects on the country he is supposed to be leading

For someone like me who is all too familiar with the bag of tricks known, maybe somewhat inaccurately, as Putinism, it has been obvious Trump wants to steer the US in a quasi-Putinist direction.

While the republic, its states, and the other branches of government can mount a mighty resistance by virtue of the power vested in them, Trump can still cause lots of damage as an “imperial” president, even if he is booted out of the White House two years from now.

Likewise, Russians can imagine there is a far cry between living in a country whose cities are besieged and bombed by the country’s dictator, and what Putin has been doing in Syria. What he has been doing, they might imagine, mostly stays in Syria, except for Russian servicemen killed in action there, whose names and numbers are kept secret from the Russian public.

In reality, it is clear that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist turn in Ukraine, Syria, etc., has made the regime far more belligerent to dissidents, outliers, weirdos, “extremists,” and “terrorists” at home.

Over the last five years, more and more Russians have fallen prey to their homegrown police and security services either for what amount to thought crimes (e.g., reposting an anti-Putinist meme on the social network VK or organizing nonexistent “terrorist communities”) or what the Russian constitution does not recognize as a crime at all, such as practicing one’s religion (e.g., Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses do)

Putin has adopted an Assadist mindset, therefore. He, his cronies, and the ever-expanding Russian security services, whose mission is making the paranoia of their superiors come true by meeting quotas of harassed, interrogated, arrested, tortured, jailed and convicted “extremists” per quarter, have come to imagine the only way to avoid the mess in which Assad found himself is to hammer anyone in Russia who sticks their necks out too far, whether intentionally or not, that everyone else will get the clue dissent and even plain difference come with a heavy price tag and reduce theirs to an invisible minimum.

Things were not exactly peachy during the first years of the Putin regime, but they became a hell of a lot worse after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine and went flying off to Syria to save Assad’s bacon from the fire of popular revolution.

As long as Russia remains entrenched in those places, there can be no question of progress on the home front, especially when the vast majority of Russians pretend very hard not to know anything about Syria and their country’s involvement there, and have grown accustomed to the Ukrainian muddle, meaning they mostly avoid thinking about what has really been happening in Eastern Ukraine, too. {TRR}

Thanks to the fabulous Sheen Gleeson for the first link. Photo by the Russian Reader

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My Generation

frenkel-subway trialThe defendants in the Petersburg subway bombing trial. Photo by David Frenkel

After a terrific, well-attended solidarity talk in support of the defendants in the Network case, held here in Berlin the other night, I spoke to a lovely young Russian activist.

I said to them that there were, of course, many more instances of wild injustice in Putinist Russia with which an engaged foreign audience could be regaled, such as the ongoing trial of several Central Asians, accused of complicity in the alleged terrorist suicide bombing in the Petersburg subway on April 3, 2017.

Like the Network case, the Petersburg subway bombing case has all the hallmarks of a frame-up. As in the Network case, there have been numerous allegations the defendants have been tortured by investigators.

“But the difference,” the young person interrupted me, “is racism.”

They meant that, since all the defendants hailed from Central Asia, there was no way to mount the successful solidarity campaign that has shown a harsh light on the Network case and garnered it widespread notoriety, especially within Russia.

The young person went on to tell me that a friend of theirs had been attending the subway bombing trial. She had told them it was horrific. The defendants had been assigned state-appointed lawyers who did doing nothing to defend them. The trial was such a flagrant frame-up the interpreters working it had banded together to try and do anything they could to help the young people, who in all likelihood have been accused of terrible crimes they did not commit.

It goes without saying that all of them will be found guilty and sentenced to long terms in prison.

The case has been covered spottily by Petersburg and Russian media outlets, but I have seen very little outrage or even mild concern about it from my acquaintances on Russophone social media, most of whom live in Petersburg.

Many of these same people are now visibly bent out shape about goings-on in Israel-Palestine. In the past few days, they have been treating virtual friends like me to generous helpings of unsubstatianted hasbara.

Are they unconcerned about the miscarriage of justice perpetrated on nearly a dozen young Central Asians because they think all Muslims are terrorists and, by definition, guilty of every charge of terrorism laid at their door?

It has been a commonplace of Russian quasi-liberal thinking that Stalinism affected Russians so deeply it infected their collective DNA. The Stalinist bug, so this spurious argument contends, has been passed on to the new generation as well, even though the Soviet Union collapsed almost thirty years ago, before my interlocutor and huge numbers of other terrific young Russian social and political activists I know were born.

Supposedly, several generations must pass before the Stalinist bug will finally be expunged from the national genetic code and Russians can build a more democratic polity in their country.

In reality, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence pointing to the new generation’s eagerness and readiness to live that way right now.

On the contrary, it is my own age mates, the so-called last Soviet generation, who were born after Stalin died, who seem most afflicted by a kind of cognitive and emotional Stalinism that, often as not, emerges in their thoughts and deeds not as nostalgia or admiration for the real Stalin, but as dogmatic worldview that makes events in, say, Israel more real and important than most events in their own country and cities.

Given recent oddities around the Network trial and the unwonted negative publicity the case has generated for the FSB, I think there is a slight chance the powers that be might have decided to ratchet things down a bit. I could be wrong, but I would not be surprised if, when the trials in Penza and Petersburg resume after a long, unexplained recess, the defendants were indicted on lesser charges and then immediately released on probation, taking into account the long time all of them have spent in remand prisons since their arrests in late 2017 and early 2018.

There is no chance this will happen in the subway bombing trial for the simple reason that almost no one in Petersbug can be bothered to go to bat for a group of non-Russian Muslims or even bat an eye when they are tortured and framed exactly like their non-Muslim contemporaries. {TRR}

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Framed?

A Speedy Trial?
Maxim Leonov
Novaya Gazeta
April 2, 2019

It took law enforcement agencies over a month to deliver eleven suspects and 127 volumes of criminal case files to Petersburg. At the first hearing in the case, on April 2, the reporters who were present got the impression that the Moscow-based judges trying the case had no intentions of dragging the trial out. Nearly all the lawyers who had come onto the case, replacing state-appointed defense attorneys, were turned down in their request to be granted additional time to review the case files.

“Coordinate it during the recesses,” said presiding judge Andrei Morozov.

The indictment claims all the defendants were associated with a certain Sirojiddin Muhtarov aka Abu Salah. He was not among the defendants on trial. Investigators claimed he was currently in the vicinity of Aleppo, along with Uzbek national Bobirjon Mahbubov (code-named Ahmed), who had turned 22-year-old Akbarjon Jalilov into an Islamic suicide bomber.

Investigators claimed Muhtarov and Mahbubov communicated with the defendants on Telegram. Their recruitment into the ranks of the alleged terrorist organization had also, apparently, taken place on the internet, because almost none of the defendants had been abroad except for Jalilov.

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The Terrorist Attack
An explosion rocked the Petersburg subway at 2:33 p.m. on April 3, 2017. Twenty-two-year-old Akbarjon Jalilov is alleged to have to set off a homemade bomb on a section of the subway between Sennaya Ploshchad and Tekhnologicheskii Institut stations. The train’s driver, Alexander Kaverin, was able to get the damaged train to Tekhnologicheskii Institut, where the wounded were assisted.

According to the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry and the Russian Health Ministry, eleven people died in the explosion, including the suicide bomber. Another victim died en route to hospital, while two more died upon arrival. The total number of people killed was thus sixteen. Eighty-nine people sought medical attention after the blast; fifty-one of them were hospitalized.

The same day, it transpired that two simultaneous blasts had been planned instead of the one. Another bomb, three times more powerful than the one set off, allegedly, by Jalilov, was found camouflaged as a fire extinguisher by Albert Sibirskikh, an inspector at Ploshchad Vosstaniia subway station. A cursory examination of the bomb revealed it would have been detonated by a mobile phone.

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The mother of one of the defendants, Mahamadusuf Mirzaalimovasked reporters not call her son a “terrorist.”

“He was merely at the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.

The place where most of the defendants were found at the wrong time was the Lesnoye Cafe in Moscow Region’s Odintsovo District, where Jalilov worked as a cook between December 2016 and March 2017. Another such place was a flat at 22/1 Tovarishchesky Prospect in Petersburg. It was here, while they arrested five of the suspects on April 5, 2017, that FSB officers were alleged to have found components of an explosive device. The indictment claims that Jalilov and five of the defendants lived in the flat.

Investigators allege that brothers Abror and Akram Azimov had acted as Abu Salah’s agents in Russia. He supposedly sent them money to buy parts for the explosive device.

Defendants are typically reluctant to talk to the press [sic], but in this case it was quite the opposite. During the hearing, both Azimov brothers petitioned the court to have their testimony televised.

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“We are willing to explain how we got mixed up in this case and how we were forced to testify. We are only random Muslims. We have done nothing else wrong,” the Azimov brothers told the court.

Judge Morozov rejected their motion to have their testimony filmed, arguing that only the reading of the verdict could be recorded.

All the defendants in the case have refused to plead guilty to involvement in terrorism. Yana Teplitskaya, a member of the Petersburg Public Monitoring Commission (PMC), told us that she had information the defendants had been tortured. According to Teplitskaya, the Muhamadusup brothers [sic] and Ibrahim Ermatov had related to PMC members that investigators had subjected them to physical violence, but their injuries had not been officially certified by medical personnel. PMC members promised to released more detailed information in the near future.

Defense lawyers also claimed their clients were ordinary people who had accidentally been caught up in the juggernaut of the investigation.

“He pleads not guilty,” Ketevan Baramiya, defense attorney for Ibrahim Ermatov, told us. “It’s a great pity the court rejected the motion to videotape the testimony. The defendants are willing to explain how they got mixed up in this case.”

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However, it was not only defense lawyers who had the impression the FSB had chosen the “terrorist conspirators” at random.

“Frankly speaking, they don’t really look like terrorists,” said Yuri Shushkevich, who was injured in the terrorist attack, “especially that woman.”

He meant Shohista Karimova, who has been charged with aiding and abetting the alleged terrorists by buying SIM cards for mobile phones and storing an F1 grenade, which she claims was planted in her domicile by FSB field officers.

“They all look like ordinary guys, but how would I know what terrorists look like?” wondered Shushkevich.

All photos by Elena Lukyanova and courtesy of Novaya Gazeta. Translated by the Russian Reader. See my previous post on this case, “The Strange Investigation of a Strange Terrorist Attack” (12 February 2018), for a more detailed account of the case.

Alexander Verkhovsky: Russia’s Campaign Against “Religious Extremism”

yaltinskoe_delo_hizb_ut_tahrir_1.jpgRussia has used its official ban on the Muslim movement Hizb ut-Tahrir to go after Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea, such as these six men, charged in the so-called Yalta Case. The fact that the defendants are neither terrorists nor members of Hizb ut-Tahrir has not stopped Russian authorities from prosecuting them for these imaginary crimes. Courtesy of Crimean Tatar Resource Center

Russia’s Campaign Against “Religious Extremism” Has Been Expanding: It Should Be Reined In
Alexander Verkhovsky
Nezavisimaya Gazeta
March 5, 2019

The dramatic events of recent weeks surrounding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the harsh prison sentence handed down to Dennis Christensen, and the torture of detained believers in Surgut, make us wonder how unique what has been happening to them has been.

First, we should recall the bare facts. The Russian authorities have banned numerous texts published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including their translation of the Bible into Russian. All their local branches have been banned and their property confiscated. More than forty criminal cases are underway, cases in which 120 people, aged 23 to 84, have been charged. Twenty-five of those charged have been remanded in custody. All of them have been charged with going on with the work of a banned “extremist” organization (punishable under Article 282.2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code), although this amounted only to holding prayer meetings and group discussions

The Russian Supreme Court decided to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses completely on April 20, 2017. Criminal cases based on the ban were launched a year later, that is, over a hundred suspects were charged in a matter of ten months, and yet not a single case has gone to court yet.

In fact, Christensen was convicted on the basis of an earlier ban of a local Jehovah’s Witness branch. There were eight such bans of local branches. Unlike his co-religionists, convicted earlier under the same ban, Christensen was sentenced to actual prison time. After the so-called Yarovaya package was adopted by the Russian parliament, he had to be sentenced to no less than six years in prison, and this was what happened. It should make us extremely concerned about what will happen to current and future suspects, especially the ones now jailed in remand prisons.

But what has happened to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is not unique. In exactly the same way, the peaceable followers of the fundamentalist movement Tablighi Jamaat and the peaceable followers of the quite moderate Turkish theologian Said Nursi have been banned in Russia and persecuted under the same law in the Russian Criminal Code.

The pattern was the same. First, the texts published by the groups were banned because, allegedly, they claimed the superiority of their religious doctrines to others and contained hostile descriptions of non-believers. Then, the organizations themselves were banned for the same reasons, including using the banned texts in their worship services. Finally, the Russian authorities prosecuted believers for “going on with the work” of their now-banned organizations. Moreover, the courts usually gave defendants probation sentences at first. Subsequently, however, people convicted on the same charges were sent to prison and the sentences handed down were harsher.

The Muslim activists were also tortured by Russian law enforcement. The current shock over events in Surgut can be put down to the fact that Russian society is in some sense inured to the torture of Muslims suspected of “radicalism.”

The Russian Supreme Court banned all three groups: the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the followers of Said Nusri, and Tablighi Jamaat. For some reason, it paid no mind to the fuzzy definition of “extremism” to which it resorted in all three rulings. It is true that all three religious doctrines claim only their way is the true way and that all other ways are false, and their texts occasionally contain rather harsh descriptions of non-believers. The current Russian legal definition of “extremism” is such that these things can be considered evidence of “extremism,” but you could find more or less the same things in nearly all religious doctrines. Such claims are typical of confessions of faith, and, as such, they are protected by the Russian Constitution.

With regard to criminal cases of incitement to hatred, including religious hatred, in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that criticism of religious convictions, religious rituals, and religious groups is not a criminal offense. For some reason, however, this ruling has not been applied in civil cases banning religious literature and organizations, although the conflict between the procedure for banning religious “extremism” and Russia’s constitutionally enshrined freedom of conscience is striking. Perhaps unraveling this conflict is a job for the Russian Constitutional Court?

Returning to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we should again pay attention to the scale of their persecution. The number of accused Jehovah’s Witnesses in terms of one calendar year has been much greater than the numbers of the two Muslim groups mentioned. It is more comparable to the persecution of the radical movement Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islaami.

Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned in 2003 as a terrorist group, although it has not been implicated in terrorism. The Russian authorities were clearly in a hurry to ban it, so the actual danger it posed or did not pose to the constitution was not even at issue. Members of the movement have been charged under the anti-terrorist laws in the criminal code, and so their prison sentences have been even harsher. But there are similarities with the other religious groups we have been discussing: participating in group gatherings and reading the same texts were offered as evidence of their criminal deeds.

Another serious conflict emerges in this case between the Russian Constitution and the articles in the Russian Criminal Code dealing with “extremist” (Article 282.2) and “terrorist” (Article 205.5) groups. Let us assume for simplicity’s sake that a group has been banned altogether legitimately. When this happens, the group’s formal and informal members are obliged to honor the court’s ban. But they have not changed their views, and they still associate with the same group of people. It is likely they would want to discuss what to do in the circumstances: perhaps, for example, establishing a new group based on slightly different principles. If we are dealing with a dangerous group that has been rightfully outlawed, such discussions and meetings could not help but interest the police and security services, but they are hardly criminal in their own right, for these people have not been deprived of their basic civic rights, including the right to assemble. Besides, not only active members could take part in these meetings but also outsiders, and yet law enforcement does not especially distinguish between the two groups of people in practice.

These problems are more apparent when we speak of religious communities. The Russian Constitution enshrines the right to practice one’s religion both alone and in the company of others. The work of any religious organization mainly consists in praying together and other joint activities, such as confessing and preaching as part of religious services. If a religious association has been banned, its members are in effect barred from exercising their constitutional right. If Russia’s current anti-“extremist” laws are meant to enact such severe restrictions of a fundamental human right, this have never been explicitly stated. So, again, one would like the Russian Constitutional Court to issue a clarification. It is, after all, a matter of tens of thousands of Russian nationals potentially facing criminal charges.

Since there have not been any clarifications, and the current crackdown has only been picking up steam, many have wondered how it happened. There is hardly a single, simple answer to this question. We might say that in their campaign against potentially dangerous movements, the Russian authorities have gone much too far and made a considerable number of mistakes. One of the reasons is that they listened to politically and religiously biased “experts,” and they continue to heed their advice, judging by the way the anti-“extremist” campaign has progressed in the religious realm. Our many years of experience with these cases have shown that counterarguments by religious studies scholars and legal experts rarely reverse the current tendency. They prove useful only when the authorities are willing to listen to them for reasons of their own.

The growing campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been horrifying, but there is also the chance that this time someone in the elite will finally come to their senses and change their mind. The Jehovah’s Witnesses clearly pose no threat whatsoever to Russian national security. Moreover, it is clearly just as impossible to eradicate their religion in Russia, since it would be wrong to jail or force over 100,000 people to emigrate, especially since Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses did not give up their faith in the worst of times.

The problem, however, is whether the officials who make key decisions about large-scale crackdowns could find acceptable means for reconsidering their earlier decisions. If this does happen, it matters, given the constitutional conflicts described above, whether anti-“extremist” policies will be reconsidered, if only in the religious realm.

Alexander Verkhovsky is director of the SOVA Information and Analysis Center. Thanks to Nikolay Mitrokhin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Free Edem Bekirov!

15447318032279451Edem Bekirov.  Photo courtesy of Vector News

Ayder Muzhdabaev
Facebook
December 28, 2018

Watch the footage we shot of Edem Bekirov. Then read what the well-known Kyiv musician Mitya Gerasimov has written.

“I’m sitting in my parents’ kitchen in Kazan. In its news bulletin, Echo of Moscow, a supposedly liberal radio station, reports that a terrorist has been detained on the Crimean border, the member of an armed band. He has been accused of storing and transporting weapons and explosives. His name is not mentioned, but it is clear they are talking about our friend Edem Bekirov, a Crimean Tatar from Novooleksiivka in Kherson Region.

“Edem is an ill, elderly man who has had heart bypass operations and a leg amputated due to diabetes. Before the latest operation, he went to Kyiv to see his mom. On the border, he was abducted by men in masks. For a time, nothing was known about his whereabouts. Then they let him call home from the FSB’s Simferopol office. He had not been given anything to eat or drink for two days or been taken to the bathroom. He was not permitted to take bandages to dress the unhealed wound on his stump or the medicines that keep him alive. He needs to take sixteen pills a day.

“The Russian authorities have been slowly killing Edem in a remand prison for over two weeks. The day before yesterday, the so-called court dismissed the appeal in his case. The radio reports the detained man associated with the terrorist group led by Lenur Islamov. They apparently meant the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR, where Edem’s daughter works.

“Everyone knows Crimean Tatars do not kill anyone or carry out terrorist attacks. They have a principled stance of nonviolent resistance to the occupiers. The cartridges and twelve kilos of explosives that Edem, one-legged and ill, was supposedly taking somewhere is the same nonsense they made up about the so-called terrorist militant Oleg Sentsov. I remember watching Russian television in early 2014, before the annexation. It was footage of Grushevsky Street in Kyiv: Molotov cocktails, burning tires, snowdrifts. The announcer explained to viewers they were seeing Crimean Tatars rioting in Simferopol.

“There is the pre-New Year’s hustle and bustle on the streets of our cities: lanterns, New Year’s trees, shopping, traffic jams. Like many other Crimean political prisoners, Edem Bekirov will ring in his new year behind bars. We must do everything we can to publicize his plight. We have to shout about it on every street corner. We have to get him out of jail before it’s too late.”

That is the Happy New Year we are having.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Books Are Not Bombs

Sergey Golubok’s letter to the customs post at Pulkovo Airport in Petersburg, dated 14 November 2018. Courtesy of his Facebook page

If you order a Masha Gessen book and have it sent to Russia via DHL, you might be asked to write the letter civil rights lawyer Sergey Golubok was asked to write today, confirming that the Masha Gessen book in question contained no calls for “extremist” and “terrorist” actions, did not vindicate terrorism, and would cause no damage to the economic and political interests of the Eurasian Economic Union’s member states and their national security, or the health and morals of its citizens.

The letter was addressed to the Russian customs post at Pulkovo Airport in Petersburg.

I hope the book Mr. Golubok ordered was the one about Ms. Gessen’s remarkable grandmothers, my personal favorite. {TRR}

This Is Mikhail Gerasimov from Nizhny Novgorod

gerasimovMikhail Gerasimov. Photo courtesy of his personal page on VK and OVD Info

This is Mikhail Gerasimov from Nizhny Novgorod. He is eighteen. Yesterday, FSB officers came to the young man’s house, took him in for questioning, and arrested him.

Mikhail photographed two pages from the investigator’s warrant and sent them to a friend. Mikhail also managed to call the Political Red Cross and tell them the FSB wants to level criminal charges against him for ten posts on social networks, all of them published prior to [sic] December 2016. It was then, according to Mikhail, that he learned about [Alexei] Navalny and changed his views.

One of the two pages of the warrant refers to a forensic examination of an entry from Mikhal’s personal social media page.

The entry opens with the phrase, “Are you tried of this Moskaland?” It ends with the phrase, “There those Rus[expletive deleted] got what was coming.”

The forensic examination concluded the phrase contained an incitement to physically destroy the legal authorities and justified destructive actions that the author [sic] attributed to ISIS: the crash of a Tupolev Tu-154 [Russian Defense Ministry] jetliner [in 2016] and the murder of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey.

A criminal investigation has been opened into whether Gerasimov made public calls for terrorist attacks or justified terrorism on the internet [punishable by up to seven years in prison under Article 205.2 Part 2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code].

Today at 2:00 p.m., the Moscow District Court in Nizhny Novgorod will decide whether to remand Gerasimov in custody.

Source: OVD Info’s Facebook page. Read their full story here. Translated by the Russian Reader