6 March 2017
By Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Association
Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: RBK]
The number of politically motivated criminal cases in Russia is not increasing but we cannot talk of a real improvement, rather we are seeing a change of tactics by the authorities in a situation where the appetite for protest has shrunk.
The Kurgan regional court reversed Evgenia Chudovets’ sentence and freed her from the prison colony. Chudnovets had served four out of a five month sentence for, it was said, distributing child pornography though the internet. The Russian deputy prosecutor almost word for word used the arguments concerning the legality of the case put forward by her defence lawyer in the appeal. Previously the same Kurgan court, when considering an appeal, had refused to free Chudnovets despite requests from both defence lawyer and prosecutor. The court had also rejected the appeal against the legality of the sentence. Only after the Prosecutor General and the Supreme Court had intervened was the verdict overturned. Now Evgenia has the right to claim damages for an illegal criminal prosecution.
Chudnovets’ case took its course as the even more high profile case of Ildar Dadin was in the news. The Dadin case was the first criminal prosecution brought under the article in the Criminal Code on the holding of illegal rallies, with the first guilty verdict and the taking into custody in the court room. A shocking sentence of three years in a prison colony was handed down - for a first conviction for a non-serious offence, with a clear political context, carried out in Moscow in the sight of all the mass media. A slight reduction in length of sentence was granted on appeal. But then came transport to a prison colony, arrival at the infamous strict regime prison system in Karelia, the huge scandal over accounts of torture, and a sharp response from the prison authorities. There followed a demonstratively long and secret transfer of Ildar to a distant prison colony in the Altai, then an open session of the Constitutional Court and that Court’s finding that the interpretation of the relevant article of the Criminal Code in the case had been incorrect. After this, the Supreme Court intervened with unprecedented haste, the case was reviewed, and Ildar was acquitted and freed from prison.
In both Chudnovets’ and Dadin’s cases the justice system acted with amazing speed. Chudnovets’ criminal case literally flew from Kurgan to Moscow, and then back again. In Russia that is only possible when something is micro-managed from on high and has been agreed at the appropriate level.
One is reminded of the sudden release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky from the same Karelian prison colony in December 2013, the sudden and unexpected early release of the Greenpeace activists from the Arctic Sunrise, and of Masha Alekhina and Nadia Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot two months before their term was completed. And, of course, as of today the Kirov regional court still holds the record – in the summer of 2013, in 24 hours, it reversed its verdict sentencing Aleksei Navalny to five years in prison in the Kirovles case.
In all the previous cases the reason behind the sudden softening of the system was clearly visible. ‘The thaw’ of December 2013 was connected with the forthcoming Olympics in Sochi. The amnesty for Navalny was clearly related to his participating in the election campaign for Moscow mayor. It was difficult to doubt that narrowly political, tactical reasons were responsible for the releases.
The recent ‘softening’, as seen in the sudden release of Dadin and Chudnovets, the transfer to house arrest in Moscow for the ‘last Bolotnaya Square protester’ Dmitry Buchenkov, and in Ekaterinburg for the Pokemon catcher Ruslan Sokolovsky, has been met with enthusiastic approval by the progressive public. A liberal genie seemed about to leap out of the bottle, but then came the 11-hour search of the human rights activist Zoya Svetova’s apartment, relating to the ancient ‘Yukos affair’. This is as sudden and difficult to explain as are the recent releases.
The federal authorities are making no attempt to clamp down on talk of a thaw, on the contrary they encourage it. Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, Vyacheslav Medvedev, chair of the Supreme Court, Tatyana Moskalkova, the ombudsperson, and representatives of the Ministry of Justice have spoken out publicly in favour of discussing the decriminalization of the article of the Criminal Code under which Dadin was convicted.
A brake in the decline?
Earlier we noted a halt in the increase of politically-motivated criminal cases. Twelve years of work to defend civic activists, human rights champions, journalists, and leaders of NGOs enables one to have a subtle sense of how the wind is changing. We mustn’t speak of an improvement, but perhaps a brake in the deterioration. There are still dozens of political prisoners in Russia’s jails.
Political scientists have begun to talk about the loosening of the screws, and lawyers about longed-for judicial reform. Whatever, it’s clear that what’s happening didn’t start in February, and that the changes are clearly being imposed from the top down, and quite intentionally, but without an explanation.
In view of the tactical nature of previous reviews of high-profile cases, there is good reason to suppose that all this is down to the presidential election, now looming large.
Preparation began in the spring of last year. There was upheaval in the law enforcement agencies – the redundant state drug control and migration services were abolished, and the political special armed force - Rosgvardia - set up. The influence of the Investigative Committee sharply declined; in the years 2012-2016, the committee had been the main implementer of repressive domestic policy.
The old format had gradually stopped working. Show trials became decreasingly effective. Leading opposition figures got used to working under permanent risk of criminal prosecution. Some left the country, putting themselves out of reach of the authorities, but also outside the political process. Protest meetings have long been poorly attended, and non-profits are demoralized by the law on foreign agents. Self-censorship has taken root on the Internet. Most criminal prosecutions for extremist criminal cases come about as a result of statements by marginalized Internet users in the regions and “non-traditional” Muslims.
In recent years, the state’s job of intimidation and targeting repression has been delegated to pro-government NGOs. Figures like the lawyer Aleksei Navalny are no longer hunted by Aleksandr Bastrykin, but by organisations like the National Liberation Movement and “Anti-Maidan”.
Under reliable supervision
The main task was no longer intimidation and repression, but the collection of information and the prevention of protest activity. These areas are covered by entirely different bodies. And recently the FSB has concentrated the basic function of oversight of domestic policy in its own hands. Employees of the state security department detain governors, generals and influential businessmen, destroy the reputations of businesses and government departments, and protect the Internet from harmful Western influence.
Nothing piles up work for these operatives like a controlled thaw. Daring statements, new leaders and initiatives, planned and proposed protest actions immediately attract their attention. The approaching presidential elections, the start of election campaigns, the good news from the courts as spring comes on – these cannot fail to arouse the dormant spirit of civil protest. Its gradual activation will continue until they peak in March next year. By summer 2018, the authorities will have collected and analysed the information and sent it onwards for assessment. And by autumn, the lawyers will be busy again. This scenario has to be considered.
Of course, there’s another possibility – the Kremlin may be aiming its signals of liberalism not at a domestic audience, but a foreign one. The president remains focused on foreign policy, which is in a state of upheaval. In the eyes of the Western liberal public, Vladimir Putin personifies dark forces which threaten the world order. Sudden steps towards democratisation will only add to the uncertainty, resulting in a tactical advantage for the Kremlin in its diplomatic games. Given that there are many politicians in the world who are happy to be deceived, Putin’s supporters will only increase in number.
Translated by Mary McAuley and Anna Bowles