Sergei Krivenko: On politics and prisoners [Moscow Helsinki Group]

posted 22 Jun 2018, 14:02 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 22 Jun 2018, 14:02 ]
13 June 2018

By Sergei Krivenko, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights; chair of the Council’s permanent committee on military-civil relationships and coordinator of the human rights movement, Citizens and the Army. 

As the mainstream media have reported, Oleg Sentsov has gone on a hunger strike to demand the freedom of Ukrainians currently imprisoned in Russia. 

The site LetMyPeopleGo, created by the Ukrainian civic initiative Euromaidan SOS, lists 70 Ukrainian citizens (as of 6 June 2018) whom Ukrainian civil society considers to be “political prisoners held on the territory of Russia and occupied Crimea”

In a recent publication, the Russian human rights project OVD-Info reported 75 Ukrainian citizens either held in pre-trial detention facilities or serving prison sentences in Russia

Memorial Human Rights Centre considers twenty-four of these individuals to be political prisoners (this data is from the start of June 2018; the cases of the others are still under consideration). 

And this is no coincidence. 

Have a look – here you can see the sentence handed down in the Sentsov-Kolchenko case by the North Caucasus military district court in Rostov-on-Don on 25 August 2015. 

Over forty pages of state legal jargon seem designed to convince a third-party reader that the sentence is just and deserved. 

The accusations brought against Sentsov by the investigators and the prosecution are dreadful: 

“Under the direction of Sentsov, members of the terrorist group he founded committed two acts of terrorism; planned an act of terrorism; attempted to illegally purchase explosive devices; and illegally trafficked firearms and ammunition ass an organised group, under the following circumstances” (verdict, page 3). 

This wording is designed to dispel any shadow of a doubt that Sentsov is a “terrorist”. But let’s break it down. 

In layman’s terms, this is what it means: the “two acts of terrorism” were 1) setting fire to the entrance of the office of the Russian Community of Crimea (there were no casualties and damages to the organisation were valued at 30,000 roubles), 2) setting fire to the Simferopol office of the United Russia party’s Crimean regional branch (there were no casualties and damages to the organisation were valued at 20,000 roubles). “Planning an act of terrorism” – this was a plan (to use the investigator’s words) to blow up the monument to Lenin by the Simferopol railway station; the “attempt to illegally obtain explosive devices” refers to negotiations with the aim of manufacturing explosive devises – but these negotiations were conducted not by the accused Sentsov, but by witnesses in the case; the “illegal trafficking of firearms and ammunition” relates to the discovery of a pistol and ammunition during a search of Sentsov’s home. 

At the same time, the court did not actually object to the opinion of the defence that the accusations were not supported by evidence that Sentsov committed the two aforementioned acts of terrorism, nor by evidence that he was conspiring to blow up the Lenin monument, nor that he was preparing (in the words of the verdict) homemade explosive devices, nor that he purchased and kept firearms and ammunition. But these defence arguments were not taken into account in the sentence. 

Consequently, the case against Sentsov and Kolchenko rests on the testimonials of two individuals, one of whom claimed that his statement in court was given under duress, and a second whom Sentsov denied knowing at all. Yet, Sentsov was given 20 years imprisonment, and Kolchenko was given 10. The verdict of the North Caucasus military district court in the Sentsov-Kolchenko case was upheld on appeal and has already become a document of our era. 

My aim in discussing this verdict is to highlight the fact that large swathes of civil society, in both Russia and Ukraine, still have questions which they would like answered. Many believe that lengthy prison sentences of this kind are unjust given the nature of the crimes committed and the prosecution’s lack of any evidence that the convicted parties were implicated in committing them. They therefore consider that around 70 Ukrainian nationals currently in Russian penitentiary institutions are there for political reasons and not because of any offences. 

The Ukrainian citizens placed in Russian prisons over the past four years who appear on the lists mentioned above are pawns in the appalling and absurd hybrid war in which Russia and Ukraine have been engaged since spring 2014. 

Wars – and that includes hybrid wars – are something that should be stopped. 

As soon as possible. 

So that we can begin to clean up the aftermath. 

An opportunity currently exists for the Russian authorities to take action towards this goal, having learned of the concern among Ukrainian civil society about the fate of its citizens; these latter could be handed over to the Ukrainian authorities so that they could serve out their sentences in their home country. 

Ukraine is a rule-of-law state and a signatory to international human rights conventions. Crimes are committed there as they are in any other country in the world, but the state has put in place and makes active use of mechanisms for holding criminals accountable. There is also an established human rights community in the country which carefully monitors the state’s activities and – as is the case in Russia – attempts to introduce routine public scrutiny. 

Several dozen cases are already being examined in relation to topics as controversial as the calling to account of members of “volunteer battalions” found to have been engaged in criminal activities in Eastern Ukraine. By way of an example, here are several links with information on similar cases: 

The above suggests that if any of the Ukrainian citizens who figure in the lists mentioned above are in fact guilty of crimes, they should be allowed to serve out their sentences in penitentiary institutions in Ukraine. That would also clear up any doubts about the political nature of these charges. 

A legal basis already exists for the transfer of prisoners by the Russian authorities. 

According to Article 63(2) of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, it is possible to transfer persons sentenced to imprisonment so that they can serve out the remainder of the sentence in the state of their nationality, on the basis of federal laws or international agreements signed by the Russian Federation. 

The provisions of federal law governing this mechanism are set out in Chapter 55 of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Russian Federation, entitled “Transfer of Persons Sentenced to Imprisonment for the Execution of the Sentence in the State of their Nationality”. 

The option of transferring persons sentenced to imprisonment so that they can serve out the remainder of their sentence elsewhere is provided for in many international agreements, namely the Convention on the Transfer of Persons Sentenced to Imprisonment for the Execution of the Sentence in the State of their Nationality of 19 May 1978 (ratified by the USSR on 3 April 1979), the Strasbourg Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons of 21 March 1983 and the Additional Protocol thereto dated 18 December 1997, signed on behalf of the Russian Federation in Helsinki on 7 April 2005, the Convention on the Transfer of Persons Sentenced to Imprisonment for the Further Serving of Their Sentences, concluded on 6 March 1998 by the member countries of the CIS, and bilateral agreements concluded between Russia and Ukraine. 

Such transfers have already happened in the past. In 2016, for example, Ukrainian citizens imprisoned on Crimean territory were transferred to Ukraine to serve out the remainder of their sentences. 

The mechanisms are therefore already in place, and it only remains for us to hope that the Russian authorities will make use of them. 

Translated by Joanne Reynolds and Judith Fagelson