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Vera Vasilieva on removal of Aleksei Pichugin from penal colony to unknown location (Radio Svoboda)

posted 17 Jul 2016, 04:22 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 17 Jul 2016, 09:59 ]
5 July 2016

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Rаdio Svoboda]

Aleksei Pichugin, former director of the department of internal economic security at the Yukos oil company, sentenced to life imprisonment, has been moved from the Black Dolphin penal colony in the Orenburg region to an unknown location. Lawyer for the prisoner, Kseniya Kostomina, has spoken about this to the RIA News agency. She said that the administration of the penal colony confirmed this news. However, she did not specify where exactly Pichugin has been taken. On the evening of 4 July the former head of YUKOS, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, announced that Aleksei Pichugin had left the penal colony. On his Facebook page he wrote that investigators visited Pichugin and, under threat of arresting his brother, tried to get ‘the right kind’ of testimony out of him, after which they took him away from the colony.

Those close to Mikhail Khodorkovsky do not exclude the possibility that Aleksei Pichugin might have been transferred to Moscow. Pichugin is a witness in the so-called “third Yukos case”, which was opened in 2015 and under which investigators consider Mikhail Khodorkovsky an accomplice to the 1998 murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk, Vladimir Petukhov. In 2007 Aleksei Pichugin was sentenced to life imprisonment for a number of murders, including organising the murder of Petukhov. At the beginning of June the Russian authorities refused to pardon Aleksei Pichugin.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky has repeatedly called publicly on Pichugin to give any kind of evidence in the case in exchange for his release. However, according to Aleksei Pichugin's lawyers, their client  has categorically refused to slander former colleagues, just as he has refused to admit involvement in the crimes.

According to Vera Vasilieva, an independent journalist and the author of several books about the case of Aleksei Pichugin, an added twist to the interest of the investigators in Pichugin might be related, not only to the third Yukos case, but also to a possible trial in absentia of Mikhail Khodorkovsky:

“I read on Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Twitter account, that there is a suggestion that Aleksei Pichugin has either already been placed in one of Moscow’s pre-trial detention facilities, or he’s on his way there. As far as the reason for this is concerned, I think it is connected with the so-called “third Khodorkovsky case”. In this case they have already questioned a lot of witnesses, and Aleksei Pichugin, so far as I know, appears to be one of the witnesses in this case. It’s obvious that the investigators want to get him to testify that Mikhail Khodorkovsky actually ordered the murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk. Aleksei has already served 13 years’ imprisonment, and it’s clear that the investigators are counting on breaking him down so he will be more compliant and provide them with the necessary testimony.”

– But so far as I understand, the investigators have already repeatedly tried to obtain testimony against Mikhail Khodorkovsky from Aleksei Pichugin, and Khodorkovsky himself has even proposed that Pichugin should give this testimony to save himself from prison. Why do you think Pichugin has not done this and why do the investigators keep on trying?

“So far as I know, the investigators demanded testimony specifically against Khodorkovsky in the frаmework of the third case for the first time literally the day before he was moved, or perhaps a day before that. Before this, they had sought to force Aleksei to give testimony against Nevzlin at his own trial. I think that they have not stopped trying because, firstly, it would seem that this testimony is very much needed. Khodorkovsky, it seems to me, is an irritant to the authorities because of his political activity. And secondly, because it has been very difficult for Aleksei to survive in prison for so many years, and in particular in conditions of life imprisonment, and there is a calculation that in the end Aleksei will give in. But he has not given in, in my view, not only for Khodorkovsky’s sake or for the sake of other people who might suffer as a result of his false testimony, but also because his conscience, his upbringing and his faith, do not allow him to do this. He is a deeply religious person, with a real faith and not faith that is just for show. And I have heard Aleksei’s mother, Alla Nikolaevna, say that Aleksei would simply be ashamed before his children if he gave false testimony." 

– So far as is known he has been refused a pardon. Could this have any influence on him and his intentions in the case?

“I recently received a letter from Aleksei in which he writes about this very matter, his reaction to the refusal of a pardon. Aleksei writes that this was not a surprise for him. So far as I understand, he asked for a pardon because his complaint about the failure to execute the decision of the European Court of Human Rights with regard to his first trial is now with the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. And the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is wondering why the Russian authorities cannot pardon Pichugin? It is in order to get an answer to this question, and to stop the Russian authorities from responding that Pichugin does not want a pardon, that Aleksei decided to make use of this possibility. But I have the impression he had no illusions, but merely decided to test this instrument so that he would have exhausted all possible legal means to bring about the execution of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights regarding his first trial. For the judgment has not been executed now for a number of years, since 2012 in fact." 

– So far as you know, how much effort are investigators now putting into the investigation of this new, "third Yukos case"? And what role do you think is being allotted to Aleksei Pichugin?

“So far as I know the investigators have questioned a very large number of witnesses about this third case. True, these are the same witnesses that were questioned earlier, including former Yukos staff who said the same thing as before, in other words that they don't know anything about any murders, and that Pichugin could not be involved in these crimes, just as Khodorkovsky could not. It was on the basis of the false testimony of criminals against Pichugin in the course of his own prosecution that his conviction was based. I have the impression that there is nothing new in this case, it is simply a repetition of all the old stuff. And I think that the investigators are only placing their hopes on the fact that under their pressure Pichugin will give in. After all, the pressure is not only being put on him, but also on his brother. They have been trying to prosecute his brother, who has been forced to leave the country. Moreover, they have interrogated Aleksei's mother, Alla Nikolaevna, and Aleksei cares a very great deal for his mother. Aleksei awas told that his mother had been questioned. In my opinion all this is part of the pressure that is being put on Aleksei to force him to give testimony that the investigators want so that they can put Mikhail Khodorkovsky on trial." 

- Do you think such pressure will continue if Aleksei refuses? How can they threaten him?

"I do not want to provoke any kind of negative events, but I recall that already in 2003 they were already using psychiatric medication on Aleksei, and that this particularly illegal measure had the one aim: to make him give evidence against the leadership of YUKOS. The researcher Igor Sutyagin, who, at that time in 2003, was in the very same cell in Lefortovo as Aleksei, has testified to this fact. He saw the state Aleksei was in when they took him off for interrogation, and in what sort of semi-conscious state they brought him back a few hours later. The authorities could choose to apply absolutely any measures at all, including illegal ones. But of course I very much hope that illegal measures will not be used." 

- You initially mentioned that according to information from Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they might have brought him to Moscow for some sort of investigative procedures. Do you think this is the case? Does it seem likely that they really could be taking him to Moscow now?

"Yes, I do think so. This may possibly be not only for investigative actions, but also for the purposes of a trial. I do not rule out that there will soon be a trial in absentia of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, just as there was a trial in absentia of Leonid Nevzlin on the same charges, equally groundless and unsubstantiated. Israel’s High Court of Justice examined all the evidence on the basis of which Leonid Nevzilin was convicted in absentia at the time, and ruled that there were insufficient facts in the case even to hold a trial, never mind finding someone guilty. I think what is happening could well be connected not only with an investigation, but even with a potential trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky”

Aleksei Pichugin, the 53-year-old former director of the internal economic security service at the Yukos oil company, was arrested on 19th June 2003 on charges of organizing a number of murders, including the murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk, Vladimir Petukhov. In 2007 Aleksei Pichugin was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Vladimir Petukhov was shot dead on 26th June 1998 on his way to work. The gunmen were immediately identified. They proved to be Popov and Prikhodko - members of the Kamyshin organised crime group. However, these two men were both killed in the same year, 1998 and the case was closed. After seven years the investigation was reopened and charges relating to the organization of the murder of Petukhov were brought against Aleksei Pichugin and the person who ordered the killing was named as co-owner of the Yukos oil company, Leonid Nevzlin. Nevzlin was sentenced in absentia by a Russian court to life imprisonment.

In 2015 the Russian Investigative Committee once again reopened the investigation into the murder of Vladimir Petukhov “on fresh evidence”, in spite of the expiry of the statute of limitations. The investigators have not made public what precisely these “new circumstances” were. In December 2015 Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been living outside Russia since his release in 2013, was declared to be on an international wanted list by the Russian authorities under suspicion of having taken part in the murder of Vladimir Petukhov.

Translated by Frances Robson