20 years under Putin: a timeline

The arrest of Vladimir Vorontsov, founder of the Police Ombudsman—a project highlighting violations of the rights of ordinary law-enforcement officials—was a notable human rights development in May. Extended arrests of the defendants of the Novoye Velichiye case was similarly disturbing. In even grimmer new, dissident Sergei Mokhnatkin passed away due to complications caused by beatings in custody.


Upper row (left to right): Vladimir Vorontsov (The Police Ombudsman), Sergei Mokhnatkin, Dmitry Poletayev (the Novoye Velichiye case); lower row: Ruslan Kostylenkov, Anna Pavlikova, Peter Karamzin (all three are defendants in the Novoye Velichiye case). Photo: Memorial, Wikipedia Commons.


Police Ombudsman: criminal prosecution for criticizing the Ministry of Internal Affairs

  • On May 8, a Moscow court arrested Major Vladimir Vorontsov, a retired police officer and founder of the Police Ombudsman, a human rights project.
  • The Police Ombudsman is an influential online community (originally, a group in the VKontakte social network) created by Vorontsov in 2017. The project covers violations of the rights of ordinary law-enforcement officers, and exposes abuses in the system of the Ministry of Internal Affairs by releasing internal documents and anonymous complaints about injustice. According to MediaZona, Vorontsov’s project “acts as an informal trade union for police officers and, as such, inevitably comes into conflict with the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.”
  • Shortly before Vorontsov’s arrest, the Police Ombudsman released an audio recording in which the head of the Novosibirsk police department asked her subordinates to draw up reports on self-isolation violations “en masse.” The news struck a chord and led to the resignation of the head of the Novosibirsk Ministry of Internal Affairs.
  • Vorontsov was detained after his house had been searched on allegations of extortion by a large group of persons (part 2, article 163 of the Criminal Code). According to investigators, in 2017, Vorontsov demanded 300,000rubles from a police officer “to prevent distribution of personal photos.” The victim did not make a deal, the photos were leaked to the public, and the officer was consequently fired.
  • Open Media reports that the prosecution’s case is based on the testimony of three people, but the case file contains no evidence of Vorontsov’s correspondence with or calls to the victim, which would confirm the charge of extortion.
  • Vorontsov does not admit guilt. In September 2019, in a post in the Police Ombudsman, he said that he had received several suspicious money transfers in the sum of about 300,000 rubles and suggested that this was a provocation by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
  • On May 23, a new criminal case was opened against Vorontsov under the allegations of illegal production and distribution of pornographic materials by a group of people (part 3, article 242 of the Criminal Code). The case was allegedly initiated based on a statement by an unnamed person, who demanded prosecution of people who disseminated her intimate photos online.
  • As part of this case, another administrator of the Police Ombudsman, Igor Khudyakov, a former officer of Russia’s Federal Penal Correction Service, was also arrested.
  • At the end of May, two more criminal cases were initiated against Vorontsov—on allegations of extortion and illegal production and distribution of pornographic materials. According to the same unnamed victim, Vorontsov forced her to send him “personal videos of pornographic content” and then demanded 30,000 rubles, threatening to publish them.
  • In addition, according to Kommersant, Vorontsov might soon become a defendant in a large case of fraud (article 159 of the Criminal Code). The investigation alleges that, by rendering services to the dismissed or disciplined police officers through their representation in the courts, Vorontsov received large sums of money from them without ever fulfilling his obligations.
  • Human rights activists believe that Vorontsov’s prosecution is politically motivated. Pavel Chikov and Damir Gainutdinov of Agora, an international human rights group, note that “Among the various ways of intimidating whistleblowers, criminal prosecution is the second most frequent threat used after dismissal from work. Vorontsov could not be fired. What was left was to find a credible cause for prosecution in case [Vorontsov went too far]. Having achieved significant success as a defender of ordinary police officers, having built a huge and loyal audience, having taken up politics and criticizing the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, ignoring their ‘signals,’ by the spring of 2020, he obviously crossed the line.”
  • According to Sergei Davidis, head of the political prisoners program at the Memorial human rights center, “The intensity of various repressions leaves no doubt that this case is not about the alleged crimes, but a very strong desire [by the authorities] to immediately terminate the work of the Police Ombudsman … And this is understandable: even an attempt to turn police officers from a powerless group from the viewpoint of the authorities, from slaves completely dependent on them, into people with rights and legitimate interests, undermines one of the key pillars of authoritarian power and jeopardizes this entire system.”
  • Former and current police officers organized a virtual flash mob on social networks in support of the Police Ombudsman, posting photos with the hashtag #СвободуВоронцову (#FreedomToVorontsov). However, most of these posts were anonymous.
  • On May 26, one-man pickets in support of Vorontsov were held at the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Moscow; participants were detained, in violation of their rights.


The death of Sergei Mokhnatkin

  • On May 28, human rights activist and dissident Sergei Mokhnatkin died at the age of 66.
  • Mokhnatkin, an ordinary citizen, was first detained, almost by accident, at a small protest in central Moscow on December 31, 2009. An innocent passerby, he rushed to help an elderly woman who was dragged into a police van, with law-enforcement officers grabbing her by the neck. In 2010, he was sentenced to 30 months in a penal colony on charges of attacking a government official (part 2, article 318 of the Criminal Code). It was alleged that after being detained, Mokhnatkin broke a police officer’s nose.
  • Two years later, then-president Dmitry Medvedev pardoned him. Upon his release, Mokhnatkin took up human rights activities.
  • In 2014, Mokhnatkin was again convicted on charges of using violence against a government official—this time he allegedly attacked two police officers at another Moscow rally. This time he was sentenced to 54 months in a maximum-security colony.
  • In the years that followed, he received an additional sentence for insulting a representative of the authorities (article 319 of the Criminal Code) and for disorganizing the work of the colony (part 2, article 321).
  • Mokhnatkin repeatedly reported beatings, torture, and denial of medical care. In March 2016, officers of the Federal Penal Correction Service brutally beat him because, in an effort to hinder his forced transfer to a pre-trial detention center, he lay on the floor and refused to move. He was subsequently diagnosed with a fracture of twolumbar vertebrae.
  • According to MediaZona, “After leaving the colony, Mokhnatkin spent a lot of time in hospitals, suffered from constant back pain, but this didn’t stop him from going to protests and meetings of human rights activists.” In the fall of 2019, his condition deteriorated significantly, as he developed a “purulent inflammation.” In November 2019, Mokhnatkin’s legs got paralyzed. In April 2020, he went to intensive care.
  • As Kommersant’s columnist Alexander Chernykh wrote in an obituary titled “One Day of Sergei Mokhnatkin”—a reference to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a classic novel about a Soviet labor camp—Mokhnatkin was “a random person who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, [who] reminded us that the inhuman Gulag system—all these camps, colonies, torture, bullying, caste, this entire wheel of suffering and humiliation—none of this has gone away.”


Novoye Velichiye: extended arrests

  • On May 7, a Moscow court extended restraint measures for defendants in the case of the Novoye Velichiye (New Greatness) until August 17. Ruslan Kostylenkov, Dmitry Poletayev, Vyacheslav Kryukov, and Peter Karamzin are to remain in the detention center; Maria Dubovik, Anna Pavlikova, and Maxim Roshchin will be under house arrest. The decision was made regardless of the Supreme Court’s recommendation to the courts to take into account the coronavirus pandemic when considering arrest issues.
  • As part of this case, a total of ten people were detained in March 2018. They are charged with creating and participating in an extremist organization (parts 1 and 2, article 282.1 of the Criminal Code). The investigation claims that the participants in Novoye Velichiye, a little-known opposition movement, planned to seize power in Russia through a coup. The authorities also said that the goal of the arrested group was “participation in popular uprisings, revolutionary actions, clashes with representatives of the current regime.”
  • The defense argues that the movement was infiltrated by the special services and the criminal case is the result of their provocation. The charges are based on the testimony of an informant hiding under the pseudonym Ruslan D. According to the defendants, at an offline meetings of activists, it was he who suggested creating a political organization, wrote its charter and program, and rented a place for meetings. Two other prosecution witnesses also turned out to be informants.
  • Kostylenkov, the man investigators regard as the leader of Novoye Velichiye, reported that he had confessed under torture.
  • On March 16, 2018, the court ruled that six activists, including Pavlikova, a minor (she was 17 at the time of her arrest), should remain in police custody, while the other four were placed under house arrest. Only after Pavlikova developed health problems—and following the so-called “March of Mothers,” whose participants demanded that Pavlikova and Dubovik (another young woman), be released from custody—were they transferred to house arrest.
  • Two defendants in the case, Pavel Rebrovsky and Rustam Rustamov, entered into a pre-trial agreement with the prosecution, and their cases were examined in a special procedure. In March 2019, Rustamov was given a suspended sentence of 18 months for complicity in an extremist organization (part 5, article 33; and part 2, article 282.1 of the Criminal Code). The case of Rebrovsky, sentenced to 30 months, was sent for retrial after he had withdrawn his initial testimony. He is currently released under his own recognizance, with orders not to leave the country.
  • Another person involved, Sergei Gavrilov, escaped house arrest and made his way to Ukraine. He was put on the wanted list and arrested in absentia.
  • “The Novoye Velichiye case is a symbol of the cruelty and injustice of the fight against extremism in modern Russia,” says Sergei Davidis. “A group of opposition-minded young people fell victim to a provocation of the authorities. They did not commit any violent acts, did not plan terrorist attacks. They are accused only of conversations and actions that were declared criminal only because they were allegedly carried out as part of an ‘extremist organization,’ which had been created by an intelligence officer infiltrated into their group.”