20 years under Putin: a timeline

On October 30, Russia’s Day of Political Prisoners, the Sakharov Center, the Memorial Human Rights Center, and the Boris Nemtsov Foundation held a roundtable on politically motivated prosecutions in modern Russia. On the same day, the Memorial Center published an updated list of political prisoners, which currently includes 362 persons—an uptake from last year’s 305. As Memorial notes, the list is by no means exhaustive, as it only reflects the minimal accurate estimate of persecutions that can be substantiated through public data.



IMR recommends: Memorial’s November 2020 report on its human rights activities (in Russian)

The members o the roundtable discussed the latest high-profile political cases, defense methods for the unjustly accused, and the possibility of international intervention. Primarily this concerns the prosecution of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Arabic for “Party of Liberation”), an organization that was proclaimed as terrorist and banned on Russian soil. According to Memorial’s data, currently 309 persons are being prosecuted for alleged participation in this organization, and 209 were convicted, with 63 sentenced to 10 to 15 years of imprisonment and 77 to more than 15 years. Memorial has recognized 218 persons involved in the Hizb ut-Tahrir cases as political prisoners. 191 persons from that list are being prosecuted right now. 

One such political case is that of the Ufa Twenty (“Ufimskaya Dvadzatka”), in which the court gave 26 Bashkortostan Muslims lengthy prison sentences for their involvement in the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Memorial believes that all defendants were prosecuted purely “on the basis of their religious beliefs” and in a way that violates fundamental freedoms—expression and opinion, conscience and religion, peaceful assembly and association—as well as the right to a fair trial.

In her remarks, Karina Moskalenko, the lawyer representing the Ufa Twenty in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), said that this political case is practically hopeless. “When the case of the Ufa Twenty was still being considered, we managed to make the [Russian] court listen to us closely for a few months. However, the persons involved in the case still received outrageous sentences (the longest being Rinat Nurlygayanov’s at 24 years). For nothing,” she said. “The prosecutor was asking me patronizingly: why are you trying to prove that they were not involved in terrorism? Why are you wasting your time on this? The fact of their admitted membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir is enough for a truncated corpus delicti.”

According to Moskalenko, the Russian court system is arranged so as to make facts irrelevant in politically motivated cases. Evidence is also ascribed little importance. In this instance, intelligence-gathering materials have been destroyed (which is confirmed in the appropriate document), and search records have vanished from case materials. “But, as [the investigation] already considers these people members of Hizb ut-Tahrir,” Moskalenko pointed out, “their sentences may be as long as life in prison. And these sentences will be imposed, which indicates political motivation. We have to fight this, and the ECHR is once again our only hope.” 

The problem is that, although the ECHR does not consider Hizb ut-Tahrir a terrorist organization based on its teachings and practices, there are a number of suspicious factors in its activities. In particular, as Moskalenko noted, the ECHR believes that the work of this organization contradicts the spirit and values of the European Convention on Human Rights under article 17 (“Prohibition of Abuse of Rights”). “Thus, those who implicated themselves as members of this organization remain in a hopeless position,” she lamented. “The decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation of February 14, 2003 [on the recognition of a number of organizations, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, as terrorist], which is used to ‘fight against’ them, is unfounded and unsubstantiated, and should be reversed; we are seeking the opportunity to do so at the moment. And we will push this through with the help of the European Court of Human Rights.” 

Seventy residents of Crimea have also been arrested in relation to the Hizb ut-Tahrir case. The prosecution of the Crimean Tatars is Russia’s biggest political case: Memorial recognizes 105 persons involved in it as political prisoners. “The very prohibition of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the framework of the Russian legal field does not hold up to any criticism from the expediency point of view, because this organization rejects violent actions in its own program, and people’s right to choose and practice their religion is enshrined in both Russian and international law,” noted Lutfiye Zudiyeva, another member of the roundtable and an activist of Crimean Solidarity, a human rights organization dedicated to helping political prisoners.

In Zudiyeva’s opinion, this case is now Crimea’s biggest due to the sheer volume of materials on people linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir kept in the Ukrainian special service archives. “The Russian services only needed to get access to these archives, set off new investigations, and then conduct mass arrests,” explained the human rights advocate. “The accusations are based on wiretapping, books, testimonies of anonymous witnesses, and linguistic expertise. All defendants are at risk of receiving 15 to 20 years in prison—and none of them have even committed a crime.” 

Sergei Davidis: “The Russian authorities aim at discrediting the entire human rights movement”

Not only Muslims are prosecuted in Crimea on the basis of their faith. According to Zudiyeva, politically motivated cases have been started against representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchy, as well as against local Jehovah’s Witnesses (a large-scale campaign against this organization, which is prohibited in Russia, is underway across the country). Political prosecution of Ukrainian citizens has also taken place in Crimea, as witnessed in the cases of film director Oleg Sentsov, activist Alexander Kolchenko, and the so-called “Crimean saboteurs.” “The Ukrainian Cultural Center no longer exists in Crimea, and its activists were forced to leave the peninsula. They were subjected to numerous searches,” noted Zudiyeva.

Large-scale political repressions have unfolded in Crimea over the course of the last five years. “People are prosecuted and given outrageously lengthy prison sentences not on the basis of a specific action with a criminal structure, but on the basis of dissent, their civic stance, their disloyalty to the current regime [in Russia],” explained Zudiyeva. “The Crimean Tatars are the main target of the [Russian] special services. There are 80 of them in the list of political prisoners.” The advocate connects the prosecutions with the Crimean Tatar diaspora’s February 26, 2014 protest against the Russian military’s invasion of Crimea. “People’s nonviolent civic stance should not be a basis of criminal prosecution or administrative sanctions, since every person has the right to a subjective evaluation of political and historical events,” underscored Zudiyeva. “Repressions have not died out since 2015; on the contrary, the numbers keep growing, and we have serious concerns that all this may continue in the future.”

“On the one hand, the meaning and the goal of repressive actions are to stop civil activity that the [Russian] authorities consider—often unfoundedly—a threat. On the other, they also generate mainstream propaganda about the perceived threat of Islam and an overall hostile environment. The espionage and treason cases are based exactly on that,” claimed Sergei Davidis, head of Memorial’s political prisoners program.

Ivan Pavlov, defense attorney and head of Team 29, a human rights association of lawyers and journalists, spoke in more detail about the espionage and treason cases. “I cannot say that there are many such cases in Russia, but some have gained media coverage and caused a significant public response. A number of them are politically motivated. In particular, last month Karina Tsurkan, former top manager of energy company Inter RAO, was recognized as a political prisoner. She is accused of espionage under article 276 of Russia’s Criminal Code as a foreign citizen — since she is being prosecuted on the basis of acts committed in 2015, when she was still a citizen of Moldova.” 

According to Pavlov, who referred to the official statistics of the judicial department of the Supreme Court, on average three guilty verdicts were delivered in espionage and treason cases annually until 2014. After 2014, the average number of guilty verdicts grew to 15 per year.

Pavlov connects the increased number of convictions with the events in Crimea and the military activities in south-eastern Ukraine. “The foreign political situation has escalated. We are now living in a time of war, and for war one needs enemies. You know where foreign enemies are. And the purpose of [espionage and treason cases] is to identify enemies on the inside. The FSB has to adhere to the ‘stick system’ and keep searching for enemies. And, if that proves difficult or impossible, they can always make them up,” explained Pavlov.

A good many categories of society are now considered at-risk, says the attorney: active military personnel, housewives, retired citizens, the unemployed, bloggers, the clergy, farm market sellers, top managers of large companies, journalists, scientists, NGO employees, entrepreneurs. “Anyone who works with sensitive information is at risk, and nowadays practically all data is considered sensitive,” concluded Pavlov.

“What is happening is the intimidation of society, the illegal imposition of obedience that exceeds law abidance. These efforts are somewhat productive, and yet we see society’s increased interest in political prisoners, and the public pressure is forcing the state to seek a balance between cracking down harder and retreating. The fight continues, and is not futile, but nor is there any clear end in sight,” summarized Sergei Davidis.

The cases of historian Yuri Dmitriyev, Yukos ex-employee Alexey Pichugin, “Novoye Velichiye” (“New Greatness”), and others were also discussed at the roundtable. Besides those mentioned above, the discussion participants included chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Freedom Fund Vladimir Kara-Murza, co-chairman of the Moscow Helsinki group Vyacheslav Bakhmin, Moscow City Duma deputy Sergey Mitrokhin, journalists Vera Chelishyeva, Vera Vasilieva,and Svetlana Prokopyeva, executive director of Memorial International Oleg Orlov, and legal aid coordinator of OVD-Info Alla Frolova. Director of the Sakharov Center Sergei Lukashevsky moderated the discussion.


→ You can help Russian political prisoners via: Memorial Human Rights Center, Alliance of Solidarity with Political Prisoners, or Paypal: helppoliticalprisoners@gmail.com


Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.