20 years under Putin: a timeline

November was marked by the Russian government’s renewed attacks on civil society. The Prosecutor General’s Office ordered the liquidation of International Memorial and its structures, including the Memorial Human Rights Center. The Moscow City Court changed the pre-trial restrictions of Sergei Zuyev, the provost of the Moscow School for Social and Economic Sciences, who is facing fraud charges, from house arrest to detention, despite his critical health condition. In St Petersburg, video blogger Yuri Khovansky is being persecuted for alleged public justification of terrorism as a result of what was, in his own words, an “ill-fated joke.”

 

Yuri Khovansky (left), Sergei Zuyev. Photo: Memorial, MBKh-Media, msses.ru (Shaninka).

 

The Memorial crackdown  

  • In November, the authorities targeted one of the oldest NGOs in Russia—the historical, educational, philanthropic, and human rights advocacy organization International Memorial.
  • The Prosecutor General’s Office filed a legal claim with the Supreme Court requesting the liquidation of International Memorial. At the same time, the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office reached out to the Moscow City Court with a demand to liquidate the organization’s key branch—the Memorial Human Rights Center.
  • The official grounds for these actions are systematic violations of the “foreign agent law” (the Memorial HumanRights Center was designated a “foreign agent” in 2014, International Memorial in 2016), specifically, the absence of the “foreign agent” label on the organizations’ materials and the late submissions of financial reports to the Ministry of Justice. Memorial is additionally accused of justification of extremism and terrorism for havingrecognized as political prisoners members of organizations banned in Russia, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Artpodgotovka, and others.
  • According to Meduza, the charge sheet against Memorial was mostly compiled by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media watchdog, upon the request of Ingushetia’s FSB. This is likely an attempt by Ingush security officials to get back at human rights advocates for their extensive coverage of the 2019 Magas mass protests, as well as their assistance in related criminal and administrative cases.
  • Memorial claims that it diligently follows “the pointless law” and alludes to the 2016 ruling of the Supreme Court that deems liquidation of a “foreign agent” as a measure of last resort, when its violations can no longer be amended.
  • The legal claim against Memorial is based on a “psychological and linguistic research study” by mathematics teacher Natalia Kryukova and translator Andrei Tarasov, neither of whom is competent to provide such expertise. According to Novaya Gazeta, Kryukova and Tarasov provided other “expertise” for the law enforcement, acting as theologists, sexologists, culture researchers, and legal scholars.
  • Human rights advocates consider this attack on Memorial as purely political: “For almost ten years, the Russian authorities have used repressive legislation against ‘foreign agents,’ which was created specifically for the arbitrary limitation of civic activism, as well as to prosecute [government] critics, including human rights groups. The push to liquidate such a pillar of the Russian human rights movement as Memorial is a new Rubicon in this campaign against independent voices. The current attack on Memorial is very clearly an act of vengeance for the Center’s human rights advocacy.”
  • Memorial was created in 1987 with the goal of restoring the memory of victims of political repression, but eventually grew into Russia’s largest human rights organization. Memorial’s employees provide legal aid to political prisoners, refugees, and immigrants, monitor human rights violations, and prepare and submit legal claims to the European Court of Human Rights.
  • The total sum of the fines issued to the organization for the absence of the “foreign agent” label already exceeds 6 million rubles ($81,500).
  • Memorial’s events are regularly subjected to attacks from pro-Kremlin activists. The last such incident took place on October 14, when a group of masked individuals broke into the organization’s Moscow office and disrupted the screening of a Holodomor documentary. Most of the provocateurs managed to escape before the police arrived, and only a few were caught and handed over to the law enforcement officials (it is believed they were instantly released). Meanwhile, security officials blocked the office doors with handcuffs and forbade Memorial employees and film viewers to leave the room. They were subsequently required to submit personal data, including whether they held a criminal record, and explain why they had attended this event.
  • Preliminary hearings on the Memorial liquidation case took place in late November behind closed doors. It was reported that the prosecutors had not been not able to answer all the questions of the defense.

 

Prosecution of Sergei Zuyev: the investigation’s “deliberate cruelty”

  • On November 9, the Moscow City Court granted the formal request of the Prosecutor’s Office and changed the pre-trial restriction measure of the provost of Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka), Sergei Zuyev, from house arrest to detention.
  • Zuyev is one of the defendants in the large-scale fraud case (article 159, part 4 of the Criminal Code) against Marina Rakova, former Deputy Minister of Education and former vice president of Sberbank (she was arrested in early October). He stands accused of embezzlement of more than 21 million rubles ($285,000) from the New Forms of Education Development Fund, established by the Ministry of Education (the fund financed Shaninka’s research). Zuyev doesn’t admit guilt.
  • The funding was granted as part of the “Education” national project and its “Teacher of the Future” program aimed at the professional development of educators. As explained by Shaninka representatives, the fund’s contracts were divided into three stages, two of which were fully completed. In 2020, when the fund’s management changed, “communication became quite challenging,” and the university struggled to report on the third stage. The third contract was terminated upon the agreement of both parties, and Shaninka paid a
  • The criminal case was initiated based on the opinion provided by experts from the Russian Academy of Education (RAE), who concluded that, supposedly, Shaninka’s work did not adhere to quality standards.
  • RAE’s head, Olga Vasilyeva, is the former Minister of Education and Rakova’s former boss. According a Meduza source, Vasilyeva and Rakova’s relationship at the ministry was conflictious.
  • The 67-year-old Shaninka provost was arrested on October 11. The police came to collect Zuyev straight out of the hospital where he had been admitted with a hypertensive emergency. Afterwards, he was interrogated for 30 hours.
  • On October 13, the court, having taken the state of Zuyev’s health into consideration, placed him under house arrest. The prosecutors objected and demanded that he be transferred to a pre-trial detention center.
  • In late October, Zuyev was once again rushed to the hospital for an emergency heart surgery. In total, he has had three major blood vessel surgeries over the past year.
  • The defendant’s 13-year-old son has been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. In court, Zuyev stated that his remand may lead to unpredictable consequences for the boy’s psyche.
  • On November 25, the provost was reportedly accused of yet another episode of fraud. According to the investigation, in 2018, Zuyev, Rakova, and Yevgeny Zak, former deputy head of the New Forms of Education Development Fund, “criminally conspired” to allow Zuyev to fictitiously employ 12 Education Ministryemployees at RANEPA—the Institute of Social Sciences of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (Zuyev is its director). These employees “performed practically no real work in the educational organization,” but, leading up to 2020, they received compensation of more than 20 million rubles ($272,000) in wages.
  • Letters in Zuyev’s defense were signed by Shaninka’s students and employees, RAE academics and professors, as well as other members of the academic community. The charges against Zuyev were called absurd; supporters expressed outrage at the “deliberate cruelty of the investigative organs, the court, and the Prosecutor’s Office.”
  • Zuyev’s colleagues do not exclude that his prosecution may be an attempt to exert pressure on Shaninka, Russia’s leading non-state university. In 2018, when Roskomnadzor temporarily revoked its state accreditation, sources for The Bell stated that the FSB “believes the school is too independent and that it communicates with foreign universities too often, [that it is] a true breeding ground of liberalism.”

 

Yuri Khovansky: “terrorist” for the statistics  

  • On November 3, a St Petersburg court extended by two months the arrest of video blogger Yuri Khovansky, who is facing charges of public justification of terrorism (article 205.2, part 2 of the Criminal Code). He has been held in a pre-trial detention center since June.
  • Khovansky is being prosecuted for performing a song about the Dubrovka hostage crisis. The song lyrics supposedly framed the terrorists’ actions in a positive light.
  • During his time in detention, Khovansky repeatedly publicly apologized for the song, calling it a terrible mistake and an “ill-fated joke.” In August, he was placed on the list of terrorists and extremists.
  • The defense does not deny the fact that the song was performed, but claims that the last time it was streamed online was in 2012, and therefore Khovansky cannot be held criminally liable. Until 2016, the wording of article 205.2, part 2, referred to the public justification of terrorism in mass media, but not online. Based on this, the case should be reclassified in accordance with part 1 of the article, whose statute of limitations is six years, meaning that it expired back in 2018.
  • The defense’s reasoning contests the testimony of the supposedly false witnesses who claimed that Khovansky performed the infamous song during one of his 2018 livestreams. Two other bloggers, however, have accused them of perjury.
  • In late November, Khovansky wrote an open letter in which he revealed that the investigators had offered him a plea deal and threatened him with a real prison sentence should he refuse. Earlier they had also threatened to plant drugs on his girlfriend.
  • “Right now it is not just my fate being decided. The bounds are also being set on the lawlessness which the investigative organs indulge in <...> It is simply not right for judges to look at something black and then rule that it is white. We cannot allow for people to be judged in accordance with public resonance rather than the law. We cannot allow those rogue cops to threaten our loved ones,” Khovansky wrote.
  • According to human rights advocates, the criminal proceedings against Yuri Khovansky have clear signs of political motivation and serious law violations. The degree of his song’s influence on the audience in terms of incitement to terrorism and the probability of any harm done both equal zero, argues Memorial experts. “It seems that this criminal case was initiated by Center E [the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Center for Combating Terrorism, – editor’s note] with the goal of emphasizing its own significance and boosting statistics [of solving crimes].”
  • As noted by Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center, a Moscow-based think tank conducting sociological research on nationalism and racism in Russia, the number of criminal cases based on the “justification of terrorism” article has been growing progressively over the past few years. “If there are no real radicals or there is not enough of them for the statistics, Khovansky will do,” Verkhovsky concluded in conversation with OVD-Info.

 

Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.

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