20 years under Putin: a timeline

December 2021 saw an increase in repressions against civil society in Russia. Defendants in the politically motivated Ingush case received lengthy prison sentences. Historian Yuri Dmitriev, head of Memorial’s Karelia office, received a harsher sentence. Memorial itself was slated for liquidation per the ruling of Russia’s Supreme Court.

 

Upper row (left to right): Malsag Uzhakov, Akhmed Baakhoev, Musa Malsagov. Lower row: Zarifa Sautieva, Yuri Dmitriev. Photos: Memorial.

 

The Ingush case: a “lesson” to the opposition in the regions

  • On December 15, in Kislovodsk, seven persons involved in the so-called “Ingush case” were handed down guilty verdicts. According to the prosecution, they are the leaders the 2018-2019 protests that took place in Ingushetia.
  • The court found them guilty of life-threatening violence against representatives of authority (article 33, part 3; article 318, part 2 of the Russian Criminal Code), as well as of establishing an extremist organization society (article 282.1, part 1) or participating in one (article 282.1, part 2).
  • The chairman of the Teip Council of the Ingush people, which had been liquidated earlier, Malsag Uzhakhov, Council member Akhmed Barakhoev, and the chairman of the Ingush division of the Russian Red Cross Musa Malsagov were all sentenced to nine years in a general regime penal colony. The director of The Choice of Ingushetia organization Ismail Nalgiev, the head of Ingushetia’s Council of Youth Organizations Bakhaudin Khautiev, and the chairman of the Ingushetia’s Pillar (Opora Ingushetii) community group Barakh Chemurzievwere sentenced to eight years, and the regional Memorial’s deputy director for repression victims Zarifa Sautieva to seven and a half years in a penal colony. Those are the exact sentences that the prosecution had requested. Additionally, all the defendants were prohibited from engaging in any kind of public activity.
  • The time that the defendants have spent in temporary detention will be counted as one day per 1.5 days. That way, a total of 3.5 to 4 years will be subtracted from the sentences.
  • The Ingush case was launched in response to the fall 2018 mass protests against the agreement on the change of Ingushetia’s administrative border with the Chechen Republic (the deal provided for a partial transfer of Ingushetia’s land to the Chechens). The agreement was prepared behind closed doors, and a significant part of the Ingush populations saw it as unfair and detrimental to the region’s interests.
  • The protests were peaceful. But in spring 2019, the situation escalated: on March 27, Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) officers were dispatched to Magas, Ingushetia’s capital, from other regions, and attempted to forcefully disperse a demonstration despite the fact that it had been sanctioned by local authorities and posed no threat to the public order. This led to clashes between the protesters and the police.
  • In the aftermath of these events, criminal proceedings were initiated on the charge of violence against security officers. Mass searches and arrests followed, with seven defendants identified as “opposition leaders.” In January 2020, they were accused of a graver crime—extremism. Barakhoev, Uzhakhov, and Malsagov were charged with creating an extremist organization, and others with participating in one.
  • According to the Memorial human rights center, the “extremist” case against public activists is nothing but an acknowledgement of the absurdity and infeasibility of the prior accusations.
  • In court, the defense claimed that the investigation had managed to determine neither the time nor the place of the creation of the “extremist organization” (prior to the protests, the defendants did not even know each other), nor the specific details of “violence” against security officers. “On the contrary, the reviewed materials indicate that on that day the defendants urged to maintain law and order.”
  • Moreover, human rights activists note that “as the clashes began, some of the defendants were not even at the square [where the protest took place], and were admitted by authority representatives with the hope that they would be able to stop the violence.”
  • According to Memorial’s data, a total of 52 people faced criminal charges in the aftermath of the March 27 protest (charges have been dropped against three of them). Guilty verdicts were given to 48 More than 200 protest participants were subjected to administrative punishments.
  • “No doubt, the main goal of those who orchestrated the Ingush case is to decapitate the protest movement in the [region] and teach a “lesson” to other Russian regions… This is yet another step on the path of repression of lawful public activity, rights, and freedoms not just of Ingushetia residents, but of Russian citizens as a whole,” reads Memorial’s statement.

 

Liquidation of Memorial: fighting historical memory 

  • On December 28, 2021, Russia’s Supreme Court ruled to liquidate Memorial, an international historical, educational, philanthropic, and human rights advocacy organization (Memorial International), following a request by the Prosecutor General’s Office. On the next day, the same decision was made about its key division—the Memorial human rights center. Its closure was requested by the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office.
  • The formal ground for these decisions was that Memorial had allegedly violated the rules of labeling its materials as distributed by a “foreign agent” (the Memorial human rights center was designated as such in 2014, Memorial International in 2016). The human rights center was also accused of justifying terrorism and extremism because it put members of organizations banned in Russia (Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Artpodgotovka, etc.) on its list of political prisoners.
  • Memorial representatives argued that the organization diligently abides by the “pointless” law on foreign agents, and alluded to the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling that established that a “foreign agent” organization can be liquidated only as a measure of last resort, when correcting its violations is impossible.
  • The true reasoning behind the attack on Memorial International was voiced in court by a representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office. In his speech, he accused the organization of manipulating the topic of political repressions, defaming the memory of the Great Patriotic War [the 1941-1945 period of WWII, which involved the Soviet Union,—editor’s note], creating a “false image of the Soviet Union as a terroristic state, and rehabilitating traitors to the homeland and Nazi aides.” Someone, in the prosecutor’s opinion, “ought to be paying for this.” In other words, the activities of Memorial threaten the state monopoly on historical discourse.
  • On December 29, the European Court of Human Rights demanded that Russia delay carrying out the verdict on the liquidation of Memorial until the Court makes its ruling on the complaint on the “foreign agent law” filed by Russian NGOs in 2013.
  • Memorial was founded in 1987 with the goal to restore and immortalize the memory of political repression victims, but over time grew into Russia’s largest human rights organization. Memorial employees provide legal aid to political prisoners, refugees, and immigrants, monitor human rights violations in Russia, as well as prepare and submit complaints to the European Court of Human Rights.
  • “The liquidation of Memorial International is a sentence to the entire Russian civil society,” reads the statement of the OVD-Info human rights project. “The Supreme Court broadcast a political decision today… It is a clear signal both to society and to the elites that repressions were necessary and useful to the Soviet state in the past, and we need them today.”
  • OVD-Info itself also faces pressure from the authorities. On December 20, a Moscow region court ruled to block all the project’s online resources on the grounds that they are aimed at the justification of terrorist and extremist activities.

 

Yuri Dmitriev’s case: a more severe sentence 

  • With the campaign against Memorial in the background, 65-year-old historian Yuri Dmitriev, head of its Karelia division, received yet another harsher verdict (read more about his case here).
  • On December 27, the Petrozavodsk city court satisfied the demands of the prosecutor’s office and added two additional years to Dmitriev’s 13-year prison term in a maximum security penal colony.
  • During the court proceedings, three counts, on which Dmitriev had been previously cleared on, were brought up again. They are: manufacturing of child pornography (article 242, part 2 of the Criminal Code), depraved actions (article 135), and illegal possession of firearms (article 222, part 1).
  • Human rights advocates believe that the case against Dmitriev “is fabricated and politically motivated” and is an act of vengeance on the part of Russian security officers who “believe themselves to be the heirs of the NKVD” (the NKVD, or People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, was a law enforcement agency in the Soviet Union, which included secret police,—editor’s note). Dmitriev researched the history of the Stalinist repressions for many years, and led expeditions that revealed mass burial sites of Great Terror victims in Karelia. One of the largest and most infamous sites is in the Sandarmokh forest, where more than 7,000 people were executed in 1937-1938. Dmitriev was one of the organizers of annual mourning gatherings in Sandarmokh, which were attended, among others, by foreign delegations.
  • Representatives of Memorial believe that “today, when political repressions are once again becoming routine in our country, when the truth about the past contradicts the state concept of history, the aggressive attitude of the authorities towards activities that preserve the memory of past state terror is only natural. Dmitriev’s case emerged against this backdrop.”
  • As uncovered by Proekt (an independent media outlet closed in summer 2021 after being declared an undesirable organization), Dmitriev’s prosecution may be personally curated by Anatoly Seryshev, a Putin aide and former head of the Karelian FSB.
  • In 2016, Memorial published a list of NKVD permanent staff, which, among others, lists a supposed relative of Anatoly Seryshev, Vasily Mikhailovich Seryshev, a Chekist who participated in the Stalinist repressions and was later arrested for his involvement in “mass unjustified arrests.” After the list had been published, Dmitriev began receiving anonymous threats via phone calls, even though he was not directly involved in compiling the list.
  • The criminal proceedings against Dmitriev began in December 2016, when he was arrested on charges of manufacturing child pornography. His house was searched upon an anonymous tip, and nude photos of the historian’s minor foster daughter were found on his computer. Dmitriev maintained that he photographed the girl in order to monitor her healthy development and report it to the child protective services.
  • In April 2018, he was cleared of these charges, but two months later the decision was reversed, and the case was reopened for further investigation. At the same time, the historian was accused of a much graver charge: sexual assault against a minor (younger than 14; article 132, part 4, item b of the Criminal Code).
  • In July 2020, the court sentenced Dmitriev to three and a half years at a maximum security penal colony, even as the Prosecutor’s Office had requested 15 This, in essence, was an acknowledgement of his complete innocence. Considering the time spent in temporary detention, the historian was due to walk free in November of the same year. In September, however, after the sentence was challenged, the Supreme Court of Karelia increased his prison term to 13 years.

 

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