20 years under Putin: a timeline

Ten years ago, at the age of 39, Vasily Aleksanyan, a Yukos lawyer, left this world; his tragic fate haunts many people to this day. For the cold-blooded torture he was subjected to while in detention is impossible to erase from one’s memory.

 

February 1, 2008: Vasily Aleksanyan at the court. Photo: Anastasia Dergacheva | Novaya Gazeta

 

From IMR: This text was first released on the website of Novaya Gazeta on October 3, 2021. Published here with the author’s permission.

 

An employee of the legal administration of the oil company, as well as an attorney to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev, and others involved in the Yukos affair, Vasily Aleksanyan was arrested and detained in the spring of 2006, shortly after assuming the position of  Yukos executive vice president and disclosing plans to save the company from annihilation. His detention also occurred within the framework of the Yukos affair, in which the company was charged with “theft and legalization of illegally obtained financial resources” and their subsequent laundering. While held in the Matrosskaya Tishina detention facility in Moscow, Aleksanyan was diagnosed with several grievous illnesses: HIV, tuberculosis, and cancer of the lymphatic nodes. Additionally, he began to lose his sight. According to the report from the forensic medical examination conducted shortly after his arrest, the patient could be detained on condition that he receive antiretroviral therapy (ART), which all HIV-positive patients are entitled to. He was also entitled to chemotherapy. However, when it came to medical care—as later confirmed by the European Court for Human Rights in its judgment (case №46468, Aleksanyan v. Russia, violation of Article 3 of the International Convention “Prohibition of Torture”)—the Yukos lawyer was routinely denied it.

As Aleksanyan himself repeatedly put it, the investigators blackmailed him into a “deal”—in exchange for medical treatment and release from custody, he would have to testify against former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and former CEO of Menatep Bank Platon Lebedev. Aleksanyan refused and did not plead guilty.

Excerpt from his public statement, given in December 2007 from the detention facility through his attorneys:

“As the result of my unlawful pretrial detention that has lasted for nearly two years, I, being practically blind, have been brought to a critical near-death condition by the conscious, well-planned joint actions of prosecutors, investigators, judges, and detention facility medical staff. All this time the attempts to make me a false witness and extract incriminating testimony that would condemn other Yukos executives in exchange for changing my pre-trial restrictions based on health conditions, that is, virtually in exchange for my own life, were ongoing. This is incomprehensible in the 21st century, yet in reality it goes on behind a curtain of silence and lies.”  

The Yukos lawyer was detained for nearly two years without medical assistance, by which point his illnesses, developing at a catastrophic speed, had reached a terminal stage. During one of the trials, which considered his continued pre-trial restrictions (he was remanded, as always), Aleksanyan noted:

“I would like to forget this nightmare. This is hell, and normal people come here to ‘work’ and do evil. They don’t even have any feelings about this. We should have denied these people [judges and investigators] the opportunity to do evil before it was too late...”  

The situation with the gravely ill Aleksanyan eventually became known to the general public, as well as the European Court for Human Rights, which issued several urgent requests under Rule 39 of the Rules of Court (this rule is always applied if there is an imminent threat to the applicant’s life in their home country). Strasbourg repeatedly demanded that the lawyer be instantly released and hospitalized in a specialized civic clinic. The Moscow officials ignored the Court’s requests. Thanks to a strong support and solidarity campaign, in early 2008 Vasily was at least transferred to a civic hospital, where, however, he remained shackled to his bed. From there he was transferred to the Hematology Center, where doctors, directed by Andrey Vorobyov, tried to compensate for the lost years of treatment. At the end of 2008, in anticipation of the verdict of the European Court for Human Rights (on the main complaint against the Russian authorities), the Moscow City Court released Aleksanyan from detention on an unprecedentedly large bail of 50 million rubles. A fundraising campaign was launched online.

Two and a half years after his release, on October 3, 2011, Vasily died in his Moscow home, surrounded by family and friends. It was two months before his 40th birthday.

On December 15, 2021, Vasily Aleksanyan would have turned 50.

 

*** 

Below are the translated excerpts from Vera Chelischyeva’s book How I was murdered. The story of Yukos lawyer Vasily Aleksanyan, released in 2020 by Novaya Gazeta’s publishing house.

 

Angels, black Volgas, and tea with Voynovich

“Aleksanyan was first brought into my office for a consultation, handcuffed and escorted by two guards,” Vorobyov recalls. “I shook hands with everyone. Aleksanyan’s physical examamination revealed an engorged spleen. After a small additional examination, it was decided to transfer him from Hospital No. 60 to our Hematology Center for spleen removal surgery. Patients like him are at a risk of lymph node cancer that metastasizes to the spleen. We conducted the surgery on Aleksanyan in the Hematology Center. I cannot quite recall whether the morphologists ended up discovering a lymph node sarcoma, but the diagnosis provided, standing to appeal, for a change of pre-trial restraint measures: eventually, the handcuffs and shackles were swapped for a bail of 50 million rubles. Some time later, a tall, handsome, stately young man walked into my office; such was the transformation of the recently detained. He came to wish me a happy New Year, 2009…”

However, there is still a year left until his release. And in the meanwhile, in February 2008, he begins antiretroviral therapy (ART) under the supervision of doctors. On the next day he suddenly feels drastically worse: the side effects are kicking in. The doctors hook him up to an intravenous line (IV) and urgently brainstorm what is to be done. Eventually, they attempt a different type of ART. However, his body cannot withstand it either, Aleksanyan is experiencing a strong allergic reaction and feels weak. That makes starting the four-month course of chemotherapy impossible, and Vasily needs it because of lymph node cancer.

Within the same period, he is additionally diagnosed with esophagus ulcers.

March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November… Aleksanyan is transferred back and forth between Hospital No. 60 and the Hematology Center. The doctors manage to keep him alive. 

And in the meanwhile, the courts keep routinely extending his detainment—without him present. They do not dare to bring Aleksanyan in court. They do not even dare to show him on live TV from his hospital bed. The footage the world has already seen is enough.

However, in spite of everything—shackles, handcuffs, grated windows, 24-hour supervision, and other humiliations—the year 2008 brought incredible luck to Aleksanyan. It is almost as if the forces of evil had been replaced by the forces of good. And besides medical angels, uncredited mass media angels also helped him along the way—and it seems he did not even realize it.

While he was hooked up to an IV and subjected to various chemistries and therapies, two young and very active journalists were driving all over Moscow. Tikhon Dzyadko and Saken Aymurzayev, then employed at the radio station Echo Moskvy, began collecting personal guarantees for Aleksanyan, whom they did not know personally; all of this was done on their own initiative, with no assignment from the editors’ room. The guarantees came from celebrities, highly respected people. Some told them to get lost, some ruminated, some instantly agreed. 

And now, as I type this very sentence, the written personal guarantees sent by the latter to court lie before me. Some of those bailed, like Aleksanyan, are no longer alive.

“I, Voynovich Vladimir Nikolayevich...,” “I, Kozakov Mikhail Mikhailovich…,” “I, Churikova Inna Mikhailovna…,” “I, Simonov Andrey Kirillovich…,” “I, Yasin Yevgeny Grigorievich…,” “I, Gerber Alla Yefremovna…,” “I, Akhedjakova Liya Medjidovna…,” “I, Chkhartishvili Grigory Shalvovich…”

They all vouched that “Aleksanyan Vasily Georgievich will be present in court on the appointed date,” and that “he will not obstruct the criminal proceedings.” 

“I am aware of the nature of the charges and of the penalty faced by the bailed party in case of improper fulfillment of his duties in the form of a monetary fine amounting to a hundred minimal counts of his salary, in the order established by Article 118 of the Criminal Procedural Code of the Russian Federation.”  

Tikhon Dzyadko recalls:

“While Saken and I were calling ‘celebrities,’ we understood, to quite a large degree, what a person with a conscience looks like—and the opposite, too. 

“Here it is, ‘the price of refusal’, accompanied by the most outlandish motivation. Many prominent ‘cultural workers’ and ‘society figures’ straight out refused. Some refused after a two-minute chat, some—after 30 minutes of conversation. ‘How do I know where he got AIDS from?’ ‘There are plenty of other sick people in prison.’ ‘Some of my projects may be compromised by my agreement.’

“However, many were happy to sign the personal guarantee. There was not much time left, the court hearing was approaching fast, and we wanted to provide the attorneys with as many guarantees as we possibly could. Saken and I almost viewed it a sort of adventure: driving through Moscow we kept looking out for Black Volgas*, being almost sure they were close by; we had tea at Vladimir Voynovich’s place, and in the home of Inna Churikova we saw her sign for herself and for Liya Akhedzhakova, the latter providing her signature details over the phone (‘Liya, what does your D look like—a little house or a loop?’). This also seemed like an adventure because we were practically sure that our enterprise was bound for success,” (see footnote 1). 

Writer Boris Akunin and actor Igor Yasulovich will personally show up to the hearing at the Moscow City Court, where Aleksanyan’s detention will be challenged. 

Judge Naydenov will award the pile of personal guarantees handed to him one squeamish glance, attach them to the case, and… leave Aleksanyan in the detention facility. 

Prosecuting attorney Vlasov will fleetingly refer to the appearance of Akunin and Yasulovich as “some sort of publicity stunt.”

 

The demise of Madame Milinchuk’s career

The beginning of spring 2008 turned out to be as chaotic as December 2007 for the office of Veronica Milinchuk, Russian Federation’s representative to the European Court of Human Rights, who was practically unreachable for Vasily and his defense team during their most difficult moments. Milinchuk attempted to prevent a judgement not favorable to Russia on the main complaint of the dying Yukos vice president in the “Aleksanyan v. Russia” case, which heard testimony on torture.

In order to somehow divert the avalanche of questions posed by the Strasbourg court, Milinchuk accused Aleksanyan of “disgraceful behavior.”

“The claimant’s continuous use of offensive or provocative statements can be viewed as an abuse of his right to freedom of opinion,” (see footnote 2) is what Milinchuk wrote in response to Strasbourg’s questions as to why Aleksanyan was kept on a chain while hospitalized, why was he not permitted to shower, why the single window in his hospital was room grated up, and why Madame Milinchuk herself avoided the defense team when they demanded compliance with the European Court’s request on the hospitalization of Aleksanyan. 

“The claimant’s statements, without a doubt, contain serious accusations against the Russian Federation authorities, as well as the authorized representative of the Russian Federation in the European Court of Human Rights.” 

“The Russian Federation government authorities have done everything necessary to secure the fulfillment of the claimant’s right to life.”   

“The claimant’s assertion that the prison cells were contaminated with Staphylococci bacteria is outrageous. It is known that Staphylococci can be revealed only via molecular research, and it would be impossible for the claimant to conduct such research.”

“The Russian Federation state authorities once again ask the Court to take into account the behavior of the claimant during its consideration of the case at hand.”

“The Russian Federation state authorities respect the right of the claimant to defend himself in all possible ways, but do not grant him the right to slander the government authorities and their respective institutions.”   

“The Russian Federation state authorities highlight that the investigative bodies and the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation were aware that the claimant was a part of an organized group created for achieving specific goals by means of political pressure, bribery, and other unlawful methods. In this regard, the detainment and isolation of the claimant were clearly mandatory.”  

“The prison hospital that the claimant was held in meets all international medical standards.” 

A few months after these lines were written, in July 2008, Milinchuk will be removed from the position of authorized representative of the Russian Federation in the European Court of Human Rights by presidential order, having served only a year and a half. Rumor has it, she was dismissed specifically due to her failure to resolve the Yukos issue in Strasbourg and successfully deal with the complaints filed by the company, its employees, and shareholders. 

Back in time, Milinchuk was recommended to Putin by Vladimir Ustinov, a former prosecutor general and later justice minister. In the late 1990s, it was Ustinov who brought Milinchuk from her Kuban home to Moscow. In the ProsecutorGeneral’s Office, her career developed at a mind-boggling rate, even by today’s standards. She was only in her early thirties, but had already worked in executive positions in the international law department of the Prosecutor General’s Office and was even a deputy director in some kind of an internally created research institute that dealt with “issues of strengthening legality and legal order.” At 38 years of age, she will become Russia’s authorized representative in the European Court of Human Rights, and, at the same time, deputy justice minister,, i.e., the deputy of Ustinov.

By Putin’s order, in her position as the authorized representative, Milinchuk was entitled to special work conditions—a high ministry-level salary and generous social benefits. All that was done in anticipation of the international court hearings on the complaints of Yukos employees and shareholders, which were bound to be challenging for Russia.

The Kremlin hoped that with Milinchuk’s help it would be able to convince the European Court of the criminal nature of the Yukos affair and, consequentially, the impracticality of considering the complaints filed by the company and its employees. However, that did not work out. If the Strasbourg court decided to handle the case of Aleksanyan, or the case of Yukos shareholders, it was set on handling them no matter who curated these cases in Russia: Pavel Laptev (Milinchuk’s predecessor in the position of authorized representative at the European Court of Human Rights), Milinchuk herself, or her replacement Georgy Matyushkin (see footnote 3). 

Milinchuk did not live up to the expectations at all: the year and a half that she held the position (2007-2008, the peak of Aleksanyan’s abuse in detention) turned out to be disastrous for Russia: Moscow lost too many prominent cases in the Court, first and foremost, pertaining to the Yukos affair. The authorities decided not to risk any further cases, especially considering that Strasbourg was about to announce several additional Yukos complaints. Milinchuk was dismissed, but assigned to the position of aide to the authorized representative of the president in the Southern Federal District. The position of authorized representative was filled by… Vladimir Ustinov. Milinchuk will also be awarded the rank of counselor of state, third class. Not much has been heard about her since. 

And she could have had a great career as an international lawyer; that is, if she had chosen to practice real law rather than write replies to Strasbourg, and selected a mentor different than Ustinov—such as, for example, Professors [Elena] Lukyanova or [Tamara] Morshchakova**.

Well, to each their own.

 

Torture, as was said

On December 22, 2008, the European Court issued its verdict on Claim №46468 “Aleksanyan v. Russia” and recognized that the authorities of the Russian Federation had violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights “Prohibition of Torture,” which states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” 

“The authorities of the country,” noted the Court in its verdict, “have not shown sufficient care for the health of the claimant in order to provide for treatment that would not violate Article 3 of the Convention (Prohibition of Torture) <...> This undermined his dignity and caused him suffering that goes beyond the bounds of what is unavoidably associated with prison detainment and illness, <...>  which constitutes inhumane and degrading treatment.”

All of Milinchuk’s efforts went flying out of the window. This was Moscow’s capital loss in Strasbourg. Shortly before this verdict will be issued, as if one-upping it, the authorities will undertake a cynical step. For the release of Aleksanyan, the Moscow City Court will post bail that is both unprecedented and never previously practiced by the Russian courts: 50 million rubles. At that time, it equated to roughly 1.4 million euros.

A wave of outrage swelled amongst all who sympathized with Aleksanyan and were watching his story unfold; a public fundraising campaign followed. Everybody was transferring money to the bail account—from those who knew Aleksanyan personally (friends, former colleagues, acquaintances) to those who’d never met him, young and old: high and mid-level entrepreneurs, senior citizens, university students, journalists, writers, actors…

On December 15, 2008, on his birthday, while still in custody and on a hospital bed, having found out about this involvement in his fate, Aleksanyan makes the following statement through his attorneys: 

“I thank everyone who is supporting me in these difficult times. I will not betray your faith in me, like I have not betrayed anything or anyone else before.”

Through collective effort, the necessary sum will be posted. On December 30, 2008, the guards will be removed from Aleksanyan’s hospital room, and on the night of New Year’s Eve, he will be sent home.

And then, when the criminal proceedings are stopped due to the statute of limitations, and the court reimburses the money, Aleksanyan will attempt to return it to those who participated in the fundraising campaign. He even called some participants, including Boris Akunin, and asked he should do: send the money back to them or donate it to charity?

After Vasily’s death, his father will find several money transfer receipts in his desk drawer—donations for the treatment of sick children…

 

Footnotes:

(1) Tikhon Dzyadko, “The price of mercy.” Bolshoi Gorod, October 4, 2011.

(2) From case materials.

(3) Since spring 2017, Mikhail Galprerin holds the position of authorized representative of the Russian Federation at the European Court of Human Rights.

* Black Volgas are Russian cars infamously associated with the NKVD and KGB

** Elena Lukyanova and Tamara Morshchakova are famous Russian legal scholars and professors. Tamara Morstchakova also served as a judge in the Russian Constitutional Court.

 

You can read the electronic version of “How I was murdered” via this link (available in Russian). The print version can be purchased from the Novaya Gazeta store.

 

Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova. 

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