Real prison sentences passed on young Putin critics after FSB provocateur fabricates an ‘extremist group’
A Russian court has ignored overwhelming evidence that the sole organizer of the so-called ‘Novoye Velichiye’ or ‘New Greatness’ ‘extremist organization’, alleging planning to violently overthrow the regime, was an FSB infiltrator and has sentenced three young men to long prison sentences and handed down a further four suspended sentences. Although there have been far worse sentences, including against Ukrainian political prisoners in occupied Crimea, this case stands out for the chilling cynicism with which FSB agents set about fabricating a criminal case against young people who were united only by their critical attitude to President Vladimir Putin and a wish to chat about politics and life on Telegram.
The case is distinguished also by the likely effect of public outrage as the details emerged of the fabrication. While the convictions and the three real sentences are shocking, the scale of the FSB ‘operation’ in March 2018 and initial detention of 10 young people suggest that eight young men and two very young women were supposed to get long prison sentences as a warning to others. That more grandiose plan has not happened.
In the Lyublinsky District Court in Moscow on 6 August, judge Alexander Maslov found all the seven young people on trial guilty of ‘organizing the activities of an extremist organization’ (Article 282.2 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code). The sentences were, with only minor exceptions, those demanded by the prosecutor on 14 July.
Three of the four men held in custody since 15 March 2018 were sentenced to real terms of imprisonment in medium security prison colonies:
Ruslan Kostylenkov (b. 15.03.1993) – 7 years;
Pyotr Karamzin (b. 23.04.1986) – 6.5 years;
Vyacheslav Kryukov (30.05.1998) – 6 years.
Dmitry Poletayaev (18.11.1988) had also been in detention from 15 March 2018, however received a 6 year suspended sentence and was seemingly released in the courtroom.
The other three defendants were initially also in detention, however the two young women (Anna Pavlikova, who turned 18 in prison soon after her arrest) and 19-year-old Maria Dubovyk were transferred to house arrest on 16 August 2016. Pavlikova received a 4-year suspended sentence; Dubovyk – 6 years, suspended.
The oldest of the defendants, Maxim Roshchin (21.06.1979) seems to have been under house arrest since 15 March 2018. He was given a 6-year suspended sentence.
Svetlana Sidorkina, Kostylenkov’s lawyer, wrote after the verdicts that she gathered judge Maslov had felt unable to give all ‘Novoye Velichiye’ defendants a suspended sentence as that would be equivalent to an acquittal. This was a middle road, but one that was very unjust. This was an outrageous case and, as a huge number of Russian writers, actors and other public figures wrote on the eve of the verdict, there really was no excuse for anything but acquittals.
As reported, one of the ten people arrested Sergei Gavrilov fled from Russia, while under house arrest, sought and was recently granted political asylum in Ukraine.
Pavel Rebrovsky was originally sentenced to 2.5 years on lesser charges, after he agreed to collaborate with the investigators. He says that he was offered a suspended sentence, although it is unlikely that this was the only reason that he unexpectedly changed his testimony when brought into the trial of the above-mentioned defendants in August 2019 as a ‘prosecution witness’. Instead of telling the lies demanded of him, he stated clearly that he had given false testimony under pressure, and that the real ‘organizer’ of the supposedly extremist organization ‘Novoye Velichiye’ had been the FSB infiltrator. His case was sent for retrial.
The tenth person, Rustam Rustamov, agreed to admit to the charges and received a two-year suspended sentence.
At least 100 people gathered outside the court on Thursday awaiting the verdict, which Maslov took some time reading out. The judge claimed that the defendants’ guilt was confirmed by the written material of the case and witnesses and rejected the position of the defence that the case had been built on a police (or FSB) provocation. Since the ‘witnesses’ in this case were mainly the chief provocateur ‘Ruslan D’; a former Centre for Countering Extremism informer Olga Pshenichnikova and three other police infiltrators – Maxim Rastorguev; Yuri Ispantsev and Rustam Kashapov, it is unsurprising that they should have denied the defence’s accusations. Maslov also cited the ‘confession’ initially given by Rebrovsky even though the latter had retracted it in court and said that it had been given under pressure. Since some of the men on trial have described the torture they were subjected to, it seems likely that Rebrovsky was not just referring to verbal pressure.
Russian ‘investigators’ like getting ‘confessions’ in politically-motivated cases as it removes the need to fabricate ‘evidence’. It has been apparent from all cases involving Ukrainian political prisoners that those who are most steadfast in refusing to admit to crimes they never committed get sentences that are much higher than those who succumb to pressure. In the ‘Novoye Velichiye’ case, however, the ‘confessions’ originally obtained from Rebrovsky, as well as from Rustamov, were needed to try to minimize the role of the believed FSB infiltrator – Ruslan D or Ruslan Danilov, who initially appeared in the indictment under the name Alexander Konstantinov, but who seems to be a Moldovan citizen called Rodion Zelinsky.
Rebrovsky had earlier signed testimony saying that Ruslan D was not an FSB employee and had not taken an active part in the supposed movement. He had earlier claimed instead that the leaders of the ‘organization’ had been the two teenage girls –Pavlikova and Dubovik, as well as Kostylenkov.
This Rebrovsky retracted in court, despite being in custody and therefore vulnerable to retaliatory measures from the FSB or penal system. Rebrovsky now stated, confirming essentially what the others said, that all had been passive in comparison with Ruslan D. The latter had been like “the grey cardinal of the organization” who had constantly tried to push various radical actions.
Rebrovsky confirmed that it was Ruslan D. who had proposed and pushed through all the elements set out in a Supreme Court decision giving guidelines for trials on ‘extremism’ charges. It was Ruslan D. who not only initiated, but also rented the premises that this ‘group’ used for the extremely small number of meetings they held. It was he who proposed buying a printer, despite the lack of any real need, and who proposed and drew up a group ‘charter’. All the defendants confirm that it was Ruslan D. who proposed creating structural subdivisions with individuals responsible for a particular area. Such delineation, according to the Supreme Court document, made it possible for the prosecution to treat all members of these meetings as ‘organizers of an extremist group’, with this usually carrying a much longer sentence (6 – 10 years’ imprisonment).
It was also Ruslan D. who insisted that their group needed a name, and came up with the somewhat ridiculous ‘Novoye Velichiye’ [‘New Majesty / Greatness’].
Despite all such efforts by the infiltrator, everything about this ‘group’, which never mustered more than 20 people was extremely modest. Group members took part in two major demonstrations – on 28 January 2018 in support of fair elections and a Nemtsov rally (presumably on the anniversary of implacable Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov’s assassination close to the Kremlin on 27 February 2017). They had also circulated entirely innocuous flyers, saying: “We’re not cattle – boycott the elections’ and “They steal, and you sit and believe them”.
Some of the members of the chat took part in a few visits to an abandoned site in the Moscow region where they took part in shooting practice, using the hunting rifle legally owned by Rustamov (who, according to the Memorial Human Rights Centre, was not actually part of the Telegram chat group). Ruslan D. claimed that they had also practised throwing and making Molotov cocktails. He also asserted that at the group’s first meeting in January 2018, they had discussed the future purchase of a standardized military-style uniform, bats and knives, shields, helmets and firearms. All of this seems very unlikely, especially since the ‘group’s’ sole purchase was a printer, and that only because the person that the members of the chat knew as Ruslan D paid a major part of the cost. This was also denied in court by Rebrovsky who said that the only proposals to obtain weapons and protective gear had come from Ruslan D.
Rebrovsky also stated that Danilov had given instructions to Kostylenkov, whom the prosecution was claiming to be the main organizer of ‘Novoye Velichiye’.
Ruslan D. also tried to encourage the young ‘chatters’ to extend their activities, by starting up their own ‘channel’ on YouTube, for example, and persuaded Pavlkova, who had been planning to leave, to remain – to be there for the armed searches, arrests and detention on 15 March 2018.
Nine of the ten defendants were added to Russia’s notorious ‘List of Terrorists and Extremists’ in June 2019. All have been recognized as political prisoners by the Memorial Human Rights Centre who concluded, after studying the case material, that the “civic organization Novoye Velichiye had essentially been created by the law enforcement agencies. It was the latter that had given it its extremist features. <> The security service had deliberately put together the Charter and program in such as way as to correspond to the elements of an extremist organization”.
The trial had continued since 27 May 2019. It was only during the recent debate that the prosecutor withdrew the second charge (under Article 282.2 § 2 – involvement in an extremist organization), leaving all of them claimed to have ‘organized’ an extremist organization – line by line, according to the Supreme Court guidelines. Effectively all the defendants, except the one person who received a short suspended sentence for his testimony, confirmed that it was ‘Ruslan D’ who had initiated and organized every element which made a collection of people chatting on Telegram into an ‘organization’.