FSB infiltrator creates an ‘extremist’ group to jail teenagers critical of the Putin regime in Russia
It is not only in occupied Crimea that Russia’s FSB [security service], deploys its staff as provocateurs in politically-motivated prosecutions. Several young Russians, including two teenage girls, have been in custody since March 2018, and are facing long sentences for supposedly ‘organizing an extremist organization’ effectively created by a person working for the FSB. Although there are limits even in Russian legislation to what law enforcement bodies are allowed to do, this is not likely to cause a problem. The FSB will simply claim that ‘Ruslan D’ was not one of them, just a ‘volunteer’ who used his own money to rent premises, and to buy the printer needed to produce evidence against the young activists.
In the case material, Ruslan D. is identified only as Alexander Andreevich Konstantinov, who purportedly just turned up at the Investigative Committee in March to inform them of the ‘organization’. According to this narrative line, he had “understood their possible illegal activities” and decided to follow them.
His account suggests that this surveillance, which bears all the hallmarks of provocation, began in early November after ‘opposition-minded’ chats appeared on 6 November, 2017. This was a day after the crushing of an attempt by Viacheslav Maltsev, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and anti-corruption campaigner, to start a ‘revolution’. According to OVD.info, 448 people were detained that day.
On 10 November 2017, some of the young people on these chats met for the first of what were to be four meetings in a Moscow McDonalds, where they discussed politics as one of many subjects. ‘Ruslan D.’, as he called himself on the Telegram chats, seems to have come to the second such meeting, later in November. He seemed to be an opposition-minded Russian of around 30, writing words of criticism about the FSB, the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, etc. Mediazona reports that Ruslan D commented in December 2017 that for the FSB it’s unimportant who they catch. It’s the number of people arrested that is important for getting bonuses, higher rank and / or praise from the management. This is all true, however it later transpired that Ruslan D. was one of those doing the catching.
Police infiltrators are used in many countries, however the situation here was quite different as Ruslan D. was doing much more than just watching. Both Mediazona and the human rights portal OVD.info sounded the alarm shortly after the arrests of eight young men and two teenage girls on 16 March 2018. All ten were accused of creating an ‘extremist organization’ called «Новое величие»[‘Novoye Velichiye’ or ‘New Greatness’], although the material presented suggested that it was not the accused who had played the main role in creating Novoye Velichiye, but FSB or police agents.
According to Mediazona journalist Maxim Litavrin, there were only ever about 20 members of Novoye Velichiye who had not even held a single political protest by the time the law enforcement bodies pounced.
Litavrin found conflicting views among the defendants as to whether it was Ruslan D, or the person now charged with being the organization’s leader, 25-year-old Ruslan Kostylenkov, who initially proposed moving from meetings in McDonalds to creating a political movement. It was, however, definitely Ruslan D who found and paid the rent for the premises in Moscow where the group began meeting once a week.
It was at the first meeting in the new location on 9 December that the decision to form ‘Novoye Velichiye’ was taken. Litavrin says that several of the defendants have testified that on that same day ‘Ruslan D.’, who was taking the minutes of the meeting, suggested that Novoye Velichiye needed its own political program and offered to write such a charter. An ‘expert assessment’ of this charter detected “elements of propaganda of the ideology of violence” in this document.
The serious charges are essentially based on this document. The Investigative Committee claims that the twenty members of Novoye Velichiye wanted to violently overturn the constitutional order in Russia. For this reason, it asserts, they circulated their ideas and were planning to take part in popular uprisings and revolutions, seize power, create a temporary government and adopt a new Constitution.
Another suggestion put forward at that same meeting pertained to Novoye Velichiye’s organizational structure. Mediazona noted back on 30 March that the structure adopted, with subdivisions, seemed taken straight out of the Supreme Court 2011 resolution giving guidance on court practice regarding ‘extremism’ charges.
The Supreme Court had decreed that one of the identifying features of an ‘extremist group’ is the presence of structural subdivisions with each containing at least two people. Lo and behold, Novoye Velichiye received five such subdivisions, with the delineation of roles set out on paper also enabling the prosecution to treat all members of these meetings as ‘organizers of an extremist group’. ‘Organizers’ face a sentence of from 6 to 10 years under Article 282.1 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code, as opposed to ‘participants’ who would get a sentence of up to six years.
According to a person linked with Novoye Velichiye, it was the same ‘Ruslan D.’ who proposed such subdivisions.
Mediazona has perused the organization’s Telegram chat and notes that between the meetings in December 2017, ‘Ruslan D.’ tried to encourage the activists to extend their activities, by starting up their own ‘channel’ on YouTube, for example.
According to Ruslan D.’s report, several members of the chat went together to an abandoned site in the Moscow region for shooting practice using a rifle provided by an acquaintance of Kostylenkov, Rashid Rustamov, who is also under arrest although he was not a member of Novoye Velichiye and the rifle was legally registered in his name.
Ruslan D. claims that they also practised throwing and making Molotov cocktails. He also asserts that at the group’s first meeting in January 2018, they discussed the future purchase of a standardized military-style uniform, bats and knives, shields, helmets and firearms. It is not clear whether there is any independent confirmation of such a plan. The money these young people had gathered was only enough for a printer and that, the defendants recall, is because the person they knew as Ruslan D. paid a major amount.
Then just 17 years old, Anna Pavlikova told the group at one of the January meetings that she had ‘met’ a person who said he was from the ‘National Guard’ [Rosgvardia]. This formation, created by President Putin in April 2016, is notorious for involvement in crushing protests, but the supposed fighter presented himself on the Telegram chat as sharing the young people’s opposition views and offered to help buy ammunition for a nominal amount of money. This idea did receive support at the meeting, though came to nothing, which is not surprising since this was one of two ‘informers’ who also gave testimony to the FSB. The second such person was Maxim Rastorguyev, from the criminal investigation department, who infiltrated the group in February.
Even if there is evidence that some of the members practised throwing Molotov cocktails, this would not warrant the serious charges laid against two teenagers, Anna Pavlikova, who was still underage at the time, 19-year-old Maria Dubovik, and the young men (Ruslan Kostylenkov (25), who is claimed to have been the leader; Sergei Gavrilov (25); Petr Karamzin (39); Viacheslav Kriukov (19 when arrested); Dmitry Poletaev (29); Pavel Rebrovsky (31); Maxim Roshchin (38) and Rashid Rustamov (19). Six of the accused have been in custody since 15 March. Four others are under house arrest (Gavrilov; Rebrovsky; Roshchin and Rustamov. Aside from Rustamov, who was not active in Novoye Velichiye at all, but owned the rifle, it is likely that the others not held in detention were people who appeared because they saw the few leaflets the organization actually printed (one with a picture of Putin and others in power, with the words ‘Down with Putin’s band of crooks’)
Shortly after the searches and arrests carried out on 15 March, a video appeared with Kostylenkov shown looking very much the worse for wear and speaking as though he was reciting something learned by heart. He has since confirmed that he was beaten before giving this ‘confession’ and that the same men who beat him later turned up at the SIZO [remand prison] demanding he give up his lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina, and agree to admit to the charges. It is likely that the other people held in SIZO are also facing physical and / or psychological pressure to ‘confess’ and give testimony against the others.
The ‘confession’ that Kostylenkov was forced to learn by heart for the camera only confirms the critical role played by Ruslan D., since the ‘aim of the organization’ which Kostylenkov recites is word for word the same as that of the ‘political program’ of Novoye Velichiye from the case material (believed to have been written by Ruslan D.). He stated that “the aim of the organization was to reinstate order on the territory of the Russian Federation, the organization of a tribunal to try members of the ruling elite; the abolition of repressive laws, the Constitution …”.
Russia’s very criminalization of something broadly termed ‘extremism’ has been criticized by human rights groups and the international community. It is certainly difficult to imagine any criminal proceedings being initiated in democratic countries over the above-mentioned program statement from a group of 20 people who couldn’t put together enough money to buy a printer, without the ‘help’ of an FSB provocateur. Not to mention the fact that it was this provocateur who appears to have been responsible for the program, and indeed all the ‘incriminating’ evidence. Maxim Pashkov, the lawyer representing Maria Dubovik, is convinced that this case is one of provocation by a member of the security service. “Without that Ruslan D., no charter would have been written. They were not planning to do anything”, he insists.
All now face prison sentences of from six to ten years.