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New Russian offensive to deprive imprisoned Russian Historian of the Terror Yury Dmitriev of his lawyer

Halya Coynash

Yury Dmitriev returned the names of victims of Stalin’s Terror. Return him his freedom! Single-person picket, posted by Natalya Mavlevich

The Supreme Court in Karelia has upheld reprisals against a lawyer who rightly refused to take part in depriving Russian historian and political prisoner, Yury Dmitriev, of his lawyer.  Viktor Anufriev has represented Dmitriev for over four years and played a major role in demonstrating the lack of any grounds for the charges against the renowned historian and head of the Karelia branch of the Memorial Society.  The attempt to remove him, and the punishment meted out to a courageous lawyer are typical of the sordid methods used in this shocking persecution of a historian who unwaveringly exposed the darkest pages of Soviet history.

On 17 November 2020, judge Yekaterina Khomyakova from the Petrozavodsk City Court attempted to appoint a new lawyer for Dmitriev, replacing Anufriev.  Memorial explains that the relevant notification was sent to the Fleganov and Partners team of lawyers.  The Head of the firm, Alexander Fleganov  refused to cooperate, stating that providing an appointed lawyer in the case against Dmitriev would be a violation of the regulations regarding the participation of lawyers at the appointment of a court.

Khomyakova reacted by sending a separate court ruling to the Petrozavodsk Chamber of Bar Lawyers, claiming that the refusal to provide a lawyer had been ‘an infringement’.  This, it should be stressed, is a serious move, which could result in a lawyer losing his licence – in this case for acting in full accordance with his professional duties.  Fleganov lodged an appeal against the separate ruling.  It was this appeal that the Karelia Supreme Court predictably rejected on 25 January 2021.  The judge, Oleg Gudkov, also rejected the application for information as to whether Anufriev and the lawyer earlier foisted on Dmitriev had been properly informed of Khomyakova’s move to replace them.

These are by no means the first violations of Dmitriev’s right to a fair trial, including the right to defence lawyers whom he trusts.  In September 2020, the Karelia Supreme Court refused to postpone the hearing into appeals brought both by the Russian prosecutor and the defence against the verdict and sentence passed by the Petrozavodsk City Court on 22 July 2020.  Anufriev was on sick leave. and it would have been entirely appropriate to delay the hearing until he was better. Instead, presiding judge Alla Rats refused to put off the hearing and ignored Dmitriev’s formal rejection of the state-appointed lawyer who was being foisted on him.  She then gave this lawyer, Artem Cherkasov, only three days to familiarize himself with a case stretching back almost four years.  Memorial reported on the eve of the hearing that there was nothing to indicate that Cherkasov had even visited Dmitriev in SIZO [the remand prison]. 

The ruling on 25 January, essentially upholding a new attempt to deprive Dmitriev of the lawyer whom he chose and who knows the case, is especially shocking since the cassation appeal now awaiting examination almost certainly covers gross violations of Dmitriev’s right of defence during the last 29 September ruling which overturned two acquittals and added almost 10 years to Dmitriev’s sentence., Not only did judge Rats not wait until Anufriev was well, and did not give the court-appointed lawyer time to properly prepare, but Dmitriev was also essentially denied the right to defend himself.  The pandemic was used as an excuse for not bringing him to the court and having to take part in the proceedings by a very inadequate video link.  He could not hear around half of what was said in court, yet when he asked for the words to be repeated, the judge threatened to remove him from the hearing.

The Karelia Supreme Court rejected the cassation appeal twice, but without any legitimate grounds, and it has now been accepted, and will be heard at the Third Cassation Court in St. Petersburg.  According to the defence, this is a cassation against all previous rulings.

Dmitriev is about to turn 65 and has been imprisoned with only very short breaks since 13 December 2016 although he has twice been acquitted on the charges then brought against him.

He was accused of‘preparing pornography involving a minor’ (Article 242.2 of Russia’s criminal code) and ‘depraved actions with respect to a child under the age of 11’ (Article 135).  The charges were clearly intended to discredit both Dmitriev and Memorial, and it was clear within weeks of his arrest, that , but pertained solely to a folder filed on his computer, and never ‘circulated’, which contained 114 photos of his foster daughter, Natasha.  Although there is a difference in Russia between full adoption, and this situation where Natasha was a “приёмная дочь” [‘foster daughter’], the distinction was essentially about legal status and the role played by the social services, since she was certainly intended to permanently join Dmitriev’s family, including his two adult children and his grandchildren.

Natasha had been very thin and in poor health at three and a half, when Dmitriev and his former wife took her from the children’s home where she had been left by her grandmother.  The authorities had themselves advised him to monitor her development, which is exactly what Dmitriev did in the photos safely stored away on his computer, recording the little girl’s height and weight.  She was photographed naked, with this also protecting her and him from any attempts by the authorities to claim ill-treatment, as an excuse for taking her away from the family. 

The photos were initially considered by a Karelian art historian, Sergei Sergeyevv, to be ‘pornographic’  The court then asked for an official expert assessment, with this task given to the so-called Centre for Socio-Cultural Expert Assessments ["Центр социокультурных экспертиз"].  This body is notorious also for its involvement in the trial of the Pussy Riot punk group and in the ruling prohibiting the Jehovah’s Witnesses as ‘extremist’.  The Centre reportedly did not have a licence for such ‘expert assessments’, but this did not stop it from issuing an assessment asserting that nine of the large number of photos were ‘pornographic’.

It was this assessment, given by individuals with no particular competence and no licence to make such assessments, that formed the basis of the charges against Dmitriev.  The assessment was rejected in court by Dr Lev Shcheglov, the President of the National Institute of Sexology, as well as two other specialists who saw nothing pornographic in the photos and who confirmed that it was common practice in Russia to take photographs for such medical purposes. 

First acquittal

On 5 April 2018, the Petrozavodsk Court under Judge Marina Nosova acquitted Dmitriev of the ‘child pornography’ and ‘depraved acts’ charges.  She found him guilty of the third charge that had almost been forgotten – of possession of a firearm, in connection with a rifle barrel which he had found and taken inside so that young kids did not pick it up.  This enabled Nosova to not hand down a total acquittal which is essentially unheard of in Russia, especially in political cases, and pass a 2.5 year sentence (which only slightly exceeded the time that Dmitriev had already spent in custody). 

This was challenged by the prosecutor Yelena Askerova, who had demanded a shocking 9-year sentence.  On 13 June 2018, the acquittal was revoked by the Karelia High Court, and the case sent back for ‘re-trial’ under a different judge. The sole arguments provided during the appeal hearing were objections from Natasha’s grandmother, who had not seen her since she left her in the children’s home.  There were also excerpts from questioning of the child after the acquittal, and thus 15 months after she was taken from the only family she had ever known.  This was supposed to demonstrate a disturbed psychological state (‘suicidal moments’).

There was no suggestion then of any allegations of sexual abuse, nor had there ever been. 

On 27 June 2018, Dmitriev was re-arrested, with Russia’s Investigative Committee now charging him with ‘acts of a sexual nature’, also against his adopted daughter, whom he had not seen since his arrest in December 2016.  

Second Acquittals

On 22 July 2020, judge Alexander Merkov from the Petrozavodsk City Court acquitted Dmitriev for the second time of the ‘child pornography’ charge and that of ‘depraved acts’, while acquitting him for the first time of the possession of firearms charge. 

By this stage, Dmitriev had been in custody for almost three and a half years.  This is almost certainly relevant since Merkov did convict Dmitriev of the new charge that appeared after his first acquittal, but only sentenced him to three and a half years’ imprisonment.  This was significantly less than the sentence demanded, and as close to an acquittal as a judge in Russia is likely to risk in such a high-profile case.

Horrific increase in sentence

It was the second acquittals that the Karelia High Court overturned on 29 September, with judge Rats also increasing the sentence to 13 years in a harsh regime penal colony, something that the 64-year-old Dmitriev would be unlikely to survive.  To reiterate, this was in the absence of Dmitriev’s lawyer and with Dmitriev himself prevented from even hearing the proceedings.

The ruling was condemned, among others, by Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and by the European Union.  The latter considers, it wrote, that “Mr Dmitriev’s prosecution was triggered by his human rights work and his research on political repression in the Soviet period. <> This is yet another blatant example of unjustified and unacceptable legal pressure on human rights defenders in violation of international commitments.”   On 10 December 2020, Dmitriev also became one of the 15 laureates of the prestigious Franco-German Prize for Human Rights for 2020. 

It is thanks to Dmitriev and his colleagues at Memorial that thousands of Russians, Ukrainians and representatives of other nationalities learned the fate of their parents or grandparents, executed and buried in mass graves at the Sandarmokh Clearing in Karelia  Among them were 1,111 prisoners of the Solovki Labour Camp executed in several nights of killing from 27 October to 4 November 1937, including 289 Ukrainian writers, playwrights, scientists and other members of the intelligentsia. 

The current regime’s attempts to rewrite history, including through attempts to claim that the near nine thousand victims of the Terror were, in fact, Soviet soldiers killed by the Finnish army, have more or less coincided with the persecution of Yury Dmitriev and another Karelian historian, Sergei Koltyrin, who died on 2 April 2020 in Russian captivity.   

Details here: Model concentration camp deployed in Russia for Putin regime’s rewriting of history


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