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Russia reverts to worst Soviet times in reprisal sentence against historian of the Terror Yury Dmitriev

Halya Coynash

Yury Dmitriev Photo from

A Russian cassation court has ignored glaring infringements of the right to a fair trial and upheld a 13-year sentence against world-renowned historian and head of the Karelia Memorial Society, Yury Dmitriev.  This is a virtual death sentence, given the 65-year-old’s age and state of health, and may not be all since a third attempt to get a conviction on the charges first used to imprison him, following an unprecedented two acquittals, will now go ahead.  The political nature of this case has been clear since Dmitriev’s arrest in December 2016, and was effectively confirmed by the presence in the court building of consuls from five EU member-states (Germany; Poland; the Czech Republic; Lithuania; Estonia and Latvia). 

There is one more avenue before this case ends up before the European Court of Human Rights and Dmitriev’s lawyer, Viktor Anufriev has confirmed that an appeal will be lodged with the Russian Supreme Court.  “Considering both the information background after the second acquittal, when the foreign ministry gathered together representatives of the EU and ambassadors, and what was shown on federal television channels, this was basically pressure on the court.”   The prosecution used such measures, Anufriev adds, and at federal level, to try to prove that the extraordinary 10-year increase in sentence, were justified, whereas the charges were totally baseless and fabricated.

Before considering the charges, which have received widespread condemnation, both in Russia and from the international community, it is worth pointing out the egregious violations that the Third Cassation Court in St. Petersburg, under presiding judge Sergei Zhernov, saw no need to take into account.

On 29 September 2020, the Supreme Court of Karelia, under presiding judge Alla Rats, overturned  Dmitriev’s second acquittal on the original charge.  It also increased the sentence passed on him over a charge laid only after the first acquittal, from 3.5 years (almost the full period that he had spent in detention) to 13 years in a harsh regime penal colony.  

Two of the three judges involved in this ruling, including Rats, had taken place in previous proceedings in Dmitriev’s case, passing rulings against him. It was thus clear that these judges should have withdrawn themselves.  They did not, and the application submitted by the defence for their withdrawal, was rejected.

A public appeal, signed by a huge number of prominent cultural figures, human rights activists and others, calling for the appeal hearing to be taken away from the Karelia Supreme Court was also disregarded, despite serious grounds for doubting that this court would provide an impartial hearing. 

The most shocking violation was, undoubtedly, the fact that the Supreme Court effectively stripped Dmitriev of his right to defence.  Anufriev was on sick leave, and had applied in plenty of time for the hearing to be adjourned.   A mere week was given, which was not enough for the quarantine period to have ended.  The court instead ignored objections from Dmitriev and appointed a lawyer to replace Anufriev.  Artem Cherkasov was given a mere three days to acquaint himself with the 19 volumes of the ‘case’, and as of the eve of the hearing, had not even met with Dmitriev.

Dmitriev himself was also unable to properly defend himself as he was ‘present’ only by a shoddy video link with the prison [SIZO] where he is heard.  The sound quality was so poor that he could not hear around half of what was said, yet when he asked for things to be repeated, Rats threatened to remove him from his own hearing.  Dmitriev’s request to be present in person was also rejected. 

There has since been an attempt by the Petrozavodsk City Court to remove Anufriev from the case and forcibly appoint a new ‘lawyer’.  The punishment meted out by judge Yekaterina Khomyakova against the lawyer who rightly refused to have any part in this was upheld on 25 January 2021 by the same Karelia Supreme Court.  Russia’s third attempt to convict Dmitriev on the original charge is, most ominously, now due to be heard by this same ‘judge’ Khomyakova.  


Dmitriev was arrested on 13 December 2016 and spent the next 13 months in custody, charged with ‘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). 

There were numerous echoes from Soviet times in this case from the outset with the charges purportedly based on an anonymous denunciation and the use of criminal, rather than obviously politically-motivated charges.  Within three weeks of his arrest, a major media effort was underway, aimed at sullying both Dmitriev’s reputation and that of the Memorial Society. 

The calculation was clearly that people would be so revolted by the words ‘child pornography’ that they would probe no further.  In fact, the charges pertained solely to a folder filed on Dmitriev’s computer, and never ‘circulated’, which contained 114 photos of his foster daughter, Natasha.  The difference in Russia between full adoption, and this situation, where Natasha was formally “приёмная дочь” [‘foster daughter’] ,was essentially about legal status and the role played by the social services.  As far as Dmitriev, his two adult children and grandchildren were concerned, Natasha had  become a permanent member of their family.

Dmitriev and his former wife had taken Natasha from a children’s home, where she had been left by her grandmother, when she was three and a half.  The little girl was very thin and in poor health, and the authorities had themselves advised Dmitriev 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.  All of this, it should be said, will seem quite reasonable to anybody who has had dealings with the Soviet, and later, Russian authorities.  During the first trial, witnesses confirmed that advice about monitoring children’s development was often given.

The photos were initially considered by a Karelian art historian, Sergei Sergeyev, 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 City 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 Supreme 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 the little girt 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’).

On 27 June 2018, Dmitriev was re-arrested, with Russia’s Investigative Committee now charging him with ‘acts of a sexual nature’, also against Natasha, whom he had not seen since his arrest in December 2016.  Having taken the little girl from the only people who had ever loved and cared for her, the prosecution used her age as excuse for holding the trials behind closed doors.  Her age was not a problem, however, for the FSB who had very clearly passed the photos of the child to two Russian propaganda channels in January 2017, and then prior to the appeal hearing this year.

Concerns about the charges that Rats and her colleagues used to justify a 13-year sentence are not based only on the fact that they appeared 18 months too late, after the first acquittal.  The secrecy around the trial meant that it was only learned* on the eve of the second acquittal what the additional charge, the alleged ‘acts of a sexual nature’, were about.  The prosecutor claimed that Dmitriev had on several occasions touched his adopted daughter around her groin.   This was in connection with a period when Natasha was 8 years old and began having attacks of enuresis (involuntary urinating).  If Dmitriev noticed the tell-tale smell of urine, he would, like any other parent, pat the little girl’s knickers around the area of the groin to see if they were wet, and if necessary get her to have a wash. There is confirmation in Natasha’s medical records that she was suffering from enuresis, and that she was due to be placed in the Karelia hospital for a proper check-up soon after Dmitriev’s first arrest.

The Second Acquittal

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.  Merkov convicted him of the charge laid after the first acquittal, but only sentenced him to the three and a half years that he had, in any case, spent in detention.  This was as close to an acquittal as you can get in Russian political trials, and much lower than the sentence demanded by the prosecutor.

It was these acquittals that the Karelia Supreme Court overturned on 29 September 2020, with a new ‘expert assessment’ ordered of the photos and sending the case back for a third attempt.  The same court increased the sentence on the charge conjured up after the first acquittal to 13 years, a sentence that Dmitriev would be most unlikely to survive.

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 International Human Rights Day (10 December), Dmitriev was named 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 at least some of the near nine thousand victims of the Terror murdered at Sandarmokh 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


*  In an article by Nikita Girin for Novaya Gazeta here in Russian and translated into English here and here.

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