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Imprisoned historian of Soviet Terror deprived of proper defence at critical hearing

Halya Coynash

After two acquittals and a sentence much shorter than that demanded, new measures were taken in Russia to secure a long sentence against world-renowned historian of the Soviet Terror, Yury Dmitriev.  The appeal hearing at the Karelia Supreme Court was before Alla Rats, a judge whose bias had already been demonstrated, and a state-appointed lawyer was brought in, although Dmitriev’s lawyer was in quarantine and had asked for a postponement.  It was this appeal hearing that added an unprecedented 10 years to the original sentence and revoked the acquittals. 

The International Memorial Society has now approached the Russian Federal Bar Association [RFBA] asking them to initiate disciplinary proceedings over the appointed lawyer, Artem Cherkasov, who agreed to act despite Dmitriev’s objection and the fact that Dmitriev had his own lawyer, who had been on the case since Dmitriev’s arrest in December 2016.

Memorial names two reasons.  Cherkasov infringed the principle that a lawyer cannot take part in proceedings against the wishes of the defendant if the latter is represented by a lawyer he has chosen. Secondly, Cherkasov did not properly prepare for the appeal, did not agree his position with the defendant and did not even meet with him.  He did not, therefore, properly defend Dmitriev’s interests. Memorial points out that the court which Cherkasov took part in almost quadrupled Dmitriev’s sentence and revoked the acquittals.

It should be stressed that the fault mainly lies with Alla Rats, presiding judge at the Karelia Supreme Court, or those she was taking her orders from since there were no grounds for rejecting the application from Dmitriev’s real lawyer, Viktor Anufriev.

Cherkasov was asked after the ruling and asserted that he had done everything properly and that his appointment had been strictly according to the rules. He claimed that the three days he was given to acquaint himself with a case dating back four years, full of conflicting assessments and internationally condemned as politically motivated had been sufficient.  He suggested that he had ‘agreed’ his position with Dmitriev in that he had supported Dmitriev’s demand for his removal.

The original appeal hearing was scheduled for 16 September.  Since Anufriev had been ordered to self-isolate in connection with the pandemic, he lodged two applications for the hearing to be postponed until the beginning of October.  Instead, the court only postponed the hearing for a week and appointed Cherkasov. The day after the hearing, Anufriev told a legal affairs website Advokatskaya Ulitsa that he could see no grounds for the haste in such a complicated case “which the previous court examined over two years. [the lawyer] was given only three days to study more than 20 volumes of the case file, although he needed at least two weeks. Otherwise this is not defence, but simply presence.  And Dmitriev said that he was left without defence in the court of appeal”.

Cherkasov further claimed that he had immediately contacted Anufriev and agreed the line of defence and that he had spoken with Dmitriev and told him to feel free to demand his withdrawal and that he would support it.

It remains to be seen whether the Russian Federal Bar Association will initiate the proceedings, however Cherkasov was certainly aware that neither Dmitriev nor his chosen lawyer supported the involvement of an appointed lawyer.  Cherkasov appears to have only spoken with Dmitriev from the court hearing, which Dmitriev himself was only able to take part in by very poor video link from the SIZO [remand prison].  Since it was clear that the court was pushing for the hearing to go ahead with an appointed lawyer, the latter’s ‘support’ for Dmitriev’s doomed application hardly constitutes agreeing their position, let alone properly representing Dmitriev’s interests.  He also failed to lodge complaints, for example, over the fact that Dmitriev was effectively unable to take a full part in the proceedings.  The sound quality was very bad, and Dmitriev’s own hearing has deteriorated while in detention, yet when he asked for words to be repeated, Rats threatened to remove him altogether.

The above case is one of two attempts so far to remove Anufriev from Dmitriev’s case.  On 17 November 2020, judge Yekaterina Khomyakova from the Petrozavodsk City Court attempted to appoint a new lawyer for Dmitriev.  The attempt was rightly  thwarted by Alexander Fleganov, head of the legal firm Fleganov and Partners. Unlike Cherkasov, he refused to take part in this, 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 which was rejected on 25 January 2021 by the Karelia Supreme Court.  The judge, Oleg Gudkov, also rejected the application for information as to whether Anufriev and Cherkasov had been informed of Khomyakova’s move to replace them.

It was also very obvious, after the arrest of another historian of the Soviet Terror, Sergei Koltyrin, that the latter had been placed under huge pressure to back out of his initial agreement that Anufriev would represent him.

One does not need to look far for the reason.  Koltyrin was fairly quickly sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment on charges which were suspiciously similar to those against Dmitriev.  He died less than a year later, on 2 April 2020, after the prosecutor appealed against his release on the grounds that he was dying.

Virtually nothing is known of the trial, which, like Dmitriev’s, was held behind closed doors.  Anufriev, in contrast, achieved something that is quite unheard of in Russia: two acquittals and a conviction with a sentence almost coinciding with the period that Dmitriev had spent in detention.  It was essentially clear to anybody familiar with such cases that the judge had come as close to an acquittal as they dared in such a political trial.

It should be noted that the same methods are regularly used in cases involving the Kremlin’s Ukrainian political prisoners to block their access to independent lawyers.

65-year-old Yury Dmitriev has devoted most of his adult life to uncovering the truth about the crimes of the Stalin regime, in particular the mass graves of Russian, Ukrainian, and other victims of the Terror executed at the Sandarmokh Clearing in Karelia.  It is very widely understood, in Russia and throughout the world, that the preposterous charges against him are in retaliation for this work.  Please see the following for details about the charges and the international condemnation they have elicited.

Russia to answer to Strasbourg for imprisonment of historian of Stalin’s Terror, Yury Dmitriev

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