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Last chance for Russian court to end persecution of historian of the Terror Yury Dmitriev

Halya Coynash

Yuri Dmitriev Photo Anna Artemyeva, Novaya Gazeta

Russia’s Supreme Court is to review the case file and rulings in the prosecution of Yury Dmitriev, world-renowned historian of Stalin’s Terror and head of the Karelia branch of the Memorial Society.  The Court’s request for the case file was reported on 31 August 2021 by the Memorial Society which notes that this review is “Yury Dmitriev’s last chance for a just examination of the charges against him within the Russian court system.”  As reported, an application was filed in March this year with the European Court of Human Rights. 

An immediate consequence of the decision is that the third attempt by the same Russian court (under different judges) to convict Dmitriev on the original flawed charges, after the first two acquittals, will now be adjourned pending the results of the review.

The appeal lodged with the Supreme Court at the end of June was over the shock ruling on 29 September 2020 by the Karelia Supreme Court.  Under circumstances which flagrantly violated Dmitriev’s right to a fair trial, presiding judge Alla Rats almost quadrupled the 3.5 year sentence imposed by the first instance court over a dubious charge which was only laid after the first acquittal, and overturned the second acquittal, sending the original charges back for a third trial.  The fact that the Russian Supreme Court has now asked for the documents in the case may still, unfortunately, mean very little.  Memorial notes that the Court waited until the last day of the legally designated two months to adopt a decision.  On the other hand, the Third Cassation Court in St. Petersburg took almost no time on 16 February 2021 to ignore glaring infringements and uphold the 29 September 2020 ruling, and the same Supreme Court has generally been equally quick to reject appeals against multiple sentences passed on Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners.

Memorial notes that over the last two months, the Russian Supreme Court has been sent numerous appeals from historical research and educational organizations both in Russia and abroad.  Those who organized Dmitriev’s arrest and imprisonment in December 2016 on ‘child pornography’ charges probably hoped that such an indictment would so discredit the historian and Memorial that nobody would notice how flawed the case was.  This has not happened, and the last appeal hearing at the Third Cassation Court was attended by the consuls of six EU countries (Germany; Poland; the Czech Republic; Lithuania; Estonia and Latvia).  The 29 September 2020 ruling and 13-year sentence were condemned by Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and by the European Union.  Ms Mijatović noted that “The harsh verdict delivered by the Karelian Supreme Court in the absence of the legal counsel chosen by Mr Dmitriev cannot be deemed to have complied with fair trial guarantees and is a further illustration of a broader pattern of judicial harassment against human rights defenders, journalists and other independent or critical voices, which has been growing in the Russian Federation in recent years.”

The EU Spokesperson was blunt about the political nature of the prosecution.  “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.  On 21 May 2021, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee announced Dmitriev the laureate of its 2021 Sakharov Freedom prize.

Dmitriev has been in custody since December 2016, despite the first charges against him leading to an unprecedented two acquittals, and the charge used to imprison him for 13 years having only emerged after the first acquittal.   

The arrest on 13 December 2016 came after highly suspect methods used to illicitly enter Dmitriev’s home.  He was 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). This was purely on the basis of a folder hidden away on his computer and never circulated.  This contained 114 photos of Natasha from when she was taken from the children’s home until around a year before his arrest.  Although Dmitriev, who had himself been adopted as a child, and his family had welcomed Natasha as a permanent member of their family, her official status was as приёмная дочь [or foster daughter].  This is important for two reasons.  The social services had never had any questions about Dmitriev’s treatment of the little girl, and it was actually on their advice that Dmitriev scrupulously monitored her weight and height. It seems that the nine photos claimed to be ‘pornographic’ showed the little girl at 3, 5 and 6 naked, but without the weight and height statistics.  Anybody who has had dealings with Soviet / post-Soviet bureaucracy, will understand that Dmitriev also photographed the little girl without clothes so that nobody could claim that she was being mistreated and try to take her away.

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 gained earlier notoriety for its involvement in the trial of the Pussy Riot punk group and in the ruling prohibiting the Jehovah’s Witnesses as ‘extremist’.  Here it obliged by claiming nine photos to be ‘pornographic’.

Such an unqualified 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. 

Dmitriev was initially acquitted of the ‘pornography’ charges on  5 April 2018, but found guilty of the minor firearms charge, with it being widely understood that judge Marina Nosova from the Petrozavodsk City Court could not throw out all the charges.  

The acquittal was immediately challenged by the prosecutor Yelena Askerova (who had demanded a 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.

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.  It was only learned on the eve of the second acquittal what the charge of ‘acts of a sexual nature’ was about. The prosecutor claimed that Dmitriev had on several occasions touched Natasha around her groin.   This was in connection with a period when, at 8 years old, the little girl 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.

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 ‘acts of a sexual nature’ 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.

This was clearly not the result required and on 29 September 2020, an appeal against the ruling was heard by presiding judge Alla Rats and two colleagues from the Karelia Supreme Court.  Rats should have recused herself as she had taken part in previous hearings in Dmitriev’s case.  The most shocking violation of Dmitriev’s rights, however, lay in the insistence of carrying on the hearing despite Dmitriev’s lawyer, Viktor Anufriev being in quarantine and unable to attend, and with Dmitriev himself unable to hear what was being said because of poor video link with the SIZO [remand prison].  Instead, she changed the 3.5 year sentence to 13 years and overturned all acquittals, with a new ‘expert assessment’ ordered of the photos and that ‘case’ sent back for a third attempt at a conviction.   As mentioned, this was upheld on 16 February 2021 by the Third Cassation Court in St. Petersburg. 

These are only the most egregious of many violations of Dmitriev’s rights and signs of the political nature of this persecution of a renowned historian who has devoted 30 years to uncovering the mass graves of Russian, Ukrainian and other victims of the Terror and ensuring that the truth was learned, including about the perpetrators.  There are strong grounds for linking the persecution of Dmitriev and, probably, of fellow historian of the Terror, Sergei Koltyrin, with attempts by the current Russian regime to whitewash the darkest pages of Soviet history. 

See: Barbaric excavations underway at Sandarmokh in Russia to rewrite history about the Terror

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