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Russian Supreme Court refuses to review horrific sentence against historian of the Soviet Terror Yury Dmitriev despite glaring violations

Halya Coynash

Yuri Dmitriev Photo Anna Artemyeva, Novaya Gazeta

Russia’s Supreme Court has refused to refer the case of Yury Dmitriev for a cassation review despite glaring procedural irregularities and violations of his right to a fair trial.  This was the last chance, at least in a Russian court, of achieving justice and averting what is likely to become a death sentence against the world-renowned historian and head of the Karelia branch of Memorial.  Dmitriev played an inestimable role in naming victims of Stalin’s Terror, and its perpetrators, as well as in uncovering the mass graves at Sandarmokh.  His persecution has coincided with attempts by the current regime in Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, to ‘rewrite’ the history of the Terror and to minimize the scale of the crimes. 

Memorial reported on 31 August that the Supreme Court had asked for the material of the case, and there had seemed some hope.  However, the Court’s site states that a decision refusing to pass the case and appeal for a cassation examination had been passed on 12 October 2021.  The rapporteur was judge Sergey Nikolaevich Abramov, with the actual decision seemingly not available on the site.

It is hard to imagine what ‘arguments’ have been found for rejecting the cassation review since the grounds for such a review included Dmitriev having been prevented from taking a real part in the final appeal and from being represented by his chosen lawyer.  Since this was the appeal at which a judge who should not have been on the case suddenly almost quadrupled his sentence on one of the charges and overturned two acquittals, there was every reason to lodge the cassation appeal.

It is, however, equally difficult to say that the Supreme Court’s decision comes as a surprise.  Those who initiated the prosecution five years ago were doubtless counting on the ‘child pornography’ charges so revolting people that publicity would be minimal.  They miscalculated.  The charges were evidently dodgy, and the circumstances around the initiating of criminal proceedings as well as the evident attempts, on state television, to discredit both Dmitriev and Memorial made it clear that this was a politically motivated prosecution.  It is perhaps telling that the hearing scheduled for 30 September at the Petrozavodsk City Court was not adjourned.  It certainly should have been since the third attempt to convict Dmitriev on the original ‘child pornography’ charges fell within the cassation appeal before the Supreme Court. 

As reported, an application has already been lodged with the European Court of Human Rights which is likely to take a very different attitude to the violations of Dmitriev’s rights, and the shocking irregularities, including with respect to Dmitriev’s adopted daughter Natasha.

Fluctuating charges

Dmitriev has been in custody, with only a very short break, since December 2016.  This is despite the first charges against him having resulted in two acquittals, something quite unheard of in Russia.  The charge which is now carrying the 13-year sentence 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.  This was upheld on 16 February 2021 by the Third Cassation Court in St. Petersburg. 

The above are not the only violations in this immensely cynical case, which has essentially destroyed the life of a young child who lost the only family she had ever known and loved. Natasha’s age made it possible to take her away from this family and return her to the grandmother who had left her at a children’s home when she was very small.  Her age also enabled the authorities to hold all court hearings behind closed doors, making it easier to conceal the lack of substance to any of the charges. Such supposed concern for a child’s welfare is difficult to find credible when the investigators clearly collaborated with the state-controlled television channel that showed her photos in the program aimed at discrediting Dmitriev and Memorial.

The other miscalculation in this case was that Natasha herself remembered who had loved and cared for him, and in a situation that seriously violated her rights, held out as much as she was able.

Iryna Levontina from the Russian Academy of Sciences Russian Language Institute appeared as a witness for the defence at the second trial of Dmitriev, presenting a linguistic assessment which she and three colleagues made of the interviews of Natasha, carried out between 2016 and 2018 by a psychologist and investigator. . In an interview given shortly after that verdict, Levontina explained what lawyer Viktor Anufriev had asked her and her colleagues to assess, namely the degree to which Natasha’s ‘conversations’ with a psychologist and investigator had been free and natural, and whether the adults had used manipulation to obtain particular answers.

Their assessment was damning and, as Levontina later said in the interview, “In my opinion, any person who looked at that material would see that a nice and very sweet young girl is trying not to say anything against Yury Dmitriev, but the investigator and psychologist are simply wrenching the answers they need out of her. She often doesn’t understand what they are asking her, and they keep asking the same thing over and over again. She answers in monosyllables and they twist her answers. She says: “I don’t know” and they ask again and again and offer variants until finally, just to get them off her back, she names the most neutral of the variants.

More details here: Russia is trying to destroy historian Yury Dmitriev and “what they’ve done to his daughter is even more horrifying

Political prisoner

The Russian Supreme Court’s refusal is part of what is evidently an attempt to destroy 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

The political nature of the persecution has been recognized far beyond Russia, 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.

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