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After two acquittals, Russia finds more compliant judges to pass 15-year sentence against historian of the Terror Yury Dmitriev

Halya Coynash

Yury Dmitriev after the sentence on 27.12.2021 Photo Valery Potashov

It has taken five years, two acquittals and flagrant violations of the right to a fair trial, for those seeking a long sentence against renowned historian of the Soviet Terror and head of the Karelia branch of Memorial, Yury Dmitriev to get their way.  Acquittals in Russia are very uncommon, and an unprecedented two such cases should have meant that the prosecution was simply abandoned.  Instead, they made a third attempt, with judge Yekaterina Khomyakova from the Petrozavodsk City Court in Karelia proving more compliant.  On 27 December 2021, she found the historian ‘guilty’ as charged and provided the sentence demanded by the prosecutor – 15 years (in fact, a 9-year sentence, but with this this adding two years to the sentence already in force).  With Dmitriev turning 66 in January 2022, even the shorter period in a harsh regime prison is likely to be a death sentence, but the ‘conviction’ was presumably required since the charges were those used to justify his arrest and imprisonment back in December 2016.

While the exact timing of this sentence may have depended on factors outside the prosecutor’s control, it is probably no coincidence that the culmination of this appalling case coincides with the latest and most serious attempt by the current regime to crush the renowned Memorial Society, which Dmitriev has been involved in since 1988. 

Within three weeks of Dmitriev’s arrest on 13 December 2016, the Russian state-controlled TV channel Rossiya 24 had produced a scurrilous and manipulative program, clearly aimed at discrediting both Dmitriev and Memorial (details in English here)  The program could only have been made in collaboration with the ‘investigators’ and confirm that this was no local vendetta against the historian and Memorial activist. Dmitriev himself is convinced that there would never have been a case against him had it not been for the offensive against Memorial, which, as he put it in a recent interview, clearly touched on certain individuals’ sore points   

There are grounds for believing that the attack, both on Dmitriev and on Memorial, are in part at least linked with the current regime’s attempts to rewrite history, especially about the Terror and other Soviet crimes.  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 relatives executed in 1937-38 and buried in mass graves at the Sandarmokh Clearing in Karelia   Dmitriev’s arrest came just months after the beginning of ongoing attempts to push the claim that at least some of the many thousands of victims of the Terror whose remains lie at Sandarmokh were, in fact, Soviet soldiers killed by the Finnish army.  Dmitriev was not the only Karelian historian to have stood in the way of such claims.  Sergei Koltyrin had dismissed them shortly before his arrest on charges disturbingly similar to those against Dmitriev.  Koltyrin was evidently placed under huge pressure and eventually rejected the legal services of Dmitriev’s lawyer, Viktor Anufriev.  He died on 2 April 2020 in Russian captivity.

The film in January 2017 was aimed at presenting Dmitriev as a foul pervert and Memorial, and those ‘liberals’ who believed the charges politically motivated, in an equally bad light.  The attempt has failed badly, with Dmitriev’s persecution condemned both within Russia, and internationally, among others by Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Union

The original ‘child pornography’ charges

Dmitriev was arrested on 13 December 2016, purportedly on the basis of an anonymous report about naked photos of Dmitriev’s adopted daughter Natasha on his computer.  The timing is suspect since this ‘anonymous report’ supposedly came on 3 December, three days after Dmitriev had himself noticed that somebody had been in his home after both he and his partner had, on 30 November,  been tricked into being absent. 

The police were accompanied by an ‘expert’ identified only as Mr Dubkin, who blurted out one more incriminating detail in court.  When asked by Dmitriev how it had taken no more than 20 – 30 seconds for him to find a folder filed away on the historian’s very full computer, Dubkin said that the police had told him where to look.  This had, presumably, been the point of the illicit visitation on 30 November. 

Dmitriev has an adult son and daughter, and grandchildren, but had himself been adopted, and had wanted to give another child the chance of a loving home.  He and his then partner adopted Natasha who had been left in a children’s home by her grandmother.  She was just three, sickly and underweight, and Dmitriev says that he was advised to monitor her development, which he did, in part, through photos of her naked, with her height and weight recorded.  Although Dmitriev’s entire family had welcomed Natasha as a permanent member of the family, her official status was as приёмная дочь [or foster daughter], with this meaning that Russia’s social services were always there in the background.  This was the other reason that the photos were taken naked, since Dmitriev wanted to ensure that nobody could claim that the little girl was mistreated and try to take her away. There were a lot of photos when Natasha was still very small, with less and less as her development became closer to normal, and none from the age of 10. 

There were 100-200 photos in all, which 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 centre was already notorious for supposedly ‘expert assessments’ that echoed the prosecution’s case in the trials of the Pussy Riot punk group and in rulings prohibiting the Jehovah’s Witnesses as ‘extremist’.  Its maths teacher director, Natalia Nikolaevna Kryukova, and philologist Alexander Yevgenyevich Tarasov, have since provided an ‘assessment’ which is being used by the Moscow prosecutor to try to get the Memorial Human Rights Centre dissolved (details here).  These supposed ‘experts’ claimed that nine photos, that do not have Natasha’s height and weight recorded were ‘pornographic’.

Although the folder had been filed away on Dmitriev’s computer and never circulated, the photos were used as the grounds for charges of ‘preparing pornography involving a minor’ (Article 242.2 §  2 of Russia’s criminal code) and ‘depraved actions with respect to a child under the age of 11’ (Article 135, over the same nine photos). 

The claim that the photos were pornographic were firmly rejected in court by Dr Lev Shcheglov, the President of the National Institute of Sexology, as well as two other specialists who also confirmed that it was common practice in Russia to take photographs for such medical purposes.  In an interview to Novaya Gazeta, Shcheglov explained that he had informed the court that he too had photos of his grandchildren without any clothes.  He asked whether this was to be considered his ‘confession’ and that he too should face criminal prosecution.   

Dmitriev had been charged with three offences, the third, under Article 222 § 1, ‘possession of a part of a firearm’.  This was part of a rifle barrel which Dmitriev says he had found among rubbish and taken so that it didn’t get picked up and used by children).

Acquittal No. 1

The Rossiya 24 program had spoken of the “revulsion” Dmitriev’s alleged actions must elicit, and used distortion and manipulation, as well as photos, seemingly of the little girl, to try to achieve this.  The calculation was clearly that such material, as well as the fact that the entire trial was behind closed doors, would convince people of Dmitriev’s guilt.  It had, instead, aroused indignation, with the prosecution widely viewed as revenge against a historian who had devoted his life to restoring historical truth/  Despite the conveniently closed court hearings, it was clear by January 2018 that the trial was not going to plan, although prosecutor Yelena Askerova still demanded that Dmitriev be convicted of all the charges, and sentenced to nine years.

Instead, Judge Marina Nosova from the Petrozavodsk City Court, acquitted Dmitriev of the main ‘pornography’ charges, finding him guilty only of the very minor ‘possession’ charge with a sentence of 2.5 years. Acquittals can cause difficulties in Russia, and a total acquittal would certainly have raised questions, since Dmitriev had been in detention for 13 months.  

Enter the Karelia Supreme Court

The acquittal was challenged by prosecutor Askerova, allegedly on the initiative of the same grandmother who had left Natasha in a children’s home as a toddler.  There were no grounds, yet the Karelia Supreme Court revoked the 5 April 2018 ruling and sent the case back for retrial.

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.  

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.

Acquittal No. 2

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, the alleged ‘acts of a sexual nature’,  but only sentenced him to the three and a half years that he had, in any case, spent in detention.  He thus applied his right to impose a sentence considerably lower than the minimal stipulated by the criminal code, with this as close to an acquittal as you can get in Russian political trials. 

Karelia Supreme Court (‘judge’ Alla Rats)

It was these acquittals that judge Alla Rats [Алла Раць] from the Karelia Supreme Court overturned on 29 September 2020, with a new ‘expert assessment’ ordered of the photos and the charges sent back for a third attempt.  The same court almost quadrupled the sentence on the charge which had only appeared after the first acquittal, with the sentence now 13 years in a harsh regime prison colony.

There were glaring violations at that hearing.  Two of the three judges involved in this ruling, including Rats, had passed rulings against Dmitriev in previous proceedings and should have withdrawn himself. Rats had refused to postpone the hearing until Anufriev, who was in quarantine, could be present 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 3 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].  Dmitriev was also effectively denied the possibility of defending himself.  The pandemic was used as an excuse for the historian not being brought 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.

All of these issues were raised, and ignored, by judge Sergei Zhernov from the Third Cassation Court in St. Petersburg, who on 16 February 2021 upheld the ruling from 29 September 2020 and 13-year sentence.  It became clear in October 2021 that Russia’s Supreme Court had refused to consider a cassation appeal, despite the above, and other, compelling grounds.  Dmitriev’s case is already awaiting consideration by the European Court of Human Rights. 

Third attempt at the Petrozavodsk City Court

Judge Yekaterina Khomyakova was reportedly in a hurry over this ‘trial’, and the verdict and sentence handed down on 27 December 2021 was identical to that demanded by the prosecutor.  In total, the sentence is now 15 years.

Worth noting that this third judge from the Petrozavodsk City Court, and the only one to have not acquitted Dmitriev, has reportedly applied for a judge’s post at the Karelia Supreme Court.   According to Nikita Girin from Novaya Gazeta, the first judge who acquitted Dmitriev, Marina Nosova, also applied for such a post three years ago.  She was approved by the Karelian qualification commission, but then knocked out by the Kremlin commission on agreeing federal judges.  Girin points out that it is the FSB that provide the information on such candidates.

There have been evident attempts to influence public opinion over the case, with  overt lies in the media, seemingly backed by the Karelia children’s ombudsman Gennady Sarayev.

As mentioned, the attempts have not succeeded.  Properly qualified experts appeared for the defence and spoke out against the methods used to manipulate and distort testimony from Natasha.  Details here: Russia is trying to destroy historian Yury Dmitriev and “what they’ve done to his daughter is even more horrifying

As well as demands within Russia for Dmitriev’s release, there has been huge international support, together with openly expressed recognition that the charges against the historian are politically motivated.  A spokesperson for the European Union stated on 30 September 2020 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. In May 2021, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee awarded Dmitriev the 2021 Sakharov Freedom Award.

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