8 December 2020
At the time of publishing, (8 December 2020) former oil company Yukos’ security chief Aleksei Pichugin has spent 6,381 days in custody, making him the longest serving political prisoner in Russia. Originally sentenced to twenty years in 2005 and for life in 2007 in a separate case for having purportedly organised three murders, including that of a mayor pressuring Yukos to pay higher taxes, his conviction was upheld by the Russian Supreme Court in 2017, and his numerous petitions to Vladimir Putin for clemency have been denied, leading Memorial Human Rights Centre to recognise Pichugin as a political prisoner.
Yukos arose out of the pritivisation of the post-Soviet Russia oil industry in the early 1990s, when the government transferred its oil and gas operations into separate companies with the aim of developing the oil and gas sectors. Led by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Leonid Nevzlin and trading 20% of Russia’s oil at its peak, Yukos was eventually dismantled in 2003 through allegations that Yukos had abused the tax system. Its main production assets were sold at auction after the arrest of Khodorovsky, who was imprisoned for ten years on charges of fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement in a case that his supports assert was aimed at thwarting his political ambitions and increasing the Kremlin’s control over oil export revenues. He was pardoned by Putin in 2013 and left Russia, but Pichugin has had no such luck. The 2017 review of Pichugin’s case was a result of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling in June of the same year that Russian authorities had violated Pichugin’s rights during the investigation and ignored the presumption of innocence, but these proceedings led to his original conviction being upheld.
According to the source that gave evidence before the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the UN Human Rights Council on the Pichugin case, at the time of his pre-trial detention, Pichugin was arrested without a warrant, repeatedly interrogated without the presence of his lawyers, deprived of his diabetes medication and drugged with unknown substances via coffee and injections. As the trial loomed, he and his lawyers were refused access to a number of documents from the case file on the grounds that they were state secrets. Furthermore, testimony at the closed trial was dependent on previously convicted felons such as Mr K., a serial rapist and murderer convicted for life who could not pick Pichugin out of a lineup, and Pichugin’s counsel was refused the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and to inquire into their background. Inconsistencies in the testimonies of said witnesses at the time of Pichugin’s re-trial (on the grounds of the original trial’s evidence being based on inadequate conjecture) in 2007 were ignored, as were defence motions to discover information or submit additional evidence. The harsher sentence imposed in the retrial was based on exactly the same evidence that the court had declared invalid. On 27 March 2017, it was made public that Mr. Pichugin had been disappeared from Lefortovo Prison and that his family and lawyers did not know where he had been taken. He later resurfaced in the Black Dolphin Prison, one of the most notorious and harsh prisons in the Russian Federation.
The arbitrary nature of Pichugin’s imprisonment has been recognised by international tribunals and other credible intergovernmental bodies and human rights groups such as the European Court of Human Rights, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Memorial Human Rights Centre, Freedom House and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. In the UN Working Group’s conclusion, “discrimination against Mr. Pichugin by the Government on the basis of his association with the Yukos company is the only plausible explanation for his arrest, detention and imprisonment”. However, these conclusions regarding the serious infringements on human rights associated with his case have not affected Pichugin’s situation: he remains imprisoned in one of Russia’s most brutal prisons and hopes of pardon seem slim.