Legal Case of the Week: Court increases sentence handed down to Gulag historian Yury Dmitriev to 13 years’ imprisonment

Week-ending 2 October 2020

On Tuesday, 29 September, the Supreme Court of Karelia increased the term of imprisonment to be served by human rights activist and historian Yury Dmitriev from three and a half years to 13 years.

The Moscow Times, Tuesday, 29 September 2020: A Russian court has lengthened the term prominent Gulag historian Yury Dmitriyev must serve in prison to 13 years, the Mediazona news website reported Tuesday, a surprise increase of a lenient sentence for charges his allies say were trumped up to silence him. Dmitriyev was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison in July after a city court in northwestern Russia found him guilty of sexually assaulting his adopted daughter, a ruling his supporters viewed as a victory given the 15 years requested by prosecutors. The Supreme Court of the republic of Karelia overturned that ruling and sentenced him to 13 years in a maximum-security penal colony, Mediazona reported, citing the lawyer of Dmitriyev’s adopted daughter. Under his previous sentence, Dmitriyev, 64, would have been released in November as his time already served in pre-trial detention counted toward his sentence. Human rights advocates condemned the Karelia Supreme Court’s ruling, calling it a “shame.” Dmitriyev has vehemently denied the charges against him.

Human Rights in Ukraine, Tuesday, 29 September 2020: The Karelia Supreme Court in Russia has overturned two acquittals and sentenced world-renowned historian of the Soviet Terror, Yuri Dmitriev, to 13 years in a maximum security prison.  This is an effective death sentence for the 64-year-old historian, and one that was passed behind closed doors in the absence of his lawyer and with Dmitriev himself prevented from being present and from properly hearing the proceedings.  The court, under presiding judge Alla Rats, thus complied in full with the prosecution, ending politically motivated attempts to imprison Dmitriev on preposterous charges that first began in December 2016. 

The Guardian, Tuesday, 29 September 2020: A Russian court has abruptly handed Yury Dmitriev, a historian of Stalin-era crimes, a 13-year jail term after overturning an earlier sentence on charges that his supporters say were fabricated to punish him for his work. Dmitriev, 64, was found guilty in July of sexually abusing his adopted daughter and sentenced to three and a half years in prison by the Petrozavodsk city court in Russia’s north-western Karelia region. He had denied the charges, which his lawyer and supporters say were fabricated because of his work with rights group Memorial. They say his real crime was dedicating himself to documenting Joseph Stalin’s 1937-38 Great Terror by unearthing mass graves and chronicling state repression. Nearly 700,000 people were executed during that period, according to conservative official estimates. The July sentence would have resulted in Dmitriev being freed in November due to time served, but Karelia’s supreme court said on its website on Tuesday that he would now be held for 13 years in a high-security penal colony. Artem Cherkasov, one of Dmitriev’s lawyers, said his client would appeal against the decision, the Interfax news agency reported.

Meduza, Wednesday, 30 September 2020: Vladimir Putin’s spokesman declined on Wednesday to comment on the Karelian Supreme Court’s damning ruling against historian and human rights activist Yuri Dmitriev, though the Kremlin vowed to “take a closer look” at the case. “We know there are media reports [about the new verdict], but honestly this issue is outside our control. I don’t think the president knows about it,” Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told journalists. On Tuesday, ruling on an appeal filed against Yuri Dmtriev’s July 22 verdict, the Supreme Court in Russia’s Republic of Karelia added 9.5 years to the 64-year-old historian’s 3.5-year prison sentence, upholding his conviction for sexual assault against a minor. The high court also overturned Dmitriev’s rare acquittal on felony charges of producing child pornography, sexual abuse, and illegal firearm posession. He now faces a retrial, relitigating all three charges.

RFE/RL, Thursday, 1 October 2020: When a Russian court sentenced gulag historian Yury Dmitriyev to 3 1/2 years in prison on child sexual-abuse charges in July, many supporters who have waged a campaign for his exoneration considered it something of a victory. Dmitriyev had spent much of the past four years behind bars, languishing in pretrial detention following his arrest in December 2016 on suspicion of producing child pornography and committing lewd acts with his adopted daughter, charges he has vehemently denied from the outset. Few expected him to be spared a lengthy prison term, amid a dogged state TV propaganda campaign and a record of politicized trials since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. And in a justice system in which acquittals are extremely rare, the sentence handed down this summer was seen as proof that he was innocent as claimed. “The prosecution had no evidence that Dmitriyev was guilty of any abusive sexual acts toward his adoptive daughter,” Irina Flige, a fellow researcher on the Soviet prison-camp system and a friend of Dmitriyev’s, told RFE/RL after the ruling.

Human Rights Watch, Thursday, 1 October 2020: The Supreme Court in Karelia on Wednesday overturned and vastly increased the sentence in the child sexual abuse case against Yuri Dmitriyev, a researcher and rights advocate who exposed mass graves of political prisoners executed during the Stalin era. The circumstances surrounding the case strongly indicate that the charges against Dmitriyev were spurious and politically motivated. The Karelia Supreme Court’s ruling was dramatic. And atrocious. In July, a trial court had sentenced Dmitriyev to 3.5 years in a minimum-security prison. Dmitriyev appealed the guilty verdict, and the prosecutor appealed the sentence. When the appeal hearings began on Sept. 22, Dmitriyev sought a postponement because his lawyer was recovering from an illness and could not be in court. The judges refused, and Dmitriyev rejected the services of the court-appointed attorney. On Sept. 29, the Supreme Court sentenced him to 13 years. 

FIDH, Friday, 2 October 2020: The Observatory has been informed by reliable sources about the sentencing and ongoing arbitrary detention of Mr. Yuri Dmitriev, an historian and representative of “Memorial” International Historical, Educational, Human Rights and Charitable Society in Karelia, northern Russia. According to the information received, on September 29, 2020, the Supreme Court of Karelia increased the sentence of historian Mr. Yuri Dmitriev from 3.5 to 13 years of imprisonment. The Supreme Court overturned the Petrozavodsk City Court verdict of July 22, 2020, and sentenced him under Article 132.4(B) of the Criminal Code (“violent actions of a sexual character against a person under 14 years old”). In addition, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Petrozavodsk City Court for review under the Articles 135.1 and 242.2 of the Criminal Code (“production of child pornography” and “indecent assault without resort to violence against a person under 16 years old”) and article 222.1 (“possession of weapons”), for which Mr. Dmitriev was previously acquitted. If convicted under those additional charges, Mr. Yuri Dmitriev’s 13-year sentence could be extended. The defense will appeal this verdict. On July 22, 2020, the Petrozavodsk City Court had found Mr. Yuri Dmitriev guilty of “sexual violence” against his adopted daughter, sentenced him to three and a half years in prison, and acquitted him of charges of “possession of weapons”, “production of pornography” and “indecent assault”, in a trial that began on December 18, 2018 (see background information). Considering the time he had spent in pre-trial detention, Mr. Dmitriev was expected to be released in November 2020. Both the defence and the prosecution appealed the July-22 verdict, with the former seeking Mr. Yuri Dmitriev’s acquittal and the latter seeking a 13-year prison sentence. Having contracted Covid-19, Mr. Dmitriev’s lawyer could not attend the appeal hearing on September 29, 2020. Despite the requests by the defence, the Court refused to postpone the hearing and Mr. Dmitriev, who was only allowed to attend the hearing via a video-conference call of poor quality, was given an appointed lawyer. Mr. Dmitriev asked to decline the appointed lawyer but the Court waved his request. On the eve of the trial, renowned media “Novaya Gazeta” published a public petition, signed by over 250 public persons (including historians, journalists, actors and academics) requesting to change the place of the consideration of the appeal in the case of Mr. Yuri Dmitriev from the Supreme Court of Karelia to another Court; the request was, however, rejected by the Court. The Observatory strongly condemns the new sentencing and the continuing arbitrary detention of Mr. Yuri Dmitriev, which seem to be only aimed at sanctioning him for his legitimate human rights activities. The Observatory calls on the Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Yuri Dmitriev, and to put an end to any act of harassment, including at the judicial level, against him and all the human rights defenders in the country.

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