25 August 2020
Karinna Moskalenko, lawyer, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and founder of the International Protection Centre
The real tragedy-cum-farce of our times are the events unfolding in the Supreme Court of Russia right now. The Judicial College of the Supreme Court on cases concerning military service personnel is currently considering the appeal of a group of Muslim activists from Bashkortostan (with no connection at all to the military) in a case best known as: “The Ufa Twenty”. In fact, the Judicial College has already commenced the appeal proceedings, and it’s worthwhile attending for anyone who can visit the Supreme Court Building (the address is 12 Maly Kharitonyevsky Pereulok, entrance to the court is free but you should bring your passport).
Recently, there have been several prosecutions related to the Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir that began with ambiguous and ‘murky’ charges and ended with lengthy prison sentences – sometimes exceedingly so. Case in point: one of my clients was sentenced to serve 24 years in a maximum-security penal colony, while some of my other clients were given sentences only slightly shorter in length. Yet despite the already lengthy sentence, the Prosecutor’s Office has submitted an appeal demanding a tougher sentence for this client.
This has forced our international team of lawyers to get involved with the case and attempt to fathom the true nature of what can best be described as a repressive campaign launched by the authorities. If the authorities plan to launch this campaign soon under some sort of official title, we should really establish who the ultimate beneficiaries of such a campaign are.
Without doubt, the law enforcement agencies are one of the biggest beneficiaries. Thanks to this campaign of repression, law enforcement officers can now ‘heroically’ rise in status, adorn themselves with awards, and climb the career ladder, and all by ‘exposing’ so-called ‘criminal groups’ like Hizb-ut-Tahrir with little effort. It’s all a rather devious business. Law enforcement officers carry out Operational Investigative Measures (what people often call ‘Special Repressive Measures’ [these has the same initials in Russian – ed.) and infiltrate agents who often act as provocateurs. And instead of combating real crime, blatant banditry, protection rackets, corruption that has paralysed the state, and the many crimes left without investigation, instead, without especial effort or risk, they catch dozens of innocents in their nets who have gone to discussions in search of the meaning of life, religious knowledge, and to read religious literature together – religious literature that includes pamphlets published by Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation banned in Russia. It is these people who become the victims of these deviously set out traps.
If you were an unbiased observer, you would immediately see that there is no evidence at all of acts of violence or even preparation to commit such acts, and there is simply no crime at all.
If you were some sort of an incorrigible hardliner, you might say: sure, let them all go to jail anyway as a precaution, as a lesson to everyone else.
We, however, don’t just have purely human sympathy for the people prosecuted in this case, we also have a lively professional interest. We have yet to fully form an in-depth legal opinion, but the court so far has refused to accept even well-founded appeals from the lawyers who have newly taken up the case after reviewing the more than 374 volumes of the case materials.
While this remains the case, here are ten short questions of the kind ‘One curious person can ask enough questions that hundreds of clever people can’t answer.’
1. Why do the authorities drag people into the criminal justice system and sentence them to maximum prison stretches for activities which do not exhibit the slightest trace of terrorist or violent behaviour, and why has the decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, banning this movement, not been officially published in order that those, whose rights have been impacted by it, can at least appeal against it?
2. Why does the military court system become involved with cases of non-military persons and even non-combatants who have never used weapons and are not going to do so? How has such an abnormal practice evolved and how has it been justified?
3. Why did the preliminary court hearing hold the most important part of the trial in closed court, in the absence of any justification on legal grounds?
4. Why were those defendants, who made the slightest attempts to make statements and voice objections, removed from the courtroom ‘until the end of the trial’ in such a rough manner that other defendants were simply afraid to deliver their own statements?
5. It is impossible to establish where, from whom and under what circumstances the prohibited literature was seized. It ‘emerged’ to form the charges and the evidence in this case. Where did the protocols of the searches disappear from the case files? Who failed to keep them secure? Why were the statements of the criminal investigative department destroyed?
6. What happened during the trial at court of first instance with the defence team in this case? Can they be considered as effective and adequate, judging by the position and actions of the defence as reported in the court transcript?
7. What is wrong with the trial transcript if it does not correspond, according to the statements of the defendants, to the progress of the trial or the audio recording of the trial, and if the comments of the defendants themselves on the transcript of the trial are not considered by the court?
8. Can the trial at first instance be considered fair and impartial if its many decisions regarding the pre-trial detention of the defendants over the course of many years has already been recognized by the European Court of Human Rights as violations of human rights?
9. Why did the court of appeal begin to hear the case, despite the fact that those convicted had not been able to read the dozens of volumes of court reports on the case and their new lawyers had not been able to examine all the materials of the case?
10. Why did the Judicial College for cases involving military service personnel, even without waiting for the end of the trial, engage in reprisals against the lawyers, initiating disciplinary cases against them? Was it because they had reacted to particularly intolerable violations of the court with urgent complaints and telegrams to the chair of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation? And should not any lawyer, in the face of arbitrary behaviour by any official, defend the rights of their clients by all means not forbidden by law, instead of passively watching irreversible procedural violations take place?
So this is the case currently being considered by the Judicial College ‘for cases of people with no connection to the military’ involving victims of numerous miscarriages of justice, though this is far from all the violations in the case, but just the most pressing questions…The court must respond to these questions after hearing from the parties during these days of the trial.
Though it is regrettable to note, there is little hope for justice. Suffice to say that the oral hearings began with a scandal, namely with a violation of the adversarial principle. Judge for yourself. The two sides filed their objections to the judgment in an appeal. Who should be the first to speak in this instance? The prosecution, of course, so that the defence may object to the arguments of the prosecution based on the results of the appeal proceedings. But the court gave the prosecution the last word, leaving the defence to speak first(!). The defence objected but were forced to comply. Suddenly, sometime after these protestations, during the statements of the defence, the prosecutor took the floor and, without any introduction or detailed analysis of the evidence, stated that the verdict was lawful and grounded and that he would not uphold the appeal by the Public Prosecutor’s Office. This was the bizarre way in which the court and the prosecution apparently attempted to justify the violation of the adversarial principle and oral hearing procedures.
Thus, it is the eleventh question that remains the most relevant:
Will the appeal court remedy these violations by overturning the unjust verdict, or will lawlessness prevail?
All concerned citizens attending the trial in the Supreme Court building on Maly Kharitonyevsky Pereulok over the next few days will be able to find the answer to this question.