4 April 2023
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
Today in Moscow City Court, the defence continued to present evidence at the trial against Vladimir Kara-Murza. In particular, they called on Oleg Orlov, from Memorial, and me to give witness testimonies. I will recount my participation in the trial.
The courtroom was nearly empty. Sitting in it were just two people – Vladimir Kara-Murza in a glass cage and his defence lawyer Vadim Prokhorov, for now still in front of the cage, on a bench. There was also a trio of judges led by Sergei Podoprigorov, Prosecutor Boris Larionov, and an unidentified secretary. Before the questioning began, the judge, as he was supposed to, established my identity, that is, asked me my surname, year of birth, and registered address, and then handed me for signing two cautions about my liability for giving false testimony and for refusing to give testimony, as well as, on a separate piece of paper, a caution about criminal liability for disclosing a state secret or other secrets that might become known to me during the court hearing. I signed, especially since I already knew all that.
Then the questions began on the part of the defence. How long and how well did I know Kara-Murza, what was our relationship, and so on. I responded about Volodya in the most superlative terms, not exaggerating in the slightest, because he is in fact a man of rare worth. Concerning his relationship with his family, I said, among other things, that his family was having a difficult time over this separation because Volodya had already been in prison for a year on a ridiculous charge. At this, Judge Podoprigorov tensed and asked me not to offer any opinions, inasmuch as, according to him, it was up to the panel of judges to decide whether these charges were ridiculous or not. I didn’t argue with him and continued. I said that, as a medic, I could attest that Kara-Murza’s state of health was worrisome, and his sojourn in the remand centre without sufficient and qualified medical assistance was in essence yet another punishment not provided for by law. At this, Judge Podoprigorov took serious offence and began peppering me with questions. Did I know that the trial had been postponed several times due to the defendant’s illness? That he had been examined in the hospital? And how did I even know how he was being treated in prison conditions anyway? To this I replied that I had been in remand centres more than once and well knew about the medical treatment there. At these words, the judge quickly shut down the discussion, most likely recalling that everyone knew about his part in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, who died in the prison hospital at the Matrosskaya Tishina remand centre in 2009.
Then there were questions concerning the “roundtable on Russian political prisoners” held at the Sakharov Centre in Moscow on 27 October 2021. I confirmed that I had been at that roundtable, had heard Kara-Murza’s speech there, and had myself given a report. I told him how Vladimir had given a detailed analysis of international legal documents regarding human rights violations and the status of political prisoners in Russia. A very well balanced and considered report. Facts were cited about the judgments of the European Court on Human Rights in Strasbourg, judgments that deemed the sentences against the political prisoners unfounded. Volodya Kara-Murza asked me to clarify whether the figure of 200 political prisoners as of that day was reliable and accurate. I replied that in fact there were of course more, since a certain number of political prisoners would always remain outside public view. Then there followed from the judge a question as to whether in fact there were political prisoners in Russia then, to which I answered naturally, that is an obvious fact that cannot be disputed. The judge did not in fact dispute it but passed the initiative to Prosecutor Loktionov.
The prosecutor asked me what articles these political prisoners had been convicted under. The dialogue went approximately as follows. “On various articles, different ones for different people.” “Well, cite examples. For instance, there’s Article 105, homicide, or 162, robbery. Under which articles?” “Political prisoners were not charged under 105 or 162. They were in prison basically for expressing an opinion. They are prisoners of conscience according to Amnesty International’s definition.” “But under what articles were they in prison?” “If you give me time, I’ll prepare an exhaustive report for you.” The prosecutor did not need my report. He pulled out what he thought was his trump card: “Cite the names of those whom the European Court has deemed illegally convicted.” The questioning had taken an utterly idiotic turn. Why should I educate some dense Soviet prosecutor? Let him google it! I had come to court to testify about Kara-Murza, about what I know about him, not about what Kara-Murza knows about the decisions of the European Court. Had he been doing his job, the judge would have disallowed the prosecutor’s question as not pertinent. The witness is not required to analyze or express an opinion about the defendant’s actions. But the judge did not disallow the question. It was up to me to do it. “I’m not going to answer your question.” “What do you mean you aren’t?” Judge Podoprigorov was indignant. “You’re required to. You don’t have the right to refuse to give witness testimony.” “And nevertheless.” “I’m warning you of your criminal liability for refusing to give testimony.” I said nothing. “So are you going to answer the prosecutor’s question?” the judge asked again, thinking that he had frightened me sufficiently. “No,” I replied briefly.
Volodya Kara-Murza and Vadim Prokhorov smiled, listening to this polemic, and quietly conferred about something. This completely enraged Judge Podoprigorov. “Now what are you always giggling about so cheerfully?” he pounced on the defence side. Volodya was about to explain to him, but the judge interrupted: “That was a rhetorical question.” A judge asking a defendant rhetorical questions during a trial. Cool! He should go on a show called “How I Failed as a Judge.” Meanwhile, Podoprigorov started complaining about me to Kara-Murza. “Here you’ve invited your witness but he’s refusing to give testimony. You understand that it’s you who can say anything or nothing at all, but he’s required to give testimony. Now criminal charges are going to be brought against him.” After a brief pause, in the expectation that I would rethink this, he turned to the court secretary and asked her to enter into the transcript the fact that the witness refused to give testimony. “That’s all. You may go,” he told me.
I headed for the exit. As I walked by Volodya, I saw that he was holding my book, Dissidents, and smiling as he showed it to me, and I thought that it had been a very good thing that I’d written it. When I was already in the doorway, the judge’s shout caught up to me: “Now wait for a summons from the Investigative Committee!” “Oh, for goodness’ sake,” I muttered in reply. At the courthouse exit, there were lots of journalists, to whom I recounted in detail everything I’d seen and heard. I don’t know why the other witnesses didn’t tell the press anything. Probably, they hadn’t read the caution they’d signed very carefully. Under the law, you can’t disclose a secret of the investigation that relates to a state secret, but by no means not what goes on inside the courthouse walls. In this whole clumsy legal farce, only one thing truly dispirits me: Vladimir Kara-Murza’s condition. He’s keeping up appearances, smiling, and not losing heart, but he’s pale, skinny, and seriously ill. I still hope that we’ll live to see the day when we can appear as witnesses for the prosecution in trials against the former judges and investigators who are today fabricating fraudulent political cases in Russia.
Translated by Marian Schwartz