17 November 2023
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
Source: Radio Svoboda
St Petersburg judge Oksana Demyasheva sentenced artist Sasha Skochilenko to seven years behind bars for anti-war writing on supermarket price tags.
Judge Olesya Mendeleeva of Moscow’s Meshchansky district court sentenced municipal councillor Aleksei Gorinov to seven years behind bars for anti-war remarks at a council meeting.
Judge Anton Erofeev of Chelyabinsk’s Kalininsky district court sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Evgeny Bushev to seven years behind bars for peaceful assemblies and talking about the Bible.
There are many such reports in the uncensored Russian media these days. Dozens of political prisoners are in prison camps and jails because of a word spoken in passing, a peaceful, emotional protest, for discussing political problems publicly or with a small group of people. Judges deliver harsh sentences that are not even approximately based on criminal legislation. To some extent the laws themselves permit this, packed as they are with flexible wording, vague definitions and nebulous concepts. Political crimes have no specific identifying signs, after which a body of evidence builds up of its own accord in the minds of investigators, prosecutors and judges. A great deal here depends on their imagination, the poor standard of their logical thinking and their readiness to dispense with the law for the sake of political expediency. This is approximately how in Soviet times a political prisoner in the concentration camps could be put into solitary confinement for “anti-Soviet coughing” or “a scurrilous grin” during a political briefing. Justice did not dwell in political prisons back then, it does not dwell in political trials today either.
North Korea used to imprison and even execute people for speaking of Kim Il-sung without prefacing his name with the obligatory words “great leader”. In the Soviet Union in Stalin’s day, acts of repression were carried out against those who for some reason at the end of some meeting or other were unable to stand for the obligatory glorification of Stalin or stopped applauding too soon.
There are lots of similar examples and there have always been judges willing to hand down monstrous sentences for trivial reasons. Who are these people? Where do they come from?
The answer will be a sad one: they exist always and everywhere but they stand idle until such time as tyranny conscripts them to its service. The service of arbitrary rule. In exactly the same way as scum will always be found, prepared to murder, rape and pillage, be it in their own country or the one next door. For this to happen, the powers-that-be must recruit them and grant them indulgences for crimes. Or even better – must declare their criminal behaviour socially laudable and deserving of encouragement. For example, bestowing state awards on criminals, naming schools and streets after them, praising them publicly as heroes and patriots.
Criminal justice contains the concepts of general and specific deterrence. General deterrence prevents a crime being committed by establishing liability in criminal law. Specific deterrence prevents new crimes being committed by people who have already committed similar crimes. This is achieved by applying penal sanctions against them. In other words, the criminal must be sure that a penal sanction is stipulated for his crime and – which is more important – that it will inevitably apply to him.
The judges who hand down unjust sentences in Russia today know that the Russian Criminal Code contains Article 305 – “Knowingly handing down an unjust sentence, decision or other court ruling” which carries a punishment term of up to 10 years behind bars. But they also know that this article will never be applied to them. They are freed of liability in advance – such is the political will of the current powers-that-be.
True, times may change and what is impossible today may become possible tomorrow. But here too they are unperturbed: experience shows that they always manage to dodge the rain drops and evade liability thanks to conciliatory calls not to launch a witch hunt or dredge up the past. This is exactly what happened after the fall of communism and the collapse of the USSR when punishment could have been meted out to Soviet butchers but they avoided it thanks to the efforts of the “new democrats”, the “foremen of perestroika” and cynical politicians who closed their eyes to the crimes of the past and raved about an illusory unity of all the people. It worked then and it’ll work now is what these thugs from the justice system think. No one will touch us. After all, we were merely obedient in carrying out orders from above.
Today’s Russian political prisoners have to “thank” for their torment those politicians in Yeltsin’s entourage who knowingly rejected purging and prosecuting the functionaries of Soviet power. These politicians opened the way to fresh abuses of the justice system. It is they who allowed the current monsters in judges’ robes to acquire the assurance of their own impunity.
And no, unfortunately, there are no guarantees whatsoever that it won’t all be repeated from scratch in a new twist of history: the same complacent obliviousness, the delight at reconciliation on a national scale and, as a consequence, the preservation in a dormant state of the resources for a new era of repression.
Translated by Melanie Moore