Lev Ponomarev: The young generation, inoculated by cruelty and terror, becomes immune to fear

28 August 2020

Lev Ponomarev, chair of the NGO For Human Rights, and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Novaya gazeta]

From the Petrushevtsy to the ‘Network’ case: 170 years of absurd accusations against young citizens of Russia

Of all the political trials now ongoing against young people, perhaps the most cruel is the case concerning ‘Network’, deemed to be a terrorist organisation and banned on the territory of the Russian Federation. In fact, before the FSB agents began to pursue these kids, no such organisation existed, it was invented by the Chekists themselves. And I remind you, that an appeal against the inhumane verdict of the court in this case will go ahead on 2 September.

Who are these kids? Young people with leftist politics, antifascists from St Petersburg and Penza, who were into Airsoft, interested in ideas of anarchism, opposed the nationalists in street protests, and were involved in charity work. And they were engaged in critical discussions about the situation in the country. That’s all. None of the defendants was implicated in any terrorist activities, or in preparations for them, unless of course you consider Airsoft games preparation for an armed seizure of power.

In February of this year – after a trial lasting two years – “the organisers and participants of a criminal community” (according to the investigation) were sentenced to horrendous terms of imprisonment.

The Penza court sentenced:

  • Dmitri Pchelintsev to 18 years in a strict regime colony
  • Ilya Shakursky to 16 years
  • Andrei Chernov to 14 years
  • Maksim Ivankin to 13 years
  • Mikhail Kulkov to 10 years
  • Vasily Kuksov to 9 years in a general regime colony,
  • Arman Sagynbaev to 6 years.

In June, the St Petersburg court sentenced:

  • Viktor Filinkov to 7 years, and
  • Yuly Boyarshinov to five and a half years’ imprisonment. 

They are all different – students, programmers, workers, aspiring entrepreneurs. Where do they get their leftist views from? They were formed by life itself, its social injustices. And in the provinces, the gap between the rich and the poor is felt even more keenly than in the capital. It’s easy to imagine how young people in Penza, for example, react to the list of the most expensive yachts in the world, owned by our oligarchs and officials.

For the price of just one of Roman Abramovich’s yachts (according to Forbes, $1.2 million) you could support all of Penza (its budget is around 13.5 million rubles) for more than six years.

And so, because young people speak out angrily about the political situation in the country, they are under constant observation by the FSB. The most active are put on a list of potential dangerous and in the end may end up behind bars.

The FSB’s intention with the Network case was to put on a show for public consumption, and the script penned by the FSB for this show can be summarised as follows. According to the version fed to the mass media at the time of the first arrests, some young people from Penza apparently got to know each other on social media networks, and decided to set up a militant organisation for the purpose of disrupting the presidential elections and the final of the FIFA World Cup final, both of which were due to take place in the country in 2018. They had allegedly planned out all of these militant activities, and prepared for the acts of terrorism by playing airsoft (a competitive team shooting sport played with plastic projectiles). They recruited to their ranks citizens from different cities and different countries (the investigators initially attempted to present a longer list of ‘members,’ but later restricted themselves to two cities). The heroic employees of the FSB  uncovered their plot in time and thwarted their criminal ambitions. All that remained was to award these heroes another star to wear on their shoulders.

A historical parallel suggests itself with the case of the Petrashevsky Circle who were 40 or so young ‘free thinkers’ arrested in Russia in the mid-19th century for, ‘arguments encouraging condemnation of the current government.’ People from a range of different social strata – the literary elite, teachers, officers and students – had shared with each other their critical views on censorship, serfdom and the corruption rife with the civil service and the judicial system. If they were living now they would have exchanged their views on social media networks, but back then they met in the drawing rooms of private homes, and not all of them even knew each other. Something resembling a political manifesto was cobbled together from the documents confiscated during the searches that were carried out. According to an informer, the group had produced an, ‘encyclopaedic plan for a general movement, revolution and disruption.’ Twenty-one people were sentenced to public execution as a result, and a hideous spectacle was played out; when those under sentence of death had already reached the scaffold, they were informed that they had been pardoned, and that their sentence of execution had been commuted to hard labour. Dostoevsky, who was among this group, later recalled the ordeal with a shudder as, ‘ten terrible, immeasurably awful minutes spent waiting for death.’ Incidentally, it was only twelve years later that Tsar Alexander II launched reforms incorporating some of the ideas for which the Petrashevsky Circle had been convicted, and garnered praise as the Liberator Tsar for his efforts.

The Petrashevsky Circle case and the Network case share not only their political nature, but also several other commonalities. As was the case 170 years ago, the young activists in the Network case have been charged with the crime of expressing their opinions. The accusations relating to the establishment of a criminal organisation are built on sand just as much today as they were back then. There was no organisation in existence under the name of Network; some of those involved played airsoft together, others met at music concerts, and some of the accused did not know each other at all. The documents entitled Code or Congress were created by the investigators themselves using fragments of unrelated files from the computers they had confiscated.

In fact the FSB has no need to look back quite so far in history for examples that it can emulate – it need only look back to the courts that existed during the Stalinist era, when the primary (and often only) evidence required to be convicted of a crime was a confession of guilt by the person under investigation, obtained using torture if necessary.

It only became a widely known fact that the detainees in the Network case had had their confessions beaten out of them because the trials were held in open court – and sad to say, this is the greatest success achieved so far in this case by the human rights activists, lawyers and concerned social activists. If it had not been for their efforts, the public at large would not have found out that those involved in the Network case had been subjected to torture, and would  never have understood why they initially confessed their guilt and later retracted these confessions.

This is how Viktor Filinkov, a 25-year-old programmer and one of the three members of the St Petersburg ‘cell’ of the organisation, has described his arrest:

“They started punching me in the car. […] Then they shocked me with a stun baton. I don’t remember where we were heading, but I do remember that it was incredibly painful. They pressed me against the window so that I couldn’t wriggle out of their grasp. They punched me in the chest, in the face, in the back of my neck.”

And here is a description of the torture endured by another of the accused – Dmitry Pchelintsev from Penza.

Dmitry Pchelnitsev, defendant in the Network case, on torture: “They took off my socks and pulled my pants and underwear down to my knees. They put a close-fitting cap like a helmet on my head and fastened it under my chin. The guard wound wires around my big toes. […] When they stopped hitting me in the face and stomach, they gave me electric shocks. What did it feel like? It felt like my skin was being torn off. My mouth was full of blood, and my teeth were clenched from the pain. The third officer kept his knee on my chest the entire time, squeezing my genitals to such an extent that my eyes turned white.”

When Pchelintsev testified about torture during a lawyer’s questioning and his testimony was made public, the torture began again. Members of the FSB said, “You don’t get it, Dima. You were warned, but you didn’t get it.” Sometimes they would change the toe the wire was wrapped around and shock me again.”

Dmitry Pchelintsev is a strong man, but when one of the three people torturing him complained that “the contact is bad, the shock is weak,” he couldn’t hold back and yelled, “Not any stronger!”

This is similar to how 23-year-old student Ilya Shakursky describes the torture he endured.

Ilya Shakursky, defendant in the Network case, on torture: “They told me to get undressed and sit on the bench, and they taped my hands together and blindfolded me. I had the thought that I wouldn’t make it out alive. I was in my underwear with a sock in my mouth. They wound a wire around my big toes. They asked me, ‘Why are you lying to the FSB? ‘Where are the other members of the organization?’ They began to shock me, about five times. I gave all the evidence they asked for.”

All the men were afraid that they would come after their loved ones. While torturing Pchelintsev, they threatened to rape his wife.

Dmitry Pchelintsev, on the threats to rape his wife: “They said: ‘And your wife, what are we going to do with her? Let’s first let a group of Tajiks rape her, since they’re so mouthy. What kind of airsoft did you play? You’re an enemy and a terrorist. That’s the truth.”

Arman Sagynbaev, defendant in the Network case, in court: “They checked several times to make sure I was being shocked. I screamed. The lawyer’s interrogation report indicated that I experienced physical pain. Pain isn’t the right word for it. It was agony and suffering.”

In the last few days, the whole world has been shaken after finding out about the actions of Belarusian law enforcement against peaceful civilians. Footage of beatings and accounts of the torture and degrading treatment of citizens of Belarus are shocking in their savage cruelty.

But the Belarusian hit squads are not unique; they share their roots with Russian security forces.  They all grew out from the NKVD’s overcoat. Their common ideologist, Comrade Patrushev, took the trouble to trace the FSB’s pedigree and actually admitted that the service was a descendant of the USSR’s punitive agencies. And such a family tie, with some stipulations of course, makes him proud and willing to follow tradition.

However, the spectacle of the Network trial failed, as did the brutal suppression of civilian protests in Belarus. Times have changed: we live in a new information space that cannot be shut off. Law enforcement lost because everyone knew about the torture. It was discussed in detail in court – both in Penza and St Petersburg.

The original court script had to be revised. The judges stated that they would not consider the complaints of torture as it was not the topic of the trial. As a result, it was necessary to rely mainly on information from prosecution witnesses, including secret ones, as evidence for the terrorist plots. 

We will never find out what kind of secret witnesses these were, although the suspects have their guesses. They recognised the instigator by his voice as a known nationalist.

And some facts are known about the defendants whowent over to the side of the prosecution.

28-year-old Igor Shishkin from St Petersburg, who was arrested in the Network case in January 2017, made a deal with the investigation and subsequently gave evidence as a witness for the prosecution. According to members of the Publict Monitoring Commission that visited him after his arrest, he had been severely beaten: the lower rim of his eye socket was broken, and he had bruises and marks on his body that looked like electrical burns. Under a special procedure that doesn’t allow for analysis of evidence of guilt, Shishkin received 3.5 years in prison.

I am absolutely convinced that a key moment of the whole trial was the acknowledgement that torture had been used. The court did not rely on confessions obtained under torture, and this means that it came to the conclusion that torture had actually taken place. And if torture was used, then there should be an investigation and those responsible should be punished. The trial cannot continue without it – it should be suspended at the very least – and no other testimony of secret witnesses repeating, word for word, confessions obtained under torture can be regarded as convincing.

In a meeting with the president in 2018, members of the Human Rights Council told him about the use of torture against defendants in the Network case. The chair of the Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov, explained that it was not being investigated because they did not dare cross paths with the FSB. Putin did not believe him, but promised to look into it. Apparently, FSB officers explained to him that there was no need.

The court approved the indictment while ignoring the torture. Can this be considered a victory for the prosecution? No, no one in their right mind would think that. I mean, it’s not 1937 anymore. There was no show trial, and the judgment handed down was discredited and met with a wave of indignation and public statements by representatives of various professional associations.

But the young men were given lengthy prison sentences.

Observing what is going on in Belarus, it is impossible for us to guess how events will unfold there. But no matter what Lukashenko does, the fact that the Belarusian people have rejected both him and the methods used by his law enforcement officers is a reality that cannot be changed. He has already lost, and the only question now is how much blood he is willing to shed on his way to obscurity.

It is a similar situation with the Network case. Looking at it, the younger generation, inoculated by cruelty and terror, becomes immune to fear. No matter what anyone says and no matter what statements the court hides behind, the rejection of cases like these and the methods used by the FSB is now a reality that cannot be changed.

I am sure there is a chance that the young men will be released, and they will be released long before they reach the end of their prison sentences. Freedom for the defendants in the Network case and freedom for the country are deeply interconnected.

An appeal hearing against the court’s verdict is set to take place on 2 September. It will probably take place in the Military Appeal Court in the closed settlement of Vlasikha, and it is unlikely that either journalists, or relatives, or those wishing to support the accused will be allowed access.

Keep your eye on the news – it is an event not to be missed.

* Network is an organisation banned in Russia

Translated by Mercedes Malcomson, Joanne Reynolds, Nina dePalma, Verity Hemp and Nicky Brown

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