15 November 2020
By Lev Ponomarev, chair of the national NGO For Human Rights and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
The “Network” (an organisation banned in Russia) case began with electric shock torture and caused a huge scandal. Dozens of collective petitions demanding the charges be dropped were published in the media and social media. The president had to comment on the torture situation at a meeting with the Council on Human Rights and Civil Society on 11 December 2018.
Then there was a trial at which the prosecution’s case simply fell apart. Signs of blatant falsification of evidence were revealed, stories of torture were repeated in full detail. The defendants talked about them during the trials both in St. Petersburg and in Penza. And the three-letter word constantly popped up: FSB [the Federal Security Service].
It was clear that the prosecution had reached a dead end. Those who closely followed the Network case hoped that the proceedings would be terminated – they could not be based on confessions made under torture. Everyone expected the authorities to exculpate themselves somehow: no one believed in the hastily cobbled together story of young terrorists who were supposedly going to disrupt the World Cup and the 2018 presidential elections anymore. And then it turned out that there was simply no way out of this situation. The three-letter word – FSB – turned out to be sacred.
There was no investigation of the torture, no punishment of the perpetrators, not even any concessions to the defendants. A monstrous, illegal verdict was announced, and subsequently upheld, and the young people were sent to prison – some for six years with tuberculosis, and some for 18 years. Neither the defence arguments, nor mass public appeals and petitions, nor street actions, nor the discussion of torture by the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society had helped. As it turned out, the president did not trust human rights advocates; the falsifications that had been prudently prepared by the FSB had the edge for him. This was exactly what he said about the Network, and his words apparently predetermined the court’s decision.
As a result, the chair of the Council on Human Rights and Civil Society Mikhail Fedotov was dismissed from his office, the Movement For Human Rights (which initiated and supported the civic campaign) was designated a “foreign agent”, the electricity at its premises was disconnected, and then the movement was liquidated altogether.
And what about the head of the Penza FSB directorate, Sergai Sizov, under whose leadership the Network case was initiated? Don’t worry about him – he received the rank of general-major and was promoted, becoming head of the regional FSB in Chelyabinsk region. And Sizov was already a general lieutenant at the time of the Chelyabinsk National Bolshevik case. The governor of Penza region, Ivan Belozertsev, said to him in connection with his promotion: “During these three years we worked very well together. I am thankful to you for our work. In the Penza FSB there are wonderful traditions which I am sure will be maintained.”
But the Network case didn’t end there. FSB agents once again approached Maksim Ivankin and Arman Saginbaev, promising a visit from their “Moscow colleagues” “very, very soon”, hinting at prison sentences and problems with their health, and demanding that they give evidence about a supposed “Moscow cell of the Network”. And again, pressure and threats, and just because the Chekists from the very start announced the discovery of a large terrorist organisation that was even present in the capital.
The machine that is creating evil today in Russia is a colossal, bloodthirsty mechanism which cannot stop itself. In principle it cannot stop. In the same way that we once walked the endless path to “the complete and final victory of communism”, now an endless discovery of terrorist and extremist cells is going on, cells that your children will be in, your friends, and friends of your friends. They will be tortured, and their torturers will receive medals for it, and we will not be able to defend anybody. Torture and falsifications will become commonplace, and courts across Russia will work the same way. To paraphrase the famous words of Volodin, one can say that “There’s Putin and ‘United Russia’ – there’s the FSB, violence and torture.”
The only way to protect our children, nieces and nephews is to change the political system in Russia. I am sure that most Russians understand this situation. We must become a real political power, a civil nation that stands against the arbitrariness of structures of power and the lack of change of those in government. By 2021, a broad coalition of civil and political movements must be formed, which will demand a return to free democratic elections, the restoration of constitutional order and the release of political prisoners.
Let us begin this civil campaign.
To conclude, here is a letter from the parents of some of the defendants of the Network case, which will someday be a document of the Putin era. This is a letter which the parents wrote to the Ombudsman for Human Rights in Russia, T. N. Moskalkova. They asked for mercy, for their children to remain in a Penza region penal colony. By law this is possible, but the leadership of the Federal Penitentiary Service denied them even this.