Ilya Shablinsky: State and Punishment
Photo by Sergei Chugunov

10 April 2023

Why Tatarsky the ‘war correspondent’ might have been killed, plus a new wave of tough sentences in Russia. Ilya Shablinsky covers the key developments this past week

Ilya Shablinsky is a legal expert and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Spektr

China began naval exercises in the immediate vicinity of Taiwan, deploying an aircraft carrier, some jets, and several warships. They are carrying out drills for an operation to surround the island. Specialists all around the world are watching the exercises closely. ‘China’s big plans for Taiwan’ remains one of the most discussed topics within the expert community, and one of the most concerning.

However, experts generally interpret this show of force not as actual preparations for an invasion, but as a response to a recent visit by the head of the Taiwan administration (President of the Republic of China), Tsai Ing-wen, to the United States. It should be noted that Tsai Ing-wen is Taiwan’s first female president and that she was recently re-elected for a second four-year term. She has always been strongly opposed to Beijing’s ‘one country-two systems’ principle, remembering what it led to in Hong Kong. Economic relations with mainland China have remained at a fairly high level under Tsai (she is a one-time minister of relations with the PRC). She is in any case surely an irritant to the leadership of ‘Greater China’. During her visit to the US, she met with the speaker of the House of Representatives (but not with the US president).

Now to dispiriting developments in Russia…

Darya Trepova, the main suspect in the murder case of military correspondent Fomin (nom de guerre Vladlen Tatarsky), admitted she had been the one who brought a plaster bust concealing a radio-controlled explosive device to the meeting with Tatarsky. Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee claimed that the explosion had been organised by the Ukrainian secret services, using Trepova to do the deed – possibly unawares.

This version may have some merit, but the question remains, why was this particular propagandist of war and hate (“we’ll kill everyone, we’ll rob everyone…”) targeted? Vladlen Tatarsky may have been a prominent figure in that group, though not notably more prominent than the other ‘war correspondents’.  It is conceivable that those who authorised the terrorist attacks on Aleksandr and Daria Dugin, and on Vladlen Tatarsky, were somehow motivated by ideology. And to a Ukrainian audience, unlike a Russian one, these considerations matter.

In recent days, another theory has been circulating according to which a certain group within Russia’s security forces could have had a vested interest in the terrorist attack, seeking as they did to reopen the debate about reinstating the death penalty. And such a debate has indeed been reopened. There are now voices demanding that the Constitutional Court and legislators take immediate action on this front.

Personally, I find suggestions about far-reaching provocation unconvincing. In conditions of war, where a single man – the instigator of that war – has the final say, it doesn’t take any provocation at all for there to be more bloodshed. 

There is another side to this, though. Any killing like that may well have the effect of inciting hatred in a battle against Russia’s domestic enemies. Under arrest, Trepova will probably inform her jailers before too long that she took instructions regarding the war correspondent’s bust from the leader of the opposition himself, from prison. State propaganda generally tends to make the most of such opportunities.     

For me, individual acts of terror are not only ethically unacceptable, but counterproductive in terms of bringing about the best conditions to end the war for Ukraine, the victim of aggression. The influence of rank-and-file Russian state propagandists on the actual course of military operations has always been negligible. And for the authorities of the aggressor country, the death of each warmonger only serves as grist to their mill, as mentioned above. We should also remark on the fact that some people who do not appear to have been targeted also suffered in the explosion.

That is why there is every reason to support a statement by a group of anti-war Russian organisations condemning the terrorist attack.

Next there’s a whole selection of news about sentences, either already handed down or in the planning stages. In Moscow, the prosecutor has called for politician and human rights activist Vladimir Kara-Murza to be sentenced to 25 years in jail. Generally speaking, the Prosecutor’s Office has extremely rarely sought such a lengthy stretch. For example, a professional hitman from the Solntsevo Gang who killed either 15 or 17 people was sentenced to 24 years in jail at the beginning of the 2000s (it appears the guy is out already and might now be fighting as part of a “private military company”). They are now throwing the book at Kara-Murza. The opposition politician is accused of state treason, cooperation with an undesirable organisation and the dissemination of misinformation (fake news) about the army. I remind you that the chief neurologist of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia  has diagnosed Kara-Murza with polyneuropathy which, under the rules, requires his release from custody. The court refused even to look at the medical report, however. Vladimir Kara-Murza has lost 17 kilos in weight while he’s been in prison. All things considered, the main reason he is seriously unwell is down to the two attempts to poison him in 2015-2017. 

On a related note, a draft law  on an amendment to Article 275 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code, stipulating life imprisonment for state treason, has just been submitted to the State Duma, on 7 April. It’s life now. But what constitutes this crime in the Russian code today? What must someone do to be accused of state treason? In the pre-Putin version, it was the same as it has always been in any state: espionage or the handing over of confidential information. Whereas now, it’s whatever you like. There’s the wording: “the provision of financial, material, technical, consultative or other assistance to a foreign state, an international or foreign organisation or their representatives through activity targeting the security of the Russian Federation”. In other words, any conversation with anyone – not necessarily even a foreigner since absolutely anyone can be declared a “representative” of a foreign or international organisation – can be interpreted as providing “consultative assistance” targeting the security of the Russian Federation. Full stop. 

Vladimir Kara-Murza is accused specifically of two public anti-war appearances, one of which took place in the USA. This appearance, of course, is easily interpreted as “consultative assistance”. And there you go – 25 years. But it’s still not life…

By comparison to these wishes on the part of the prosecutor in the case of an opposition politician, the decision taken recently to fine Saint Petersburg resident Elena Tarbaeva 50,000 roubles seems relatively innocuous. She had gone to attend a court sitting in the town of Efremov in Tula Oblast. The court was considering the withdrawal of parental rights from Aleksei Moskalev, the father of Masha who drew an anti-war picture, creating uproar not only throughout the oblast but throughout the country as a whole. Petersburg resident Tarbaeva stood outside the court building with a sign saying, “Putin eats children!” She was, of course, arrested and taken to the police station. It all ended in a minor fine, in other words, it all ended well. Let’s note, however, Tarbaeva’s pluck in going to Efremov and the accuracy of her metaphor.  

Aleksei Moskalev himself, as reported by the authorities of fraternal and authoritarian Belarus, is in a remand centre in the city of Zhodino. He is due to be returned to Russia shortly to serve his sentence. The Efremov Court previously sentenced him to two years in jail. Now, though, taking into account his escape from house arrest, the sentence will probably be reviewed.

At this point we should simply recall the essence of the case once again. All the state’s police might was aimed – after the discovery of the above-mentioned drawing – at destroying one small family of two persons and at sending the father to jail and the daughter to a children’s home. It now seems that they’d like to keep Moskalev in Belarus so that the case is somewhat forgotten and so that Masha’s Mum (a peculiar individual, by the sound of things) can be persuaded to take Masha out of the children’s home at least for a while. So they can loudly declare: but the daughter is with her mother. Then the vileness of this entire operation by the Tula high-ups won’t be quite so obvious. 

Of course, it will.

These are all serious matters so now a couple of words about some comical ones. Evgeny Prigozhin, the head of a not unfamiliar PMC, has demanded that the Investigative Committee bring criminal charges against Saint Petersburg governor Aleksandr Beglov under an article on destroying or damaging cultural heritage sites, which envisages up to six years’ imprisonment. Prigozhin is much distressed by the “extremely negative situation” linked to preserving the city’s cultural heritage sites. These are mainly historic buildings. It turns out that Prigozhin is planning to build a hotel in one of them.

Everything seems to suggest that the head of the PMC is blatantly trolling both the Investigative Committee and the Saint Petersburg governor in pursuit of certain political ambitions of his own. He is known to want to see certain of his own people in good positions in the northern capital. Does he perhaps also see himself in the office of governor? Basically, being bogged down in fighting outside Bakhmut is not preventing him at all from lodging regular complaints with the Investigative Committee about his chief enemy in Saint Petersburg.

It has become known that concerts by the Nochnye Snaipery rock group were cancelled simultaneously in six Russian cities at the beginning of April. Ulyanovsk made the surprise announcement on the actual day of the concert that some “oblast-level ceremony” had been planned for the same space. In Kazan, the concert’s cancellation was explained on technical grounds, while in Pyatigorsk the director of the Culture Centre was the most open, saying that the artistes themselves must understand why it was happening. The media had previously reported that some activist, already known for such denunciations, had reported Diana Arbenina to the authorities and demanded that her work be checked for “discrediting” the Russian army. I must point out that last year Nochnye Snaipery did indeed perform an anti-war song, “Do not be silent”. The informer might also, arguably, be recalling the fact that five years ago Arbenina gave Kvartal 95 a piece of music that has now become one the national anthems of Ukraine at war. There again, it doesn’t say a thing about the Russian army…  

Translated by Lindsay Munford and Melanie Moore

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