27 April 2022
On 28 April, at 10:30, Moscow Region’s Domodedovo Court will begin hearing the criminal case against Aleksandr Shestun for making threats against and denigrating representatives of the regime. To participate in the trial, the politician has already been moved from Pnal Colony No. 6 in Bezhetsk, where he is serving a 15-year sentence, to the remand centre in Kashira.
Shestun has been charged for several statements he made about Podolsk Municipal Court Judge Tatyana Yuferova and representatives of the General Prosecutor’s Office. In particular, Shestun’s putative crimes consist in the fact that he threatened unprincipled judges with a Hague tribunal. Judge Yuferova was also offended by the former head of Serpukhovsky Raion using “zoomorphic images” in addressing her.
On the eve of the first session we spoke with three well-known human rights activists about what Shestun can expect from the upcoming trial and how political prisoners, and all of society as well, are supposed to live in the new reality.
“If the judges in Russia were independent, one might construct certain expectations based on legal norms . . . but that isn’t our case,” reasons Svetlana Astrakhantseva, executive director of the Moscow Helsinki group. “Aleksandr Vyacheslavovich is a colorful public personality, a strong and inflexible person, and the regime sees people like that as a threat. The system uses all its powers to break political people like him, to instill in them a sense of isolation and impotence in the face of the regime, to suppress their will. The upcoming trial will not be judicial but just as political as the previous one. . . . It hurts me to say this, and hurts me to think it, but more than likely they are going to tack on a few more years to the 15 years of strict regime penal colony— for crimes he did not commit.”
“Things were always bad here when it came to observing human rights, but now it’s going to be even worse,” says Lev Ponomarev, director of For Human Rights. “Human rights activists here have now been marginalized, turned into foreign agents. It would be good if there were attention paid this trial, if people came to the hearings. We saw how they convicted Aleksei Navalny under an analogous article. Aleksandr Shestun has no reason to expect anything good here.”
Parallels to other political cases have been drawn as well by Apostolic Orthodox Church Bishop Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko, who has been defending political prisoners for many years and visits them where they are incarcerated:
“You know, we are now waiting for the court’s decision in an analogous trial against Sergei Evgenievich Mokhnatkin. The trials are going on posthumously because we, his friends, are certain he is innocent. He is accused of the same thing, that allegedly he said something he shouldn’t have at a hearing. You realize, when someone encounters flagrant injustice, I understand very well how he cannot be silent. In a certain sense he should not have to be silent. But we have a judicial system that literally tries to force a person to be silent and express their thanks. Kiss the evildoer’s hand! Thank him for not killing you. Instead of objectively conducting an investigation, they drive the person into a simple system: endure, be silent, and be thankful it’s this way, after all, it could be worse.”
In many ways, political prisoners’ situation has been aggravated by the drastically changed agenda. For the last six weeks, human rights activists’ attention has been riveted to Ukraine. Many public-spirited people and politically active citizens have been forced to leave Russia. The independent media have been shut down. There’s almost no one left to talk about political prisoners’ problems.
“Naturally, the catastrophe we’ve all arrived at very seriously complicates the position of political prisoners,” says Svetlana Astrakhantseva. “First of all, everyone who is not indifferent to injustice and sufferings has switched over to the Ukrainian agenda and to helping Ukrainian refugees both in Russia and in Europe. Secondly, this means the weakening of the very infrastructure of support for political prisoners, including in connection with the elimination of Memorial, the leading human rights organization, whose contribution in support of political prisoners cannot be overstated. The lack of media attention makes the situation even worse, of course. . . . Thinking about how to act in these new realities, I recall the experience of the first members of the Moscow Helsinki Group. A small handful of people in the absolutely totalitarian Soviet regime found opportunities to draw attention to the topic of political prisoners not only abroad but also inside the Soviet Union. Just do what should be done, what you’re fated to do. It’s important not to retreat.
“Just like Soviet political prisoners, today’s political prisoners will not be freed until the regime that made them such changes. There are, of course, alarming sensations of impending darkness. . . . In the last six weeks society has been reshaped radically such that we could not have imagined in our wildest fantasies. Virtually all the achievements of the past 30 years concerning human rights have been wiped out. Virtually all the conditions have been created for an explosive increase in the number of political prisoners — the people who are fighting to make Russia better. The darkness will disperse in any case, though, it can’t be otherwise. I hope to see both Aleksandr Vyacheslavovich and all the political prisoners at liberty as soon as possible!”
“I have spoken with Aleksandr in various penitentiaries,” Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko says. “He is a whole-hearted, disciplined, mature man with a well-developed system of ethical coordinates above all. He is doing a great deal not only for himself but also for those who have wound up with him. This is a great deed. I hope very much that when he is released — and this will happen much sooner than the court has meted out for him — he can wholly apply all his remarkable talents and important, albeit very sad, life experience.
“It hurts terribly to watch him. I hope he gets out well before his sentence, as soon as the political situation in Russia changes,” says Lev Ponomarev. “The story of Aleksandr Shestun characterizes Russia’s political regime. Any words here would be superfluous. Shestun is a strong person, a political prisoner, and a hero.”
Translated by Marian Schwartz