Zoya Svetova: From the “student terrorist case” to the “Network case” – How cases against terrorist organizations are fabricated and how a Meduza article fits in here

23 February 2020

By Zoya Svetova, journalist, human rights activist, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s human rights prize

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Echo of Moscow]

When did they start doing this? And when did they train us not to be indignant, not to notice falsifications but rather consider them the norm?

On 10 February in Penza, a sentence was issued in the Network* case, a sentence that horrified many and made them loudly express their disagreement with the practice of torture and the fabrication of cases.

I am trying to remember the first similar case wholly fabricated for the sake of the political situation. For me, of course, it’s the “case of the Chechen student terrorist” Zara Murtazalieva, who the Moscow City Court sentenced in 2004 to nine years in a prison colony for “preparing to commit a terrorist act.”

Campaigns galore

The case concerned the preparation of an explosion at the Okhotny Ryad shopping center, which the Chechen student had allegedly prepared together with two other young Russian women who had converted to Islam. Proof of guilt was the plastic explosive planted in her purse, photographs of couples kissing on the shopping center escalator, and recordings from surveillance cameras installed in a rented apartment on which Murtazalieva discusses the actions of Russian soldiers in Chechnya, clothes, and makeup. I wrote about this case, attended the trial, and tried to understand how the investigators, judge, and prosecutor could live with themselves after fabricating all this. Now I understand how: just fine.

Judge Marina Komarova already had behind her a candidate dissertation on a comparative analysis of antiterrorist legislation in Russia and the world. In Moscow City Court she specialized in “terrorist” and “espionage” cases; essentially, she was a special services judge. For example, she tried the defendants in the explosion at the apartment building in Volgodonsk, and the “spies” Igor Sutyagin and Valentin Moiseev. Lawyers I know spoke of Komarova as a “competent judge,” meaning she could not have failed to understand and see that there was no proof of Murtazalieva’s guilt in the case materials. Then why nine years? And the prosecutor, Yulia Safina, who asked that the defendant be sentenced to 12 years of prison colony for conversations about the Chechen war, is now a judge on the Basmanny court.

The Murtazalieva case was one of the first cases that struck me and wouldn’t let me go, the way the New Greatness and Network cases won’t let go of many young journalists now.

As we know, our law enforcement officers and courts live by “campaigns.” In the early 2000s, Chechens, Ingush, and people from the Caucasus in general were “designated” to be terrorists. After Crimea’s annexation, they began to “designate” Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars as terrorists, which, actually, has not stopped cases from arising from time to time seemingly from a past vector (and now I’m thinking only of trials that took place in Moscow), such as the “case of the preparation of the terrorist act at the Kirghizia cinema.”

The case began with a statement made by a resident on Natasha Kachuevskaya street, a retired FSB [Federal Security Service] employee, who thought the lodgers in one of the apartments they rented on the same stairwell looked like “extremists.”

The rest was a matter of mechanics. Law enforcement officers from various divisions of the MVD [Interior Ministry] and FSB carried out a search of the apartment, and they were joined by representatives of the Russian FSB’s Service for the Defence of the Constitutional Order and the Fight Against Terrorism.

The case was investigated for nearly a year at the Moscow Investigative Committee, and in September 2014, a special investigator, Captain Ivan Shcherbakov, issued an unexpected decision. He had arrived at the conclusion that the sole authentically established fact in the investigation’s framework was the presence of a weapon in the apartment. And so he dropped what he saw as three extraneous charges for “homicide,” “terrorist act,” and “incitement of hatred or hostility,” leaving only “possessing a weapon.” This investigator’s resolution in and of itself was unique; scarcely could you encounter an analogy in similar cases: “… The defendants’ actions show no signs of a crime under the article on preparation of a terrorist act inasmuch as no objective evidence was obtained on the purposes for keeping [the weapon and explosive substances]. The presence in the apartment of religious literature, including of a radical nature, in and of itself does not constitute a crime under the article on incitement of hatred or hostility.”

The investigation was handed over to the MVD investigative administration, but by that time the defendants had been in custody for a year and under that article they had to be released, so the case would fall apart. In order to prevent this, the MVD investigator restored to the case the articles removed by his colleague from the Investigative Committee, extended the investigation for up to 18 months, and successfully handed it over to trial.

There was no terrorism: 11-13 years hard labour

According to the prosecution, the 15 people involved in this case – allegedly members of the banned international organisation “Takfir wal-Hijra” – planned a terrorist attack on the Kirghizia cinema. An expert in Islamic extremism, Vitaly Ponomarev, doubts the existence of such an organisation, or in Russia in any case. This is the view of Memorial Human Rights Centre, which recognised those involved in the case as political prisoners.

Shortly before the verdict, lawyers held a press conference in which they detailed inconsistencies in the investigation. It struck me then that the explosive devices and martyrs’ belts were found wrapped in cellophane during a search under mattresses and pillows in a rented apartment on Moscow’s Kachuevskaya Street. No fingerprints belonging to the accused were found on these ‘finds’. Lawyers are sure that the explosive materials were planted in the apartment by the search officers, as was the ammunition found on another of the accused – Tazhib Makhmudov, a Perekrestok supermarket driver who lived at his father-in-law’s flat near Voikovskaya metro station. An unwitnessed search was conducted, and 12 rounds of ammunition were found in his father-in-law’s bedside table. Tazhib Makhmudov, considered the leader of the banned international organisation, was charged with their possession.

But the most incredible fabrication was the testimony of a secret witness under the pseudonym Maksim Petrov. He told the investigation that those involved were preparing a terrorist act at the cinema near Novogireevo metro station from January 1-10 2014, and were keeping explosive devices and ammunition in their home. At the trial, it turned out that one of the defendants was this secret witness. When his pseudonym was uncovered, he stated that he never gave such evidence, and that he signed his statement without looking at it, trusting the investigator. The defence demanded in court that these testimonies be excluded from the case materials as they were unacceptable evidence. However, the court used them as the basis for its verdict, along with the testimony of another secret witness, a cellmate in the pre-trial detention centre where one of the defendants had been held. Incidentally, using cellmates to confirm charges when the defendants do not plead guilty is common practice in investigations. The value of such evidence is paltry, as it is obvious that if the person does not plead guilty, then he will not openly confide in a cellmate. But in the absence of good evidence, judges often base their convictions on this.

So in the case of “Preparing an act of terrorism at the Kirghizia cinema”, all 15 defendants were sentenced to 11-13 years in prison. None of them pleaded guilty.

Human rights activists have tried to attract the attention of journalists and the general public. Several publications wrote about it but alas these failed to stress that it was clear the case had been thought up in the investigator’s office (proven by the fact that the terrorism charges were withdrawn as they were groundless).

Torture, secret witnesses and a deal with justice

The case of UNA-UNSO [‘Ukrainian National Assembly’]* members Nikolai Karpiuk and Stanislav Klykh, who were detained in Russia in 2014, accused of participating in the first Chechen war on the side of the separatists, did not cause much public outrage. The accused could not find lawyers for more than six months. Once they did, it turned out that Klykh was subjected to torture and had confessed under durress. His mother, having met with her son, said Klykh was suffering from significant mental health issues. The prosecution was based on the testimony of a single witness, who likely fought on the side of Chechen separatists in 1994. This individual ended up in prison for murder and, facing serious illness, agreed to testify against people unknown to him in exchange for leniency. The court in Chechnya sentenced Nikolai Karpiuk and Stanislav Klykh to 22.5 and 20 years respectively in a strict regime prison colony.

I have spoken about a few cases that could be used as examples of fabrication and falsification, which would be at home in a guidebook for investigators and operatives who prefer inventing crimes to solving them. I am sure that “guidebooks” like these have existed for a long time, because the methods used by investigators in different cases and regions are often similar to the point that they risk being confused with one another.

As a rule, the basis of the prosecution and sentencing is made up of testimony extracted under torture, as well as the agreement of witnesses who made deals with investigators and the testimony of “secret witnesses” (often cellmates of the accused) who invent information useful for the investigation.

Often in such cases, provocateurs are used, who encourage future defendants to talk and criticise the authorities while they secretly record them, and then pass the recordings to the security services. Such provocation worked, for example, in the case of the “Crimean terrorists” in which Oleg Sentsov and Aleksandr Kolchenko were convicted.

Recently, when cases of anti-government terror attacks began to appear, defendants in the cases were accused of writing the statutes of non-existent political organisations, an approach employed alongside the routine planting of physical evidence, be it weapons, explosives and ammunition.

The Network case was blatantly fabricated in full confidence that there would be no ramifications: the court would issue harsh sentences but society is accustomed to such cases, even if they are horrified.

To discredit and sow doubt

But the public outcry over this case – workers wrote letters in support, and some politicians appealed to the Prosecutor General to investigate the use of torture (Sergei Mironov, leader of A Just Russia, and KPRF’s Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Rashkin) – shows that society was not sitting by quietly. It seemed that the campaign to support those who received excessive prison terms for a non-existent crime would gain strength.

But at the exact same moment that this powerful campaign of solidarity with those convicted in the Network* case started gaining momentum, an article appeared in Meduza alleging that the defendants in the Penza case might be involved in the disappearance of Ekaterina Levchenko and the murder of Artem Dorofeyev. Levchenko and Dorofeyev knew the defendants in the Penza case. They disappeared in March 2017, and Dorofeyev’s body was later discovered in a forest in Ryazan. While in custody, the defendants in the Penza case were also interrogated as witnesses in the Dorofeyev murder case, but none of them were charged. Why?

Lack of evidence? Or perhaps the charge was being saved for later?

In Russian legal practice, when society begins to doubt the justice of a fabricated high-profile case, the defendants are charged with something new. This is what happened in the Yukos case and with Aleksei Navalny, who, after the Kirovles case, was charged in the Yves Rocher case.

Either way, the publication of an article on the possible involvement of Dmitry Pchelintsev and the other Penza case defendants in the double murder damages the extensive public campaign in their defence and discredits them, raising doubts about the need to defend them. Yet the weak evidence cited in the article does little to show the expediency of publishing information that raises doubts about its reliability, and it is not so much in the public interest that it justifies the hurry to publish it.

In point of fact, the article is playing into the hands of those who fabricated the case against a non-existent terrorist organisation.

It could also lead to even worse consequences: the investigation into the double murder in the Ryazan forest might resume, and the involvement of those already convicted in Penza on terrorism charges could be fabricated.

I find it hard to believe that the people who were willing to defend them when they were tortured into confessing their involvement in a non-existent terrorist organisation will fight for justice and the freedom of people charged with murder.

* An organisation banned in Russia.

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Nathalie Corbett, James Lofthouse and Nicky Brown

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