26 July 2020
Zoya Svetova, journalist, human rights activist, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize, interviews Vera Vasilieva on the case of Aleksei Pichugin
On July 25, the former head of the economic department of the YUKOS security service, Aleksei Pichugin, turns 58 years old. He is known as the last prisoner of the Yukos affair. For the last 17 years he has been celebrating his birthday behind bars. Pichugin was sentenced to life imprisonment on 6 August 2007.
Memorial Human Rights Society has included Aleksei Pichugin on its list of Russian political prisoners. Journalist Vera Vasilieva knows more about this case than anyone else. She has written many articles and several books about her hero. My first question is, how did it all start?
How did you first hear about the Pichugin case? And why did you decide to write about him?”
I heard about this case in 2003, when it had just started. I was interested in the Yukos case. I was present at several court sessions, went to protests in support of Khodorkovsky and was able to form an opinion about the defendants, Mikhail Borisovich [Khodorkovsky] and Platon Leonidovich Lebedev. But I was only able to assess Aleksei Pichugin indirectly, through newspaper reports. The first trial in his case was held behind closed doors [he was tried by jury, the public was not allowed in, the first jury was dismissed because it wanted to acquit Pichugin, and the second passed a guilty verdict. – MBKh media] and in the end I could not decide for myself whether Pichugin was guilty or not.
I decided that when the open trial started, I would definitely attend, form my opinion and set my mind at rest. And so it was that I attended [the trial began on 4 April 2006 – MBKh Media] but could not set my mind at rest. I was shocked that the charge was so unsubstantiated. But almost no one attended the sessions, the press was scarce, because attention was diverted to the main trial in the Yukos case. And then, in principle, there was no tradition of [journalists] attending court. So I decided that I would continue to attend the trial and describe what was going on.
At first I wrote it up on LiveJournal, then, when I started working on the Human Rights website, I reported on the process there. And for the past 17 years I have not been able to leave the case alone.
You went to the hearings, corresponded with Aleksei, met his mother. Do you have a sense of what kind of person he is?
I only saw Aleksei during the trial. We have communicated personally only in letters. I got the impression that Aleksei is a kind, decent, honest and pure person. I also feel that that not enough is said about this case and his situation, and I try to fill this gap with my publications to the best of my ability.
You were present at each session and heard the evidence presented by the prosecution, heard the testimony of the witnesses for the defence. What is your impression of the case?
The testimony of the prosecution witnesses did not strike me as convincing, because some of them were speaking other people’s words. Someone had allegedly told them that Pichugin had done something. There were also witnesses who were brought from prison, who later retracted their testimonies. They said in court that they were forced to give these testimonies, in return for the promise of a reduction in their sentences, but these promises were not kept. I have not found the evidence of Aleksei Pichugin’s guilt convincing. And therefore I believe that his guilt was not proven either at the investigation or at the trial.
You write a lot on human rights topics, and cover various trials, but the overwhelming majority of your articles are devoted to the case of Aleksei Pichugin. How did it hook you so fiercely that you’ve practically devoted your journalistic life to it?
Firstly, this process has already taken too long. Aleksei Pichugin is the political prisoner who has been behind bars for the longest time, which in my opinion is probably why there are so many publications [about him]. In addition, this case, with its lack of proof and lengthy, cruel sentence, struck me above all others; also, relatively little attention is paid to it by society and in the media. I think that, of course, this is natural, because new arrests occur, new sentences are passed, time passes and people are distracted by these events. But we cannot forget about Aleksei and we must try to change his situation.
Vera, please remind us of what exactly Aleksei was accused, because after seventeen years many will have forgotten this detail.
Aleksei is accused of plotting murders in the corporate interests of Yukos. I believe that this motive is absolutely unproven, as is the allegation that Aleksei could have been involved in these tragic events. The most high-profile of these murders, which a lot of people still talk about and remember, is the murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk, Petukhov. According to MBKh Media, Pichugin was blamed for plotting this murder. The prosecution claimed Petukhov insisted on the repayment of budget debts by Yukos. But Yukos allegedly did not want to return this money and considered that their only solution was to have Mayor Petukhov killed. One element of the evidence, as mentioned by the prosecutor at the trial, was that Petukhov was killed on 26th June on the birthday of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The state prosecutor showed a copy of his passport in order to confirm the date of Khodorkovsky’s birthday. Such evidence is questionable, because the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, as is well known, was killed on the birthday of President Vladimir Putin. Surely we can’t on that basis, charge Putin with her murder and sentence him to life imprisonment, as was done with Aleksei Pichugin?
You have mentioned the murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk, and I was struck by the accusation of the conspiracy to murder Olga and Sergei Gorin. It is known that Sergei Gorin knew Pichugin. Allegedly the couple were killed, but no bodies were ever found. Why did the whole investigation and the subsequent trial consider that Pichugin was responsible for plotting this murder?
This is an episode from the first hearing of the trial, which was held behind closed doors. It is known from the case materials that the alleged murder took place in the Gorins’ house in Tambov. The Gorins’ children were locked in the bathroom, they did not witness the murder, but they heard that some people came and that there was a conversation between their parents and these unknown people. Since then, nothing has been heard of the parents. Indeed, the Gorins’ corpses have never been found. There is a well-known saying: “No body, no case.” But this principle does not apply to Pichugin. From my point of view, there was no evidence of Pichugin’s involvement in the planning of the Gorins’ murder. He and Aleksei were friends, Gorin for some time worked at the Menatep bank in Tambov, where it all happened. However, after some time Gorin was fired, some thefts were revealed and he was allegedly involved in the creation of a financial pyramid, like the MMM pyramid and this was given as the reason for his dismissal. After a while, Gorin asked Aleksei to help him find employment, Aleksei was looking for a new position for him and allegedly agreed on the possibility of working at a gas station. They were supposed to meet that very day, but Gorin did not come and the couple have since disappeared. No one knows whether or not they are alive, but this did not prevent the state prosecution from accusing Pichugin of organising their murder.
Were those who carried out this murder found?
No, neither the bodies nor those who carried out the murder were found.
And why didn’t you conduct a journalistic investigation and try to find the Gorins, if we can assume that they are alive?
I’m not an investigative journalist, so I couldn’t do that job.
Were there any people who, after reading your books, approached you with some previously unknown information on the Aleksei Pichugin case?
Yes, a few years ago, after the publication of one of my books, a biography of Aleksei, I had a letter from a man who introduced himself as a former investigator who had participated in the investigation in the first Pichugin trial. He said he wanted to read my book. I sent him the book electronically and after a while he offered to meet me and discuss the case. We met and he repeated that he worked as an investigator on the first Pichugin case in 2005, and he believes that Aleksei’s guilt has not been proven. In 2005 he left not only the Pichugin case, but the Prosecutor’s Office together.
He was quite a young man and he told me that how the Pichugin case was investigated did not correspond at all to what they were taught at the institute: evidence of Pichugin’s guilt was always added to the case file, while evidence of his innocence was always rejected. He said that, in his opinion, Pichugin’s guilt was not legally proven. Since then, this man has never worked in any government agencies. Unfortunately, he asked me not to give his name. It’s not so important that he didn’t agree to go to the media, it’s much more important that if he agreed to appear in court, agreed to formalize his testimony legally, it could help in the international court as well, when considering how fair the prosecution of Aleksei Pichugin was. Unfortunately, it was just a private conversation.
The scientist Igor Sutyagin (who was convicted of espionage in 2004 – MBKh Media) was imprisoned in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison in the same cell as Aleksei Pichugin. He witnessed how, one day in summer 2003, Pichugin was brought back from interrogation in a state of literal insanity. As his lawyers later stated, Pichugin had been treated with psychotropic drugs in an attempt to force him to testify against Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Do you know anything about this?
At one of the court hearings in the trial of Leonid Nevzlin, where Aleksei Pichugin acted as a witness, Pichugin mentioned that he was being held in Lefortovo together with Igor Sutyagin. After that I wrote a letter to Sutyagin and sent him my book about Pichugin. After a short while, Sutyagin replied to my letter and told me that he had written a story about how psychotropic drugs had been administered to Pichugin at Lefortovo. Sutyagin said he would send me this story once he was released. And so he did. When Sutyagin was exchanged (in 2010 – MBKh Media) for Russian intelligence officers who had been living undercover in the United States he sent me his story. Soon afterwards, it was published on the Human Rights website. And in 2011, Sutyagin testified to the European Court of Human Rights and described the condition in which Aleksei Pichugin had been after his interrogation by the FSB investigation department, and how he had been injected with psychotropic drugs, in connection with demands that he testify against Khodorkovsky and Nevzlin.
Has this case been investigated in any way in Russia?
We know that in 2015-2016 Pichugin was brought back to Lefortovo in Moscow from the prison colony for prisoners serving life-sentences where he is serving his time. The authorities again wanted to get him to testify against Khodorkovsky. Pichugin again refused to give such testimony. Recently Mikhail Khodorkovsky said in an interview: “After I was released, I naturally told him (through lawyers, of course) that he could give absolutely any testimony that was dictated to him, and he could decide whether to sign off on it. He replied, ‘I can’t allow myself to do that’.” Why, in your opinion, does Pichugin continue to insist on this?
Aleksei Pichugin said that he could not give false testimony against another person. He is a deeply religious person and perjury, in his view, is one of the worst sins. Therefore, he could never agree to Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky’s suggestion.
The situation with Aleksei Pichugin is unique. The European Court of Human Rights made two rulings relating to him. The European Court decided that his right to a fair trial had been violated. In such cases, the Russian Supreme Court must rule that the case should be reviewed in connection with “new circumstances”. But the Supreme Court did not make such a decision. Rather, it ignored the two rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. What are the prospects for this case now? Are there any international mechanisms for changing Pichugin’s fate? Is it possible to reexamine the Pichugin case?
With regards to Aleksei Pichugin, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has already passed six rulings stating that Russia has failed to comply with the decisions of the ECtHR in both the first and second trials. The Committee also proposed another option: President Putin could pardon Aleksei Pichugin, and then the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe would consider the ECtHR decision on Pichugin as having been fulfilled. But this has not yet been done. Pichugin has applied to Putin for clemency three times, but his requests were denied by the Orenburg Pardons Commission (Pichugin is serving time in Orenburg region – MBKh Media). I don’t know whether Putin saw these requests from Pichugin.
What are Pichugin and his lawyers hoping for?
Pichugin’s lawyers have placed their hopes in the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The European body has given Russia until September 2020 to comply with the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling.
So Aleksei and his lawyers have hope only in European justice? Because under Russian law, prisoners sentenced to life are released on parole after 25 years, and in practice, we know that they must admit guilt.
Yes, these are very rare cases. A total of seven people sentenced to life have been released on parole. And I know of a case when someone sentenced to life was released on parole after confessing his guilt. But Aleksei has not admitted guilt and remains in prison.
So really, only a miracle will get Aleksei out of prison.
I think that they are afraid to release him because they are afraid he will take revenge. I have to say that Aleksei is absolutely not the sort of person who would take revenge on someone. He doesn’t want revenge. If he were to be released, he would live his private life and enjoy spending time with his family. He certainly wouldn’t spend time on revenge.
On 25 July Aleksei Pichugin turned 58. He has spent 17 of these 58 years in a pre-trial detention centre and a prison colony for those sentenced to life imprisonment. It must really be hoped that this innocent and undeservedly convicted man will be released as soon as possible.