20 July 2021
by Vera Vasilieva, independent journalist, head of Radio Svoboda’s project ‘Svoboda and Memorial,’ laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize
In Russia, campaigns for the State Duma elections are in full swing. With the political field cleared of opposition, the speeches and steps taken by each of the candidates are attracting increasing attention. Dozhd TV recently interviewed Aleksei Nechaev, leader of the New People party, which covered, among other things, Russian political prisoners. Nechaev stubbornly avoided answering the interviewer’s question about whether or not there are currently political prisoners in our country, and he steered the conversation in a different direction. He said that there are many people who are unjustly behind bars as a result of economic disputes, not because they’ve committed real crimes.
I must say I’m surprised that anyone still doubts that there are political prisoners in today’s Russia. I thought the answer had been obvious for a long time, that asking it was like debating whether the Earth revolves around the Sun or the Sun around the Earth. The term “political prisoner” has been clearly defined, in particular by a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. You can call what is white black of course, and vice versa, but that won’t change the fact of the matter, and unfortunately the phenomenon itself won’t go away. After a break of ten years, from the late 1980s to the late 1990s (a brief break, especially from a historical point of view) political prisoners have again become a reality in Russia. The list of political prisoners, which is compiled by Memorial Human Rights Centre and others, is steadily growing. (Memorial is listed by the Russian Ministry of Justice as a “foreign agent” and disputes this status.)
Another issue — a very large problem that Nechaev spoke about in the Dozhd interview — concerns those who have been unjustly convicted in Russia. This group is obviously much larger than the number of political prisoners. You could be sent to prison for, say, corruption, by order of some influential foes, or for stepping on someone’s toes, so you stay quiet or stay out, or otherwise they will seek revenge… For example, I’m inclined to believe that this is what happened to Aleksander Markin, who was convicted in a trumped-up criminal case, and about whom I have written more than once. Or they put people in prison to tick a box, as if that solves the case — or because the quality of the jurisdiction is low, when the investigation and the court don’t want or don’t know how to probe into all the details of the case…
It’s always amazed me how nowadays the prosecution uses stereotypical phrases when justifying remanding someone in custody, or the extension of custody: “They may hide from the investigation, put pressure on witnesses.” In an ideal world, these standard phrases would be filled with specifics: what exactly are the facts that indicate that the defendant really can and will behave in bad faith? While in court the defence has to meticulously justify every little thing they say, but it’s enough for the prosecution to use unsubstantiated wording. Another instance are the theses of indictments, which are already household phrases: “At an unspecified time, at an unspecified place, they conspired with unspecified persons”… I first encountered these phrases at Aleksei Pichugin’s trial and have heard them repeatedly at other courts. How can one defend oneself against a charge like that, if nothing has been established? How can you prove that you were not at an unspecified place at an unspecified time and did not communicate with unspecified persons?
Another question that is often discussed is whether it is appropriate to draw parallels between the prosecution of political opponents and other persons the regime views unfavourably today and what happened in the Soviet past. Searches, the jailing of journalists, endless exposure of “spies”, “traitors to the Motherland”, “foreign agents” and members of “undesirable” organizations… It’s a very bad sign of our times. Yet nevertheless it rather jars on my ears when I hear comparisons being made with Stalinist times. It is different, although sometimes, unfortunately, no less cruel. It’s enough to remember Pichugin’s 18-year unjust imprisonment.
There are debates going on in society as well as to whether today’s political repression in Russia is mass or selective in nature? I don’t think we can call it “selective” anymore: the state is systematically attacking basic human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, religious freedom, and other important rights and freedoms. But what is happening is not what took place under Stalin. In my opinion, the repression is becoming mass in nature, but this happens when civic activism rises to a certain level, above which, in the view of the authorities, it becomes intolerable. At that point, for example, political activity and political ambition become dangerous.
This is especially evident now in terms of the coming State Duma elections. The recent arrest and remanding in custody of Ketevan Kharaidze, a municipal deputy in Moscow’s Tverskoi district, just as she was getting ready to run for election to the Duma, and before this the suspended sentence given to Yulia Galiamina, a municipal deputy in the capital’s Timiryazevo, are clear examples of this. Supporters of the current government often say: “If not Putin, then who? There is no one!” But if there is no one, it is because new leaders to develop. They are either put behind bars, like Aleksei Navalny and Andrei Pivovarov, or are forced abroad, like Dmitry Gudkov and Aleksandr Solovev and many others.
The poor quality of the justice system and its use for political purposes are two different problems, although related, in my view. One should not be substituted for the other. We should fight to change both. For me personally, the litmus test for any politician is how, in declaring their political ambitions, they deal with the issue of political prisoners and those unjustly convicted in Russia. The resolution of these matters should be a priority, first point in the electoral programme of any aspiring candidate.