23 May 2020
Vera Vasilieva is a freelance journalist who leads the Radio Svoboda project Freedom and Memorial. She won the Moscow Helsinki Group’s Human Rights Award in 2018.
It was announced that starting from 12 May, the period of non-working days would come to an end. Although it’s clearly far too early to discuss the end of the pandemic, we can try to make sense of what the Russian government and Russian society have learned during this time. Analyzing this in terms of the entire government and all of society is perhaps a bit too ambitious, but we can take a look at one incredibly important and representative part of the whole: the judicial system. This is all the more appropriate because courts in Russia have already resumed normal work.
If your average Good Samaritan was helping doctors during the high-alert period, collecting money for personal protective equipment, and buying hot meals for the homeless and elderly, then the courts were supposed to have been hearing only urgent cases, such as those concerning freedom or lack thereof. Doctors and activists spoke repeatedly during the non-working days about the need to minimize the number of people remanded in custody or jailed in Russia. Prisoners were released during the coronavirus pandemic even in places like Iran, which is far from being a democratic country. That didn’t happen in our country. A significant number of high-profile cases come to mind, with charges that were based on highly dubious evidence, and where either pre-trial restrictions were chosen or the pre-trial restrictions chosen earlier were extended.
At the beginning of May, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karelia refused yet again to release Yury Dmitriev from custody. Dmitriev is a historian who has studied the Stalinist repressions, and he is the chair of the Karelian branch of Memorial. (On top of all this, he is neither young nor in good health.) A number of well-known scholars and cultural figures have spoken out in support of Dmitriev, whom Memorial considers a political prisoner, by signing a petition for his release. The court made their decision despite all this. Also at the start of May, the Lyublinsky district court in Moscow extended the detention of those accused in the New Greatness case. According to the government, the circumstances surrounding the case that could affect the reduction of pre-trial restrictions have not changed. The pandemic that has swept the country and the world is apparently not one of those circumstances.
Not only are those currently on remand being left behind bars, but they are continuing to remand new people in custody. Moscow’s Tverskoi district court authorized the detention of “police ombudsman” Vladimir Vorontsov, who has been charged with extortion, something he emphatically denies. This decision was made in defiance of the Russian Supreme Court’s recommendation not to send suspects to pre-trial detention centres during the coronavirus epidemic. On 18 May, the Sharyinsky district court in Kostroma region refused to replace part of the unexpired term of Danil Beglets, defendant in the Moscow Case, with a milder sentence. The prosecutor’s office was against this, although the prison colony administration was not opposed to changing the sentence.
No less important, in my opinion, are examples to the contrary when courts put off decisions that could have a beneficial effect on a prisoner and reduce the risk to health. The question of the parole of scientist and former Mash employee Vladimir Lapygin (who in all likelihood is a victim of the spy mania that has gripped the security services) has not yet been considered. He, like Dmitriev, was recognized as a political prisoner by Memorial. Lapygin will be 80 this year. Due to his age, he is in the “coronavirus risk group”. Given the time he has spent behind bars, Lapygin has the right to parole. However, during the so called pandemic “non-working days” the trial was constantly postponed, despite the fact that we are talking about something that is vitally important.
Complaints concerning penalties, including the placement of Aleksandr Markin in a punishment cell, which I wrote about earlier, are also on hold. In early March, the Torbeev district court in Mordovia rejected Markin and his lawyer’s demands. Markin intended to appeal the decision but access to prisons has since been stopped due to the pandemic. As such, Markin and his lawyer have been unable to agree the content of their complaint.
Of course, the removal of penalties is not as vital as, say, the release from custody of an elderly person suffering from various diseases, but one should not forget the surrounding circumstances. When neither a lawyer, nor human rights activists, nor relatives of a prisoner, can find out about their wellbeing or whether they have an issue with the prison authorities, due to the ban on prison visits, it is another reason to have concern for their safety. Such a scenario, however, can be found in most Russian prisons and pre-trial detention centres. I think that no sane person doubts that it is vitally important to observe precautionary measures during a pandemic, especially in confined areas such as penitentiaries, but why not in the age of technological progress have telephones available for prisoners? Why not organize online court hearings for all involved in them?
During the coronavirus pandemic, we have not learnt anything fundamentally new about the Russian judicial system. It has in fact shown us the problems that have built up. A pandemic is, of course, a tragedy, especially for those who whose relatives have had the disease or who have had it themselves, whether they are doctors who have had the illness or are close to those who have died from it. However, it is also a unique experience that provides us with the opportunity to learn something – methods of fighting the disease, mutual assistance. Such situations give the state a chance to demonstrate humanism. Unfortunately, the Russian courts, it would appear, did not seize this opportunity.