Vera Vasilieva on the case of Aleksei Pichugin: The last prisoner

19 June 2020

Vera Vasileva, an independent journalist, head of Radio Svoboda project ‘Freedom and Memorial’, and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize for human rights defence in 2018

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Радио Свобода]

Today marks 17 years since former Yukos employee Aleksei Pichugin was put in prison. Memorial Human Rights Centre and other human rights organisations consider Pichugin a political prisoner and a prisoner of conscience. The European Court of Human Rights has twice ruled that he was given a lifelong sentence without a fair trial, as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Even some of the witnesses on whose false testimony Pichugin’s lifelong sentence was based, long ago admitted their lies.

However, this has had no impact on the Russian authorities, whether judicial or the ultimate powers. On 4th June a pardon commission in Orenburg, led by Anatoly Chadov, human rights ombudsman in the Orenburg region, refused to issue a pardon to Pichugin, who maintains his innocence, at the latter’s third request, in the name of Vladimir Putin. The decision to refuse the pardon was made unanimously, it was reported.

“Several groups [of political prisoners] actively prosecuted in the 2000s, were no longer victims of mass political prosecutions in the 2010s. Examples of this group include defendants in the YUKOS case (except for Aleksei Pichugin, who was sentenced for life). However, this has not meant that the methods being used by the authorities towards Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his organisations, partners and employees changed significantly,” Memorial recently stated in a report on the situation concerning politically-motivated criminal prosecution in Russia.

The refusal to pardon Pichugin happened on exactly the same day that the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe passed another, already the sixth (!), resolution regarding the former employee of Yukos. The document argues that the Russian authorities have still not complied with the European Court of Human Rights’ decision on the Pichugin case. The more completely Russia itself forces the situation into a deadend (for example, having refused to fulfil the resolution of the Strasbourg court on reviewing Pichugin’s sentence), the more insistently the Committee of Minister tells Moscow how to get out of the ‘deadend’ with minimal losses for all parties. If not a revision of the unlawful sentence, then a pardoning of Pichugin would at least allow Russia to follow minimally the recommendations of the ECtHR. The Kremlin is no longer even required to acknowledge the unjustness of its courts. After all, at the pardon of a convict, the question of his guilt or innocence is not raised, the question is only one of humanity. Russia has to submit its report on the measures taken to the Committee of Ministers by 30th November of this year.

Besides, no matter what kind of letters in flowery language Russia subsequently sends to Strasbourg, ‘our answer to Chamberlain’ has already followed, and it has been formulated as a refusal to pardon Pichugin. Some would say it’s a coincidence that the sessions of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and of the commission on pardoning in Orenburg occurred the same day, but I do not believe so. I think it is a manifestation of two diametrically opposed approaches to human rights. One is the European approach, in which those values are highly placed. The other is the home-grown approach: one who has been sentenced or who is simply inconvenient to the authorities loses status as a human being and becomes a ‘special-category prisoner.’ In my view, Russia is absolutely deliberately clinging to a line of behavior considered undignified in the civilized world, having as its aim to demonstrate where, in its opinion, all those human rights belong.

The Committee of Ministers is planning to renew its consideration of actions taken against the last prisoner in the Yukos case no later than March 2021. If Russia fails to fulfill the provisions of the resolution by that time, the initiation of a procedure to find our country in violation of obligations under the European Convention is highly probable. That is the appeal that Memorial made to the Committee of Ministers shortly before its June session.

As human rights lawyer Tatyana Glushkova explained, Memorial asked the Committee of Ministers to inquire of the European Court, in accordance with Article 46 (4) of the Convention, whether the situation that has arisen is not a violation of the government’s obligation to fulfill the decision of the ECtHR. According to Glushkova, the Committee of Ministers has thus far reacted only once in a similar situation, regarding a resolution in the case of Ilgar Mammadov vs. Azerbaijan. Ilgar Mammadov, Memorial’s attorney said, is an Azerbaijani activist and opposition politician who suffered persecution in connection with blog coverage of riots in the city of Ismayilli. In 2014 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for organizing mass disruptions and resisting arrest. The ECtHR found that Mammadov’s guilt was never proven and that he was prosecuted for political reasons. As a result of their applying the procedure, Mammadov was released.

The assertions of some parties (including members of the pardoning commission in Orenburg) that Russia could not release Pichugin⁠ because of the particular gravity of the criminal offence of which he was convicted is not true. It is also untrue that this is the reason that Russia is not accepting instructions from international organisations. A few years ago, for instance, the applicant in the case of Laryagin and Aristov v. Russia was freed after a decision of the ECtHR, having been previously sentenced to lifelong imprisonment. For the ECtHR, it was not the issue of the applicant’s guilt or the factual circumstances of the criminal case that were important, but rather the fact that his right to a fair trial had been violated (the make-up of the jury turned out to be illegal). The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation then overturned that sentence. Is this because the case was not politically motivated, unlike the Pichugin case?

Obviously, the pressure on Russia from the European community, due to the refusal to fulfill its international obligations in the Pichugin case, will only increase over time. To say that the ECtHR and the Council of Europe are interfering in the internal affairs of Russia is absolutely unjustifiable. After all, these organisations do not examine criminal cases and sentences of national courts on their merits, but act only within the framework of the European Convention, as recognised by the Russian Federation. Therefore, the European Court is no more ‘foreign’ than the Russian court. And Russia willingly recognises and uses these international mechanisms, but only as long as the solution will work in Russia’s favour. As soon as Russia is on the losing side, they begin to declare that Europe is encroaching on Russian national sovereignty.

To be honest, I don’t understand why Russia doesn’t want to make use of the Strasbourg court’s decision and simply pardon Pichugin. After all, not to is not only inhumane, but also irrational and pointless. Human rights activists call Aleksei Pichugin the last hostage in the Yukos affair, but it has long been obvious: Mikhail Khodorkovsky will not stop engaging in his annoying social activities just because there is a hostage in the Black Dolphin Prison in Orenburg. The Council of Europe, despite the apparent disrespect for international law that Russia has demonstrated, is once again letting our country know how to get out of this conflict and successfully save face. But is there anything left to save?

Featured picture of Aleksei Pichugin:

Translated by Mercedes Malcomson, Mark Nuckols and Alice Lee

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