Vera Vasilieva on the Aleksei Pichugin case: the underbelly of justice

19 November 2020

Vera Vasilieva is an independent journalist, host of Radio Svoboda’s Freedom and Memorial project and the 2018 laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize for Human Rights

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda, 19.11.2020]

At a meeting in July, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe specified 30 November 2020 as the date by which Russia must comply with the two European Court of Human Rights judgments regarding Aleksei Pichugin. The former Yukos employee has been held behind bars since 19 June 2003, with the Memorial Human Rights Centre long recognising him as a political prisoner. The ECtHR, in its two rulings in 2012 and 2017, declared that the trials against Pichugin were conducted in violation of his right to a fair trial. The ECtHR deemed the most appropriate compensation for this violation of rights to be a new trial or recommencement of proceedings, but this has not yet been done. Year on year, the Russian authorities have repeatedly been reminded of this situation, however the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation simply hasn’t found grounds to reconsider the Pichugin case. It is significant that one of the meetings of the Presidium, which ended with a refusal to annul Pichugin’s sentence or review his case, took place in a chamber underground on the minus-fourth floor of the Supreme Court building, to which wicked tongues have unofficially assigned the name “the underbelly of justice”. 

In the wake of these multiple refusals, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe urged Russian authorities to take “the specific measures necessary for the prompt rectification of the consequences of the convictions against Aleksei Pichugin identified by the European Court of Human Rights.” European politicians believe that pardoning Pichugin would allow Russia, at least minimally, to follow the recommendations of the Strasbourg Court. Russia must submit a report to the Committee on the measures taken by 30 November. In other words, if the Russian president pardons Pichugin before 30 November, then the Council of Europe can consider both ECtHR rulings in his case to be fulfilled.

Pichugin himself has appealed to Putin for a pardon three times over the course of his imprisonment – in 2016, 2018 and 2020 – always without admitting guilt, which, according Russian law, is not required. Any prisoner, whether or not they admit guilt, has the right to appeal to the president for a pardon. In his latest petition, Pichugin pointed out that he had already served 17 years in prison, and also asked that it be taken into account that his mother turned 81 this year.

Petitions for clemency go through a long and complex path – starting with the prison administration, moving on to the regional clemency commission and local governor, and ending with the actual addressee who makes the decision – the president. The commission that considered Pichugin’s third petition included, in particular, the Orenburg regional human rights ombudsman Anatoly Chadov, director of the local branch of the Moscow State Law University Aleksandr Kolotov, as well as other officials. Chadov is also a retired prosecutor of the Orenburg region and Kolotov is the former head of the regional Investigative Committee. There are other representatives of similar departments in the commission. Is it any wonder that the commission, which includes people with a track record like this, unanimously refused to grant the prisoner clemency? Either by coincidence or design, the refusal followed on 4 June – the exact day when the European Council’s ministers indicated that a pardon would be a way to fulfill the decisions of the Strasbourg court. Whether it was premeditated or not, it acted as a middle finger pointed in the direction of Europe and its ideals of human rights protection.

Previously, the clemency procedure in Russia was organised differently. For example, during the Yeltsin presidency, the (now unfortunately deceased) Aleksandr Borin, who worked at Literaturnaya Gazeta and as a member of the pardoning commission, recalled on his Facebook page: “The commission began working in March 1992. Its members were Bulat Okudzhava, Fazil Iskander, Lev Razgon, prominent lawyers, a doctor, a priest – they are famous people, deeply decent, with an impeccable reputation. We met every Tuesday. After each meeting, a draft presidential decree was prepared on the release of convicts or on the reduction of their sentence. It was extremely gratifying to realise that we had the rare pleasure of saving people from prison. The head of the department, who prepared materials for the commission, did his best to strengthen this sentiment. In a country where fear and cruelty reigned for decades, we are fortunate enough to be able to finally exhibit mercy. One can talk about how the clemency institute develops when there is a political desire for mercy, if you like, an adequate political ‘demand.’ This ‘demand’ came fully from President Yeltsin, and therefore, despite all the institute’s flaws, thousands of prisoners were released every year. Today the situation is different. For example, in 2012, only 17 convicts were pardoned.” This statistical trend pointed out by Aleksandr Borin can be continued: over the past two terms, Putin has pardoned an average of five people a year.

And so, Pichugin addresses the President of the Russian Federation, and regional officials respond to Pichugin. Whose decisions they are setting out in their replies, and whether the president knows about the petitions sent to him, is not exactly clear. In relation to this, Aleksei Pichugin’s mother, Alla Nikolaevna, as a religious person, sent an open letter to the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia at the beginning of October, the text of which was published in Novaya gazeta. She asked the patriarch to inform the president of her son’s request for clemency. Alla Pichugina expressed certainty that he had not committed the crimes attributed to him. And having already spent 17 years detained in prison, he still had not lost his faith in God.

There came a response to this letter, not from the patriarch, but instead signed by the deputy chair of the synodic department of the prison service, Priest Aleksii Alekseev. It said that Patriarch Kirill “cannot go outside the framework of the legal field and is not authorised to intervene in litigation and proceedings related to economic, political, and other crimes, or to influence the decisions of employees of the state, public and other institutions that are not subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church”. But as I see it, Alla Pichugina was not trying to interfere in the court’s decision, which had been made many years ago, or to influence the decision of public officials. In my opinion, she was only requesting that the information be brought to the attention of the president. And what “political crime” (as stated in the response) is at issue?

But Putin would be able to untangle this knot of contradictions concerning Russia’s non-fulfillment of its international obligations and the sacrilege, in fact, of the pardon procedure – at least in relation to Pichugin – with one stroke of the pen and without any harm whatsoever done to himself. He only needs to sign an order for Pichugin’s pardoning. According to Russian law, not even a new petition from the prisoner himself is needed, only the good will of the president is required. We can recall the example of the Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko  who didn’t write a pardon request but was nonetheless pardoned. Alas, now, in my opinion, unlike the Yeltsin times, about which Aleksandr Borin has written, there is a completely different ‘order’ – the ‘order’ for no mercy.

Translated by Verity Hemp, James Lofthouse and Mercedes Malcomsom

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