On February 1 Moscow’s Simonovsky District Court ordered former Yukos executive Vasily Aleksanyan, who claims to have been denied treatment for AIDS while in prison, to remain jailed while being tried on charges of embezzlement and money laundering. Aleksanyan is incarcerated in Matrosskaya Tishina, the notorious Moscow remand prison. Judge Irina Oreshkina told the court that lawyers for the 36-year-old former Yukos vice-president had “provided no documents proving that he has lymphoma.” Aleksanyan, who has not yet been formally charged with any crime, was diagnosed with HIV a few months after his detention in April 2006, contracted tuberculosis several months ago, and reportedly also has terminal lymphoma.
Aleksanyan, who headed Yukos’ legal department before becoming its vice president, says that he was denied treatment for AIDS in prison after he refused to testify against his former bosses, Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partner, ex-Menatep head Platon Lebedev, who are serving eight-year prison sentences on fraud and tax evasion charges. Khodorkovsky on January 30 announced he was going on a hunger strike to protest Aleksanyan’s plight. The European Court of Human Rights has called four times for Aleksanyan to be immediately transferred to an AIDS clinic for treatment, but Russian authorities have not heeded those appeals (Moscow Times, January 31, February 1, 4; Financial Times, January 30).
Whatever the merits of the charges against Yukos officials, the sentences handed down against some of them have been notably harsh. Svetlana Bakhmina, the deputy head of Yukos’s legal department who was accused of tax evasion and embezzlement, was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in a labor camp in April 2006. The charges against her, like those against Aleksanyan, involved the alleged theft of assets belonging to companies tied to Eastern Oil Company, a Yukos affiliate. While Bakhmina’s tax evasion conviction was subsequently overturned, her sentence was reduced only by six months, and in December 2006, a Moscow court refused her lawyers’ request that her imprisonment be deferred on the grounds that she has two young children (who were aged three and six at the time of her arrest in December 2004). As Ekspert magazine writes in its latest issue, the sentenced meted out to Bakhmina, “the mother of two minor children who played far from a leading role on Khodorkovsky’s team and received a long real [prison] term on charges that were questionable in respect to proof, was astonishing in its harshness. Vasily Aleksanyan, dying in a SIZO [remand prison], is the father of a six-year-old [boy]” (Ekspert, February 4).
Indeed, the treatment of Aleksanyan is such that even the Kremlin’s own human rights officials have felt it necessary to speak out about it. Ella Pamfilova, the head of President Vladimir Putin’s Human Rights Council, called Aleksanyan’s situation “simply monstrous.” She said authorities should transfer him to a civilian hospital for treatment and that Russia’s Supreme Court and Prosecutor-General’s Office should “find the means, on the basis of their authority [and] the spirit and letter of the Constitution, to resolve the problems of this person on the basis of the principles of humanism and mercy.”
Pamfilova added that thousands of others are suffering under similar conditions. “If the situation of Aleksanyan and other critically ill prisoners does not change for the better, then there should be no surprise or indignation over those impartial assessments of the state of human rights in Russia made by authoritative human rights organizations – for example, Human Rights Watch,” she said (Vremya novostei, February 4). (In its recently released annual report on the state of human rights worldwide, Human Rights Watch grouped Putin together with Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, Zimbabawe’s Robert Mugabe, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, stating that each of them “finds utility in holding electoral charades to legitimize his reign.”)
Some independent observers have described the Russian authorities’ treatment of Aleksanyan in even harsher terms. Addressing the issue on his weekly television program, Yevgeny Kiselyov said: “We will remember the names of all those who pronounced wrongful sentences, who kept people in jail for years who – in this case and many others – had not yet been found guilty by a court but were already in fact subjected to the harshest punishment there can be – confinement in our Russian prisons. And that includes Judge Irina Oreshkina, who today, in my opinion, denied Vasily Aleksanyan his right to life, even though his guilt has not been proven in court” (“Vlast,” RTVi television, Ekho Moskvy, February 1).
Like other observers, Kiselyov noted that at the same time the authorities were refusing to allow Aleksanyan to receive medical treatment outside prison and essentially condemning him to death, Putin’s chosen successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, was calling for a campaign against the “legal nihilism” that he says perverts the administration of law in Russia (see EDM, January 23 and 30).