“The desire of millions of our citizens for individual freedom and social justice is what defines the future of Russia’s political system,” President Vladimir Putin declared in his recent speech to the State Council, laying out Russia’s development strategy through 2020 (see EDM, February 11). “The democratic state should become an effective instrument for civil society’s self-organization. This is work that will unfold over a period of years, work that will continue with the help of educational activity and the cultivation of a culture of civic spirit. Raising the role of non-governmental organizations, human rights ombudsmen and public councils will contribute to this work, as will the development of a multiparty system in Russia.” Yet judging by the testimony of one veteran Russian human rights activist, such lofty words are belied by the reemergence during the last eight years of one of the most troubling features of Russia’s Soviet and Tsarist past – the political prisoner.
“If there were dozens of political prisoners during the Soviet period and there were none during the Gorbachev/Yeltsin period, at least the earlier part, then now there exists entire categories, no longer just separate individuals,” Lev Ponomarev, head of the For Human Rights movement and member of the executive committee of the “Other Russia” opposition movement, told Jamestown. “We, the Russian human rights activists, speak of four categories of political prisoners.”
The first category consists of “victims of the espionage processes,” Ponomarev said. “As a rule, these are not initiated by the Kremlin, by the political leadership, but are the work of the FSB [Federal Security Service] employees themselves. There are not enough spies and the agency is huge, and they have to make their careers.” Best known among these prisoners are Igor Sutyagin, the disarmament researcher who is serving 15 years for allegedly passing classified information about Russia’s nuclear weapons to a London-based firm, and Valentin Danilov, the physicist convicted of espionage on behalf of China and embezzlement and subsequently sentenced to 14 years in jail for treason. “These are innocent people,” Ponomarev said of Sutyagin and Danilov, adding that along with them, another 15 or so scientists either are in jail or have been convicted but did not receive jail time.
The second category is businessmen, Ponomarev said, noting that while the cases of Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev are the most famous, some 50 people connected to Yukos have been prosecuted, many of them receiving “absurdly long sentences.” Ponomarev cited the case of Vasily Aleksanyan, the former Yukos vice president who is suffering from AIDS and lymphoma and had been, until several days ago, denied treatment outside of the notorious Moscow remand prison where he is incarcerated. He also cited the case of Svetlana Bakhmina, the deputy head of Yukos’s legal department who was accused of tax evasion and embezzlement and sentenced to seven years imprisonment in a labor camp in April 2006 despite having two young children, who were aged three and six at the time of her arrest in December 2004.
Noting that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, who are serving eight-year prison terms for fraud and tax evasion, were charged last year with laundering over $20 billion and could receive 10 or more additional years in prison if found guilty, Ponomarev said the new charges make no sense. “It’s impossible to steal oil and then not pay taxes on that same oil,” he said. According to Ponomarev, there are many cases both in Moscow and in Russia’s other regions, in which officials or governors, as in the Yukos case, have used criminal prosecutions to seize businesses.
The third category of political prisoners consists of civil and political activists, Ponomarev said. Among the best known of these was Mikhail Trepashkin, the lawyer and former FSB officer arrested for illegal-firearms possession in October 2003, several days before he was to give evidence in court that he said implicated the FSB in the 1999 Moscow apartment building bombings. While Trepashkin was freed from prison in November 2007 with the expiration of his four-year term, Ponomarev said political activists are being “very actively persecuted” across Russia, including members of Other Russia and Eduard Limonov’s banned National Bolshevik Party. “Dozens of people have received concrete prison terms and are in jail,” Ponomarev said.
Ponomarev also noted that FSB personnel have gone to great lengths to prevent opposition activists from participating in large meetings and demonstrations – calling them up, threatening them, delaying them at airports, etc. “That means that thousands of FSB employees across the country are involved in shadowing civil-political activists,” he said.
In addition, the last year has seen several cases of opposition political activists being incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals: earlier this month, Roman Nikolaichik, a lawyer in the city of Tver who belongs to both the ARES monarchist movement and The Other Russia coalition, was reportedly taken to a psychiatric hospital after unidentified law-enforcement officials questioned him about his political activities (Moscow Times, February 5). According to Ponomarev, “repressive psychiatry” is being used both against political activists and “to resolve economic issues.” He said many cases of officials or even family members committing someone in order to gain possession of that person’s apartment or other property have been brought to the attention of his organization.
“Muslims are the fourth category of people who are being politically persecuted,” said Ponomarev. “A decision is made that a Muslim organization is terrorist … and they start to plant pistols, bullets, narcotics, and the like on all of those people, who are then jailed.” Muslims are being arrested on trumped-up charges not only in the restive North Caucasus, but throughout Russia, he said.
“These are the four categories of political prisoners,” said Lev Ponomarev. “It’s a lot. If human rights activists were earlier calling for fair trials and independent courts, today we are saying, just like in the Soviet period, ‘Free the political prisoners!’”