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Left Behind: Russian prisoners who didn't make the headlines

Despite the recent amnesty, many political prisoners in Russia remain behind bars, waiting for justice.

Last updated: 18 Jan 2014 16:31
Leonid Ragozin

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.
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Leonid Razvozzhayev was subjected to forced disappearance in Ukraine, transferred to Russia and tortured [AP]

On December 30, a week after leaving prison, Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova turned up at a Moscow court - this time as spectators, not defendants. They came to support people arrested following clashes between pro-democracy protesters and riot police at Bolotnaya square in Moscow on May 6, 2012 - the eve of Putin's third inauguration as president. The clashes erupted after police created a near-stampede by bottlenecking the route of a massive opposition march.

One of the defendants, the badly stuttering 33-year-old former Moscow metro employee Artyom Savyolov [Ru], has been in pre-trial detention for 18 months. May 6 demonstration was the first political protest he had ever attended. Witnesses, all of whom are riot policemen, had claimed that he grabbed a member of their squad by his sleeve and shouted "Down with the police state!" Based on this evidence, Savyolov had been charged with violence against the police and participation in mass riots, facing up to 13 years in prison. Amnesty International has proclaimed him a prisoner of conscience.

Unlike the stellar prisoners released by Vladimir Putin in December - the members of Pussy Riot, ex-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the crew of Greenpeace vessel "Arctic Sunrise" - Savyolov spent his second New Year's eve, Russia's main family holiday, behind bars. So did six of his co-defendants in the first batch of Bolotnaya prisoners to go on trial. Another one, 20-year-old Alexandra Dukhanina is under house arrest since May 2012.

Putin's Christmas-time amnesty hardly qualifies as a sign of a political thaw. Rather than that, it looks like an attempt to prevent the boycott of the Olympic Games in Sochi by Western leaders and further problems with the G8 summit, which Russia is hosting in June.

Unglamorous Prisoners

Inside Story - The Putin of personality

There is a total of 29 suspects in the Bolotnaya case, most of them still awaiting trial. Only four qualified for the December amnesty. Some of the suspects are in prison or under house arrest, while some have been released on bail, yet others escaped from Russia after being tipped about their imminent arrest. One of the latter, member of the radical Other Russia movement Alexander Dolmatov, committed suicide in the Netherlands after being mistakenly arrested and told that he was due to be deported.

Another runaway suspect, left-winger Leonid Razvozzhayev disappeared after stepping out of a UN-affiliated office in Kiev, where he had been filing documents for political asylum. When he re-surfaced as an arrestee in Moscow, he said that he had been kidnapped, smuggled across the Russian-Ukrainian border and tortured before being delivered to a prison in Moscow. He later recognised an investigator present in the room as one of his torturers.

Only three of the Bolotnaya suspects have already been sentenced. In a decision that reminded of how the Soviet authorities handled the cases of 1970s dissidents, the court ruled that one of them, Mikhail Kosenko, should be subject to forced treatment in a prison-style psychiatric clinic. The policeman he had allegedly attacked said in court that he was seeing the man for the first time and didn't want "comrade Kosenko to be jailed". But the judge would only listen to his colleague, who claimed he saw Kosenko giving the policeman a kick on the leg. Kosenko's mother died while he was in jail. Kosenko suffers from mild schizophrenia, but was never considered a violent man.

With its multitude of unglamorous defendants, the Bolotnaya case is a mess and a pain for journalists to report. Only three of Bolotnaya suspects have met Amnesty International's high criteria to qualify as prisoners of conscience. That decision outraged Russian civil activists, because they believe that charges against all the defendants are just as flawed as those against Pussy Riot or Khodorkovsky, and that 18 months in pre-trial detention is a punishment that's already looking grotesquely disproportionate considering the alleged offense.

There are many more prisoners or people expecting to be jailed who have no chance of Madonna singing for their freedom, like she did in support of Pussy Riot. Their cases rarely or never get into international headlines.

Criminal Graffiti

Around the same time when Khodorkovsky and members of Pussy Riot walked out of their prisons, Sochi environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko learnt that he would take their place soon after the New Year. His story began in 2011, when Vitishko wrote anti-government slogans on the wall surrounding the coastal estate of the local governor, Alexander Tkachev. The walled-off area incorporated chunks of protected primary forest. The graffiti he left on the wall called Tkachev a "thief" and stated: "This is our common forest."

In May 2012, Vitishko and another environmentalist, Suren Gazaryan, were given a three-year suspended sentence each on charges of damaging private property. Gazaryan has since escaped to Estonia. Last month, a local court swapped Vitishko's suspended sentence for real imprisonment under the pretext that he had failed to make a compulsory visit to the police office at the appointed time. He will not be jailed until a court of higher instance hears his appeal. Vitishko, a father of two boys, says the real reason for his imprisonment is that the authorities are afraid that his activism might somehow embarrass them during the Olympics.

Freed Pussy Riot members still want Putin out

Four young members of Vitishko's organisation, North Caucasus Ecowatch, were arrested when they were on their way to inspect the wall of contention on December 30. They believe their telephones were being tapped and police knew about their intentions. A court sentenced them to a three-day arrest for "disobeying police orders". They spent New Year's eve in what they described as a cold, damp and lice-ridden cell and walked out holding an improvised poster saying "Happy New 1937" - a reference to the worst year of Stalin-era purges.

In December, Russia's most respected human rights organisation, Memorial, published the list of people it deems to be political prisoners. Deducting those released in the Christmas-time amnesty, their current number stands at 32 [Ru].

It is a mixed group comprised of Bolotnaya prisoners, left- and right-wing radicals, Muslims accused of plotting acts of terror and scientists sentenced for transferring sensitive technology to foreign countries. Without claiming their innocence, Memorial stated that charges against them are politically motivated and that they are being denied proper justice. Apart from Vitishko, people likely to appear on this list in 2014 include Russia's main opposition leader Alexey Navalny who is currently serving a five-year suspended sentence and awaiting trial in a different case in February.

Memorial's list includes Khodorkovsky's former business partner Platon Lebedev and Alexey Pichugin - former chief of security in their oil company, Yukos. Lebedev is due to be released in May, having spent almost 11 years in prison. Pichugin is serving a life sentence for murders which former Yukos bosses deny he ever conspired to or committed.

Released after 10 years in prison, Khodorkovsky said his main priority was to fight for the release of his Yukos friends and other political prisoners. So did the members of Pussy Riot, who are setting up an organisation that will campaign to improve conditions for all inmates. While in prison, they proved to be as much trouble for the authorities as when they were free. They both staged lengthy hunger strikes and released information exposing gulag-style violence and harassment cultivated by prison officials. Their example inspired ordinary prisoners to start fighting for their rights. Some of them are already starting to feel the full brunt of repression.

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.

Follow him on Twitter: @leonidragozin

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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