Russia: Rights Researcher’s Trial Raises Serious Concerns
(Moscow) – The circumstances surrounding criminal charges against a researcher and human rights advocate in Russia strongly suggest that they are spurious and target him for his human rights work, Human Rights Watch said today.
A court in Petrozavodsk is scheduled to deliver a verdict on July 22, 2020 in a child sexual abuse case against Yuri Dmitriev, a researcher who exposed mass graves of political prisoners executed during the Stalin era, and who previously headed a branch of Memorial, one of Russia’s most prominent independent human rights groups. The prosecution has requested a sentence of 15 years in prison.
“Allegations of child abuse should always be taken very seriously, while also protecting the due process rights of the accused,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We are concerned that perfectly appropriate measures to protect the child during the trial may have been misused by the authorities to pursue a prosecution of a human rights defender to smear his reputation.
The prosecution alleges that Dmitirev engaged in child pornography and sexually abused his adopted daughter, born in 2005, citing photographs found in his computer that he had taken of her, undressed, at ages four, five, and seven, and incidents of touching when she was eight years old, which the prosecution alleges were of a sexual nature. Dmitriev and his then-wife had adopted the girl from an orphanage when she was three years old.
He testified in court that when he and his wife adopted her she was emaciated and in poor health, and that he took the photos to document her growth. According to Dmitriev’s testimony, which was leaked to the Russian outlet Novaya Gazeta, when the girl was eight years old, he touched her to check her underwear a for a related medical condition that was confirmed by the child’s medical records.
Authorities in Petrozavodsk first arrested Dmitriev in December 2016 on charges of child pornography. Later, they added charges of nonviolent sexual abuse of a minor, which were based solely on the photographs. They also charged him with “illegal possession of components of a firearm,” because investigators had found on his property parts of an inoperative Soviet-era hunting rifle. In 2017, forensic experts recommended by the prosecutor’s office found no indications that the photographs had any pornographic content.
Dmitriev spent one year in pretrial detention and another month at a psychiatric hospital in Moscow, where he underwent a psychiatric evaluation before being released on own recognizance. The assessment found no signs of sexual pathology.
In April 2018, the Petrozavodsk City Court acquitted Dmitriev of the child pornography and sexual abuse charges. It convicted him of the firearm charge and sentenced him to 30 months of probation. Acquittals in Russian criminal cases are rare, with fewer than one percent of criminal cases ending in acquittals.
However, in June 2018, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karelia overturned the verdict, and police rearrested Dmitriev, based on an investigator’s interview with his daughter, then 12 years old, shortly after the acquittal. At that time, the girl’s biological grandmother was her legal guardian, even though she had spent the previous nine years with Dmitriev, and in frequent company of his two adult children and small grandchildren.
According to Memorial, after the April 2018 acquittal, the grandmother suddenly isolated the girl from Dmitriev’s family and friends. During a June 2018 interview, the state investigator asked leading questions when the grandmother was present, and appeared to pressure the girl about allegations of inappropriate touching.
As in many countries, charges of sexual abuse are heard in closed courts in Russia for the privacy and protection of the victim.
Dmitriev’s prosecution has taken place in the context of efforts by Russian authorities to minimize Stalin’s crimes, foster nationalist groups that attack people dedicated to uncovering the truth about the Gulag, and tarnish as “foreign agents” and “re-writers of history” independent groups that investigate abuses of the Stalin era and commemorate the victims. These efforts began in 2012 and intensified in 2014, with the uprising in Ukraine against a president who had strong ties to Moscow, and the war in eastern Ukraine, in which Russia has backed anti-Ukraine armed groups.
Among the groups Russian authorities tagged as a “foreign agent” was Memorial, one of the most high- profile investigators of Stalinist crimes and advocates for the rehabilitation of its victims. Dmitriev had been the leader of Memorial’s Petrozavodsk branch, in Karelia, in northwestern Russia.
In 1997, as part of his research into victims of Stalin-era executions in Karelia, Dmitriev discovered a mass grave, containing about 7,000 bodies, at Sandarmokh, the largest site in Karelia where executions took place at the height of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938.
Dmitriev held an annual commemoration for these victims. The event drew participants from several countries, including Poland and Ukraine.
Dmitriev told friends during the six months leading up to his arrest in December 2016 that he felt he was under surveillance, and that his phone was being tapped. Two days before his arrest, the police summoned him to the police station on an unrelated matter. He said that when he returned, it was clear that someone had illegally entered his apartment. Dmitriev told case investigators about the incident, but no action was taken.
Dmitriev’s colleagues at Memorial said that in 2016, local officials received orders not to attend the Sandarmokh commemoration event. Also that year, prior to Dmitriev’s arrest, historians at Petrozavodsk State University began claiming that the graves at Sandarmokh also contained the corpses of Soviet prisoners shot by Finnish counterintelligence units during the 1940 war between the Soviet Union and Finland, and that the victims of Stalinism received outsized attention. Although there was little evidence for this theory, it resonated broadly in state and pro-Kremlin media.
In 2018, the Russian Military Historical Society began excavating the site to search for evidence to support this theory. In April 2019, in a letter requesting a Russian military history organization to excavate the execution site, the local Culture Ministry wrote that Sandarmokh was “being actively used by [foreign] countries in destructive propaganda campaigns about historical awareness” and that “speculation” about those buried in the mass grave “damage[s] Russia’s international image” and “[is] becoming a consolidating factor in anti-government forces in Russia.”
Sandarmokh is not the only commemoration project that the authorities have undermined. In 2014, the authorities gradually took over Perm-36, the only Stalin-era labor camp that has been preserved. For years it had been run by the Perm chapter of Memorial. The camp museum has been “reformatted” to present a more “balanced” version of the Gulag. In 2015, a museum exhibit about the camp closed in response to the authorities branding it a “foreign agent.”
Russian authorities have recently used fraudulent drug charges and other spurious charges to discredit and silence several journalists and a human rights defender. They also planted a surveillance camera in the bedroom of a Russian civic activist facing criminal charges of involvement in an “undesirable” foreign organization.
“The nature and timing of the charges against Dmitriev suggest that the authorities sought to smear his reputation and Memorial’s,” Williamson said. “The authorities seek to discredit projects that commemorate Stalin’s victims that are at odds with the authorities’ view of the Stalin era, Human Rights Watch said.