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Since autumn 2017, the Russian security services have been arresting anarchists and anti-fascists across the country. They’re suspected of being part of a terrorist organisation called “The Network”. Detainees complain that they have been tortured, and rights advocates believe the case is fabricated.
The FSB’s version
According to the investigation’s case, the FSB foiled the activities of “The Network” terrorist organisation, which has existed since 2014. “The Network” had cells in Penza, St Petersburg and Moscow. The case also mentions a cell in Belarus, but does not offer any detail about its alleged members.
Defendants in the case are charged with organising a terrorist group and illegal possession of weapons. Each of them has assigned roles: leaders, communications personnel, sappers and ideological officers. According to the FSB, members of “The Network” were planning to organise bombings during Russia’s March 2018 presidential elections and the Football World Cup, launching an armed uprising and “stirring up the masses for further destabilisation of the political situation in the country”.
Members of the organisation discussed their plans on the Jabber messenger and at conferences in the Moscow and Leningrad regions in mid-2016 and the beginning of 2017: they allegedly trained, discussed anarchism and even kept official minutes of the meeting. The defendants face five to 10 years behind bars.
Airsoft players from Penza
This case began in the Volga town of Penza, where in the fall of 2017 local security service officers arrested six men who played airsoft together. The first man to be arrested was Egor Zorin, a student of Penza State University, who was arrested on 17 October. His fellow students thought Egor was missing and searched for him around the city. Zorin took a plea bargain and is the only defendant to be put under house arrest.
By the second day after his arrest, Zorin had already given evidence against his classmate Ilya Shakursky, a local antifascist and environmental activist. They arrested Shakursky on 19 October: they caught him stepping off the bus as he returned from looking for his missing classmate. After a few blows to his legs, kidneys and the back of his head, Shakursky gave investigators the password to his phone. During the search of his apartment, according to Shakursky’s mother, the detectives found self-made explosive devices and a pistol. Her son said that they weren’t his.
Later Shakursky spoke in detail about torture, and the Public Monitoring Commission found markings from a shock baton on his body. They beat him with a shock baton, threatened him with rape, and forced him to memorise drafts of a confession they had written so he could later repeat it to investigators: “After that, I forgot the word ‘no’ and said everything the detectives told me.”
Shakursky recalled hearing groans through the walls of the office he was brought to after his arrest. During the interrogation, an investigator in a mask came in with a bloody kerchief in his hands. He was interrogating Sharkursky’s friend Vasily Kuksov, a singer in a local garage band, in the other room. They had arrested him that same evening. Security service officers found a pistol in Kuksov’s car.
On 27 October, Dmitry Pchelintsev, a shooting instructor, was arrested. They found registered hunting rifles and non-lethal pistols in his apartment, along with a shotgun and airsoft ammunition. After the search, detectives went down to Pchelintsev’s car and found two hand grenades. The car’s burglar alarm was off. According to Shakursky’s friends, they hadn’t spoken to Pchelnitsev for half a year.
To stop the torture, Pchelintsev broke a toilet tank and, using the fragments, slashed his arms and neck
Pchelintsev also spoke of torture in the basement of a pre-trial detention centre. Indeed, his words coincide with Shakursky’s statement. He was shocked on various parts of his body, and investigators tried to hook up uninsulated wire to his genitals. They hung him upside down and gave Pchelintsev tranquilisers. To stop the torture, Pchelintsev broke a toilet tank and, using the fragments, slashed his arms and neck. Later he was strong-armed into retracting his statement on torture.
At the beginning of November, mechanic Andrey Chernov was also arrested. Investigators detained him at work on the shop floor in front of his colleagues. Like the other defendants, Andrey’s location was kept from his relatives for the first two days. By that time, he had already signed all the statements which the investigators had given him. According to Chernov’s mother, investigators planted a blade on him so they could put him in solitary confinement and threatened to arrest his brother.
Activist Arman Sagynbayev was also arrested at the beginning of November in St Petersburg. According to the criminal file, a search of Sagynbaev’s apartment turned up a bucket of aluminum powder and timers. Among the file’s documents is a confession that he bought the powder and other components on Avita.ru, a classifieds sales site, to prepare an explosive device. Sagynbayev’s mother has stated her son has serious chronic health problems. However, she said the security service officers refused to give him medicine. She also said they tortured her son.
Pchelintsev, the shooting instructor, wrote a letter to his lawyer where he recalled running into Sagynbayev in a hallway. Sagynbayev asked forgiveness for giving evidence against the other activists and looked as if he had been beaten.
Vasily Kuksov, the musician, was the only one arrested in Penza who did not admit his guilt. Later, both Pchelintsev and Shakursky claimed that they incriminated themselves under torture. Andrey Chernov completely retracted his confession.
Now there’s signs the FSB is trying to hush up this case up: for example, journalists are being limited access to court hearings, and five of the six attorneys working with the defendants from Penza have had to sign non-disclosure agreements. The only one who hasn’t is Shakursky’s attorney Mikhail Grigoryan. He believes that the case has a strong body of evidence against the young men – this evidence includes videos, taken by those arrested, from talks and airsoft trainings. According to Grigoryan, the defendants are shown on video practicing throwing Molotov cocktails.
In a conversation with the Russian-language service of BBC, Grigoryan said that the FSB showed a workbook, allegedly taken from one of the defendants, where rules for recruitment of new members were written. Grigoryan suggested that the workbook had been written by foreign intelligence agencies.
According to Grigoryan, in 2016, new people showed up to training sessions and taught the others how to knife-fight and throw Molotov cocktails. The case files on the Penza “cell” also mentioned two other defendants who could not be found.
When I tried to get in touch with Grigoryan, he asked what country the publication was registered in. He then refused to speak on the phone and asked for a meeting in Penza: “I don’t even know you, it doesn’t work this way.”
When Elena Bogatova, Ilya Shakursky’s mother, talks about Grigoryan, she recalls that he worked very easily with the investigators. She says that they tried to convince her to work with them, promising leniency for her son in return.
Anarchists from Petersburg
Armen Sagynbaev, who was arrested in Petersburg, was known to local activists – and this is how the case went national. There were allegedly two cells in Petersburg: “Field of Mars” and “Jordan-SPB”.
Viktor Filinkov, a computer programmer and anti-fascist, was arrested on 23 January 2018 at Petersburg Pulkovo airport. He was about to fly to Kiev, with a layover in Minsk, to see his wife. Unlike in Penza, the security service officers in Petersburg tortured activists “on the go”. They beat Filinkov up in a dark-blue minivan, shocked him through his handcuffs, on the back of his head, on his back, and on his groin (rights advocates verified that he had been tortured). Afterwards: a search of his home and memorised confession at the FSB headquarters.
Filinkov is a citizen of Kazakhstan, but the country’s representatives aren’t being allowed to visit him. At the beginning of March 2018, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs lied to Filinkov’s wife Alexandra, telling her that he had flown to Minsk on the day of his arrest. Now the prosecutor is refusing to dismiss the FSB officers who tasered the anti-fascist activist. What’s more, Konstantin Bondarev, the Petersburg FSB lead detective who Filinkov says led the torture, earlier earned a certificate of gratitude from St Petersburg’s legislative assembly “for special services”.
On 26 January, three days after Filinkov’s arrest, Petersburg anti-fascist activist Igor Shishkin disappeared. Shishkin was also officially arrested two days later after his disappearance (it seems this is a new tradition). At the hearing, the FSB covered Shishkin’s face with a scarf and hood. Human rights activists discovered a fracture in his lower eye socket, as well as bruises and burns from the shock baton, but while he was held by the FSB, the activist signed a statement saying he had received the wounds while playing sports.
FSB officers promise that if Yuliy Boyarshinov doesn’t start talking, then the conditions of his detention will only worsen
After these arrests, searches were carried out at the homes of other left-wing activists in Petersburg. Ilya Kapustin disappeared during one of them. They seized him as he was walking his dog. His relatives didn’t know where he was until the courts handed down a decision on his arrest. Kapustin is a witness in the case, but according to him, he has also been tortured. Kapustin has since fled the country and requested political asylum in Finland.
Autonomous Action’s magazine. Boyarshinov was arrestedduring a narcotics raid, and 400g of black gunpowder was found on his person. This kind of gunpowder is usually used for fireworks. Officers beat Boyarshinov when he was arrested.The Petersburg security services also detained the final suspect (so far) in late January. Charges were brought against Yuliy Boyarshinov, an industrial climber (as is Ilya Kapustin). He also holds left-wing views: for example, Boyarshinov has been involved in organised festivals with free food and clothes, and read anarchist group
After Boyarshinov’s apartment was searched, they started to show him the names of the others who had been arrested in “The Network” case. He’s being held in pre-trial detention in an overfilled cell (about 150 people to 116 cots). FSB officers promise that if Yuliy doesn’t start talking, then the conditions of his detention will only worsen.
Parents against torture and the TV channel NTV
The parents of those arrested in the Penza case have come together to form an organisation called “The Parents’ Network”.
“The parents stayed silent for so long because when your child is held hostage, it’s very hard to speak. Their lives, health, and future depend on our actions and the actions of their parents,” says human rights defender Aleksandra Krylenkova. The “The Parents’ Network” is now sending torture complaints to Yuriy Chaika, Russia’s Prosecutor General, trying to get criminal proceedings initiated against the security service officers. The Investigative Committee has so far declined to initiate an investigation.
Krylenkova thinks that the investigators were in close contact with the parents that were most susceptible to pressure. This why they are ignoring Pchelintsev’s and Chernov’s parents.
When Elena Bogatova, the mother of Ilya Shakursky, decided to join a group of rights defenders and parents of various Penza case defendants, the lawyer along with the investigator tried to talk her out of it. Bogatova recalls what the investigator told her: “Your son is good, theirs are bad, rights defenders won’t help you.” Besides that, the investigator also threatened her, saying that if Shakursky were to change his testimony, then they would assign him the role of organiser in the case.
In April 2018, the investigator offered Bogatova an informal deal. According to Bogatova, investigators demanded she give an interview to the NTV TV channel, confirming her son’s membership in “The Network” and remaining silent about the defendant’s joint airsoft games. The investigator promised that the interview would “count towards her son’s case in court”.
“The witnesses were tortured because the border between defendants and witnesses in these situations is a thin one”
NTV correspondents also visited Arman Sargynbaev’s mother, showing her the video of the defendant’s training sessions, which are are considered confidential material. As the video played, the journalists asked her if she had any connections with rights defenders. The camera crew caught up to the latter in Petersburg: they tried to get Viktor Filinkov’s lawyer, Vitaliy Cherkasov, on camera along with two representatives of the public monitoring commission that had found evidence of torture. All three were asked “Why they were helping terrorists?” and about their connections to Ukraine (referring to a meeting between the public monitoring commission and Ukraine’s consul general). In NTV’s documentary, the “Ukrainian connection” emerges at one of the main themes.
Punishment for solidarity
After rights advocates and journalists started to pay attention to the situation, anarchist organisations started to spread information about this case around the world. Solidarity actions took place in Russia, Europe, the USA and Canada with the slogan “The FSB is the main terrorist”. However, as it turns out, people involved in solidarity actions with Russian anarchists are also facing torture. In Chelyabinsk, after unknown people raised a banner in front of the local FSB building in February, local activists were tortured with electric shocks and pressured by investigators. After a window was broken at a United Russia office in Moscow in January during a solidarity action, activists faced torture at the hands of the FSB.
“The witnesses were tortured because the border between defendants and witnesses in these situations is a thin one,” says Alexander Litoi, a journalist with police monitoring service OVD-Info. Litoi believes that the security services have yet to make up their minds which people will be involved in the case, and are no longer afraid of accountability. For Litoi, torture and the methods of pressuring people used by the investigation are standard when it comes to the Russian security services’ work on terrorism charges.
After the Russian press started discussing “The Network” case, searches were carried out at the homes of local leftist activists in Crimea. Those detained spoke of beatings, but all the official accusations were in connection with reposts on social networks that were unrelated to the Penza case: either “incitement of hatred” or “public justification of terrorism”.
Anarchists and antifascists from Penza faced arrest at the same time as participants of Russian nationalist Vyacheslav Maltsev’s unrealised national “revolution” in October-November 2017. The “revolution” was supposed to happen on 5 November, the centenary of 1917, but shortly before reports started emerging of detentions. Instead of the millions that Maltsev expected, only hundreds turned out for the action in Russian cities. The slogan “5.11” (e.g. 5 November), once popular among Maltsev’s supporters, features in the “The Network” case as the name of the Penza “cell”.
It’s hard to imagine that a Russian left-winger would support Vyacheslav Maltsev, who is on the opposite site of the political spectrum. In all likelihood, the airsoft teams were named for a popular American brand of military clothing called “5.11 Tactical” (airsoft players often use this brand). According to other evidence, the team was named for the execution date of Nikolay Pchelintsev, a 17-year-old Penza anarchist who was hung in November 1907 (it’s unknown if he’s a relative of Dmitry Pchelintsev, a defendant in the case).
The FSB’s poor grasp of the current political agenda is borne out by other details in the case. For example, the FSB invented an interesting oxymoronic detail, claiming that the activists wanted to set up an “anarchist state”, and started trying to connect anarchists to Maltsev’s supporters in early 2017. Sofiko Aridzhanova, a Moscow-based journalist and anarchist, recently revealed that FSB officers informally interrogated her in February last year – and tried to fool her into giving an enthusiastic opinion of Maltsev, telling stories of how the nationalist was highly thought of among anarchists. At the end of the interrogation, they asked Aridzhanova to find any familiar surnames on a one-and-a-half-page list. Aridzhanova says that other anarchists went through similar questionings. Admittedly, this interrogation might not be related in any way to the Penza case. Throughout the winter and spring of 2017, security service officers questioned a lot of “suspicious” people about Vyacheslav Maltsev (who is now abroad), including supporters of Alexey Navalny.
Meanwhile, the FSB continues to look for members of “The Network”. According to investigators, another 10 people were part of the group in St Petersburg, along with two more in Penza and two others in Moscow. Their names and nicknames aren’t specified. They only mention activists from the Penza cell, whose nicknames are “Red-head” and “Boris”.
Translated by Christopher Moldes.