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Evidence that anti-fascist activists were tortured by Russian federal security officers is “really disturbing”, president Vladimir Putin told the Kremlin’s own human rights council in December. He promised to “look into it”.
But ten of the young activists in question remain in detention awaiting trial in the “Network” case, charged with organising a terrorist group and illegal possession of weapons. The prosecution’s main evidence comprises statements taken after the accused were tortured with electric shockers, hung upside down, throttled and beaten up for hours on end.
The FSB, Russia’s main security service, claims members of the “Network” were planning to organise bombings during Russia’s March 2018 presidential elections and the football World Cup, that they planned an armed uprising and were “stirring up the masses for further destabilisation of the political situation in the country”. It says that defendants had assigned roles (leaders, communications personnel, sappers and ideological officers), discussed their plans on social media and held minuted meetings about them.
The FSB case includes the fact that all the defendants played airsoft (a team shooting sport with no live ammunition) and that some of them did physical training together.
The defendants, their parents who have spearheaded protests, and other supporters, say the case is a frame-up. They say that confessions made under torture are not credible and that the defendants have been targeted for their beliefs.
In January 2019, one of the accused, Igor Shishkin, was convicted and sentenced to three and a half years by a Moscow court, after agreeing to cooperate with the prosecution. Shishkin, too, was tortured, according to a report by Public Monitoring Commission members. In February 2019, activists feared a new round of arrests was starting, when a group of people were detained in Moscow. One of them, the anarchist Azat Miftakhov, was tortured in custody. While state TV channels broadcast news of his interrogation, his lawyers were unable to get access to him for a day and a half.
For Putin to feign concern about the tortures is about as credible as Theresa May claiming she had nothing to do with the Windrush scandal.
In addition to the “Network” case, activists were tortured in police detention in Chelyabinsk, in the southern Urals, for holding a solidarity picket with the “Network” defendants; in Tomsk and Kaliningrad for social media postings; and in Moscow, after the ruling United Russia party’s office window was broken.
This month there were also reports of a renewed campaign of killings, arrests and torture against LGBTQ people in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya. In London, gay rights organisations protested about this at the Russian embassy on Sunday 27 January.
The persecution of Yuri Dmitriev, the historian based in Petrozavodsk in north-west Russia – who human rights organisations say has been targeted for his stubborn investigation of Stalinist crimes in the 1930s – continues. After a trumped-up child pornography case against Dmitriev collapsed last summer, the verdict was overturned by the Karelian supreme court; he was re-arrested and awaits a new trial.
Campaigners in Russia and internationally have denounced the “Network” case as a show trial in the making.
It bears an uncanny resemblance to the 2015 trial of Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov and anarchist activist Oleksandr Kolchenko, who were arrested after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 on charges of preparing terrorist attacks (that never happened).
Sentsov is serving twenty years in a Russian prison, and Kolchenko ten – despite the fact that Gennady Afanasyev, whose evidence formed a key part of the prosecution case, sensationally renounced it in court, claiming it was given under duress. The methods he described were identical to those used against the “Network” accused.
Sentsov and Kolchenko, both of whom have refused to accept Russian citizenship, are among nearly 100 Ukrainian prisoners in Russia regarded by human rights campaigners as political prisoners.
They include a large number of activists from the Crimean Tatar community who have opposed the Russian annexation, and four men handed down 9-17 year sentences in December for alleged membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the non-violent pan-Islamist organisation banned in Russia, China and many middle eastern countries but legal elsewhere, including the UK.
The war in Ukraine is the ground in which the new wave of repression in Russia itself has grown. In Ukraine, the right-wing tinpot regimes set up in 2014 – the Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics” – survive thanks to the Russian state’s military, political and economic support. In Russia, the war against “enemies within”, and the criminalisation of dissent, is facilitated by nationalist hysteria against the Ukrainian “enemy without”.
Anti-Ukrainian xenophobia works to blunt disquiet at the slump in standards of living caused mainly by the 2007-08 financial crisis and the oil price collapse of 2015, and exacerbated by sanctions imposed on Russian companies and banks after Crimea was annexed. On average, ordinary Russians are more than 10% worse off than they were in 2014. Levels of unemployment and precarity of work are rising.
There is an analogy with Margaret Thatcher’s war on Argentina (1982) and her subsequent assault on the mineworkers’ union (1984). Except that Ukraine is not halfway round the world, but is Russia’s closest neighbour, oldest colony and home to more Russian speakers than any country except Russia. A centuries-old relationship between the two countries has been torn apart by Russian involvement in the military conflict.
It was the tenth anniversary of the assassination, in broad daylight in central Moscow, of prominent anti-fascists Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer, and Anastasia Baburova, a journalist. Their killers, who were convicted and jailed for the crime, were linked to a right-wing terror group, BORN, that had close links to people in the presidential administration.
In Kyiv, organisers of a solidarity demonstration defied threats of attack by fascists who broke up last year’s commemoration of Markelov and Baburova.
A solidarity march in London began at the mural commemorating the 1936 “battle of Cable Street”, when the fascists were driven out of the east end, and ended at Altab Ali Park, named after a Bangladeshi textile worker murdered by fascists in 1976.
At the London event, Rosa, a Russian participant, said in a speech that the “network” case looks like a “contemporary caricature of a Stalinist show trial”. A caricature, because state TV had claimed that the accused anti-fascists were linked to a Ukrainian far right organisation.
“It is this fascist ‘anti-fascism’ that the Russian state is also promoting abroad”, Rosa said. “It frightens the Western public with the Ukrainian fascists, and tries to appear as a decolonial counter-power to US hegemony in the world. It is this ‘anti-fascist’ fascism that also led the Russian state to Syria.”
This Russian case is “not a far-away exotic reality”. Russia shows us “the shameful future of a capitalist society that went through a series of geopolitical, economic and political crises, severe austerity measures and a rapid dismantle of the welfare state”: it is a mirror of other European countries’ fate, if austerity on one hand, and the rise of the far right and xenophobia on the other, go unchecked.