On the eve of a verdict

Halya Coynash

A verdict is due on Thursday, 5 April 2018, in the trial of YURY DMITRIEV, world-renowned Russian historian and head of the Karelia branch of the Memorial Society.

City Courthouse, Petrozavodsk, 2018
Petrozavodsk City Courthouse (photo, Kerstin Kronvall)

The prosecution has demanded a 9-year sentence, despite even the expert assessments ordered by the court dismissing the charges. This deeply flawed case differs from many politically-motivated trials, however, in that the outcome is still not clear. A guilty verdict on Thursday afternoon will signal a new descent for Russia into its Soviet past.

Thanks to Yury Dmitriev many Ukrainians, Russians and representatives of other nationalities have learned of the fate of their parents or grandparents arrested during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-1938.  It was he and his colleagues from the St Petersburg Memorial Society who discovered the mass graves at Sandarmokh in Karelia, where thousands were murdered during the Terror, including 1,111 prisoners from the Solovki Labour Camp.

Memorial, and Dmitriev have concentrated in recent years on exposing the perpetrators of the Terror, not only their victims.  It has been widely assumed, both in Russia and beyond, that Dmitriev’s arrest and the obvious efforts to use the charges against him as a way of discrediting Memorial were linked with the above-mentioned work.

The charges

Dmitriev was arrested on 13 December 2016 and remanded in custody.  He was charged with “preparing pornography involving a minor” (Article 242.2 of Russia’s criminal code) and “depraved actions with respect to a child under the age of 11” (Article 135).  Both these apparently serious charges pertained solely to a folder filed on his computer, and never ‘circulated’, which contained 114 photos of his adopted daughter Natasha.

The little girl had been painfully thin and in poor health when he and his former wife took her from the children’s home when she was three; the authorities themselves advised him to monitor her development.  Each of the photos, taken between 2008 and 2015, were accompanied by records of her weight and height.

The ‘investigators’ came up with an ‘expert assessment’ made by a mathematician, a teacher and an art historian who obligingly perceived ‘pornography’ in nine of the photos.

This assessment was rejected by Dr Lev Shcheglov, the President of the National Institute of Sexology, as well as two other specialists who saw nothing pornographic in the photos and who confirmed that it was common practice in Russia to take photographs for such medical purposes.

With the ‘expert assessment’ so roundly dismissed by real specialists, even the prosecutor Yelena Askerova had to agree to a new assessment.  Despite clear efforts to influence the second outcome, in December 2017, this second assessment effectively overturned the whole prosecution’s case.  It agreed with Shcheglov and the other recognized specialists in the field, finding nothing pornographic in the photos.

The charges refuted

Askerova then demanded yet a third assessment of the photos, as well as tests of Dmitriev himself in a psychiatric institution. She also sought a further 3-month extension of his detention.

At this point the outcome of this trial became somewhat less predictable.  Judge Marina Nosova agreed to send Dmitriev to the Serbsky Institute in Moscow for the said examinations, but only extended the detention for one month. Dmitriev was released from custody on the eve of his 62nd birthday on 28 January 2018.

A month later, on 27 February 2018, Dmitriev’s lawyer VICTOR ANUFRIEV reported from the Petrozavodsk Court that the Serbsky Institute had also found nothing wrong with Dmitriev:

“It directly stated that Dmitriev is not a paedophile, and that the photos of his adopted daughter were taken for a different purpose.  He had not done anything that was harmful for the little girl.”

A letter to my “beloved Papa”

With all the evidence so heavily against the prosecution, and Dmitriev himself having been freed, it came as a shock when Askerova demanded a 9-year maximum security prison sentence.

Dmitriev at courthouse, 27 March 2018
Yu.A. DMITRIEV at Petrozavodsk City Courthouse, 27 March 2018

Over a hundred people, including well-known human rights defenders, were at the courthouse on 27 March, when Dmitriev spoke his Final Words at the trial.  The hearings were again held behind closed doors because the photos were of a minor, but Anufriev and Dmitriev himself later explained what had been said in court.  Dmitriev had reiterated his denial of the charges and read out a letter from Natasha, his adopted daughter, to her “beloved Papa”, in which she said how much she loved and missed him.

Anufriev explained that the letter had been cited because of attempts to push the idea that Dmitriev had psychologically damaged the young girl. The main victim of this whole case, Anufriev went on to say, has been “this little girl, who was taken out of her normal environment, away from her family, forcibly detached from the person who has become close to her, who has become her father”.

After Dmitriev’s arrest in December 2016, Natasha was sent away immediately to a grandmother she didn’t know.  This was done, Anufriev noted, even though the little girl was due to receive hospital treatment in Petrozavodsk. Yet despite all efforts to turn her against the man she calls Papa, she had still written such a letter.

Judge Marina Nosova is due to announce the verdict on Thursday, 5 April 2018, at 3 pm (local time).

Human Rights in Ukraine,
30 March 2018