Natasha “held firm: she did not utter a single unnecessary word”

Irina Levontina, expert linguist at the Dmitriev trial, talks to Zoya Svetova for MBK Media about her work on the case and the pressures now faced by court experts.

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On 22 July 2020 Petrozavodsk City Court sentenced Yury DMITRIEV to three and a half years’ imprisonment in a strict-regime penal colony for “acts of a sexual nature committed against a minor”. Irina Levontina presented the findings of the linguistic specialists invited by the defence at the trial. [She is a senior research associate of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Russian Language.]

Their assessment played a significant role, it seems, in the award of such a mild sentence: the Criminal Code suggests a minimum of 12 years’ imprisonment for such a crime.

Irina Levontina (MBK media)

ZOYA SVETOVA (ZS) – With Academician Alexander Moldovan, Anna Dybo (Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences) and Alexei Shmelyov – all famous linguists – you prepared an expert assessment at the request of Yury Dmitriev’s defence. On which of the case materials did you base your findings?

IRINA LEVONTINA (IL) – They gave us seven texts, some with accompanying video. They were [Natasha’s] conversations with the psychologist and the cross-examination of a minor [by the investigator]. The case was held behind closed doors, so I can hardly tell you anything about the content of the texts we analysed. Before and especially after sentence was pronounced a heated discussion broke out.

Some people have seen the case materials and know what they contain. They are bound by an undertaking not to reveal their contents. Others have not seen the case materials. Their fantasy knows no limits – they can make any assumptions and confidently make assertions about the case. Those who know they’re wrong cannot refute them in detail. It’s very hard, therefore, to conduct any kind of dialogue.

“Ugh. I don’t like paedophiles,” thoroughly decent people write to me. “How can you defend a paedophile? I don’t believe he’s innocent.” All the while I ask myself, ‘Why are you so sure it couldn’t happen to you?’ They believe it happens to others who, probably, have messed up badly. But to themselves, never! After watching many hours of the girl’s interrogation, I grew quite depressed: I could see how easily a case like that could be conjured out of nothing.

It’s so easy to ruin someone’s life, or to destroy that person altogether. Yet we know of cases where people end up in prison for no reason and are ruined after being falsely accused – for vengeance, to get their apartment, because of a conflict with their neighbours.

ZS – It’s that easy to fabricate such a case?

IL – We are dealing with such sensitive matters that it’s difficult to prove anything; and when a case is heard behind closed doors it’s quite impossible to keep an eye on the prosecution. That’s a problem not only in Russia but all over the world.

The Dmitriev case is not straightforward, moreover. On the one hand, his situation is bad because they very much wanted to send him to the camps and tried by all means to do so. On the other hand, he’s much better off than many others. Society began to defend him, his case attracted attention, he had a strong defence attorney, and noted specialists were invited to the trial. In an interview after the verdict Dmitriev’s defence attorney said: “I’m here for the 90th time.” If Victor Anufriev had no other expenses the rail tickets alone must have cost him half a million roubles.

Victor Anufriev speaking to media outside Petrozavodsk courthouse after 22 July verdict

Society supported Dmitriev and provided material support. Yet how many people cannot pay? [see Maria Eismont (2017), “Accusations of child sexual abuse”.] The family loses all it has and sells its apartment – and still it cannot save the victim. It’s a big problem, in my view, about which we know little so far. And here, of course, the quality of the expert assessment arises.

Because in such cases there is hardly anything except for the expert assessment and the findings of the invited specialists. The quality of that research comes to the fore. We are always sorry for children who fall prey to paedophiles. However, I also feel sorry for people wrongly convicted in such cases.

ZS – You presented the findings of the specialists. What were they?

IL – We were given seven texts, as I said, and we studied those questions and answers [the interviews were conducted in 2016-2018]. They asked the girl a question and she answered.

We counted how often she said, “No”; how many times she replied, “I don’t know”; how often she said “I never thought about it”; and so on. How frequently she nodded or shook her head. We studied all those patterns.

We investigated how much “free description” there was. That’s an important criterion in determining how informative a text is – whether the answer merely confirms the words of the interlocutor or if the person being asked describes something, even in a fragmentary way.

For example: “You came by train?” Reply: “Yes, by train”. The reply could have provided other information. For example: “I came by the Red Arrow”, “At five in the evening”, etc. In a great number of cases the girl’s answers simply repeated the information from the question.

There was, in fact, no free description in the girl’s testimony.

ZS – What does that indicate?

IL – That it all provided little information. To most of the questions she replied, “I don’t know”, “I don’t remember”.

ZS – She was uncertain about the information they wanted from her?

IL – She’s a young girl. The events happened several years ago. She remembered certain things; she was told certain things and certain things were suggested to her so that she gave the answer they wanted. Then they could begin to draw conclusions.

We studied these texts and did not draw conclusions. We were looking to see what information there was and how it was presented. Did the under-age girl herself provide this information? Or was it conveyed as confirmation or denial of what she was being asked?

Then we studied those instances when questions were asked containing words (“spontaneously”, “accentuate”) that the girl clearly didn’t understand. These were words a 12-13-year-old girl did not know, and she replied “Probably”, to those questions. Just to be on the safe side. As you can see, it was not informative if she gave that kind of answer.

There were queries like the famous question put to Karlsson-on-the-Roof [Astrid Lundgren character]: “Have you stopped drinking brandy first thing each day?” It’s impossible to give a normal answer (Yes or No) to such a question.

The question contains a false presumption and, naturally, the girl found it exceedingly difficult. She gave indeterminate answers: “I don’t know”, “Sometimes”, or “Perhaps”.

We analysed the communicative situation in which this cross-examination took place; Novaya gazeta focused on that. But whenever we analyse a text, we examine the circumstances of the conversation: how the participants relate to one another, their social roles, and so on.

ZS – In your view did these cross-examinations take place under pressure?

IL – “Under pressure” is not a term we use in linguistic analysis. We did say that there was “communicative pressure” with a child facing two adults. They ask the girl questions and she wants to give the right answers. In that sense, there was communicative pressure. As concerns the psychological aspects, probably the psychologists had something to say about that.

ZS – What conclusion can we draw from your investigation?

IL – I can’t say without revealing the case materials.

I liked the girl. I’ve read on Facebook that we accused her of lying. Nothing of the sort! Whether a person is lying or not does not form part of linguistic analysis. However, it was clear that she was trying not to say anything unnecessary in her testimony. As a result, the information she provided was very meagre. She confirmed a certain minimum that she was prepared to confirm.

The investigator and the psychologist tried, in one way or another, to get some admission from her, some additional information. Quite unsuccessfully. She held firm and did not utter a single unnecessary word. As a result, the investigation had little evidence to support its accusations.

ZS – You’ve watched film of Natasha’s interrogation and read the transcripts. If you heard anything that confirmed the version of the prosecution; if the girl told of some violence inflicted on her: you would have mentioned it in your assessment, wouldn’t you?

IL – Of course. We [the group of linguists] are normal people. Not one of us would begin lying or writing untruths in order to acquit a paedophile.

ZS – Some posts on Facebook suggest that in defending Dmitriev rights activists are defending one of their own. Is that true for you?

IL – I’ve been engaged in forensic linguistics for twenty years. People often ask me to provide an assessment for one or another criminal case. Frequently I tell them, there and then: “Excuse me, I can’t write what you want.” “What’s the problem?” they say, “He’s a very good person.” I reply, “I’m sorry that’s not relevant in linguistics.”

So it’s laughable to imagine that we could conceal, distort, overlook, or pretend not to understand something. This Article of the Criminal Code [Article 132, 4 (b)] I realise, was deliberately chosen not because it’s repugnant, but because it permits the case to be heard behind closed doors and makes it hard to defend someone. People start thinking: Well, he may be very good in public, but who knows what goes on in his private life. There was a calculation that everyone would be scared of getting involved.

The view that Dmitriev was innocent arose from the combination of every aspect of the case: how it began, how it evolved and developed. The belief of those who supported Dmitriev was not just based on the idea that he was “one of us”. If you closely followed the information that began circulating from the outset you could draw your own conclusions. For the few of us who’ve seen the case materials it’s easier. We can’t describe things in detail, but we at least were sure he was innocent. We could take part calmly and defend him with a clear conscience.

ZS – When you spoke in court what impression did the judge make on you?

IL – I’ve seen a great many judges. They differ to an extraordinary extent. Among them you sometimes encounter men and women who are genuinely interested in making sense of a case, in understanding exactly what took place. That doesn’t always mean, incidentally, that the verdict will be fair. And among the judges there are many people who quickly grasp the key issues. Evidently, that’s a feature of their work.

The judge in this case [Alexander Merkov] listened attentively, asked shrewd questions and clearly noticed certain inconsistencies. This filled me with hope that he was trying to judge the case fairly. Perhaps, in this case he listened to what the specialists had to say. The linguists and psychologists passed comment on the case materials and said the investigators had broken the rules for conducting such conversations with a minor.

ZS – What rules?

IL – Don’t apply pressure, don’t ask leading questions, don’t try to shape a person’s point of view or perspective – let him or her say what (s)he wants to.

ZS – You couldn’t work with the primary material? You weren’t able to speak to the girl?

IL – The defence attorney made us sign an agreement that we would not publicise the contents [of the seven texts] or make copies of them. We returned his memory stick to him and kept no copies for ourselves. When we had examined the texts, the attorney asked us whether we could conduct a linguistic investigation and assess the informative nature of such materials.

Immediately after the verdict was announced the specialists came under fierce attack. On the Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov programme [Russia-1 TV channel] we were described as scumbags.

I’d like to say that, as an institution, expert assessments have fallen into terrible disrepute. As we know, everything in our court system has broken down: the right to a defence, the adversarial principle between the parties. The defence attorney can’t himself appoint the expert assessment; he can only invite specialists. He petitions the court to carry out an expert assessment. Then the court decides whether or not to do so and what body will conduct the assessment.

Specialists are often treated with disdain, moreover. Prosecutors shout at us and some judges keep us waiting in the corridor all day, and then refuse to hear us. That hardly ever happened before in criminal cases. It’s only recently that courts have begun to reject us and mоck us for lacking sufficient experience.

There may be an assessment in the case files, for instance, written by someone who lacks the appropriate education and training and has copied a textbook example. The judge accepts that assessment (as in the case of Yegor Zhukov) and then the defence ask that four specialists be heard in court, among them the person who wrote the textbook. “No,” rules the judge: “they’re not properly qualified.”

It’s become very hard to find specialists who will carry out these investigations. Defence attorneys are at their wit’s end. No one will agree to take part, especially in such widely publicised cases.

ZS – Why?

IL – Specialists are intimidated; phone calls are made to the places where they work. That happened, for example, to the astronomer Olga Vozyakovaya during Nadezhda Savchenko’s trial. The organisation which employs the expert is terrorised.

The idea of prosecuting a specialist and presenting him or her as an accomplice of the accused is quite appalling. There are certain Articles of the Criminal Code, after all, where the whole case depends on a specialist investigation. The prosecution has its own “plain-clothes” experts; the defence has its hands tied behind its back. There are few enough procedural channels open to the defence; on top of that it’s impossible to find specialists because they are being intimidated and harassed.

The most outrageous example is that of Olga Zelenina, a research chemist who faced criminal charges for several years because of one specialist assessment she made. She was charged with being an accomplice. Eventually she was acquitted and even awarded compensation – but only after several years with her life in ruins!

I wish society would pay attention to what’s going on. There are people who are ready to stand up in court as specialists, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to do so.

ZS – Did your linguistic assessment influence the verdict?

IL – I don’t know. You can never tell. We did all we could to provide an objective account of the materials. The judge understood what we wanted to say. What influenced him and why he delivered the mildest sentence in that situation, a compromise verdict, I do not know. Judging by the outcry that followed our findings they clearly touched a sore spot and played their part.

Yury Dmitriev with Sergei Kovalyov in 2018 at the Moscow Helsinki Group awards

Irina Levontina interviewed by Zoya Svetova,
MBK media, 15 September 2020

[Additional information from Natalya Dyomina‘s interview with Irina Levontina, trv-science.ru, 28 July 2020]