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♦ What Dadin’s release means for Russia’s other political prisoners ♦
“OPPOSITION ACTIVIST ILDAR DADIN left a prison in Rubtsovsk … on Sunday,” reported the Associated Press on 26 February. “Dadin was freed from his jail in the remote Altai Region in southern Siberia after Russia’s Supreme Court annulled his 2½-year sentence because of procedural violations” during the investigation and trial.
The premature release of any Russian prisoner of conscience is cause for celebration. This apparent climb-down by Russia’s political and judicial authorities has a less desirable effect, however. It weakens a worldwide campaign just when people are wondering about the country that will host the 2018 Football World Cup (Guardian, “Russia’s hooligan army”, 17 February.).
How many more political prisoners are there in Russia today? Who are they, and what (if anything) did they do to find themselves behind barbed wire or in prison?
One among many
For Ildar Dadin is only one among the many who have been sentenced or are awaiting trial in Russia not for acts of violence, but for expressing their beliefs and exercising rights freely practised in other countries around the world.
The decision of the Constitutional Court in his case will have no direct impact on the fate of Russia’s other political prisoners. One, there is no official talk of rescinding the other repressive laws (particularly those concerning “terrorism” and “extremism” – Articles 205 and 282 of the RF Criminal Code) under which dozens have been prosecuted over the past 5-10 years. Two, in other cases when the public outcry began to have a negative impact for the regime, the mounting protests were met by a pre-emptive and divisive gesture: the two imprisoned Pussy Riot members, for instance, were released in a 2013 amnesty; Nadia Savchenko regained her freedom through a prisoner exchange in May 2016. Likewise, Dadin’s release at this moment undermines any co-ordinated pressure on Russia from international bodies, other governments and worldwide public opinion.
In June 2016, stated the Inostrannyi Agent foundation, a handful of women (10) and sixty one men were imprisoned in Russia’s grim penal colonies (71). Oleg Sentsov from Crimea, for instance, convicted in 2016 of “organising a terrorist group” (Article 205.2), is presently serving a 20-year sentence in Yakutia (Far Eastern Russia).
More prisoners of conscience (101) were being held in remand centres. Among them are the 23 Muslim men detained in Bashkortostan (Volga Federal District) in early 2015 who are still awaiting trial. A smaller number of those under investigation were free on bail (9), restricted by a travel ban (23), or — in the case of Natalya Sharina, director of the Ukrainian Library in Moscow — kept under house arrest (9). (In June 2016 a further 16 persons were hiding from arrest and investigation.)
The dozens of prisoners and detainees fall into several groups of unequal size. Inostrannyi Agent divided the 320 individuals on its December 2016 list into the following categories.
Some were bloggers (22), some were political activists (75), and others had been targeted for their involvement in NGOs and civic activities (21). Some fell foul of the increasing levels of State repression inside Russia (13). A few were citizens of foreign countries (12) who, like Sentsov, were tried and convicted in Russia after being kidnapped beyond its borders. Since the March 2014 annexation of Crimea more and more Crimean Tatars are being detained (31) and charged with political and religious offences. The category of religious “extremists” (150) today amounts to over almost one half of the total.
In December 2016 Memorial HRC decided to divide its list of political prisoners in two, separating religious “offenders” from those accused or convicted of secular offences.
Little hope of change
When Memorial first drew up a list of political prisoners in 2014 it named 40 individuals. Today the organisation’s Human Rights Centre gives over one hundred names and freely admits that its current list, while doubling in size, is nevertheless “incomplete”.
This becomes obvious when the Memorial lists are compared to those of the Netherlands-based Inostrannyi Agent foundation. In 2013 the latter organisation identified 52 individuals as prisoners of conscience. Today its “List of Political Prisoners in the Russian Federation” contains over three hundred names. A graph tracing this accelerating growth in numbers was published with its 10 December 2016 list (the New Chronicle of Current Events website).
Without a change in the regime it is unlikely that the constant increase in the number of political prisoners can be halted, let alone reversed. Ominously, the total figure for such a captive population is fast approaching that of the late Soviet Union. (Compare USSR News Brief – Human Rights in the Soviet Union, 15 February 1987, “The release of a large number of political prisoners” .)
What we can do
The cases of all Russia’s political prisoners must be highlighted, giving the less well-known some of the attention received by only a few of their colleagues in misfortune. From now on Rights in Russia will focus, each week, on a different political prisoner (or group of detained persons) from the lists of Memorial and Inostrannyi Agent.
The first is 32-year-old Taisiya Osipova from Smolensk (western Russia), wife of one of the leaders of the Other Russia. On 28 February Osipova was freed on parole after serving six years of her 8-year sentence for possession and sale of drugs. The path to her release could not illustrate more clearly the plight of prisoners who do not attract widespread and sustained Western attention and concern.
Rights in Russia
4 March 2017
[R = Russian]
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 26 February 2017, “Russian Activist Ildar Dadin Released From Prison”
Memorial HRC, February 2017, “The current list of political prisoners in Russia” [R]
Inostrannyi agent foundation / New Chronicle of Current Events, 10 December 2016, “A new list of political prisoners in the Russian Federation” [R]
USSR News Brief, No 3, 15 February 1987, “The release of a large number of political prisoners” [R]
Meduza, 28 February 2017, “Other Russia activist Taisiya Osipova has been freed after six years’ imprisonment” [R]