Russian courts dish out Soviet-style justice

Updated:

Editor's note: This was one of featured articles in GlobalPost's "Great Weekend Reads," a free, online compilation of the week's most colorful stories. To receive Great Weekend Reads by email, let us know at editors@globalpost.com.

Yulia Privedyonnaya was found guilty of all charges on Wednesday and received the maximum sentence of four and a half years in prison.

MOSCOW, Russia — In the United States, Yulia Privedyonnaya would probably be called a hippie.

She writes bad poetry and has devoted her life to developing a “theory of happiness.” She believes everyone should smile more. She shares a communal home with like-minded thinkers.

But Privedyonnaya lives in Russia. Since she was charged with leading an illegal armed group two years ago, she has spent nearly 80 days in a rat-infested prison, one month in a psychiatric facility and endless days fighting a legal system that seems determined to imprison her.

On Wednesday, she is due to attend court one last time to see whether a judge has found her guilty of leading an illegal militant group, illegal detainment of minors and torture. Privedyonnaya and her supporters call the charges “ridiculous.” She risks up to four and a half years in prison if found guilty.

If precedent is anything to go by, she likely will be. Less than 1 percent of all people on trial in Russia walk free. Last year, according to Supreme Court head Vyacheslav Lebedev, 920,000 people were convicted while just 9,000 were acquitted.

Critics say that Privedyonnaya’s case is a damning illustration that, despite President Dmitry Medvedev’s rhetorical commitment to reforming Russia’s notoriously corrupt and politicized court system, little has changed on the ground.

In May 2008, six officers from the Federal Security Service, the powerful main successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, arrived at Privedyonnaya’s doorstep in Odintsovo, a small town on Moscow’s outskirts.

They threw her into a van. “I asked them why they were taking me, the charges made no sense. One of them said: 'To us, ideas are scarier than criminals,' ” she said during a recent interview.

It’s hard to imagine an FSB officer being so eloquent, but Privedyonnaya is one of the hundreds of opposition activists in Russia who speak as if the Soviet Union still existed, comparing their cases to those of prominent Soviet dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. 

“It’s like in the ‘Gulag Archipelago,’” Privedyonnaya said, referring to Solzhenitsyn’s most famous book, which exposed the vast network of Soviet labor camps. “Criminals were seen as in with the guards, while political prisoners were more dangerous. The same principle exists today.”

Privedyonnaya was thrown into prison, and kept there, without court sanction, for 77 days. During that time, she was let outside twice for 10 minutes each time. “I was given a nickname — ‘the terrorist,’” she said. “Even the prison guards called me that and would laugh and say, “Ah, so they thought up some charges!”

If you ask Privedyonnaya, she was arrested because of her increasing presence in Russia’s opposition circles. She had begun attending anti-Putin rallies. She likes to point out that President Dmitry Medvedev was inaugurated days before her arrest.

Yet often in Russia, the case is more complicated.

Privedyonnaya, 36, belongs to a group called — in all seriousness — the Poetical Association for the Elaboration for a Theory of Happiness, known by its Russian initials, PORTOS. She joined the group in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse after meeting some members and taking advantage of the classes they offered in Esperanto, the universal language that Privedyonnaya still believes will one day tie the world together.

By 2000, the group was involved in various kinds of community service, delivering food to old people and tutoring underprivileged youth. To fund their activities, they started a business, using trucks to deliver grocery cargo to shops. They moved to a 3.7 acre plot of land in the village of Lyubertsy, outside Moscow.

Less than one year later, organized crime police and FSB officers raided the grounds, seizing computers and arresting four people, including the group’s founder. They were accused of the same three charges Privedyonnaya faces, and were all found guilty, each being sentenced to four to five and a half years in jail. The land was confiscated.

Privedyonnaya and her supporters believe that case was linked to a new law inaugurated in the wake of the deadly terrorist bombings on four apartment blocks in Russia in 1999 that provided the premise for a newly elected president, Vladimir Putin, to launch a second war against separatists in Chechnya.

“They needed to find a case that showed the fight against terrorism was happening,” said Mikhail Trepashkin, Privedyonnaya’s lawyer and former FSB officer who was imprisoned for four years after investigating the bombings and finding FSB involvement.

Privedyonnaya agrees: “They need to fulfill a plan to ‘catch bandits.’ To catch real ones is dangerous — they tend to shoot — and this way they show they’re fighting terrorism.”

It is unclear what promoted Privedyonnaya’s arrest eight years later.

Her captors said she had been on the country’s wanted list since the 2000 raid. “They said they had been searching for me and couldn’t find me, but that’s impossible — I was on TV, on the radio, all the time.”

Her trial began in September 2008 and has been marked by delays and what her lawyer says are procedural violations.

A first judge refused to try it, saying there wasn’t enough evidence. The prosecution called 42 witnesses, including police and FSB officers, but not one has showed up to the trial.

Several months into the hearings, prosecutors asked the judge to order a psychiatric check, arguing that the “theory of happiness makes no sense,” Privedyonnaya said. She was interred at Moscow’s Serbsky Institute, a notorious psychiatric ward that was used in Soviet times to imprison political prisoners, for 21 days.

“They asked what books I read. One doctor asked what I thought of Stalin, what I thought of Putin,” she said.

Privedyonnaya’s supporters launched an international outcry. Amnesty International began a letter-writing campaign. The psychiatric hospital eventually found that she was sane.

Privedyonnaya thinks only similar public pressure could help her at Wednesday’s hearing, yet she fully understands that a guilty verdict is the most likely outcome.

“There are lots of guilty verdicts in Russia, so as not to shame the investigation,” she said. “I will bring a suitcase with me to the court.”

Supporters held a rally in central Moscow on Monday.

Privedyonnaya’s case also speaks to the wide-reaching authority of the FSB, an organization headed by Putin before he acceded to the presidency (a post he held for eight years before becoming prime minister).

Earlier this month, Putin’s successor, Medvedev, came under harsh criticism for approving a law that increases the FSB’s powers, allowing it, in the style of Hollywood blockbuster "Minority Report," to warn citizens when they are suspect of having the intention to commit an unspecified crime at an unspecified future date.

Many commentators have likened the new law to a return of Soviet-era practice. Yet Privedyonnaya’s case illustrates just how powerful the FSB was even without such a law, which was first proposed in the wake of the Moscow metro bombings in March.

“When federal authorities want to get at somebody, it’s not the absence of a pertinent law that would stop them,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Center. “Russia is not a country that is ruled by law — there is discretionary implementation of the laws.”

Analysts worry the law may add to the FSB’s arsenal in its fight to crack down on Russia’s opposition. “This is a carte blanche for people with influence who want to persecute people for crimes of thought,” Lipman said.

In .

Tagged: Russia.