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How Russia is using show trials to punish Putin’s enemies

The Kremlin has long orchestrated the Russian justice system as an instrument of oppression and propaganda, using a veneer of legality to silence critics and impose its version of events.

Last December, for example, Russia’s Supreme Court liquidated the country’s largest human rights group, Memorial, ruling that its work chronicling Stalin-era brutality had distorted the historical picture. of the Soviet Union.

Months earlier, a Moscow court condemned the political and anti-corruption organizations founded by Aleksei A. Navalny as “extremists”, ultimately sentencing the opposition leader to nine years in prison.

In 2020 Paul Whelan, a former US Marine, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage in a case widely believed to be the taking of a hostage by Russia. “False trial! Mr Whelan, who is still incarcerated, wrote on a piece of paper which he held up in court.

The common thread running through all of these cases, analysts and opposition figures say, is that the verdict was staged to deliver President Vladimir V. Putin a coveted goal, such as diminishing an opponent or bolstering a propaganda point. .

Now, with nearly 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers from the besieged Mariupol steelworks in Russian custody, the prospect of so-called show trials is resurfacing.

The fighters left the factory this week after holding the last line of defense in Mariupol, at a Soviet-era steelworks. The Ukrainian government said it had negotiated a deal for the exchange of fighters, but Moscow has not confirmed this.

At the same time, some Russian officials have pushed to label a group of soldiers – members of the Azov Battalion – as terrorists and to try them for war crimes. The Russian position raised the prospect that it lays the groundwork for high-profile trials of combatants that would advance its narrative of the war.

“Any case that Putin or his allies would like to handle will be handled,” said Ilya Novikov, a former lawyer from Moscow who moved to Kyiv three years ago. “You shouldn’t start by asking what the charges are, you should start by asking what the outcome is.”

Mr. Novikov has served as defense counsel for various Ukrainians accused in high-profile cases, including a 2018 episode in which Russia seized 24 Ukrainian sailors.

The Russian Ministry of Defense suggested that the Azov Battalion constituted the core of the force in the steelworks and estimated the initial number of those surrendering at around 800. The unit’s roots in the far right gave a sliver of credibility to Russia’s claim that it was fighting the Nazis, the justification it invokes for invading its neighbor.

It is not yet clear whether Russia will proceed with trials, but Moscow has sent worrying signals. Russia’s Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing next Thursday to decide whether to classify the Azov Brigade as a terrorist organization, a request made by the attorney general; analysts say the result is almost a foregone conclusion.

The Board of Inquiry, the rough Russian equivalent of the FBI, said it would interview the fighters to investigate possible crimes against civilians. Members of the Duma, or parliament, have proposed banning members of Azov from being exchanged for Russian prisoners. The Foreign Ministry spokesman also suggested that some of those captured had committed war crimes.

A Russian soldier in Ukraine has already pleaded guilty to war crimes charges for shooting a civilian, so Moscow could try to show that Ukrainian soldiers committed equal atrocities, Mr Novikov said. “It’s like a mirror reaction,” he said. “You have a trial, but we will have a more efficient trial, with many more people charged.”

Mr. Putin suggested such trials in his February 24 speech announcing the invasion. “We will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to justice those who perpetrated bloody crimes against civilians,” he said.

Even though the Kremlin didn’t issue a directive, that talk was enough for the bureaucracy to spring into action and produce more trials, said Ivan Pavlov, a prominent human rights lawyer for defendants targeted by security services. He fled the country last year after they started chasing him, he said.

“Russian courts no longer have anything to do with the judicial bodies of a democratic state,” Pavlov said. “They are not guided by law, but only by political needs, political goals.”

Show trials are part of the regular court process that takes place in regular courtrooms before a judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys arguing their case. Despite all the official pitfalls, however, the outcome is almost never unexpected.

Trying members of the Azov Brigade would serve multiple political purposes. Mr. Putin could claim to have overthrown some of the “Nazi” oppressors he falsely portrayed as ruling Ukraine.

“One would assume that he is seeking a show trial in order to first demonstrate that these so-called Nazis he invaded Ukraine to fight against are real,” Mr Novikov said.

The trials would also highlight the capture of Mariupol, which Moscow could tout as a significant achievement in a war with few of them. Moreover, Moscow wants to diminish the Azov fighters, a group that has come to represent courage and bravery for Ukrainians after resisting in the steelworks for weeks.

“Russia wants to say they are not heroes, they are terrorists and other things,” said Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in a Russian prison for opposing the 2014 annexation of his native Crimea.

Mr Sentsov, 45, a political activist, faces terrorism charges, accused of attempting to set fire to the gate of Crimea’s ruling party headquarters and plotting to blow up a statue of Lenin. No evidence was presented in court. He spent about five years in prison.

“It was theater, everyone played their part,” said Mr. Sentsov, who called from Sloviansk, in the Donbass, where he is fighting the Russians. His second feature, “Rhino,” debuts on Netflix on Monday.

In 2019, Russia and Ukraine agreed to exchange 35 prisoners, including Mr. Sentsov and all the sailors seized the previous year, who were never tried.

The Russians hinged that exchange on the release of Volodymyr Tsemakh, Mr. Novikov said. Mr Tsemakh was seen as a potential key witness in an investigation into whether Russian-backed separatists shot down a Malaysian civilian airliner over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.

Mr Whelan, who holds British, Canadian and Irish as well as American citizenship, was arrested at a Moscow hotel in December 2018. A Russian he knew gave him a USB stick containing what Mr Whelan thought was souvenir photos, but Russian officials said it contained classified military information.

It was widely speculated that the Russians had nabbed Mr Whelan to trade him for a high profile Russian prisoner in the United States, but no such trade has emerged.

Another American, Brittney Griner, among the most decorated athletes in women’s basketball, has been in police custody since February for drug trafficking, accused of having traces of hash oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

Mr. Putin inaugurated show trials soon after he began his term as president in 2000. In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon and one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen, went public with his opposition to Mr. Putin by challenging him of corruption in high places at a televised Kremlin meeting. Months later he was arrested for tax evasion and fraud and jailed for 10 years before moving abroad after Mr Putin pardoned him.

Some of the most notorious trials in Russian history took place in the late 1930s, used by Stalin to eliminate dozens of the Bolshevik old guard, who confessed under torture to false charges and were executed. This coincided with the sending of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens to labor camps.

nytimes Gt

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