420, give or take Meduza talks to Memorial’s Sergey Davidis about Russia’s growing number of political prisoners

A rally in support of political prisoners on Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue. September 30, 2019.Zuma / ТАСС

The number of political prisoners in Russia today is nearly five times higher than it was five years ago, according to the latest report from the Memorial Human Rights Center. Activists began maintaining a list of Russian political prisoners in the late 2000s, and for a long time it was made up of a few dozen names. But this tally has increased sharply since 2015. Today, the country has 420 political prisoners and is poised to catch up to the numbers seen during the twilight years of the USSR. All of these people are being persecuted for their political or religious beliefs. To find out more about the nature of political persecution in Russia today, Meduza spoke to prominent human rights activist Sergey Davidis, who leads Memorial’s “Support for Political Prisoners” program. 

How many political prisoners are there in Russia today?

On the eve of Russia’s Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions (October 30), the Memorial Human Rights Center published an updated list of the country’s political prisoners. As of October 27, it includes 420 names. But human rights activist Sergey Davidis, who heads up Memorial’s “Support for Political Prisoners” program, says this number is liable to change. 

“We call a person a political prison when we can analyze for what and on what grounds he was convicted — and reasonably refute these arguments in court,” he tells Meduza. “This means that we have to find out about the case. And [there are] many we don’t find out about at all or we find out about with a delay.” Davidis stresses that the real number of political prisoners in Russia “should be estimated several times higher,” but says that 420 people is a “conservative, reliable estimate” — for now. 

Memorial divides its list into two categories: political prisoners persecuted for exercising their right to freedom of religion or religious affiliation (340 people) and those persecuted for other political reasons (80 people). As the human rights group notes, this list has grown sharply over the past five years. A year ago, in October 2020, it included 362 names. 

Who does Memorial consider a political prisoner?

Many of the political prisoners on Memorial’s list would fall under Amnesty International’s definition of “prisoner of conscience,” Davidis explains: “People who are persecuted solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of assembly, conscience, expression — the rights provided for by the European Convention.” 

A classic example of this, he says, is prisoners sentenced under Russia’s Criminal Code Article 212.1, which provides punishments for “repeated violations of the rules for conducting public events” (such as protest rallies). “All people who, up until now, have been persecuted under this article — with or without imprisonment — were punished for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of assembly,” Davidis underscores. 

Memorial also considers anyone persecuted on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender identity a political prisoner. And those imprisoned in connection with their religious affiliation make up the bulk of the organization’s latest political prisoners list. “By their nature, religious groups carry out wide-ranging activities, they spread their faith and worldview, they cannot be closed, they’re massive — and it’s easy to carry out repressions against them,” Davidis tells Meduza. 

Russia has outlawed a number of religious groups as extremist or terrorist organizations since the early 2000s. For example, the pan-Islamist political group Hizb ut-Tahrir was designated as a terrorist organization in 2003. According to Davidis, this was a “fateful decision” for many Russian citizens linked to the organization. “We have several hundred people who are in prisons and have received sentences of up to 24 years in prison for peaceful conversations, tea parties, and meetings, where violence wasn’t discussed, practiced, or planned,” the human rights activist says. 

A more recent example is the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which Russia’s Supreme Court outlawed as an extremist organization in 2017. “The charges against them relating to extremism are completely absurd and bogus. These people [the Jehovah’s Witnesses] are persecuted and in many cases imprisoned solely in connection with exercising their right to freedom of religion,” Davidis underscores. “After this organization was banned, hundreds of political prisoners appeared, and their prison terms are increasingly long. Today, the record is eight years.”

Prisoners persecuted for other political reasons make up the second largest group on Memorial’s list. As Davidis explains, this category includes individuals or groups of people who the authorities have persecuted in an attempt to “stop lawful activities” or “in order to strengthen or preserve the powers of those who have said powers.” “[Alexey] Navalny is a prime example, as are several of his associates. We see that the main motive for [their] persecution is to stop [their] activities,” he tells Meduza.

In other cases, political persecution aims to “send certain signals to the public.” Such as when “accusations of violence against police officers are fabricated against random people,” Davidis says, citing the 2019 “Moscow Case” and the more recent criminal prosecution of pro-Navalny protesters as examples. “These people weren’t involved in violence, except in instances of self-defense, and they are considered political prisoners,” he explains. “On the one hand, they were convicted for exercising their right to freedom of assembly. On the other hand, we understand that the goal is to intimidate and demonstrate to the public that, from the point of view of the authorities, participation in unsanctioned rallies is unacceptable.” 

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was also followed by a spate of politically motivated criminal cases against Ukrainian nationals living on the peninsula, Davidis recalls. Memorial counts Ukrainian citizens imprisoned as part of these cases as “Russian political prisoners,” in that they are being persecuted by the Russian authorities. “These are former Ukrainian soldiers, Crimean Tatars, and those who do not agree with the annexation and occupation,” Davidis clarifies.

Memorial does not recognize as political prisoners anyone involved in violence against individuals or calls for violence against groups of people on religious, national, or ethnic grounds. 

How does Russia compare to other countries? 

“It’s rather difficult to talk about world standards for the number of political prisoners, because not one country acknowledges that it has political prisoners. […] But right now the number of political prisoners in Russia is comparable to how many there were in the late USSR, until Gorbachev released them,” Sergey Davidis tells Meduza.

For many years, Russia had more political prisoners than neighboring Belarus — but this is no longer the case. “The brutality of the suppression of any civil society activity over the past year has led to the fact that now, there are twice as many [political] prisoners in Belarus [as in Russia]. Moreover, the population is 14 times smaller,” the human rights activist emphasizes.

As of October 27, the Viasna Human Rights Center considers 833 people in Belarus political prisoners. 

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“In democratic countries there shouldn’t be political prisoners. But, given the controversy of some situations involving the right of peoples to self-determination and the right to disseminate information, there are definitely individuals there [who are political prisoners],” Davidis concludes. 

Why does Memorial maintain a political prisoners list?

Memorial is one of the oldest and largest human rights organizations in Russia. It began keeping a list of the country’s political prisoners in the 2000s. According to Sergey Davidis, this wasn’t necessary in the 1990s because there were “virtually no political prisoners” in Russia, but things changed after the Yukos case. “A need arose for an authoritative evaluation and recognition procedure, to draw the attention of the Russian and international community to the most egregious cases,” he says.

Initially, a comprehensive list of political prisoners was drawn up and maintained by the Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners, an organization formed in the mid-2000s. But, as Davidis recalls, this small group of volunteers soon became unable to cope with the ever-growing number of cases. Therefore, in the late 2000s, it joined Memorial’s program.

The way Davidis sees it, this was a logical step, as Memorial’s work “reflects the continuity” between preserving the historical memory of Stalin-era repressions and aiding those faced with political persecution in Russia today.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

I’m with you, Meduza

Interview by Alexandra Sivtsova

Summary by Eilish Hart


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