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The Real Russia. Today. Skripal's alleged, would-be assassins grant an interview, Pussy Riot's Pyotr Verzilov was poisoned, and Poklonskaya pays for her insolence

Meduza

Thursday, September 13, 2018

This day in history. At 5 a.m. on September 13, 1999, a bomb exploded in an eight-story apartment building in Moscow, killing 124 people. The incident was part of a series of four terrorist attacks that claimed 293 lives, led to the Second Chechen War, and boosted Vladimir Putin's popularity before he became president. Some historians claim controversially that Russia's state security services coordinated the bombings to bring Putin into the presidency.
  • The men identified by Britain as Sergey Skripal's Novichok-attackers tell Russian state television that they're innocent. In a nutshell, here's what they said.
  • The Salisbury suspects' interview with Russian state television only raises more questions
  • Doctors reportedly suspect Pussy Riot member Pyotr Verzilov was poisoned with a neurotransmitter-blocking medicine
  • After announcing a corruption inquiry against fellow party members, Natalia Poklonskaya is booted from her State Duma committee
  • Russian parliamentary committee rejects draft legislation that would decriminalize reposting ‘extremist’ content on social media

Cutting loose in Salisbury 😷

The text below is a paraphrased retelling of an interview published by the Russian state TV network Russia Today on September 13, 2018.

Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are our real names. We planned a vacation in London, and went to Salisbury to see the cathedral, Old Sarum, and Stonehenge, but on March 3 there was heavy snowfall, so we couldn’t get around town easily. The next day, we went back to London so we could at least do some sightseeing. Before all this, we had no idea who Sergey Skripal is. We weren’t carrying any Nina Ricci perfume. (British police believe the Novichok nerve agent was transported inside a vial of Nina Ricci perfume.) Why would two decent guys be walking around with women’s perfume? We have a right to privacy. We came to RT for protection, but what we got was an interrogation. We don’t work for military intelligence. We’re ordinary businessmen trying to make it in the fitness industry. The British have been making a lot of claims. At the airport, we always go down one corridor. You’ll have to ask the English why the photos at Gatwick show us with the same timestamp. (Skeptics believe that surveillance footage released by the British authorities shows Petrov and Boshirov appearing alone in the same corridors at the same time, based on timestamps on the photos. Upon closer examination, however, it's clear that the men walked down different corridors.) We don’t know who actually poisoned the Skripals. When they find the people responsible, we would like the English to apologize to us. This whole situation is an incredible coincidence, and we just want to be left in peace.

Question more 🤔

Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov — the two Russian men accused by British authorities of releasing a nerve agent in the town of Salisbury — have finally come forward and spoken on camera to the media, granting their first interview to Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of the Russian state television network RT. In their interview, Petrov and Boshirov claim their visit to Great Britain was a tourist trip, and they say they turned to RT “for protection.” The televised appearance offered the perfect opportunity for the two men to challenge London’s allegations that they work for Russian military intelligence, giving them a global platform to explain their travels as openly and in as much detail as possible. Instead, Petrov and Boshirov presented a version of events so incoherent and ridiculous that there are more questions now than before — both about their role in the Salisbury attack and about RT’s reporting.

  1. Why didn’t Petrov and Boshirov produce photographs of their visit to the Salisbury Cathedral?
  2. Why did Petrov and Boshirov say so little about themselves?
  3. Petrov and Boshirov came to London to “cut loose,” but they spent two days of their three-day trip in Salisbury. Is that their idea of “loose”?
  4. Did bad weather really stop Petrov and Boshirov from seeing the town?
  5. How did Petrov and Boshirov get a hold of Margarita Simonyan?
  6. Why didn’t Simonyan ask them several vital questions?

Doctors say Verzilov overdosed or was poisoned 🚑

A powerful neurotransmitter-blocking medicine is apparently what landed Pyotr Verzilov in critical condition at the toxicology wing of Moscow’s Bakhrushin City Clinical Hospital on September 11. Verzilov’s partner says he started losing his vision, speech, and mobility before he was rushed to the emergency room.

Citing his doctors, the activist’s friends told Meduza that physicians believe he either overdosed on or was poisoned by anticholinergic drugs, which are used to treat a variety of conditions, including dizziness, ulcers, insomnia, and asthma. Verzilov’s family told Meduza that they are “1,000-percent” certain that he didn’t willingly ingest any anticholinergic drugs.

Verzilov remains in critical condition, but his life is reportedly not in danger, and he is slowly recuperating. Relatives say he still isn’t speaking, and “reacts only with his eyes.”

A member of Pussy Riot and the publisher of the investigative news website Mediazona, which conducts often daring reporting on Russia's criminal justice system, Verzilov has been a prominent figure in Russia’s anti-Kremlin opposition movement since the late 2000s, when he performed in the controversial “Voina” artist-activist group alongside his then wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

United Russia's revenge 👨‍⚖️

Two days after Natalia Poklonskaya said her State Duma committee would review the income declarations of five fellow lawmakers, the parliament’s Regulations Committee has decided to strip her of that authority by merging her group with the Duma’s Ethics Committee. According to Olga Savastyanova, the chair of the Regulations Committee, this merger has been under discussion since the beginning of the year, and the new combined group will also gain the power to revoke deputies’ mandates before their terms are up.

Crimea’s first post-annexation attorney general, Natalia Poklonskaya has chaired the State Duma’s Income Declarations Committee since 2016. Earlier this year, in July, she was the only member of United Russia to vote against a controversial bill that would raise the country’s retirement age. On the day of that vote, as a show of protest against her decision to break party ranks, only two of her 16 colleagues showed up for a session of her committee. Sergey Neverov, the head of United Russia’s Duma faction, also stressed that Poklonskaya needs to decide if she is a team player.

On September 11, the news agency Interfax reported that United Russia is planning to remove her from the State Duma’s Committee on Security and Countering Corruption. Hours later, Poklonskaya made her own announcement, saying that her other committee (which monitors lawmakers’ incomes) would audit five United Russia deputies and one Just Russia deputy for potentially illegal involvement in undeclared “business entities,” including enterprises based abroad.

What’s so special about Natalia Poklonskaya?

In mid-July, United Russia passed a first reading of unpopular legislation that would raise the retirement age from 65 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. United Russia was the only faction to support the bill, but its super majority in the parliament carried the measure with 328 votes in favor and 104 opposed. Poklonskaya was the only party member to reject the legislation, though another eight United Russia deputies abstained. She said on September 11 that she will try to add her own amendments to a second reading of the legislation.

In 2017, Transparency International claimed that Poklonskaya failed to declare an apartment she allegedly owns in Donetsk, and appealed to her Duma committee for an investigation. Poklonskaya says the organization filed seven requests, but she rejected all of them, explaining that they were submitted “in violation of the rules.”

Known for her devout religiosity and culturally conservative views, Poklonskaya has been one of the State Duma’s most visible deputies, thanks in part to her previous role as Crimea’s first post-annexation attorney general, which brought her international media attention.

Decriminalize it? 👎

The State Duma’s Security and Counteracting Corruption Committee has refused to support draft legislation that would lift felony penalties on reposting “extremist” content on social media. Committee chairman Vasily Piskarev told the news agency RIA Novosti that the bill is written “incorrectly from a legal perspective,” and stressed that the idea needs to be reworked and submitted to experts, before lawmakers take action.

Drafted by deputies Sergey Shargunov and Alexey Zharavlev, the decriminalization initiative has also failed to win support from the State Duma’s State Construction and Legislation Committee, the government, and the Supreme Court, which called the legislation “contradictory.” Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova, however, has endorsed the bill.

In recent years, Russia's police have grown ever fonder of prosecuting Internet users for sharing supposed “extremist” content on social media. In 2011, just 149 people were convicted of extremism because of Internet posts. In 2017, the number of convictions surpassed 600. In the first six months of 2018, Russian police charged 762 Internet users with extremism.

Yours, Meduza