On June 14, the Karelian Supreme Court overturned the historian Yuri Dmitriev’s April 5 acquittal, undoing one of those rare instances when the Russian legal system declines to convict someone who’s been brought to trial. The Petrozavodsk City Court had found Dmitriev not guilty of creating child pornography and sexually abusing a minor under the age of twelve.
Yuri Dmitriev is the 62-year-old director of the Karelian branch of the human rights organization “Memorial,” whose activists and scholars have faced police persecution across Russia. Dmitriev is also a local historian who’s been working since 1988 to locate buried victims of the Stalinist Terror. In 1997, he found a mass grave in the Karelian town of Sandarmokh, and over the years he’s discovered other mass graves in the Krasny Bor Forest and the Solovetsky Islands. Dmitriev has two children from his first marriage, and he and his current wife adopted a girl named Natalia, who's now twelve.
In December 2016, police arrested Dmitriev, after finding a rusty, unusable shotgun at his home. The child pornography charges were based on nine photographs discovered on his computer. Irina Galkova, the Moscow director of the Memorial Museum Society, says Dmitriev periodically photographed Natalia after the teachers at her kindergarten mistook traces of ink on her skin for bruises. According to prosecutors, the act of photographing the girl in this way constitutes sexual abuse.
Dmitriev said the criminal charges against him were retaliation for his investigative work as a local historian. Memorial declared him a political prisoner, and the organization’s deputy chairman, Nikita Petrov, called the case “political defamation.”
District attorney Elena Akserova wanted Dmitriev sentenced to nine years in prison, but the Petrozavodsk City Court only gave him a two-year custodial release (which was reduced to three months, factoring in the time Dmitriev spent in pretrial detention).
On April 13, district attorney Elena Akserova filed an appeal against Dmitriev’s acquittal. The next day, Natalia’s biological grandmother, Valentina (whose surname has not been revealed), also filed a challenge against the Petrozavodsk City Court’s non-guilty verdict. After Natalia was born, she lived with her grandmother, who eventually turned her over to an orphanage, which is where Dmitriev and his wife adopted her. After his arrest, the girl went back to her grandmother. When contacted by journalists from the website 7x7, Valentina refused to explain why she appealed Dmitriev’s acquittal, and then she disconnected her telephone.
Gleb Yarovoi, a journalist working at 7x7, told Meduza that Valentina and Natalia currently live in a village in Karelia’s Loukhsky District (about seven hours north of Petrozavodsk). “She cut off all the girl’s contacts with the outside world — not only with Dmitriev, but also, for example, with her godmother, and with everyone she used to talk to in her ‘former life,’” Yarovoi says, adding that Valentina apparently now receives 16,000 rubles ($250) a month for acting as Natalia’s guardian.
Valentina spoke at a closed session of the Karelian Supreme Court on June 14. Afterwards, Dmitriev’s lawyer, Viktor Anufriev, told journalists that Natalia had been sent for a psychological analysis after the April 5 acquittal, and the girl had been “pressured” into claiming that she was “upset and disgraced.” “The grandmother said the Karelian human rights commissioner [Gennady Saraev] arranged to bring the girl and her grandmother to Petrozavodsk, brought a psychologist, and she composed a statement supposedly documenting a psychological examination, where the girl allegedly remembered something or decided to say something negative about Mr. Dmitriev,” Anufriev told Meduza, adding that he doesn’t know if this document played any role in reversing his client’s acquittal. The document had “no legal weight,” he says, and shouldn’t have influenced the court’s decision in any way. At the time of this writing, more than a day after the Supreme Court’s decision, Anufriev still hadn't received a copy of the ruling reversing his client's April 5 acquittal.
“It’s very frustrating. Once again, you have to prove that two and two isn’t five,” Dmitriev told Meduza. “But this was expected. The district attorney’s office is saving face. Regarding the [appellate] paperwork presented by the grandmother, we’ve only just heard about it, so it wouldn’t really be right to react to it right now.”
“Formally, they’re defending the girl and protecting her rights, but everyone can see how they’re doing this,” Anufriev says. “How could you damage a child’s soul like that? They did something to the child. They put something in her head.” Dmitriev’s lawyer says he discussed exactly this scenario with his client back in April: “The prosecution had no way out, except to go all the way and try to sacrifice the child for its own prestige.”
Anufriev says he’s convinced that district attorney Elena Askerova “will fight until the bitter end,” saying that she faces certain “official consequences,” if she doesn’t. Dmitriev’s retrial will likely begin in August. The prosecution’s case won’t be clear until then.