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Terrorists or terrorized? What you should know about Russia’s counter-terrorism case against leftist activists

Meduza
Viktor Filinkov and Julius Boyarshinov in court on April 8
Viktor Filinkov and Julius Boyarshinov in court on April 8
David Frenkel

A court in St. Petersburg has begun reviewing the merits of a felony case that involves 11 left-wing activists from St. Petersburg and Penza, who are accused of plotting to overthrow the government by staging multiple terrorist attacks. One of the two antifascist suspects on trial in St. Petersburg has confessed to the charges, though his relatives say he only did so after repeated beatings in jail. The second defendant, meanwhile, maintains his innocence. Meduza reviews what we know about the hearings.

The “Set” (Network) case has been under investigation since late 2017

Federal agents opened the criminal case against the “Set” (Network) terrorist community in the fall of 2017, leading to the arrests of 11 people in St. Petersburg and Penza. Some of the suspects are leftist, antifascist, and anarchist activists, and most of them are competitive airsoft players (a team shooting sport). The Federal Security Service (FSB) claims that these games were actually training exercises for terrorist and insurgent activities.

The case is based largely on confessions from the defendants, some of whom say they were tortured into incriminating themselves while in FSB custody. Some of the suspects also say weapons were planted in their homes. So far, Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee has refused to examine the torture allegations, and the “Set” case has provoked several large public protests.

The authorities have charged 11 people in the “Set” case. Eight of these suspects are currently in FSB custody in Penza, while the other three — entrepreneur Igor Shishkin, computer programmer Viktor Filinkov, and industrial climber Julius Boyarshinov — are being held in St. Petersburg. The latter three individuals allegedly comprised the group’s St. Petersburg cell, performing different roles in the organization. For example, according to investigators, Boyarshinov was a bomb technician and Filinkov was a signalman. The FSB also initially suspected Filinkov’s wife, Alexandra (who lives in Kyiv), of involvement in organizing the “Set” community, prompting her to request political asylum in Finland. According to Vitaly Cherkasov, Filinkov’s lawyer, Alexandra’s role in the case materials remains unclear.

The FSB has already added “Set” to Russia’s list of illegal terrorist organizations, where it joins the likes of ISIS and the Taliban. So far, Igor Shishkin is the only suspect who’s been convicted. He signed a plea bargain with prosecutors, testified against the other defendants, and confessed to the charges. This January, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Shishkin’s lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, says there’s significant evidence against the defendants, and anyone who refuses to confess and work with the authorities risks six years behind bars.

Unlike the other suspects, Shishkin never talked about being tortured in jail, though doctors examined him after his arrest and diagnosed him with a recent eye injury and multiple cuts and bruises. When Public Monitoring Commission observers visited Shishkin in pretrial detention, they documented multiple marks on his body that resembled burns from electric wires, though he claimed to have received the wounds while exercising. The FSB also interrogated his wife.

Two antifascists are now on trial in St. Petersburg: one says he was tortured, and the other says he was beaten in jail

On April 8, the Moscow District Military Court at Russia’s 224th Military Garrison Court began considering the merits of the case against the remaining two St. Petersburg suspects: Filinkov and Boyarshinov. During the hearing, both defendants told the court that they’d been attacked violently after they were arrested.

Filinkov recalled in detail how FSB agents arrested him on January 23, 2018, at Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg, before allegedly bringing him to a forest, where they beat him and tortured him with electric shocks, forcing him to confess to crimes and dictating the exact words he was meant to recite. Filinkov then delivered this confession, but later recanted the testimony, saying he’d been tortured into incriminating himself. Federal investigators refused to pursue the matter, after FSB agents said they’d been forced to taser Filinkov when he supposedly tried to escape. Filinkov has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

Federal agents arrested Julius Boyarshinov on January 21. He also says he was beaten after he was taken into custody. Officials say they found 400 grams of black powder in his home. Novaya Gazeta says Boyarshinov found the can of powder in the attic of one of the homes where he was clearing ice from the roof. The authorities initially accused him of illegally storing explosives, but in April they added charges related to the “Set” case. In February, Boyarshinov was transferred to the Number Six Pretrial Detention Center in Gorelovo, where human rights activists say some inmates beat and torture other prisoners into confessing to whatever charges are against them. Boyarshinov says they started beating him immediately after he arrived, and every effort was made to make him uncomfortable — for example, he was forced to sleep on the floor of his prison cell. Boyarshinov says he was beaten periodically for the next five months, though Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service denies that he was ever mistreated.

Boyarshinov isn’t the only climber in the “Set” case who says he was tortured: a friend in St. Petersburg named Ilya Kapustin claims the same thing happened to him. Kapustin says he was tortured with electric shocks when the FSB questioned him as a witness, asking him about the different suspects in the case. Federal investigators later stated that the wounds documented on Kapustin’s body were due to bed bugs. He eventually fled Russia and requested political asylum in Finland.

One suspect confesses, while another maintains his innocence

At a hearing on March 20, 2019, Julius Boyarshinov pleaded guilty and asked the court to sentence him without examining the state’s evidence. The judge refused. According to his father, the court rejected the confession because Boyarshinov turned down a plea bargain from prosecutors and refused to testify against the other suspects in the “Set” case. Despite the judge’s decision, Boyarshinov still fully admits his guilt.

Boyarshinov’s attorney, Olga Kirovnos, has refused to discuss her client’s reasons for pursuing this defense. Boyarshinov’s father told Meduza that his son was forced to incriminate himself to stop repeated beatings in pretrial detention. “I guess you could say they got what they wanted, but my son still refused to testify against the others. It’s like a compromise,” said Nikolai Boyarshinov, adding that his son’s confession is unlikely to lower his future prison sentence. Nikolai says he’s certain that his son is innocent. Every Friday for the past year, he pickets Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg, handing out literature to passersby about the “Set” case.

At his hearing on April 8, Julius Boyarshinov pleaded guilty once again. He’ll testify in court a day later, before the judge hears the rest of the state’s evidence against him.

Another defendant in the “Set” case, Viktor Filinkov, came to the first hearing in a t-shirt that read, “Your electric shock doesn’t kill our ideas.” (The clothing has been distributed by the “Rupression” project in support of the suspects in the case.) Filinkov rejected the charges read out by the prosecution, which argues that he joined the “Set” community back in 2016, and then actively participated in the terrorist group’s activities, dreaming of overthrowing the Russian government. Filinkov told the judge that the state’s case doesn’t support the charges against him.

“I don’t understand: how can the charges ignore the case evidence, and instead embrace someone’s fantasy? I don’t understand how this text was written up. I re-read the charges. Where do these letters come from? They don’t exist in the case materials,” Filinkov said in court.

His lawyer, Vitaly Cherkasov, said roughly the same thing in comments to Meduza, explaining that his client has no intention of pleading guilty, despite confessions by Shishkin and Boyarshinov. Filinkov’s mother, Natalia, told Meduza that she recently visited her son in pretrial detention. “He realizes that it might get harder for him in court because of what those guys said. But he doesn’t hold a grudge: he knows what they’ve been through. My son is strong. He can take it,” Natalia Filinkova says.

Filinkov is currently studying three languages while in pretrial detention: Swedish, Latin, and English.

Pavel Merzlikin, St. Petersburg

Translation by Kevin Rothrock