‘It's a threat to his life’ 64-year-old Gulag historian Yury Dmitriev was acquitted on child porn charges in 2018, but he's still in jail on appeal. Now, his attorney fears COVID-19 could be the end.
In April 2018, historian Yury Dmitriev was acquitted on two counts: sexual misconduct toward a minor and the production of child pornography. Dmitriev leads the Karelian branch of the human rights organization “Memorial,” whose activists and scholars have faced police persecution across Russia; he has also worked to discover the locations of multiple mass graves made during the Stalinist Terror. In 2018, Dmitriev was accused of abusing his adopted daughter Natalia, who was 12 years old at the time. The historian, now 64 years old, said he periodically took pictures of his daughter to document her good health after her teachers mistook ink stains on her skin for bruises. Even though Dmitriev was ultimately found not guilty, Karelia’s regional Supreme Court overturned that verdict in June 2018, ultimately sending Dmitriev back to a pretrial detention center where he still remains today. Now, activists who have advocated in the past two years for Dmitriev to be transferred to house arrest worry that he may become even more vulnerable as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads through Russia’s penitentiary system. Journalist Katerina Gordeeva spoke with Dmitriev’s attorney, Viktor Anufriyev, about this new development in the historian’s case and what the defense is doing to respond.
It’s been two years since a court acquitted the historian Yury Dmitriev on the two heaviest charges against him and gave him a suspended sentence of two and a half years for illegal firearms possession. Nonetheless, Dmitriev is still in a pretrial detention center. What happened?
After the acquittal, the prosecution acted on its procedural right to argue before the Supreme Court of Karelia that the sentence must be overturned. I also submitted an appellate complaint asking for the firearms conviction to be cancelled.
Ultimately, on June 14, 2018, the Republic of Karelia’s Supreme Court overturned the entire sentence: it approved both the prosecution’s appeal and my own. The case was sent back down to be retried.
As the case has been considered a second time, new charges have been added to it, right?
Yes. On September 9, 2018, the two cases [i.e. the old one and the new one] were combined into a single procedure.
What’s been added to the case?
There’s one more charge, a more serious one. Now, in total, Mr. Dmitriev may face up to 20 years in prison, and he’s being charged under several parts of the Criminal Codex.
They are Article 135, part three [sexual misconduct toward a minor]; Article 242.2, part two [using a minor to produce pornographic materials or items]; Article 222 [the illegal acquisition, transfer, sale, storage, transport, or carrying of firearms]; and Article 132, part four [violent sexual acts toward a minor]. The charge of illegally storing a firearm — a gun that was no longer useable, but which Dmitriev did have a permit for, by the way — hasn’t gone anywhere.
The main thing that’s new is the violent sexual acts charge. That charge wasn’t included in 2016, when the case first began.
No, it wasn’t.
Where did that accusation come from?
When the prosecution objected to the acquittal, they submitted an appeal. And in that time [while the appeal was under consideration], they claim to have found new evidence and new testimony that have been added to the case. That’s how the new, heavier charge was added. It’s currently being verified by a judge. That charge makes the whole trial harder: because of it, Mr. Dmitriev was returned to a pretrial detention center [rather than being permitted to await trial elsewhere].
I will note that Dmitriev has been in a pretrial detention center for several years in total, including the entire continuous stretch that began in the summer of 2018. He has contracted cold-like illnesses several times, and he has problems with his respiratory system. Mr. Dmitriev is 64 years old. We’re talking about an elderly and not entirely healthy person who is located in a pretrial detention center, in a communal cell, with no ability to go on walks or take in some fresh air, which all becomes extremely dangerous in the context of the pandemic that is currently spreading across the country.
The other day, a petition appeared on the Internet where civil activists are demanding for Dmitriev to be transferred to house arrest. As of today, about 8,000 people have signed it. That’s a fair and just demand, and I support it. Mr. Dmitriev does not plan to go into hiding to avoid investigation. He is more interested than anybody in a far investigation of this case. It’s important to him to demonstrate his innocence and get back to work.
In the summer of 2018, Dmitriev was under a travel ban [rather than house arrest or detention], and he violated it: he was arrested outside the borders of Petrozavodsk. There were even rumors that Dmitriev had been planning to go abroad. How does that square up with what you’re saying, that he doesn’t plan to go into hiding?
The claim that Mr. Dmitriev had been planning to hide was false, and it was never confirmed. Those who spread it weren’t showing much intelligence on their part: Dmitriev doesn’t even have a passport [for foreign travel]. And he’s never had one — he applied for one because he has been invited to international conferences numerous times, but his application was denied. At some conferences, I have represented him.
Regarding what happened in the summer of 2018, it’s all well-understood. Dmitriev didn’t leave home alone; he left with a neighbor. They went to a cemetery to remember a close friend who had passed away while Mr. Dmitriev was in detention. Then, as a religious believer, Dmitriev wanted to go pray in the Svirsky Monastery, where his confessor serves. That monastery is located outside the borders of Petrozavodsk, and Mr. Dmitriev was being observed, as he himself knew. At the border between the Petrozavodsk and Leningrad regions, he was arrested. I will note that it happened on the side away from the border. It all happened on June 27, 2018. Ever since, Mr. Dmitriev has been in detention.
What’s happening in the case now? Haven’t hearings been cancelled because of the coronavirus epidemic?
The last court hearing was on March 23 of this year. Everything was as concise as it possibly could have been, and only one question was considered: whether or not Mr. Dmitriev should continue to await trial under guard. They extended [his time in pretrial detention] for three months, until June 24. By law, I had three days to appeal. On March 26, I mailed a complaint to the Supreme Court. So far, there’s been no response.
Aside from that appeal process, we have a routine court hearing scheduled for April 14. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it because of the epidemic. A decision to cancel all court hearings nationwide has to be issued by a plenary session of the Supreme Court. So far, hearings are cancelled until April 10, and after that, who knows. That’s why I think the highest priority right now is to move Mr. Dmitriev to house arrest from pretrial detention. We don’t know how long the epidemic will last, what will happen to all of us, but keeping an elderly person behind bars for so long isn’t just unethical and inhumane anymore — it’s indecent. It’s a threat to his life that hasn’t been justified by any demonstrated threat he might pose to society. That much is clear not only to a lawyer but to any reasonable person.
He has gone through all these court-ordered psychiatric exams. Not one, but several. There hasn’t even been a hint that he has any of the leanings he’s been accused of. Yes, he’s direct; yes, he’s sharp, and he can be rude. But he’s an honest and very religious person, and there’s no hint that he would have any tendency toward misconduct. I’m not just saying that — it’s been proven.
Do you believe that, ultimately, an acquittal is possible in the Dmitriev case?
I absolutely do not share the pessimistic opinion that acquittal is impossible in Russia today. No matter how you look at it, in April 2018, Mr. Dmitriev was acquitted. Nobody believed it then, either, but it happened.
President Putin has been told many times, both publicly and privately, about the Dmitriev case, and a wide range of highly respected people in Russia have asked him to intervene. Do you know anything about his opinion of the case?
No, we don’t know anything. I only know about the requests [people have made of Putin] insofar as I’ve seen them in the media. I don’t know anything about his reaction. My job is to procure evidence of Mr. Dmitriev’s innocence, and that’s what I do.
How much [time] is the prosecution asking for in the Dmitriev case now?
We don’t know yet. In this new branch of the process, we haven’t even gotten to oral argument. It’s all developing slowly.
Is it true that the new charges are based on testimony from Dmitriev’s adopted daughter, Natasha?
We don’t have the right to discuss that because we’re talking about a minor. What the charges are based on is confidential information. You probably know that the trial against Mr. Dmitriev is closed [to the public]. So I don’t have the right to answer your question.
But during the first trial, there was a lot of talk about how Dmitriev has a good relationship with his adopted daughter. A letter she sent to him in the pretrial detention center was even published where she said she loved her adopted father and was hoping to see him soon. Are the two of them still in touch now?
From the time he was a year and a half years old, Dmitry grew up in an adoptive family. He was taken out of an orphanage by a soldier’s family. Mr. Dmitriev always considered it his duty to raise an adopted child in turn, so when his biological children grew up and he became a grandfather, he took in Natasha. They really did have a warm relationship — a complicated one, too, because the girl had a formidable experience at the orphanage behind her, but Mr. Dmitriev raised her with a lot of parental responsibility. He is a good father. And the letters you speak of did come up. Natasha wrote to him and supported him.
But back in December 2016, the girl was taken away, far from Petrozavodsk. Since then, Mr. Dmitriev has not been in contact with her. And even when he was freed — from January 27 to June 27, 2018 — he didn’t take any steps to get in touch with her, talk on the phone, and so on. It was banned, and he didn’t try. He is prohibited from speaking with her or making contact.
Who took Natasha, and where did they take her?
The investigators took her away, and now she’s living with her grandmother.
Is this the same grandmother who refused to take her in when Natasha’s mom lost her custody rights and Natasha was sent to the orphanage?
What you’re saying is true, but it’s not within my capacity to comment on it. Investigators were given the task of taking the girl away from Petrozavodsk and preventing her from contacting Mr. Dmitriev. That task was accomplished.
You have consistently said that the Dmitriev case is not politically based. Why?
My task as a defense attorney is to defend Mr. Dmitriev on the specific criminal charges that have been presented against him. Naturally, however, I do not rule out the possibility that the situation we now have in this country affected the very fact that this case could be brought forward at all. That said, I don’t think it’s right to talk about this as a political case.
How unexpected was the acquittal for you, and then the harsher charges in this new stage of the case?
We were betting on an acquittal because I am certain that Mr. Dmitriev is innocent. However, the legal system is structured such that so long as the sentence has not passed through appellate review, it has no legal power. For that reason, I directed Mr. Dmitriev toward the view that [the original verdict] was not a final victory. When he asked me whether it might be the end, whether he could relax and assume the case was over, I told him clearly, “No. As long as we haven’t gone through the Supreme Court and the appeals process, we cannot see the case as closed.” And that’s what ultimately happened.
We understand, of course, that the prosecution has asked for nine years in prison, and it would be illogical for them to just calmly step away from those demands.
In conversations with you, has Dmitriev in any way mentioned who might be behind the case against him?
No. He has never talked about who he thinks might be behind the case. He talks about other things — that the case was intentionally organized, and he makes various arguments to that end.
In late November of 2016, somebody broke into Mr. Dmitriev’s apartment. Someone got in and broke into his computer, and they found and printed a photograph of his adopted daughter, Natasha, on A4 paper. Then, within a few days, that photograph had already been attached to an anonymous report that became the basis for the case. The anonymous complainant asked for steps to be taken against Mr. Dmitriev.
Mr. Dmitriev draws on those facts to argue that somebody was working to put the case together who was interested in having him behind bars so that he couldn’t continue working to find and commemorate those who were repressed [in the Stalinist Terror].
What’s been happening now, in these almost four years of Dmitriev’s absence, at Sandarmokh and Krasny Bor [two mass burial sites he unearthed]?
Well, it can’t be said that Dmitriev’s work is done for. After all, the memorial complex [at Sandarmokh] has federal status, and the local government supports it.
Maybe somebody who organized the case against Mr. Dmitriev was hoping for a backlash [against his work], but after Dmitriev was jailed, even more people started coming to Sandarmokh and Krasny Bor than before. The “Dmitriev Case” has taken on international resonance, Mr. Dmitriev has received a number of prestigious international prizes, and now, the whole world’s eyes are on this story, from Finland to Japan.
In the fall of 2019, a delegation from 22 European embassies came to Sandarmokh to pay respects to his work, to honor the memory [of those killed]. Don’t forget that it was Dmitriev who determined that during the Great Terror, the NKVD shot about 8,000 people of 58 ethnicities at that place. Nothing can erase that fact from history or let it be forgotten now.
And nobody every told us to let Sandarmokh be forgotten. You know, I think it all happened in large part because of falsely understood government interests.
What do you mean?
You see, Karelia is a border zone. There are rumors going around that some would prefer for fewer international delegations to come to Sandarmokh. But ultimately, the opposite happened.
Do you believe the criminal case against Dmitriev is tied to the Russian Military History Society (RVIO), which has tried to search Sandarmokh for the bodies of Soviet prisoners of war allegedly killed by the Finns to prove that [the bodies at the site] aren’t Great Terror victims?
It’s hard for me to say. I haven’t looked into that question in detail. As far as I know, representatives from the military history society really did come to Sandarmokh and carry out a rather sweeping dig to try and find something that would support their narrative. But that happened when Dmitriev was already locked up in pretrial detention.
What Mr. Dmitriev himself believed on this count is that it’s entirely possible that there are POWs who were shot there too, but even if their remains are found — and they haven’t been found yet — then that doesn’t contradict the fact that during the Stalinist Terror, those 8,000 people were shot in that same place, the people Dmitriev has already identified.
If the historians and the people doing digs with RVIO are able to prove that their theories are solid, then please, let them build memorials, let them identify [the victims] and so on. But so far, there hasn’t been any proof of that.
So there has been no direct conflict between Dmitriev and RVIO?
No. They haven’t even come into contact with one another.
How hard has this case become for Dmitriev? What is his psychological condition like now?
Well, he isn’t happy, that I can tell you for sure. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that for about 30 years, Mr. Dmitriev worked to uncover and identify the remains of people who were shot in the Terror. He has held the results of the Great Terror in his own hands and seen them with his own eyes. He has seen a lot, and he’s a resilient person. On top of that, he grew up in a military family, and he was raised by somebody with a very firm personality.
That resilience and that deep knowledge of history, including his knowledge of the KGB and FSB archives, all those cases he studied for so many years — all of that is allowing him not to harbor any illusions about what country he lives in. He’s taking what’s happening like a man. But he’s still hoping for justice.