Unusual, even for Russia Historian Yuri Dmitriev was set to go free in November. Then a court added 9.5 years to his prison sentence.
Tacking on nearly ten years
On July 22, the Petrozavodsk City Court in Russia’s Karelia handed down a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence to Yuri Dmitriev for sexually assaulting his underage foster daughter. Had this ruling been allowed to stand, Dmitriev — a historian and activist who led the Karelian chapter of the human rights group Memorial — would have gone free in November of this year, due to the time he has already spent in pre-trial detention.
Yuri Dmitiev’s case began back in December 2016, when police responded to an anonymous tip and raided his home, discovering nude photographs on his computer of his then 11-year-old foster daughter. Following the search, Dmitriev was charged with producing child pornography, sexual abuse (according to the investigation, photographing a minor while naked constituted sexual abuse), and illegal possession of a firearm. The historian maintained that he took the photos to track his foster daughter’s physical health amid a chronic illness. According to his lawyer, Vitkor Anufriev, the firearm referred to in the case wasn’t in working condition and Dmitriev had permission to own it.
In April 2018, the Petrozavodsk City Court acquitted Dmitriev on two charges and sentenced him to three and a half years in prison for illegally possessing a firearm (the trial was closed to the public). However, Karelia’s Supreme Court overturned the ruling two months later and returned the case to prosecutors, who promptly brought new charges against Dmitriev for the alleged sexual assault his foster daughter. As the newspaper Novaya Gazeta explained, it appears Dmitriev was charged for allegedly touching his foster daughter’s groin on several occasions. He claims he did this to check if her underwear was dry and hospital discharge paperwork included in the case file confirms that the child had bedwetting issues when she was in the second grade.
Both the prosecution and the defense challenged the verdict. The prosecutor’s office thought the punishment too lenient; the defense demanded Dmitriev’s full acquittal. The victim, Dmitriev’s foster daughter, sought to challenge the verdict as well. Her lawyer, Igor Perov, insisted on a more severe punishment.
Memorial described expectations for the retrial as “extremely troubling.” Fearing a lack of objectivity on the part of Karelia’s Supreme Court, nearly 250 cultural figures, including rights defenders, writers, and journalists, signed a letter asking that Dmitriev’s case be transferred to another region.
On September 26, three days before the decision, photographs of Dmitriev’s foster daughter from the case file were leaked on social networks. They were shown on the legal and crime news program Vesti Dezhurnaya chast’ on the state television channel Rossiya. During the segment, they described the Internet as “boiling with outrage” and said that social media users “are calling the three-and-a-half year prison sentence for a pedophile who ruined the life of a child a disgrace.”
In the end, Karelia’s Supreme Court considered the appeal on September 29, and opted to overturn the previous ruling and sentence Dmitriev to 13 years in prison under a criminal conviction for sexual assault against a minor (section 4, article 132 of Russia’s Criminal Code). It handed down the exact sentence the prosecution requested in its appeal.
The Karelian Supreme Court also overturned Dmitriev’s previous acquittals on felony charges of creating child pornography, sexual abuse, and illegal firearm possession. It sent the case back to the Petrozavodsk City Court for a retrial with “a different panel of judges.”
The appeal, like the rest of the court proceedings in Dmitriev’s case, took place behind closed doors. The Karelian Supreme Court has yet to release a detailed description of its position on the case. Dmitriev’s court-appointed lawyer, Artem Cherkasov, told Interfax that the regional Supreme Court considered the Petrozavodsk City Court’s ruling “too lenient.” “Those sentences under the articles he was acquitted under were cancelled as illegal, according to the Supreme Court,” he said.
Nineteen volumes in three days
From the very beginning of the criminal prosecution, Yuri Dmitriev has been represented by defense lawyer Viktor Anufriev. On the eve of the first appeal hearing, scheduled for September 16, Anufriev fell ill. He asked to postpone the hearing until September 28, since he had to comply with self-isolation requirements due to a suspected case of COVID-19. However, the court pushed the hearing to just five days later and assigned Dmitriev a lawyer by designation — bar attorney Artem Cherkasov (from the Republic of Karelia’s Bar Association).
Cherkasov was given just three business days to familiarize himself with the case materials. “The case has 19 volumes and three days wouldn’t be enough for anyone to familiarize themselves with them, this is a travesty,” Viktor Anufriev told Kommersant over the phone at the time. “I’m continuing to monitor the proceeding and sending a petition by mail.”
“If all the documents are presented [showing] that a lawyer is really sick, in the majority of cases judges are willing to allow the person [on trial] to be defended by a lawyer, who they have chosen themselves. All the more so if it’s clear that there’s a specific period of time before recovery, [or] the end of sick leave or quarantine,” Leonid Sovolyov, a lawyer for the rights group Agora, told Meduza. He considers Dmitriev’s situation a violation of the defendant’s right to defense.
The historian tried to refuse his designated lawyer, but the court didn’t change its decision. The court also refused to fulfill Dmitriev’s request asking to attend the hearing in person (rather than via video-link from the pre-trial detention center), as well as his petition on the disqualification of the state prosecutor and the judges who had previously considered his case.
By the day the Supreme Court announced its decision, Anufriev still hadn’t recovered. Memorial employee Irina Galkova explained that he was “still unwell.” At the same time, in conversation with the state news agency TASS, lawyer Artem Cherkasov mentioned that Anufriev “was at another trial today.” Meduza was unable to reach Anufriev and Cherkasov for comment.
‘This is the first time I’ve ever seen such a thing’
After the Karelian Supreme Court’s decision, Memorial issued a statement in support of Yuri Dmitriev, calling the verdict, “cruel, illegal, unlawful, and politically motivated.”
“Today’s sentence is the revenge of a system, which has succeeded the Soviet system and would like to consign the names Yuri Dmitriev returned to oblivion once again, discrediting him and his life’s work,” the organization's statement says. Memorial also emphasizes that Dmitriev was deprived of a “full defense” during the appeal, since the Supreme Court refused to postpone the hearing until after his lawyer recovered.
“Usually, as the result of an appeal, a sentence is increased or decreased by two to three years. Such a strong strong increase of 10 years is entirely unusual for an appeal. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve ever seen such a thing,” Agora lawyer Leonid Sovolyov underscored in conversation with Meduza.
Sovolyov clarified that a court can significantly increase a punishment in the event that the article under which the defendant is accused is replaced with a more serious charge. However, this didn’t happen in Dmitriev’s case, as far as we know. “Of course, this is totally different from anything else,” he added.
“One of the main principles of the existence of a court is the stability of court decisions. Court decisions should be monolithic,” Sovolyov explained. “Roughly speaking, if a judge made a decision to ‘acquit,’ then it can only be overturned in the most exceptional cases. This is not the case [with Dmitriev], he’s acquitted, he’s given three and half years in prison, he’s given 13 years. Questions have already been raised. Why is there such variation? What’s going on? Is this an under qualified court? Or under qualified prosecutors who were initially unable to provide additional evidence? It’s a question for the system itself.”
Summary by Eilish Hart