Miftakhov’s case The death of a secret witness marks the latest twist in the trial of a Russian graduate student and anarchist activist
The trial of graduate student and anarchist activist Azat Miftakhov is ongoing at Moscow’s Golovinsky District Court. He stands accused of attacking a United Russia office in 2018. Miftakhov, who has pleaded not guilty, has received support from world-famous academics, including linguist Noam Chomsky. During the latest hearing on Monday, October 13, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses was supposed to testify — he allegedly saw Miftakhov at the United Russia office on the night in question and later recognized him by his “expressive eyebrows.” But the secret witness wasn’t able to appear before the court — during the hearing, state prosecutors announced that he had died. “Meduza” breaks down the latest developments in Azat Miftakhov’s case.
Multiple arrests and torture allegations
The criminal prosecution of Azat Miftakhov, an anarchist activist and graduate student in mechanics and mathematics at Moscow State University, began in the winter of 2019. In the early morning of February 1, law enforcement searched the 25-year-old graduate student’s dorm room — afterwards, they took him to the police department. Miftakhov was accused of building an explosive device that had been found in Balashikha (a city on the outskirts of Moscow) a year earlier. Miftakhov’s whereabouts were unknown until the international human rights group Agora informed his lawyer Svetlana Sidorkina of his arrest on February 2 — according to police officials, he wasn’t arrested until then.
After a day and a half at the police department, Miftakhov cut himself — as he explained, he opened his veins to avoid torture. However, as he later told his lawyer, police officers beat him and tortured him with a screwdriver, demanding a confession. Miftakhov’s lawyer and members of the Public Monitoring Commission later recorded a screwdriver mark on his chest and a bruise on his ear. But the Investigative Committee didn’t open a criminal case over the use of violence.
Daniil Galkin, another anarchist activist who was arrested alongside Miftakhov on February 1, also spoke about the illegal use of force by law enforcement officials — he claims he was electrocuted. Under torture, Galkin testified that Miftakhov could have been involved in fabricating explosives.
Police officials wanted to jail Miftakhov in connection with the Balashikha case, but the court ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence twice. As a result, Azat Miftakhov was released from temporary detention on February 7, only to be arrested once again that very same day. This time, his arrest was in connection with another criminal case — over an attack on a United Russia office in Moscow. On the night of January 31, 2018, unidentified figures broke a window at the ruling party’s office on Onezhskaya Street and threw a smoke grenade inside. The smoke grenade melted a section of the office’s linoleum flooring, which cost 48,000 rubles to replace (about $620). Police officials opened a case for vandalism. Initially, four people were suspected in the case — anarchist activists Elena Gorban and Alexey Kobaidze, who pleaded guilty right away and were released on their own recognizance, as well as anti-fascist activist Andrey Eykin and anarchist Svyatoslav Rechkalov.
The “broken window” investigation was suspended in September 2018 and resumed on February 7, 2019 — immediately after the arrest of Azat Miftakhov. At this point, it became known that the investigation had been reclassified under a more serious offense: hooliganism, which is punishable by up to seven years in prison. The grounds for Miftakhov’s arrest was the testimony of a secret witness under the pseudonym “Andrey Petrov” — he allegedly saw the graduate student near the United Russia office.
In February 2020, the prosecutor’s office issued an indictment against three suspects in the case — Elena Gorban, Andrey Eykin, and Azat Miftakhov. The other suspects — Svyatoslav Rechkalov and Alexey Kobaidze — fled Russia. According to state investigators, they all belonged to an anarchist movement called People’s Self-Defense, which is associated with the 2018 terrorist attack on the FSB building in Arkhangelsk. Svyatoslav Rechkalov said that during his interrogation in 2018, law enforcement officers tortured him, forcing him to confess to being the leader of this movement.
Azat Miftakhov remained in custody all this time, denying any affiliation with People’s Self Defense and pleading not guilty of involvement in the attack on the United Russia office. Human rights defenders from the organization Memorial declared him a political prisoner. Immediately after his first arrest and the reports of torture, hundreds of academics from around the world, including well-known philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky, signed an open letter supporting Miftakhov.
During her interrogation, Miftakhov’s acquaintance Elena Gorban said that she had been in communication with members of the group, but wasn’t a member herself. After the case was reclassified under hooliganism charges, she withdrew her confession, because, in her words, she wasn’t motivated by political hatred or a desire to harm others. Andrey Eykin pleaded guilty and made a deal with state investigators.
According to the investigation, a secret witness under the pseudonym “Karaulny” (the Russian word for sentry or watchman) testified to the fact that Azat Miftakhov was not only a member of the People’s Self-Defense, but also an active participant in the movement’s activities. This witness was first interrogated after Miftakhov’s arrest. During the interrogation, “Karaulny” said that he met the graduate student at one of the movement’s protest actions in 2015 — he claimed that Miftakhov had joined the People’s Self-Defense the year prior.
“Karaulny” claimed that at People’s Self-Defense meetings, Miftakhov “urged like-minded people not to limit themselves to putting up promotional materials, gradually raising the bar up to carrying out radical actions, which involved using Molotov cocktails, smoke grenades, etc., on government buildings.” According to the witness, the graduate student was also involved “in anarchist training activities,” including “combat training, knife fighting, and training where they practiced techniques [to use] against police officers.”
When communication with other members of the movement via messenger apps, Miftakhov used the screen name “Grothendieck,” “Karaulny” claims; allegedly, the graduate student told him that this was a reference to a French mathematician — presumably Alexander Grothendieck, who is considered one of the leading mathematicians of the twentieth century. According to the prosecution, Miftakhov’s laptop, which was seized during the search in February 2019, had documents containing quotes from this correspondence — in it, users with the screen names “Grothendieck” and “Rakcsha” discuss “some sort of device.” Investigators, like the witness “Karaulny,” believe that Miftakhov was the one using the nickname Grothendieck and that allegedly, his interlocutor was Gorban.
During the hearing at the Golovinsky Court on October 13, “Karaulny” participated by video link from the courtroom of the Second Western District Military Court — the hearing itself was closed to journalists and the public due to the coronavirus. The defense insisted on declassifying the witness, but the court refused.
“Karaulny” testified against Azat Miftakhov once again. However, in conversation with Meduza, Elena Gorban’s lawyer, Nikita Taranishchenko, noted that the witness’s statements differed significantly from the information given during the investigation. For example, “Karaulny” previously claimed that he knew all of the accused by their last names, but in court he stated that he only knew Miftakhov. In addition, “Karaulny” admitted during the hearing that much of his testimony about Miftakhov was only speculation. The witness also told investigators that he saw Gorban at People’s Self-Defense rallies many times, but during the hearing he refused to confirm her involvement in the movement.
In conversation with Meduza, Taranishchenko emphasized his plans to request that the judge exclude “Karaulny’s” testimony given during the investigation from the evidence in the case.
The death of ‘Andrey Petrov’
Another secret witness was supposed to be questioned during the hearing on October 13; one given the pseudonym “Andrey Petrov.” But he never had the chance to testify in court. According to the death certificate, which the judge confirmed as an authentic document in court, “Petrov” died of “cardiac trauma” on January 15, 2020. On that same day (or, according to other reports, on January 1) a key witness for the prosecution in another high-profile case died after being “stabbed in the heart” — 40-year-old Dmitry Murmalyov, who testified against the defendants accused in the terrorism case against “Artpodgotovka” — a movement banned in Russia. Igor Gukovsky, who works for the Memorial human rights group, suggested that Murmalyov and “Andrey Petrov” could be the same person. This hasn’t been confirmed.
Miftakhov’s lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina, told Meduza that the court refused to declassify the identity of the witness in Miftakhov’s case. “The court [attributed] this to the fact that he has relatives who could be harmed by, shall we say, Maltsev’s colleagues and associates, other defendants, and by the actions of the defendants themselves. There were no legal grounds for not disclosing the personal data,” Sidorkina maintains. Gorban’s attorney, Nikita Taranishcheko, is also convinced that the refusal wasn’t justified, and as such, considers the court’s decision “a substantive violation of the right to defense.”
Like “Karaulny,” “Andrey Petrov” first gave testimony after Azat Miftakhov’s arrest — the witness explained that he saw the anarchist activist at the United Russia office, but he couldn’t call the police at the time because his phone was dead. He remembered the incident only after he saw the news of a MGU graduate student’s arrest in connection with the case in February 2019.
During questioning, “Andrey Petrov” said that on the night of January 30, 2018, he was in one of the courtyards on Flotskaya Street (although he lives in another part of Moscow) when he noticed a group of six young people. Since they seemed “suspicious” to him, “Andrey Petrov” decided to watch them.
“A girl went up to a window on the first floor, she broke the glass with some object in her hand. After that, a guy — the tallest one among them — threw an object into the window, which started a fire,” “Petrov” told investigators. At this point, according to the witness, two guys remained in the courtyard, watching the entrances and footpaths. Miftakhov, “Petrov” claimed, “showed and explained to the others what to do near the office.” Despite the fact that this took place in January 2018, at night, and the fact that he testified more than a year after the incident, “Petrov” was allegedly able to pick Miftakhov out of a line up by his “expressive eyebrows.”
In conversation with Meduza, Miftakhov’s attorney Svetlana Sidorkina stressed that she plans to request the exclusion of “Petrov’s” testimony — as well as “Karaulny’s” testimony — from the evidence in the case. “The right to an adversary proceeding was violated due to the fact that the personal data wasn’t released during the court hearing. The defense doesn’t have an opportunity to identify the identities of these people and objectively assess the reliability of the testimonies that they gave,” she underscores.
The prosecution concluded its presentation of the evidence in the case with the testimony of the two secret witnesses. The defense is set to speak at the next court hearing, scheduled for October 30.
Translation by Eilish Hart