Imprisoned for his eyebrows Based on anonymous testimony, a Moscow court sentenced an anarchist mathematician to six years behind bars over a broken window
Moscow’s Golovinsky District Court recently sentenced mathematician and anarchist Azat Miftakhov to six years in prison for his alleged role in an attack against a campaign office that belongs to United Russia, the country’s ruling political party. Two other suspects, Elena Gorban and Andrey Yeikin, pleaded guilty and received probation, but Miftakhov maintains his innocence. Prosecutors based their case largely on the testimony of a secret witness who allegedly recognized the mathematician “by his eyebrows.” Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova recounts the trial’s final proceedings.
“You aren’t allowed to take your things with you!” the bailiff says gruffly when Elena Gorban enters the courtroom at noon.
It’s Monday, January 18, 2021, and Gorban is one of the defendants in the “case of the broken window” — a felony trial launched over an act of vandalism against one of United Russia’s offices. Short, thin, and bending under the weight of a duffle bag, the young woman enters the room and places the bag on the floor. Straightening her back, Gorban looks around at the handful of people in the room and finally places her gaze upon a middle-aged woman with short, black hair. She’s looking at Gulnur Khusainova, the mother of another suspect in the case: mathematician Azat Miftakhov.
Human rights groups say Miftakhov is a political prisoner, scholars from all over the world (including the well-known linguistic Noam Chomsky) have offered support, and a petition demanding Azat’s release now bears the signatures of more than 90,000 people.
Gorban smiles, takes a red boxing glove out of her bag, and hands it to Khusainova, ignoring the bailiff’s remarks. The young woman does not explain the gesture’s meaning, and the bailiff is confused. “What’s that? That’s an unauthorized object!” the bailiff shouts with growing indignation. He then snatches away the glove and threatens Miftakhov’s mother with a misdemeanor, before approaching Gorban and ordering her to put her things outside in the hallway.
Gorban snaps back at him, but her lawyer, Nikita Taranishenko, persuades her to take the bag out of the room. Satisfied but still seeking validation, the bailiff turns to journalists nearby and complains about “all this clowning around.”
In the courtroom, Gorban takes a seat on the bench next to a young man in jeans and a black-and-white Olympic jacket. Andrey Yeikin, motionless and head held low, is also waiting for his verdict.
From the trial’s very start, neither Yeikin nor Gorban ever denied their involvement in the events that took place in Moscow on January 31, 2018. By their own admission, they joined four other left-wing activists that night at Onezhskaya Street and split into groups. Gorban, Yeikin, and their mutual friend Alexey Kobaidze went to United Russia’s office in the area (located inside a residential building), and the others stayed nearby “as backup.” The defendants say Gorban broke the office window using a hammer, Kobaidze threw a smoke bomb inside, and Yeikin filmed it all. No one was injured during the attack and the total cost to the party was 48,000 rubles (about $650) — the money needed to replace the window frame.
The activists weren’t arrested immediately. By August 2018, detectives managed to identify four of the alleged attackers, but the case was suspended a month later “until the suspects’ involvement could be established.” Prosecutors resumed the case in early February 2019, by which time two potential suspects — Alexey Kobaidze and anarchist Svyatoslav Rechkalov — had already left Russia. Officials had now escalated the charges from vandalism to the more serious offense of criminal damage (technically “hooliganism”), and they’d now identified a new suspect, as well: mathematics graduate student Azat Miftakhov. The police had previously tried to pin a separate crime on Miftakhov, twice charging him with creating a bomb found in the city of Balashikha. Both times, the courts threw out the case for lack of evidence.
Bailiffs escort Miftakhov into the courtroom. His hands are cuffed behind his back, but he still manages to lift them and wave to his mother. Miftakhov’s restraints are left in place even while he sits inside “the aquarium” (a closed glass holding chamber), awaiting his verdict.
Now a former graduate student from Moscow State University, Azat Miftakhov is a bespectacled 27-year-old man. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about his appearance, but just try telling that to the prosecution’s secret witness, who testified under the pseudonym “Andrey Petrov” a year after the attack on United Russia’s office, claiming to have effortlessly identified the mathematician. Petrov described Miftakhov’s “expressive eyebrows” as “incredibly memorable.” According to the witness, Miftakhov not only participated in the attack but also orchestrated the other suspects’ actions. Petrov could not recall, however, what these other individuals looked like. In an extra twist, the court was unable to verify Petrov’s testimony because he died during the trial.
Miftakhov maintains his innocence and accuses the authorities of persecuting him for his anarchist views. Both Gorban and Yeikin deny that he accompanied them on the night of the attack.
The defendants in the case say the police tried to beat confessions out of them. For example, Svyatoslav Rechkalov (who fled Russia) says security forces tortured him until he claimed to lead the left-wing movement “People’s Self-Defense,” which Russia’s authorities have linked to a terrorist attack against a Federal Security Service building in Arkhangelsk in 2018.
Azat Miftakhov says he was abused in police custody, as well. Officers reportedly beat him and threatened him with an electric screwdriver while demanding his confession. His lawyer and watchdog monitors even documented a mark from the electric screwdriver imprinted on his chest and a bruise on his ear, but detectives declined to investigate the allegations.
Judge Sergey Bazarov holds the verdict in his hands. They are shaking. He takes a moment to ask the secretary to open the window, even though one is already open and the room is cold. Breathing heavily, the judge announces that Gorban, Yeikin, and Miftakhov have been convicted of criminal damage, violating the public order, and “expressing a clear disrespect for society.”
The judge says the defendants acted “with the use of objects as weapons” (a hammer and a smoke bomb) and as “a group on the basis of a prior agreement,” and were “motivated by political hatred” (because United Russia’s office was targeted). The ruling also states that Gorban, Yeikin, and Miftakhov were members of the “People’s Self-Defense,” which “uses acts of vandalism and criminal damage and attacks on administrative buildings and state institutions with the goal of destabilizing Russia’s socio-political situation” (though all three defendants deny active participation in the movement’s activities).
Miftakhov scarcely looks at the judge and instead smiles at his mother. From time to time, the guard’s dog on the floor next to the “aquarium” sighs heavily. Judge Bazarov takes a blue handkerchief from the pocket of his robe, wipes his forehead and lips, grabs another sheet of paper with a shaky hand, and reads aloud that the evidence in the case confirms the defendants’ guilt.
Testimony from secret witnesses stands out. In addition to the late Mr. Petrov, another individual using the pseudonym “The Sentry” claimed that he was once interested in the “People’s Self-Defense” and supposedly encountered Miftakhov at one of the group’s meetings. According to the witness, Miftakhov “expressed his dislike for the state” and called for radical actions, “during which [he proposed] using Molotov cocktails, smoke bombs, and so on against administrative buildings.” Miftakhov also supposedly helped train other anarchists “where tactics were practiced against police officers.”
While the judge continues reading the verdict, one of the police officers in the room gestures Miftakhov toward the aquarium’s window. Miftakhov complies but clearly doesn’t understand what the officer wants from him. The man then slaps Miftakhov on the shoulder, summons a fellow officer, and checks that the handcuffs are still fastened.
Judge Bazarov, still breathing heavy and sweating, then starts listing the case’s various protocols, pausing only to describe a video showing the attack on United Russia’s office building that the People’s Self-Defense shared on its social media pages. (Admittedly, the group publishes reports about all kinds of left-wing activities.) “Behind the masks of the KPRF, LDPR, and Just Russia are the fat bourgeois faces of United Russia representatives,” reads the judge, wiping his forehead with the handkerchief. Again, the dog sighs loudly.
However, Judge Bazarov continues, there are extenuating circumstances: for example, at the time of the attack on the party office, neither Gorban nor Yeikin had a criminal record. Additionally, Gorban does charity work and partly confessed (she denies that her motive was “political hatred”), while Yeikin repents his actions completely and even partially reimbursed United Russia for the damages. He also cares for his elderly parents.
The sentences match exactly what prosecutors requested: four years of probation for Gorban, two years for Yeikin, and six years in prison for Miftakhov, who refused to confess.
There is shouting in the street, but it’s not as loud as it might have been if the verdict had been announced on schedule a week earlier, when hundreds of people assembled outside the courthouse. Today, there are no more than 150 demonstrators (excluding reporters). Not allowed inside the building, the activists are left in the cold, surrounded by specially erected metal barriers and law enforcement. The police arrest seven people, but they’re later released at a nearby station without any charges.
Having heard the verdict, Miftakhov still smiles at his mother. The bailiff does not allow her to approach the glass cage. As Miftakhov is escorted away, his mother manages to pass along some greetings from his friends. He tries to smile back and answers gently that he says hello, too. Then he disappears behind a wall of police and guards.
Outside the courthouse, Miftakhov’s lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina, is also surrounded, albeit by journalists. Asked to explain her client’s prison sentence, she says, “It’s because he did not confess — because the case is considered politically motivated. Of course, the fact that his conviction [for attacking a police officer in 2017] hasn’t been expunged also played a role.”
Sidorkina says they will appeal the verdict, though she acknowledged immediately that she has little faith in getting the ruling overturned in a Russian court. Once all options at home have been exhausted, however, she plans to turn to the European Court of Human Rights.
Incidentally, Miftakhov is still a defendant in another felony case: Police say he created explosives discovered almost two years ago in the city of Balashikha.