Nearly a decade without Mom and Dad How officials used dubious evidence to imprison two Russian activists for a combined 21.5 years on charges of drug trafficking and arson
Liya Milushkina and Artyom Milushkin are a well-known pair in the Pskov region. Liya managed the local branch of the opposition movement “Open Russia,” and Artyom attended and organized protests, too. In January 2019, SWAT police raided their home, terrifying the couple’s two small children. The authorities arrested Liya and Artyom on suspicion of felony drug trafficking and later charged Milushkin with organizing a series of arson attacks, as well. The Milushkins maintain their innocence and argue that the case against them is politically motivated. On August 12, 2021, a judge sentenced Artyom to 11 years in a maximum-security prison and sentenced Liya to 10.5 years in prison, which she won’t begin until 2024, while she cares for their children. After the court’s decision was announced, Artyom Milushkin ripped a bench from the courtroom floor and threw it in a fit of rage. He won’t be home with his kids again until they’re in their 20s. Meduza examines what we know about this controversial case.
After smashing the television and dragging the Milushkins’ older son out of bed “as if he were an adult junkie,” says the boy’s grandmother, police seized just 2,000 rubles ($30) in cash and six small “Kinder Egg” boxes. Forensics experts would later claim that these boxes contained traces of amphetamine. The money, investigators said, was used in a sting operation carried out days earlier. This would be the key evidence used to convict the Milushkins of acting as a group to traffick illegal drugs.
“I guess you’re supposed to believe that they moved the drugs in these Kinder Egg boxes, using them as containers, and then put them back like dishware?” says the Milushkins’ lawyer.
Before a SWAT team ever kicked in his front door, Artyom Milushkin was known to law enforcement. Technically unemployed, he owned stakes in three Latvian gyms and earned money selling car parts from Latvia. Artyom regularly attended opposition protests and publicly supported both Alexey Navalny and the local Russian nationalist movement. As the Pskov-branch head coordinator of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia movement, Liya Milushkina was no stranger to the police, either.
On November 4, 2018, the police stopped the Milushkins as they were driving to a permitted protest and pulled Artyom from the car, in front of his wife and children. Liya recorded the arrest on her phone, but she didn’t capture what one plainclothes officer apparently told her husband when they were alone in the squad car: “I’m telling everyone to treat you like this, from now on. And, the next time, you’ll have 10 grams [of narcotics] in your pocket.”
Milushkin reported the officer to the Federal Investigative Committee, but his complaint was rejected. Instead, he was fined 500 rubles (about $7) for disobeying a member of law enforcement.
According to the Milushkin’ indictment, the police arrested a 27-year-old man named Stanislav Pavlov on January 13, 2019, for possession of about two grams of amphetamine. He said the drugs came from the Milushkins, whom he’d known for several years. During his interrogation, Pavlov agreed to cooperate with the authorities for a controlled purchase to catch the couple in the act of drug dealing. At trial, Pavlov’s girlfriend would later testify that he was beaten for four hours in police custody before he accused the Milushkins of any crimes. Pavlov himself argued this in court but later retracted his statement.
A day after Pavlov’s arrest, on January 14, wearing a wire and a hidden camera, he met with Artyom Milushkin for a controlled purchase, acting under police surveillance with marked bills. The footage recovered from the hidden camera was 12 minutes of black-and-white noise — barely intelligible, but forensic experts miraculously used it to create an incriminating transcript. Artyom says the audio recording was also edited to distort his conversation with Pavlov.
Two days later, on January 16, Pavlov repeated his deception with Liya, supposedly buying almost five grams of amphetamine. Once again, the police recorded a mostly obstructed video, but prosecutors convinced a judge that the footage showed Liya handling illegal drugs.
The Milushkins acknowledge that Pavlov gave them money, but they say he was paying back a loan. In fact, they explain, Pavlov had been helping the family around the house for some time, trying to work off debts incurred during a “difficult life situation” in the past.
In the indictment, investigators also cited allegations from a family friend with the surname Okladnikova that Liya Milushkina supposedly offered her amphetamines to lose weight. In court, however, Okladnikova denied these claims, clarifying that Liya had only talked about ordinary diet pills.
About six months after Artyom Milushkin’s arrest, investigators also accused him of executing a drug deal, nearly a decade earlier. Officials cited testimony from a secret witness identified as “A. V. Semenov” and video footage he supposedly recorded during a controlled purchase in late January 2011. According to the indictment, Semenov didn’t name Milushkin in his testimony at the time because he “feared for his life.” Once again, the footage submitted as evidence was black-and-white and barely intelligible.
Burn baby burn
A few days after making controlled purchases from the Milushkins, Stanislav Pavlov suddenly confessed to more criminal activity with Artyom: multiple arson attacks. Pavlov told police that he set fire to buildings on three separate occasions, acting on Artyom’s orders, supposedly in order to pay down his debts to Milushkin and maintain a steady supply of amphetamine.
The first incident took place in October 2016, when Artyom allegedly asked Pavlov to burn down a tire service shop, whose owner supposedly failed to pay off his drug debts. In July 2018, Pavlov says Artyom asked him to set fire to the same shop again. With their children in the car, the Milushkins even drove Pavlov to the scene of the crime, he told the police.
The shop in question belongs to a woman named Elena Tumanova, who says her son manages the business. The Milushkins’ indictment mentions someone named “M. Tumanov,” who testified to police just once, saying in January 2019 that he’d occasionally bought amphetamines and marijuana from Artyom Milushkin in 2014 and 2015. Tumanov claimed that he ran up a tab with Milushkin for drugs during that time, owing upwards of 30,000 rubles (about $400) by 2016. Tumanov said he didn’t have this money, so he gave Milushkin an old BMW instead and the two called it even.
After Tumanov’s interrogation, he left Pskov and no one has heard from or seen him since. Meanwhile, Artyom Milushkin declines to say if he knows the man.
State investigators say someone named Denis Trukhan helped Pavlov and Milushkin in a third arson attack: setting fire to a cafe in a small town near Russia’s border with Estonia. Trukhan’s assistance was also supposedly payback for drug debts. Pavlov told police that Artyom Milushkin needed to find the cafe’s exact address and enlisted the aid of his friend Dmitry Semenovsky, a former member of the Open Russia movement. Semenovsky testified that he didn’t know why Milushkin needed a ride to the cafe in early September 2018, but he said he overheard Artyom and his companions discussing how they would start a fire at the site. Semenovsky told the police that he never reported the conversation because he “feared for his life.”
Semenovsky made these allegations just a few days after he was arrested at his home and interrogated by agents from the Federal Security Service. Later, he ignored a summons to appear in court, and officials never questioned him again. On the witness stand, neither Pavlov nor Trukhanov could explain why the Milushkins would have supplied them with drugs for years without receiving any payment.
Life behind bars
After the raid on the Milushkins’ home in January 2018, a judge placed Liya under house arrest and locked Artyom away in remand prison. Ten months later, Liya was permitted to leave her home under certain circumstances, to make it possible for her to find work, but her husband says he has endured beatings in pretrial detention. According to his lawyer, the bruises have even been visible when he appears in court, but the medical workers refuse to notice. In fact, Milushkin spent almost 10 months (from October 2020 to July 2021) in solitary confinement.
The Investigative Committee’s local branch has declined to inspect Artyom’s complaints.
Before sentences were announced on August 12, Milushkin’s lawyer Vladimir Danilov recognized his client’s hopeless situation. “We must admit that a large number of our police officers have been involved in falsifying evidence and planting drugs,” he told journalists. “And it’s not just one or two people, but a whole department, so to speak.”
Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock