New Year, New Political Prisoners in Russia

“You should not see me as a symbol that there are no political prisoners left in Russia,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for more than a decade Russia’s best-known political prisoner, said at his Berlin press conference in December after his surprise pardon. “I am a symbol that the efforts of civil society may lead to the release of people whose release was not expected by anyone.” He vowed to make the freedom for Russia’s remaining political prisoners a priority in his own public activities.

The limited amnesty and pardon issued in the final days of 2013 were, needless to say, a hugely positive development—but, as Khodorkovsky indicated, Russian prisons still hold people whose only “guilt” is opposing the regime in the Kremlin. Of the 70 political prisoners that were listed by the Russian human rights center Memorial at the end of October, 33 remain behind bars or under house arrest.

Indeed, the holiday season brought more bad news. On December 20th—the very day Khodorkovsky was flown from his Karelian prison colony to Germany in a transfer reminiscent of the dissident expulsions of the 1970s—Yevgeny Vitishko, an environmental activist known for his criticism of the abuses in the preparations for the Sochi Olympics, had his suspended three-year prison sentence turned into a real one. His original conviction—for “destruction of property”—was punishment for writing a slogan on the fence of the dacha of Governor Alexander Tkachyov, illegally built in a natural preserve.

For now, Vitishko remains free, pending an appeal. Sergei Mokhnatkin, however, does not. On December 31st, the activist was arrested at an opposition rally on Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square and charged with “attacking a police officer.” This photo taken at the rally shows what the “attack” looked like. He now faces up to five years in prison. This is not Mokhnatkin’s first imprisonment. On December 31, 2009, he was passing near Triumfalnaya Square when he saw a policeman beating up a female opposition activist. When he tried to defend her, he was arrested and later sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment (on the same charge of “attacking a police officer”). Recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, Mokhnatkin was pardoned by then President Dmitri Medvedev in April 2012. Less than two years later, he is back behind bars.

Freedom for political prisoners was one of the main slogans of the 2011–2012 mass protests in Russia; it remains a key demand of Russia’s opposition movement and civil society as well as of the many friends of Russia (not of the Kremlin) in Western parliaments and human rights institutions. This pressure is crucial and should continue. As we have witnessed, these efforts “may lead to the release of people whose release was not expected by anyone.”

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