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Putin's Political Prisoners

On October 30th, Russia marked the annual Political Prisoners’ Day, a tradition that goes back to 1974, when hunger strike protests were held by Soviet political prisoners in the Mordovia and Perm labor camps and in Vladimir prison. In 1991, after the last political prisoners were released, the Russian authorities gave this day official status and named it Memorial Day for the Victims of Political Repression. Throughout the 1990s—the only time in modern Russian history when the country had no political prisoners—October 30th served as a day of remembrance, mostly for the millions of victims of Stalin’s purges. It still does—on Wednesday, memorial ceremonies for those who perished in the Soviet Gulag were held in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Penza, Tyumen, Izhevsk, Kazan, and other cities across Russia—but this day is also increasingly referred to by its old Soviet-era name. Under Vladimir Putin, political prisoners have once again become a part of Russia’s everyday reality.

This week, Memorial—Russia’s most respected human rights organization, founded a quarter-century ago by Andrei Sakharov—published a list of 70 people it considers to be political prisoners. The list includes all those imprisoned in the Yukos and Bolotnaya Square cases, as well as Greenpeace activists (both Russian citizens and foreigners) arrested in the Pechora Sea and members of the Pussy Riot punk band. The list includes Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and now its most prominent prisoner of conscience; Leonid Razvozzhayev, who, in the true Stalinist traditions, was kidnapped in a foreign country, smuggled back to Russia, and tortured to extract his “confession”; Mikhail Kosenko, the first victim of punitive psychiatry since the Soviet era; and Dmitry Litvinov, who holds the distinction of being a third-generation political prisoner (his grandfather, Lev Kopelev, was imprisoned in Stalin’s Gulag; his father, Pavel Litvinov, was arrested for participating in the 1968 Red Square demonstration to protest the Soviet army’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to suppress the Prague Spring).

The leaders of Memorial emphasize that the list of 70 is by no means exhaustive—there are more political prisoners in Russia, but the cases that have been included in the list have been carefully screened and verified using extensive evidence and stringent criteria. Detailed criteria for designating someone a political prisoner have been developed by Memorial in cooperation with human rights groups from other Eastern European countries. In the Communist era, this designation was almost automatic: the Penal Code included special political articles for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,” and anyone convicted under them was by definition a political prisoner. In today’s Russia, where political prisoners are formally charged with ordinary criminal offenses, clearly established criteria are needed for designation. Memorial’s standards include people who have been imprisoned because of their political views or for peacefully exercising the freedom of assembly and the freedom of speech; people who have faced selective justice; and people whose punishment is clearly disproportionate to their actions.

Despite constant Kremlin denials, an overwhelming 70 percent of Muscovites, according to a recent poll, agree that there are political prisoners in Russia, with Khodorkovsky being the best known among them.

One hopes that Western leaders who are thinking about attending Putin’s ceremonial shows in Sochi take this reality into account.

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