After the elections, the new Arkhangelsk governor no longer guarantees an end to repressions against Shies' defenders
Text by Tatiana Britskaya
On the third day after winning the recent elections, Alexander Tsybulsky, the new governor of Arkhangelsk, called a press conference. Tsybulsky was elected against the backdrop of continuous promises to close the construction of the landfill near Shies. Two years ago, Moscow decided to use a large plot of land near Shies for a giant landfill for Moscow’s garbage and pushed the project through via bureaucratic double talk and under-the-table dealings against the will of the residents. And considering the potential for ecological catastrophe to the region, citizens have rightly been at war ever since.
Tsybulsky was predictably asked about the fate of the repressed activists. They say that since the landfill is illegal, it means that the authorities now agree that people were fighting for a just cause. So will the cases initiated against them be closed?
Formally, of course, the governor has never commanded the police or the investigative committee to do anything. Publically, it is ridiculous for the governor of Arkhangelsk to deny, even informally, the factor of bringing his own political will into initiating or closing political cases, including at the regional level.
So can we hope for the rehabilitation of activists who have been literally suffering for their land?
Elena Ionaitis, editor-in-chief of the most popular Arkhangelsk website 29.ru, asked the elected governor about this.
“The meaning of the word justice is a question for each of us to answer,” the governor quizzically offered, “as are the norms of the law.” This is literally an unexpected quote from the newly-minted head of the region. And he does the right thing by talking like this because it is as impossible to retell this thesis as his words are to comprehend.
It turns out that Alexander Vitalievich, as is true with most of our guiding intelligentsia, measures the norms of the law with personal feelings. In a slightly different formulation, this risky hobby even entered the realm olympic competition:
“The law is only the bar measuring how high we can jump.”
However, this is how he continues:
“If these fines were charged unlawfully or there is some evidence or feeling that people’s rights have been violated, this should be challenged accordingly. But if the legislation was violated, and the requirements were presented in accordance with the current legislation, I have no right to influence this. Moreover, I consider any influence or recommendations to the judicial and law enforcement agencies by the executive branch unacceptable.”
In this stream of demagoguery, there is a very specific message, even two. Firstly, the governor is making it clear that he will not interfere in the course of the repressive machine - this time, he does not see any violation of the law by any authority. And secondly, like all well in the pocket politicians everywhere, he asks us to do the job of proving it.
It is possible that Tsybulsky, who graduated from a military institution, has simply forgotten that in criminal and administrative law, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution. It is not for the accused to prove their innocence, the burden of proof, to actually even try to look for “some genuine kind of evidence”, is the job of the acusor. And in a perfect world, it is not just any empty verbiage that comes to mind in explanation, it is supposed to be proof of physical evidence leaving no doubt about the guilt of the defendant. In a perfect world, any doubts are interpreted in favor of the accused. This is how it should be.
Unfortunately, in Russia, enforcement of the law does not always follow the letter of the law except for participants of political rallies.
On April 7 last year, when 10 thousand people took to the streets in Arkhangelsk, 56 people were fined a total of 2 million rubles (about 22 thousand Euro) and three were sentenced to community service. Five more, Elena Kalinina, Ekaterina Tsvetkova, Mikhail Shaklein, Nikolai Grigoriev and Yevgeny Popov complained to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) about the violation of the right to freedom of assembly but this was only the first wave of repression.
The next moves by the government in Shies must have felt like tanks rolling into Ukraine. People were regularly detained and fined for opposing builders and landfill guards. The police officers were constantly on duty at the station but all of them refused to notice any offenses from the other side. And there were private security guards on the territory in masks, “chopiks” they are called. They do not carry or show any identification but this was also ok with the police. The chopics could interfere with political activists or the activities of journalists but no one lifted a finger about violations of transport safety rules, illegal cutting of trees, illegal construction or under-the-table politics at all levels.
In May last year, two masked chopiki, one V. Sinkov and one V. Rutanov, grabbed the activist Marina Dziuba by the arms and legs and threw the woman into a ditch. Afterwards, they drew up a protocol against her and she was arrested and held for 5 days. According to the official documents, it was Marina who threw her fists at the guards.
As for the case against the guards, Dziuba’s statement was simply refused. The legal system has this right.
News reports and accompanying films show the men taking Dziuba by the arms and legs and carrying her over the cordon of the helicopter landing zone. Activists on the scene write that after the incident, Dziuba was found to have “an ankle sprain and numerous hematomas all over her body.” According to the investigator for the Ministry of Internal Affairs , the employees of the private security company did not beat the activist. The guards simply carried the woman out of the helicopter landing zone, which was dangerous for her, and that’s all.
A few months earlier, Marina’s husband, Valery Dziuba, became a suspect in yet another criminal case surrounding the unwanted garbage dump in Shies
He, like his protest colleague Vyacheslav Grigoryants, was acquitted only this summer. But Andrei Starkovsky and Dmitry Drobinin were given a suspended sentence in that case instead of a year in prison. They were found guilty of arbitrariness (part 2 of Article 330 of the Criminal Code).
In another incident, on the night of March 15 last year, an excavator operator named Aleksey Kozlov decided to drive his machine into the trailer that was being used as an eco-activist checkpoint just outside the Shies dumpsite. There was a man inside the trailer at the time. Several people surrounded the giant bulldozer and one of the activists, Uladzimir Kogut, was crushed by the bucket. Several of his ribs were broken. He was airlifted to the hospital but only after a long wait. The emergency call was not regarded as pressing.
But they did not start a case against Kozlov. On the contrary, at first they tried to accuse the protesters under a more serious article - “Intentional infliction of medium-gravity harm to health by a group of persons by prior conspiracy or by an organized group in relation to a person or their relatives in connection with the performance of this person’s official activities” (paragraph “d” of part 2 of Article 112 of the Criminal Code).
Though claiming in documents that he had been beaten to near death by the protestors, films from the hospital showed him walking out of the hospital that same day.
So, the cost of saving Shies so far is five criminal cases against protestors and the list is a tribute to the hopelessness of the cause.
In addition to the “excavator case”, there are two other cases pending. One is against Nikita Baryshnikov and Mikhail Gabov, who are accused of spraying guards with pepper gas. Both were sentenced to several hundred hours of compulsory labor. There is also a case under the “Dyada article”, the grandfather clause for activists seen as repeat offenders, against Andrey Borovikov, the head of the Arkhangelsk Navalny headquarters. Borovikov recieved 400 hours of compulsory labor. And the most serious case of all was made against Andrey Khristoforov, a pacifist practitioner of Buddhism and the most innocuous of all of the protesters for pulling the train stop-valve near the Shies station. He was harshly detained by the police and charged with the anti-revolutionary favorite, Article 318 of the Criminal Code, “The use of violence dangerous to life or health against a representative of the authorities or their relatives in connection with the performance of their official duties.” This comes with a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. The original action was that they tried to plant a tree. Khristoforov is known as the “tree man”.
The “ongoing” protest actions have become a special source of income for the meager treasury of the Arkhangelsk region. “Ongoing” is how they categorize the participants in the protests on Lenin Square. The protestors are charged with either uncoordinated pickets or violation of the self-isolation regime, which was lifted long ago in Pomorie.
And as recently as last Thursday, Arkhangelsk resident Yury Chesnokov was detained and brought to court on charges of organizing the mass rally on August 15. At that time, there was another “ongoing protest” where Chesnokov lined up with several people linking arms and waving a Belarusian red and white flag in solidarity with Belarus’ fight to remove its own dictator of 26 years. True, Major Alexey Ogorelkov, the most famous and infamous of the protectors of the federation drew up the protocol so carelessly that the court did not consider the case. But the major would be back the following week to write Chesnokov up again.Major Ogorelkov also attempted to search the office of Shies’ lawyer Oksana Vladyka without a court order a week earlier. Vladyka is the opposition’s unofficial film journalist and is always there at all of the protests, either shooting film or taking photos. Vladyka was also detained again a couple of days later and was held until midnight at the District Department of Internal Affairs on charges of resisting the police. She was released without a protocol but with the promise of a subpoena.
Overall, dozens of activists are awaiting trials. Some had some hope that their actions would have some effect after the usual loud statements by the authorities about supporting their demands. But of course, after the elections, the rhetoric changed. Whatever they thought it was like “under Orlov”, Tsybulsky’s predecessor and who some actually thought would be a good shot for Moscow to quit the Shies project, no longer works.
And this is not because people are not allowed to do anything but simply because one very curious president has been set.
On August 26, the Supreme Court overturned the fine imposed on Svetlana Baksheyeva, a saleswoman from Kotlas, in a case of insulting the authorities. Baksheeva called Orlov, the then head of the region, a “bald nit” and a “dung fly” on “VKontakte”. Orlov had previously called the protesters “Shelupni”, worthless trash and insignificant people, which was probably his true thinking but somehow, people, and particularly Baksheyeva, took offense.
Yet despite the courts twice predictably finding protestors from Kotlas guilty last summer, eventually they were acquitted by the Supreme Court who responsibly wrote that “Orlov is not in power,” meaning that the governor does not have any real standing with the “bodies exercising state power in the Russian Federation.” The Prosecutor General’s Office also noted this declaring that “disrespect for federal, regional, local bodies, their divisions and officials and deputies is not an instance of insult to the authorities”.
And so insulting any governor is not really breaking any laws and this is good to know. And by the way, Tsybulsky is no different, which basically means that it would be a good idea for the new head of Pomorie to take into account the mistakes of his predecessor. This will be quite helpful if he doesn’t want to be offended later.
Translated from Russian by Adam Goodman
This story was orginally published in Russian by the Novaya Gazeta. It is translated and republished as part of a cross-border media initiative