September 30, 2020


A Russian court has sentenced a historian who helped uncover Stalin-era mass graves to 13 years in prison, abruptly increasing his sentence by 10 years, in a highly unusual step that rights groups said was revenge for his work and part of a broader campaign to whitewash the dark chapters of Russia’s Soviet history.

The case of Yury Dmitriyev attracted international criticism when he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison earlier this year on charges condemned by human rights organizations as fabricated.

He had, however, been due to be released within weeks because of time served in pre-trial detention.

But on Tuesday, a higher court in the northern city of Petrozavodsk abruptly overturned the original ruling and sentenced Dmitriyev to 13 years in a prison colony.

Dmitriyev, 64, is a member of Memorial, a group that commemorates the victims of Soviet repression. He has faced criminal prosecution since 2016 based on shifting charges based around allegations he had taken pornographic photos of his young adopted daughter and abused her.

His supporters though say his imprisonment, in reality, is linked to his role in uncovering mass graves tied to the Soviet gulag prison system and say the charges are an attempt to smear a figure who has played a leading role in commemorating the mass murder conducted under Joseph Stalin.

Memorial on Tuesday condemned the ruling saying it was clearly “politically motivated.”

“Today’s sentence is the revenge of the system which is heir to the Soviet system and would like to consign to oblivion the names that Yury Dmitriyev has returned, having besmirched him himself, his work and his life,” it said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch has previously called the charges against Dmitriyev “bogus.” The United States embassy in Moscow condemned the new sentence as “outrageous.”

The embassy’s spokeswoman Rebecca Ross wrote on Twitter it “is another step backwards for #humanrights and historical truths in #Russia.”

In the 1990s, Dmitriyev and others found a grave in his home region of Karelia in northern Russia in a place known as Sandarmokh close to the border with Finland. The site is believed to

hold the bodies of at least 6,000 prisoners executed by Soviet secret police during what’s known as Stalin’s ‘Great Terror’ between 1937 and 1938.

But in recent years though, a state-backed nationalist conservative group has sought to alter the narrative around the grave.

The Military-Historical Society, whose membership includes many senior Russian government officials, has promoted a theory that the grave also holds Soviet soldiers killed by Finnish troops during World War II. The group has conducted digging at the grave and, in 2018, it exhumed 16 corpses that it said were Red Army soldiers in order to support the theory that not only political prisoners were killed at the site .

Critics have said it is part of a broader effort to downplay Soviet crimes under president Vladimir Putin. Putin does not deny the mass repression under Stalin, but has sought to shift the emphasis onto the dictator’s role in modernizing Russia and defeating Nazi Germany.

The case against Dmitriyev has shown repeated problems. He was acquitted on the charges of taking pornographic photos by a court in April 2018, but a higher court overturned the ruling and ordered further investigation. Police then brought the case once again and added a new charge alleging that Dmitriyev had violently sexually abused his daughter.

In July this year, a court convicted Dmitriyev of that charge and gave him the three and a half year sentence. Rights groups condemned that as a travesty of justice but also celebrated it as a victory because the shorter sentence meant that because of his lengthy time spent in pre-trial detention Dmitriyev would soon be freed.

His supporters at the time said the verdict essentially amounted to an “acquittal” and his lawyers appealed to have the guilty verdict fully overturned.

Prosecutors, however, appealed the decision and the court on Tuesday satisfied their request to jail Dmitriyev for 13 years. It also overturned his acquittal on the pornography charge and sent it back for investigation.

Dmitriyev’s trial was held entirely behind closed doors and, at the hearing on Tuesday, his lawyer was not present because he was quarantining due to a suspected coronavirus infection. The court rejected a request to delay until his lawyer could attend and overruled his objection to be represented by a court-appointed lawyer.

Memorial has faced frequent harassment in recent years, including a series of dubious criminal cases. The organization also campaigns against present day abuses and its offices have been raided and its members sometimes physically attacked.