Pictured (L) members of a left-wing group Set (Network) in court in Penza, Russia on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, when the court convicted seven members on terrorism charges, sentencing them to prison terms ranging from six to 18 years. (R) Eduard Nizamov. © 2020 AP Photo/David Frenkel (L); 2019 Private (R)

(Berlin) – Russian military courts handed down guilty verdicts on February 5 and 10, 2020 in three separate, deeply flawed terrorism cases in which the defendants alleged incommunicado detention, torture, and other ill-treatment to extract confessions, Human Rights Watch said today. A total of 18 defendants in the cases were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 23 years.

The trials were also marred by the prosecution and judges’ refusal to rigorously investigate complaints of abuse, and by their reliance on dubious expert analysis and use of anonymous “secret witnesses.” In one of the cases, the very existence of the alleged terrorist organization remains in question.

“These are three cases in different parts of Russia, but what unites them is the authorities’ refusal to rigorously investigate the defendants’ credible claims of abuse,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These defendants didn’t get a fair trial. The verdicts should be quashed, and allegations of fabrications and ill-treatment adequately investigated.”

One case involves “Network” (Set, in Russian), which the Federal Security Service (FSB) allege to be a terrorist organization created in St. Petersburg and Penza, among other places. The authorities claimed the defendants planned to destabilize the country through violence, including during the 2018 presidential elections and the World Cup. The prosecution did not argue that the defendants planned any specific acts of violence. The seven defendants convicted on February 10, aged between 23 and 31, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 18 years.

The second case involves an alleged leader of the entire Russian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist group that Russia’s Supreme Court banned in 2003, categorizing it as a terrorist organization. Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to establish a caliphate but does not espouse violence to achieve it. A court sentenced the defendant, Eduard Nizamov, to 23 years in maximum security prison.

Finally, five days earlier in a separate criminal case, another 10 alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir were handed prison terms ranging from 11 to 22 years.

In the “Network” case, the Privolzhski District Military Court convicted the defendants on charges of creating and participating in a terrorist organization, as well as of trafficking in explosives and arms and attempted narcotics trafficking. The defendants are Dmitriy Pchelintsev, Ilya Shakurskiy, Andrey Chernov, Maksim Ivankin, Mikhail Kulkov, Vasiliy Kuskov, and Arman Sangynbayev.

Some of the men were antifascist activists, and others described themselves as anarchists or left- wing activists, and their supporters alleged that this case is part of a broader crackdown on radical leftist groups. Russian media reported that some of the defendants did not even know each other, but shared views and hobbies. Some had played a game similar to paintball that sometimes simulates battles or quests in forested areas. The prosecution claimed the game was in fact military training to prepare for an unspecified coup.

Several defendants alleged during court proceedings and beforehand that authorities beat them and used electric shocks to extract testimony. But the authorities claimed that a preliminary inquiry by the military department of the investigative committee, Russia’s chief criminal investigative agency, established the defendants’ injuries were from an attempted escape, and the court and the prosecution accepted this explanation without further inquiry. Another suspect in the same case who later fled the country consulted a physician and state forensic physician to document his injuries. In response to his formal complaint, the authorities claimed that marks on his body consistent with the use of an electroshock weapon were “insect bites.”

The defense team alleged that during the trial, the court accepted statements by four anonymized “secret witnesses” and allegedly rigged evidence. In January 2019, another person accused in this case, Igor Shishkin, was convicted as part of a plea bargain. Shishkin did not complain of ill-treatment, but members of the St. Petersburg Public Oversight Commission (ONK, the Russian acronym), an independent body of experts authorized by the government to monitor detention sites, observed injuries consistent with torture on his body. Two other young men, accused of involvement in “Network”, Viktor Filinkov and Yuliy (Yulian) Boyarshinov, remain on trial. ONK has also documented a detailed account by these two men of their torture and ill-treatment in custody. The Memorial Human Rights Center considers all those accused in relation to this case to be political prisoners.

On February 5, the same court that tried the “Network” defendants found 10 people guilty on a variety of charges related to their alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. These include creating or membership in a local cell of a terrorist organization, assisting terrorism, and propaganda for terrorism. The defendants are Ilnar Zialilov, Ruslan Gabidullin, Azat Gataullin, Abdukakhor Mumindjanov, Sergey Derjipilskiy, Zulfat Sabirzianov, Komil Matiyev, Farid Kriyev, Rustem Salahutdinov, and Ilnaz Safiullin.

The prosecution said the men held meetings in which they discussed political news, how to campaign among other Muslims, and how to apply Sharia rules in everyday life. They were also accused of collecting membership dues, paying to print leaflets and journals, and organizing and paying for events, including football matches that they allegedly used to recruit members. Some of them were additionally accused in relation to their online posts. The prosecution did not allege that the defendants planned or carried out any specific act of violence.

Nizamov, who was convicted and sentenced on February 10 in the Central District Military Court in Yekaterinburg, was accused of being a leader of the entire Russian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir. He said that staff at the detention center had ill-treated him and caused him to be harassed in detention.

All of the Hizb ut-Tahrir defendants denied the accusations, saying the case against them was fabricated. They said they had condemned terrorism, and never called for the overthrow of the government nor for a violent coup. Their defense team challenged the prosecution’s use of two anonymous “secret witnesses” and the use of statements by persons who were exonerated after plea bargains.

The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, an independent think tank focusing on extremism and the abuse of counterterrorism and counterextremism laws in Russia, takes issue with Hizb ut-Tahrir’s designation as a terrorist group and denounced prosecution of its members on terrorism charges based solely on such activities as conducting meetings, producing literature, and the like, because this group has not been proven to be linked to any terrorism-affiliated activities.

In a 2016 joint statement, four prominent Russian human rights organizations, the Memorial Human Rights Center, Civic Assistance Committee, SOVA, and the Institute for Human Rights, criticized the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that listed Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization, on the grounds that its activities do not contain any basis for accusations of terrorism or incitement to terrorism, and that no one should be criminally prosecuted for mere membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

While all countries have an obligation to protect people on their territory, counterterrorism measures should never be used as a pretext to prosecute political opponents or other critics, or otherwise to undermine human rights, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy as well as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which Russia is a participating state, warns that violations of human rights can fuel terrorism. “The link between the guarantee of human rights and protection from terrorism cannot be over-emphasized … [c]ombating and ultimately overcoming terrorism will not succeed if the means to secure that society are not consistent with human rights standards,” ODIHR has said in its manual, “Countering Terrorism, Protecting Human Rights.”

Russia has obligations, including as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights, to observe the absolute prohibition of torture. In addition, rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, guarantees of a fair trial, and right to freedom of religion are all fundamental human rights protected by Russia’s own constitution and all key international human rights treaties.

Abusing counterterrorism laws to silence critics and deny fundamental human rights is unlawful and risks fomenting more resentment against the government,” Williamson said. “Instead of steamrolling the dissidents, the authorities urgently need to learn to engage them in constructive dialogue.”