How Russia uses show trials to punish Putin’s enemies

A bus carrying members of the Ukrainian armed forces, who surrendered to Russian forces at the besieged Azovstal steel mill. Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
The Kremlin has long orchestrated Russia’s court system as an instrument for oppression and propaganda, using a veneer of legality to silence critics and to impose its version of events.

In December, for example, Russia’s Supreme Court liquidated the country’s most prominent human rights group, Memorial, ruling that its work chronicling Josef Stalin-era brutality had distorted the Soviet Union’s historical image.

Months earlier, a Moscow court had condemned the political and anti-corruption organisations founded by Alexei Navalny as “extremist,” eventually sentencing the opposition leader to nine years in prison.

In 2020, Paul Whelan, a former US Marine, received a 16-year sentence on espionage charges in a case widely seen as Russia grabbing a hostage. “Sham Trial!” Whelan, who remains incarcerated, wrote on a piece of paper that he held up in court.

The common thread in all these cases, analysts and opposition figures say, is that the verdict was stage-managed to deliver to President Vladimir Putin a coveted goal, like diminishing an opponent or buttressing a propaganda point.

Now, with nearly 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers from the besieged steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, in Russian custody, the prospect of so-called show trials has emerged again.

The fighters have been leaving the plant this week after maintaining the last line of defence in Mariupol, at a Soviet-era steel facility. The Ukrainian government said it had negotiated a deal for the fighters’ exchange, but Moscow has not confirmed this.

At the same time, some Russian officials have pushed to label one group of the soldiers — members of the Azov battalion — as terrorists, and to try them on war crimes charges. The Russian position has raised the prospect that it is laying the groundwork for high-profile trials of the fighters that would advance its narrative of the war.

“Every single case which Putin or his allies would like to manipulate will be manipulated,” said Ilya Novikov, a former Moscow lawyer who relocated to Kyiv, Ukraine, three years ago. “You should not start by asking what are the charges, you should start by asking what is the outcome.”

Novikov was the defence attorney for various Ukrainians accused in high-profile cases, including a 2018 episode in which Russia seized 24 Ukrainian sailors.

Russia’s Ministry of Defence has suggested that the Azov battalion constituted the core of the force in the steel plant and put the initial number of those surrendering at about 800. The unit’s roots in the far right provided a sheen of credibility to Russia’s claim that it was fighting Nazis, the rationale it cites for invading its neighbor.

It is not yet clear whether Russia would proceed with trials, but Moscow has sent ominous signals. The Russian Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing for Thursday to decide whether to classify the Azov battalion as a terrorist organization, a request made by the prosecutor general; analysts say the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion.

The Investigative Committee, Russia’s approximate equivalent to the FBI, said it would interrogate the fighters to look into possible crimes against civilians. Members of the Duma, or parliament, proposed barring Azov members from being exchanged for Russian prisoners. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson also suggested that some of those captured had committed war crimes.

A Russian soldier in Ukraine has already pleaded guilty to war crimes charges for shooting a civilian, so Moscow could try to show that Ukrainian soldiers have committed equal atrocities, Novikov said. “It is like a mirror reaction,” he said. “You have a trial, but we will have a more effective trial, with many more people accused.”

Putin suggested such trials in his Feb 24 speech announcing the invasion. “We will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetuated bloody crimes against civilians,” he said.

Even if the Kremlin has not issued a directive, that speech was enough for the bureaucracy to swing into action and produce more trials, said Ivan Pavlov, a prominent human rights lawyer for defendants who are targeted by the security services. He fled the country last year after they started to pursue him, he said.

“Russian courts no longer have anything to do with the legal bodies of a democratic state,” Pavlov said. “They are not guided by the law, but only by political needs, political purposes.”

Show trials are part of the regular judicial process held in regular courtrooms in front of a judge with prosecutors and defence attorneys arguing their sides of the case. Despite all the official trappings, however, the outcome is almost never unexpected.

Putting members of the Azov battalion on trial would serve multiple political purposes. Putin could claim to have taken down some of the “Nazi’’ oppressors whom he has falsely portrayed as leading Ukraine.

“We might guess that he is seeking a show trial in order to first demonstrate that these so-called Nazis whom he invaded Ukraine to fight against are real,” Novikov said.

The trials would also highlight the capture of Mariupol, which Moscow could portray as a significant achievement in a war with few of them. Plus, Moscow wants to diminish the Azov fighters, a group that has come to represent fortitude and valour to Ukrainians after holding out in the steel plant for weeks.

“Russia wants to say that they are not heroes, that they are terrorists and other things,” said Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in a Russian prison for opposing the 2014 annexation of his native Crimea.

Sentsov, 45, a political activist, faced terrorism charges, accused of trying to set on fire the door to the ruling party headquarters in Crimea and of plotting to blow up a Vladimir Lenin statue. No evidence was presented in court. He spent about five years in prison.

“It was theatre; everyone played their roles,” said Sentsov, who called in from Sloviansk, in the Donbas, where he is fighting the Russians. His second feature film, “Rhino,” is debuting on Netflix on Monday.

In 2019, Russia and Ukraine agreed to exchange 35 prisoners, including Sentsov and all the sailors seized the year before, who never went on trial.

The Russians hinged that exchange on the release of Volodymyr Tsemakh, Novikov said. Tsemakh was considered a potential key witness in an investigation into whether Russian-backed separatists shot down a Malaysian civilian airliner over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people aboard.

Whelan, who holds British, Canadian and Irish citizenship as well as American, was arrested in a Moscow hotel in December 2018. A Russian whom he knew handed him a thumb drive containing what Whelan thought were souvenir pictures, but Russian officials said it contained classified military information.

It was widely assumed that the Russians nabbed Whelan to trade him for some high-profile Russian prisoner in the United States, but no such exchange has emerged.

Another American, Brittney Griner, among the most decorated athletes in women’s basketball, has been in custody since February on drug charges, accused of having traces of hash oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

Putin inaugurated show trials soon after his tenure as president began in 2000. In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon and among Russia’s richest businessmen, made his opposition to Putin public by challenging him about corruption in high places during a nationally televised Kremlin meeting. Months later he was arrested on tax evasion and fraud charges and imprisoned for 10 years before moving abroad after Putin pardoned him.

Some of the most notorious trials in Russian history were held at the end of the 1930s, used by Stalin to eliminate dozens of the Bolshevik old guard, who confessed to trumped-up charges under torture and were executed. That coincided with hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens being sent to labour camps.

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