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Volodymyr Balukh

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – A court in Russia-controlled Crimea has started to hear the appeal of a pro-Ukrainian activist against his five-year prison term.

Volodymyr Balukh, who has been on hunger strike since March, refused to leave his cell on October 3 to attend the hearing via video link at the Supreme Court of Crimea.

The court rejected a motion filed by Balukh's lawyer, Olga Dinze, to allow her client in the courtroom and started the hearing without his presence.

Balukh was originally arrested in December 2016 and convicted on a weapons-and-explosives possession charge in August 2017.

His conviction, and nearly four-year prison sentence, was reversed on appeal and returned to a lower court, which issued the same verdict and sentence in January.

The new case against Balukh was started in March, after the warden of the penal facility where he is being held sued him, claiming that Balukh attacked him.

In July, a court found Balukh guilty in the second case, which his supporters dismissed as politically motivated, and sentenced him to five years in prison.

Balukh was arrested after Russian security agents allegedly found explosives and ammunition in his house.

The search was conducted shortly after Balukh planted a Ukrainian flag in his yard and affixed a sign to his house honoring those killed in Kyiv in 2013 and 2014 during the street protests that ousted the country’s pro-Russian president.

Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014, about a month after the president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country.

Since that time, Russia has moved aggressively to prosecute Ukrainian activists and anyone who questions the annexation.

Karelian historian Sergei Koltyrin (file photo)

The director of a museum in Russia's Karelia region has been arrested on suspicion of corrupting a minor in a case that observers say might be connected to the prosecution of Stalin-era historian Yury Dmitriyev, who heads the Karelia branch of the human rights group Memorial, on similar charges.

On October 2, the Karelian branch of the Investigative Committee said that two men had been arrested on suspicion of "committing depraved acts" in relation to a minor in September.

The official statement did not detail the accusation or identify the suspects, but local media reported widely the following day that one of them was Sergei Koltyrin, the head of a regional museum in the Karelian town of Medvezhegorsk.

Koltyrin and Dmitriyev both oversaw research at the Sandarmokh mass-burial site, where several thousand victims of Stalinist terror were executed and buried in 1931-41.

Dmitriyev, who discovered and documented the site in the 1990s, was arrested in 2016 on charges of taking pornographic pictures of his foster daughter. He proclaimed his innocence and said the charges were intended to interrupt his work investigating Stalin-era crimes.

In April, a court found him innocent of the charges, but the Karelia Supreme Court upheld an appeal by prosecutors and ordered a new trial.

He was rearrested in June and is currently on trial on the more severe charge of "violent acts of a sexual nature committed against a person under 14 years of age," again referring to his adopted daughter.

Koltyrin, who has been director of the Medvezhegorsk museum since 1991, recently publicly criticized excavations being carried out around Sandarmokh by the Russian Military-Historical Society, which is headed by controversial Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky.

Koltyrin and other critics believe the new excavations, which are aimed at finding possible graves of World War II Red Army soldiers who were allegedly executed as prisoners of war by the Finnish military, are intended to revise the significance of the site and downplay dictator Josef Stalin’s crimes against his own people.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Stalin's image has been steadily rehabilitated to emphasize his role in industrializing the country and leading it to victory over Nazi Germany while downplaying the purges, forced collectivization, mass political repressions, deportations, and labor camps that characterized his decades in power.

Putin has accused Russia's critics of using the "excessive demonization" of Stalin "to show that today's Russia carries some kind of birthmarks of Stalinism."

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