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Russian historian Yury Dmitriyev speaks to journalists outside a courtroom in the city of Petrozavodsk in April 2018, where he was initially acquitted on the same charges.

MOSCOW -- When a Russian court sentenced gulag historian Yury Dmitriyev to 3 1/2 years in prison on child sexual-abuse charges in July, many supporters who have waged a campaign for his exoneration considered it something of a victory.

Dmitriyev had spent much of the past four years behind bars, languishing in pretrial detention following his arrest in December 2016 on suspicion of producing child pornography and committing lewd acts with his adopted daughter, charges he has vehemently denied from the outset.

Few expected him to be spared a lengthy prison term, amid a dogged state TV propaganda campaign and a record of politicized trials since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. And in a justice system in which acquittals are extremely rare, the sentence handed down this summer was seen as proof that he was innocent as claimed.

"The prosecution had no evidence that Dmitriyev was guilty of any abusive sexual acts toward his adoptive daughter," Irina Flige, a fellow researcher on the Soviet prison-camp system and a friend of Dmitriyev's, told RFE/RL after the ruling.

Yury Dmitriyev is escorted by police after a hearing in Petrozavodsk on July 22.
Yury Dmitriyev is escorted by police after a hearing in Petrozavodsk on July 22.

But both sides appealed -- the prosecution seeking a harsher punishment and the defense seeking an acquittal -- and the Supreme Court of the Karelia region slapped another 9 1/2 years onto Dmitriyev's sentence in a ruling on September 29 -- weeks before the 64-year-old researcher was due to be released because of time served.

Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, called the new ruling "atrocious." "The circumstances surrounding the case strongly indicate that the charges against Dmitriyev were spurious and politically motivated," she wrote.

For some of Dmitriyev's supporters, the harsh new sentence came as a bad blow but as no surprise, merely restoring the punitive status quo they have grown used to.

"I expected it," Anatoly Razumov, a close friend of Dmitriyev's and a fellow historian who has collaborated with him on studies of Stalin-era repression, told RFE/RL.

Razumov and other supporters of Dmitriyev have for years argued that a harsh sentence was predetermined and perhaps even ordered from officials in Moscow. "These people have huge financial resources, and huge propaganda resources. And they won’t back down," he said.

Three days before Dmitriyev's latest hearing in Petrozavodsk, Karelia's capital, state news channel Rossia-24 aired censored, nude photographs of the adopted daughter whom prosecutors allege he abused. Dmitriyev argues that he was using the photographs to document the child's development for social workers, whom he had fought in court to win adoptive rights.

The report on the nationwide state channel -- which elicited immediate condemnation from Dmitriyev's supporters -- slammed what it called the defense team's "absurd justifications" and portrayed the amateur historian as a depraved agent of Western powers.

The report was later scrubbed from Rossia-24's website, only to be reposted after journalists flagged its disappearance. But the narrative it pushed is one that Russian officials have advanced from the outset of Dmitriyev's protracted prosecution, which continued despite his acquittal in April 2018 -- overturned two months later by the same court that extended his sentence on September 29.

"This decision defies reason," Dmitriyev's longtime lawyer, Viktor Anufriyev, who could not attend the appeal hearing because he was under isolation with COVID symptoms, said of the latest ruling in an interview with the news outlet MBKh Media. "I doubt anything like it has happened in Russia's legal history."

In jail, Dmitriyev has received regular letters from supporters and relatives, many of whom have shared his upbeat and sometimes ironic responses on Facebook and other social-media platforms. He appears to be unbroken: less than an hour after his prison term was extended, he put pen to paper to make clear his resolve to prove his innocence.

"Oh well. We'll keep fighting," he wrote in a letter that was published by MBKh Media, in which he says he had just left the court. "God tests those he loves."

Dmitriyev's defense team says it will launch its own appeal, which will likely be examined at a higher court in St. Petersburg.

"I'm convinced that this ordeal will end with his release within the year," Razumov said. "And we will ultimately obtain the acquittal he deserves."

On September 29, a court in Maladzechna sentenced Paval Pyaskou (left) and Uladzislau Yeustsihneyeu (right) to imprisonment in a maximum-security penal colony.

MINSK -- When a small group of Belarusians took to the streets in late spring during an opposition solidarity rally, they got an early taste of the police violence that would follow the country's contentious August election.

For the experience, Uladzislau Yeustsihneyeu and Paval Pyaskou, will spend the next three years in a maximum-security prison after being found guilty on September 29 of using force while resisting police after the two men tried to prevent the detention of a participant in the authorized rally.

The fracas that broke out on June 19 in the small city of Maladzechna, 70 kilometers northwest of Minsk, was a precursor to the major crackdown against peaceful protests across the country after Alyaksandr Lukashenka was handed a new term in a deeply disputed presidential election less than two months later.

As Pyaskou's wife, Veranika, sees it, her 31-year-old husband was sent away for causing a few scratches, while police and other security forces have yet to face justice for the beatings, abuse, and alleged torture they have inflicted on peaceful demonstrators.

"It is strange that for a scratch on the knee they give you three years in prison," she told RFE/RL's Belarus Service following the sentencing. "They beat people up, rape them, and that's all good. But for a scratch, three years."

Shattered Peace

Yeustsihneyeu, 25, and Pyaskou, the father of a 6-year-old child, were both in the center of Maladzechna on June 19, where a "chain of solidarity" was to be held in support of the opposition to Lukashenka. It was the last day for potential presidential candidates to collect signatures needed to get on the August 9 ballot.

The two men, who did not know each other, were standing with several dozen rally participants when police began to violently detain a protester.

Yeustsihneyeu and Pyaskou were soon in the middle of it as a chaotic scene unfolded, with civilians jumping into the fray as police -- one brandishing a pistol -- fought them off and drove off with their detainee.

The entire episode was captured in a viral video that made waves in Belarus.

When the dust settled, both Yeustsihneyeu and Pyaskou were facing up to five years in prison for forcefully resisting police, two of whom the court would find had received scratches to their knees and elbows and had sustained damage to their uniforms.

Yustsihneyeu, who said he lived in the city center and was only observing what was going on, pleaded guilty for his role in the incident. He testified that he had run to the aid of a woman he thought was being hurt and had grabbed an officer by the arm.

"You know, when a woman screamed, I didn't know, I just ran there," he told prosecutors," according to the Belarusian rights group Vyasnya.

He would be sentenced to three years in prison.

Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusians take to the streets to demand the resignation of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and call for new elections after official results from the August 9 presidential poll gave Lukashenka a landslide victory.

Pyaskou acknowledged being at the scene, but refused to admit to harming a police officer. He testified that he heard shouts of, "Save me. Help!" and saw a riot policeman pushing a man amid a confusing scene.

"I tried to grab the riot policeman by the arm or shoulder," he told prosecutors, according to Vyasnya. "I then succeeded. I took him by his uniform and pulled."

Pyaskou said he didn't know why he acted, other than that "I wanted to save a man. It was necessary to stop the conflict." The officer in question, he said in court on September 18, was probably injured before he ran up to him.

Pyaskou, who had been under house arrest, was jailed following his testimony. He eventually received a sentence of three years and three months in prison.

Political Prisoners

Veranika Pyaskou said there was no way her husband could have injured the officer.

"The officer was already lying on the ground, and he had only a slightly scratched knee and torn trousers," she told RFE/RL. "But when Paval approached to pick him up and resolve the conflict, the officer fell down as a result of the actions of another man, who is now wanted."

Vyasnya, which has documented thousands of detentions and cases of police abuse against demonstrators in the seven weeks since Belarus's election, responded quickly to the sentencing.

On September 30, the rights watchdog issued a lengthy statement in which it said Yeustsihneyeu and Pyaskou had been denied a fair trial, that their sentences were disproportionate to the offense, and that their lives would be in danger in prison.

"We declare that Paval Pyaskou and Uladzislau Yeustsihneyeu are recognized as political prisoners," Vyasna wrote, demanding their immediate release from custody and a review of the court's decision.

Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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