PSKOV, Russia -- September 21 was a rainy day in Pskov but a handful of locals stood in a downtown park with signs. One of them read out a jailhouse letter written by prominent local liberal activist Artyom Milushkin. Occasionally, a passerby stopped and listened for a moment before shuffling on.
It was the 100th consecutive day that Pskov residents have picketed to support Milushkin and his wife, Liya, who have been detained since January pending trial on drug charges they say are trumped up and politically motivated.
"The pickets are part of a public campaign aimed at preventing the police from acting as they are accustomed to -- without much attention from the press and the public," human rights activist Vladimir Zhilinsky, who has participated in the Milushkin pickets regularly since they started in June, told RFE/RL. "It is much more difficult for them to act that way under the cameras of journalists and [the attention] of human rights activists."
Liya Milushkina, 30, is the Pskov coordinator of the Open Russia movement, an opposition network funded from abroad by former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. She also has carried out projects with the local office of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny. Her husband, Artyom, 32, is a regular organizer and participant in protests against the government of President Vladimir Putin and the United Russia party.
The couple were arrested at their home on the night of January 16-17 on charges of large-scale drug dealing. Milushkin has been held in a remand prison since his arrest, while Liya has been held under house arrest. They and their supporters deny the allegations and believe the Milushkins are being persecuted for their political activity.
The Moscow-based human rights group Memorial has said it has not been given access to the case materials but "the facts of the case have all the significant hallmarks of fabrication and the presence of a political motivation for their prosecution."
At the time of the Milushkins' arrest, Amnesty International noted that it was part of a national crackdown on Open Russia under which the London-based rights group said the Russian authorities have "progressively suffocated and criminalized dissent."
'The Case Is Fabricated'
Activist Nikolai Nikiforov travels frequently to Pskov to participate in the pickets and also has organized demonstrations in support of the Milushkins in St. Petersburg, where he lives. He says he’s certain the case against them is a fraud.
"The case is fabricated because Artyom came out publicly against the authorities," Nikiforov told RFE/RL. "It is fabricated first of all because no one who is politically active would risk dealing drugs. And secondly because the police threatened to plant drugs on him back in November, which was reported in the press. The authorities are afraid of disobedience and are frightening people with random imprisonments."
In November 2018, Artyom Milushkin organized a sanctioned demonstration against Pskov Oblast Governor Mikhail Vedernikov. However, he was roughly seized by people in plainclothes on his way to the demonstration and held for several hours at a local police station. His brutal detention was filmed by his wife.
Activists have said for some time that planting drugs has become one of the authorities' preferred weapons in an ongoing war against political opponents, civil-society activists, inconvenient journalists, and others. Each year, more than 100,000 Russians are convicted under the drug laws, the notorious Article 228 of the Criminal Code.
The Milushkin case has echoes of the charges filed in Moscow against investigative journalist Ivan Golunov in June. His arrest on drug charges based on flimsy evidence prompted a massive public outcry. After several days of protests led by prominent journalists, the charges were dropped and several high-ranking Moscow police officials were later dismissed.
More recently, a mass public outcry against a 3 1/2 prison term handed down to actor Pavel Ustinov earlier this month for purportedly dislocating the shoulder of a National Guardsman was credited with pushing the authorities to grant him bail pending his appeal. There have been numerous acts of protest against the detentions of some 16 people in connection with a series of rallies sparked by signs of state manipulation of the September 8 Moscow City Duma elections.
"With the scandalous cases of Ivan Golunov and Pavel Ustinov we saw corporate solidarity and the real results of that solidarity," said Nikolai Kusmin, a member of the opposition Yabloko party in Pskov who has participated in the Milushkin pickets. "But the number of people who have been illegally convicted in Russia is far greater than just those two cases. And we have a dreadful shortage of broad civic solidarity."
After holding the Milushkins for eight months, the authorities finally handed the case over to the courts on August 27. Officially, they are charged with large-scale drug dealing dating back to 2011. Additionally, Milushkin is charged with organizing arson attacks on a café and an auto shop in 2018. He is also accused of selling amphetamines three times in 2019, sometime before his arrest in mid-January.
Artyom and Liya Milushkin could face up to 20 years in prison each if convicted.
According to Milushkin's lawyer, Vladimir Danilov, the only evidence in the case is the testimony of a 28-year-old confessed drug addict named Stanislav Pavlov, who was himself arrested in early January allegedly in possession of drugs. Pavlov has reportedly testified that he was given drugs by the Milushkins as payment for carrying out the arson attacks.
A local court on September 13 extended by two months the Milushkins' pretrial detention to allow lawyers to familiarize themselves with the indictment. The court allowed Liya Milushkina to make telephone calls to the couple's two young children and to meet them after school. She is allowed to leave her apartment twice a day for one hour each time.
Rights activist Vladimir Zhilinsky told RFE/RL he believes the daily pickets pushed the authorities to finally issue an indictment.
"If we don't come out with our demands, if we don't speak about ongoing injustices, then they will just happen more and more often," he said. "Publicity, attention, public dialogue -- that is the only thing that can influence the security structures now."
"Law enforcement should not be used as puppets in political games," Milushkin picketer Kirill Kozlitin said. "People shouldn't be held in detention for months and years. A person should be in pretrial jail only if there is serious evidence of guilt. If he is just swept up as a politically active citizen and for publicly expressing opinions against the authorities, well, that is just wrong."