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A Year After His Death, Russia's 'Accidental Dissident' Still Fighting An Abusive Prison System

Rights activist Sergei Mokhnatkin died one year ago of complications from injuries sustained while he was in the Russian prison system.
Rights activist Sergei Mokhnatkin died one year ago of complications from injuries sustained while he was in the Russian prison system.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Although the protagonist died one year ago, the strange saga of Russia's so-called accidental dissident continues to play out in a courtroom in the northern city of Arkhangelsk.

On May 31 and June 1, a court heard testimony in the case of Sergei Mokhnatkin, who died in Moscow on May 28, 2020, at the age of 66 after a long illness brought on, his family says, by abuse he received while in prison in the Arkhangelsk region in 2016. That incident left him with a fractured spine.

Mokhnatkin is charged posthumously with "disrupting prison routine," but his defense attorneys say the case remains crucially important because, bit by bit, detailed information about the dark side of Russian prison life is emerging.

"For years we have been told that there is no evidence, that there are no documents to request, that surveillance video recordings have not been preserved," said Grigory Mikhov-Vaitenko, a human rights activist and bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in Arkhangelsk, who is assisting the defense team.

Grigory Mikhov-Vaitenko
Grigory Mikhov-Vaitenko

"But now we know that everything has been preserved and is in their archives and can be produced when needed. And everyone who has broken the law must be held to account while those who are innocent must have their names cleared."

"In the end, people must be held accountable," he added. "Everyone has to understand that."

In comments to the media outlet Meduza, Mokhnatkin's widow, Anna Krechetova, said that, as soon as her husband died last year, she began getting phone calls and visits from prosecutors urging her to let them drop the case against him. When one prosecutor came to her home to make his case, he made the mistake of showing her a video of Mokhnatkin in prison.

"I broke down crying," Krechetova said. "And he was shocked. It occurred to me that people in the Investigative Committee, in the prosecutor's office, and in the prisons really don't understand that they are dealing with living people. They are amazed by the most ordinary emotions."

"It is as if they don't fully understand that in this system, every day and every hour, real human fates are being crippled," she added. "Often the fates of innocent people."

After consulting with Mokhnatkin's friends and supporters, Krechetova declined to cooperate in closing the case against her husband. The trial would become the second posthumous prosecution in Russia following the 2013 conviction on tax-fraud charges of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Mokhnatkin came to national prominence when he was arrested in Moscow on December 31, 2009, at the scene of an illegal protest to defend the constitutional right to protest. Mokhnatkin said he was just passing by when he saw a woman being roughly detained by police and came to her defense. He was later convicted of assaulting a police officer in connection with the incident and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. He was 55 years old.

Back Behind Bars

During his imprisonment, he became aware of regular violations of the rights of prisoners and began speaking out against them. He launched repeated hunger strikes. He was once thrown into solitary confinement for purportedly not making his bed properly. His letters of complaint to his lawyers and rights activists were routinely confiscated and not delivered.

In April 2012, then-President Dmitry Medvedev pardoned Mokhnatkin. According to opposition activist Boris Nemtsov, who had campaigned for the pardon, Mokhnatkin was the first person in modern Russian history to be pardoned without conceding his guilt.

Mokhnatkin also did not renounce his activism. On December 31, 2013, he was again arrested at a demonstration in Moscow. He was roughly detained and after a year in the court system, he was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for purportedly assaulting a police officer.

Sergei Mokhnatkin at one of his court hearings in 2014.
Sergei Mokhnatkin at one of his court hearings in 2014.

While he was in prison, he was convicted of insulting corrections officers (adding 11 months to his sentence) and disrupting prison routines (giving him another two years). He was released in December 2018, but not before the current charge, also of disrupting prison routines, was filed against him.

While he was in custody in 2016, guards fractured his spine. According to records released during the current trial, guards again fractured his spine on September 12, 2018, when they threw him to floor while bringing him to a court appearance via videolink.

The trial in the Isakogorsk District Court in Arkhangelsk is formally open, but the judge has severely restricted attendance, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. Photography and audio recording has been banned.

On May 31, the court heard the testimony of convict Aleksandr Martynov, who told how the conflict between Mokhnatkin and authorities at prison IK-4 in the Arkhangelsk region city of Kotlas began in 2015, said defense attorney Leonid Krikun.

Lawyer Leonid Krikun (file photo)
Lawyer Leonid Krikun (file photo)

"He was already a retiree, so he was placed in a ward for prisoners with special needs," Krikun told RFE/RL. "There he met a prisoner who had had both legs amputated. He was unable to go to the dining area and no one brough him any food. He was living off whatever food the other prisoners might give him.

"Sergei voluntarily began bringing him food from the dining area. This went on for two or three months before someone decided to make an issue of it," he said.

'Imaginary Infractions'

After he was disciplined for violating the rule against removing food from the dining area, Mokhnatkin filed a complaint against the prison authorities.

"And then it began," Krikun said. "They started writing him up for imaginary infractions. They put him in solitary. When he continued complaining, his sentence was extended two times… During this conflict period, they fractured his spine."

Krikun said Martynov was an eyewitness to many of these events.

The second witness was former prisoner Andrei Krekov, who met Mokhnatkin several times in the prison hospital, Krikun said. Krekov testified that Mokhnatkin told him he had been subjected to tear gas in his prison ward at least four times. The first such occasion reportedly happened after Mokhnatkin refused his exercise period because guards gave him a cigarette but no matches.

"They forced him to the exercise area and gassed him," Krikun said, citing Krekov's testimony. "The exercise area is just a cement room with an open mesh ceiling. A few days later, they sprayed gas into his cell through the food slot. It wasn't clear why -- maybe just for fun."

Rights activist Mikhnov-Vaitenko said Mokhnatkin told him about the gas several times. He said that Mokhnatkin spent almost his entire sentence in solitary confinement.

"Apparently, they didn't want him in contact with other prisoners because they needed to cover up crimes committed by the Kotlas prison guards," he told RFE/RL.

Krikun added that it was a big victory for the defense that it managed to force the authorities to hand over Mokhnatkin's entire case file, which is a rarity for such a politically charged case.

"We read through all 10 volumes of his file, which included 53 violations for which he was punished or placed in solitary," Kirkun said. "And it was apparent that the pattern of these punishments was absolutely random. In the file, there was also a report of a psychological evaluation in which prison psychologists wrote that the proper response to protest behavior is persuasion rather than punishment."

Sparrow And Snake

The court also heard from the prison medical attendant, who testified that Mokhnatkin was brought to her on a stretcher on September 12, 2018, defense lawyer Ilya Sidorov told RFE/RL. She said that two days later, Mokhnatkin was taken to a regional hospital for an X-ray of his back. The deputy director of the hospital, Andrei Sysoyev, was not able to explain to the court why the X-ray in Mokhnatkin's file not only did not show a new fracture, but also did not show the fracture he'd been treated for since 2016, Sidorov said.

"Sysoyev managed to say that doctors did not do their duty by failing to describe all of Mokhnatkin's spinal injuries" before prosecutors were able to object," Sidorov added.

Defense attorneys asked the court to order the hospital management to explain the discrepancies, and the court is expected to rule on that request at a future hearing.

Even in death, Mokhnatkin continues to live, in the words of one social-media obituary posted the day after his death last year, "like a little sparrow stuck in the throat of a snake."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from St. Petersburg by correspondent Tatyana Voltskaya of the North.Realities Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

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