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Russian Historian, Sentenced To 13 Years In Prison, Promises To 'Keep Fighting' For Justice

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."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.