A court in Moscow has sentenced 37-year-old Denis Bakholdin to three and a half years’ imprisonment for allegedly belonging to the legal Ukrainian organization Right Sector while in Ukraine. The prosecution had claimed that Bakholdin had gone to Ukraine to take part in the war in Donbas “to harm the interests of the Russian Federation”.
Bakholdin has long been a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and took part in many protests against Russia’s invasion of Crimea and undeclared war against Ukraine in Donbas. He moved to Ukraine towards the end of 2014 and had been living there when, in March 2017, he set off for Russia to visit his mother who was unwell. He was seized by Russian border guards and, two weeks later, his mother was officially informed that Bakholdin had been arrested in Russia, supposedly “while trying to illegally cross the Russian-Ukrainian border”.
He reports that he was chained in handcuffs to a radiator for 12 hours and beaten, in an attempt to extract a ‘confession’ from him. He withstood the torture then, and has since refused to answer any questions from the ‘investigator’ or to take part in a trial he views as a travesty.
Bakholdin has been imprisoned in Russia ever since then. In October 2017, the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre declared him a political prisoner.
Bakholdin was charged under Article 282.2 § 2 of Russia’s criminal code – involvement in an organization which has been banned as ‘extremist’ by a Russian court, with this pertaining to Right Sector which Bakholdin was claimed to have been a member of all the time he was in Ukraine.
Memorial HRC notes that the ‘investigators’ had been so sloppy that Bakholdin was charged with this supposed ‘offence’ from October when he entered Ukraine, although Right Sector had only been prohibited in Russia from November 2014.
The investigators’ charges, Memorial says, are based on supposition and unproven facts, including the notorious fake appeal by the then head of Right Sector Dmytro Yarosh to Dokka Umarov, a Chechen militant. The latter has been regularly cited, despite its fraudulence, to justify Russia’s demonization of Right Sector.
Although Article 282.2 envisages that mere involvement in a banned organization is considered a ‘crime’, Memorial stresses that Russia’s criminal code clearly stipulates that only publicly dangerous activities can be considered a crime.
“The investigators have not explained how the activities of Right Sector in Ukraine could be directed at “the violent change in the foundations of the constitutional order and violation of the integrity of the Russian Federation and undermining of the state’s security””.
Memorial HRC therefore concluded that Bakholdin had been deprived of his liberty without any element of a crime, and demanded his release.
The prosecution had demanded a five-year sentence for Bakholdin with a further 10-month term of restricted freedom after that, with such a restriction having made it impossible for him to return to Ukraine. They asserted that “the crime had been committed with the use of a weapon” and that this should be viewed as an aggravating circumstance.
As mentioned, the prosecution claimed that, no later than 23 October 2014 Bakholdin had set off for Ukraine to take part in the war in the east of the country “for the purpose of harming the interests of the Russian Federation” and had joined Right Sector.
Bakholdin had a memory drive on him when arrested, with this containing what appeared to be a copy of a Right Sector document stating that he had taken part in military action from 4 – 12 July 2015. Aside from this document, the ‘case’ against him was based on testimony from a ‘secret witness’. The individual is, reportedly, Denis Serous, a Ukrainian sentenced in Russia to 15 years’ imprisonment on drugs charges. Serous claimed to have seen Bakholdin in the Luhansk oblast, although the particular Right Sector battalion was deployed in the Donetsk oblast. The court also allowed his earlier testimony to be read out in court due to his apparent inability to ‘remember’ under interrogation.
This is not the first time that Russia’s Investigative Committee or FSB have used prisoners who are totally under the control of the prison staff and easily pressured to provide the ‘testimony’ demanded.
Acquittals in Russia, especially in political cases involving Ukraine, are virtually unheard of, and Judge Natalya Borisenkova from the Nagatinsky District Court in Moscow declared Bakholdin ‘guilty’. She did, however, significantly reduce the sentence from the 5 years demanded by the prosecution, refusing to find Bakholdin’s supposed use of a weapon an aggravating circumstance. She ignored the demand for an additional 10 months of restricted liberty.
Russia has stepped up its demonization and persecution of people for alleged involvement in Right Sector over the last year and a half. As well as Bakholdin, three Ukrainians – Oleksandr Shumkov; Roman Ternovsky and Mykola Dadey – have been convicted under the same article of Russia’s criminal code over entirely legal activities in Ukraine. The situation is particularly shocking in the case of Shumkov since he was abducted to Russia from Ukraine and then taken prisoner. It is typical that the same ‘investigators’ from the Investigative Committee – Sergei Gutorov and Alexander Shpakov – were involved in the politically motivated prosecutions of both Shumkov and Bakholdin.