The one that didn’t get away

President Putin’s amnesty which has seen Pussy Riot’s Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova released, as well, perhaps, as the Greenpeace 30, is by no means extended to everyone. Young activist Taisiya Osipova also has a young child, but she remains locked up with no apparent chance of release, says Marc Bennetts

When Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova emerge into the glare of the media spotlight after their expected release this month from the penal colonies where they have been serving two-year sentences, another young anti-Putin activist will remain locked up in central Russia, far away from the cameras.

Taisiya Osipova, 29, is set to see in her fourth New Year behind bars after being arrested in November 2010 on charges she and her supporters say were ‘revenge’ for her refusal to help police frame her husband, a senior activist in writer and opposition politican Eduard Limonov’s ‘Other Russia’ party.

The sentence

Osipova, a diabetic and the mother of a young daughter, was detained after police claimed to have found some four grammes of heroin at her apartment in the west Russian city of Smolensk. She spent over a year in a pre-trial detention facility before being jailed for ten years in late 2011. That ruling was widely criticised as unnecessarily harsh, including by then President Dmitry Medvedev, who called for a new probe into the charges. The authorities refused, however, to free Osipova on bail.

At her retrial in August 2012, Osipova’s claim that police had planted the drugs on her was corroborated by a witness, who passed a lie-detector test. Based on this new evidence, the judge threw out the charges stemming from the search of her apartment. However, despite acknowledging that the police had acted illegally, the court ruled to uphold two other drug-related charges. The prosecutor asked for a four-year sentence. For Osipova, who had already been in custody for almost two years at this point, freedom was suddenly looking a lot closer. 

Her optimism was misplaced.


Osipova is visited by her husband, Sergei Fomchenkov and 7-year-old daughter, Katrina at the colony where she is serving an eight-year prison sentence. Photo via Fomchenkov's facebook.

In a ruling that came just months after Putin’s presidency and sent shock waves through Russia’s opposition activists, the judge sentenced Osipova to eight years behind bars, twice the amount the prosecution had asked for. Just two years were cut from the original sentence. Osipova, sitting in a steel cage as the judge read the verdict, was clearly stunned. Limonov called the ruling ‘terrifying revenge.’ Leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov, in court that day to show his support for Osipova, said the sentence was a ‘spit in the face’ of Medvedev and his ultimately unsuccessful attempts to eradicate ‘Russia’s legal nihilism.’

As 2013 came to an end, Osipova’s supporters entertained hopes that she would be included in an amnesty for certain categories of prisoners, including mothers of young children. But while Pussy Riot’s Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina  - who both also have young children waiting at home for them - are set to benefit from this month’s amnesty, Osipova‘s case is not covered. The reason? The amnesty only covers those mothers who have been sentenced to less than five years in jail.

The judge sentenced Osipova to eight years behind bars, twice the amount the prosecution had asked for.

‘She’s being doubly punished,’ sighed Osipova’s lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina. ‘If she had been jailed for four years, as the prosecutor originally requested, she would be eligible to be included in the amnesty.’

Other prisoners covered by the amnesty include the 'Arctic 30' Greenpeace activists, whose prosecution was widely covered both in Russia and abroad. In a separate development from the amnesty, Putin also pardoned this month Mikhail Khordokovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who had been behind bars since 2003 on fraud charges that were brought after his funding of opposition parties.

‘This is a very cynical move by Putin,’ added Sidorkina. ‘He just wants to make sure that the most high-profile prisoners are out of jail before the Olympics, so as to avoid any unpleasant questions at the Games. There are plenty of people left behind in jail who shouldn’t be there.’

Putin just wants to make sure that the most high-profile prisoners are out of jail before the Olympics, so as to avoid any unpleasant questions at the Games.

The background

Osipova had first made headlines in her hometown of Smolensk in April 2003, when she strode on stage at a public meeting chaired by the city’s governor, Viktor Maslov, a former FSB chief, and slapped him in the face with a bouquet of red carnations. ‘You are getting fat at the expense of ordinary people!’ she yelled, before she was ushered out by security. Maslov had been accused by activists in Smolensk of enriching himself as governor at the expense of local infrastructure, as well as darker crimes, including involvement in a series of brutal murders. He denied the charges.

Earlier this year, I met up with Osipova’s husband, Sergei Fomchenkov, and the couple’s now seven-year-old daughter Katrina. Like many of Russia’s radical underground activists, Fomchenkov sported a buzz cut and was dressed all in black. He refused my offer to buy him and his daughter lunch. ‘It wouldn’t feel right,’ he mumbled. His daughter was a typical, bubbly seven-year-old, named after the devastating hurricane that had hit New Orleans as she tossed and turned in her mother’s stomach in the summer of 2005.


Sergei Fomchenkov at a protest calling for his wife's release. She is inelligible for the amnesty for mothers that freed Pussy Riot.  Photo via Facebook.

After the attack on Maslov, which saw Osipova handed an unexpectedly light one-year suspended sentence, the couple continued to organise and take part in protests in both Moscow and Smolensk. They soon became targets for the authorities, including ‘Centre E’ – the anti-extremism department.

‘When Taisiya was seven months pregnant, she came home after a walk to find all four gas rings on the oven had been turned on, but not lit,’ Fomchenkov said, still clearly shocked by the attempt on the lives of his wife and unborn daughter. ‘It was clear someone had done it. I mean, you might forget to turn off one ring, but all four?’

This is a conveyer belt of injustice…these people have no conscience.

‘As far as we are aware, it was an unprecedented ruling,’ Fomchenkov told me as we sat in a crowded Moscow cafe a short walk from the Kremlin. ‘Our lawyer has been unable to find another example in Russian legal history of a judge jailing someone for twice the number of years the prosecutor requested. It was obviously an order from above.’

We turned back to the details of Osipova’s arrest, Fomchenkov leaning forward to make himself heard above the chatter of the cafe. ‘They wanted to set me up, to prove that I was running drugs between Moscow and Smolensk to raise funds for ‘Other Russia’,’ he said. ‘But Taisiya wouldn’t play along. So they framed her. The witnesses the police cited were members of pro-Kremlin youth movements that had been specifically sought out by the police.

‘This is a conveyer belt of injustice,’ he went on. ‘These people have no conscience; they set up and put away women with kids younger than Katrina for eight, nine, ten years. They are all in cahoots with the real drug dealers, but, because they have to make it look as though they are fighting the trade in heroin, they bust small-time users or plant drugs on people. In my wife’s case, they simply adapted these methods for political ends. They don’t care that she is innocent. Anti-extremism agents and FSB (Federal Security Service) officers are taught not to think of us as people.’

The ‘Other Russia’ party had stayed aloof from the demonstrations that rocked Moscow in 2011/2012, enraged by what its leader, Limonov, called the ‘cowardice’ of the protest leaders and their unwillingness to seek head-on confrontation with Putin’s system. Fomchenkov, the right side of his face heavily scarred with what looked like a knife wound, was unconvinced by ‘Left Front’ leader Udaltsov’s suggestion that the ruling had been in some way a signal to society that Medvedev’s liberal stance was a thing of the past. 

‘The white-ribbon protesters like to make out there was some battle among the political elite, and that if Medvedev were still in power he would help them,’ he said, slowly shaking his head. ‘But we don’t buy this – they are all part of the same team. Medvedev’s weakness sparked the protests. If he’d been tougher, Putin might not have felt the need to return.’ 

Fighting injustice

Unlike the prosecution of Pussy Riot, which captivated Western media for months, Osipova’s jailing failed to attract anything like the same attention. Was this simply due to the photogenic Pussy Riot members making for better copy than the less glamorous Osipova? Or was it down to ‘Other Russia’ leader Limonov’s past as a nationalist, anti-Western firebrand – a stance he has since admitted was an act designed to shock and provoke? It also helped Pussy Riot, of course, that their spokesman, the ever-smiling Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband, is a fluent English speaker able to argue the group’s case on CNN and other international news channels.

Fomchenkov shrugged. ‘There have been some good reports about the case in both Russian and Western media. But no one is going to fight for us in the way they fought for Pussy Riot.’

The Pussy Riot spokesman, the ever-smiling Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband, is a fluent English speaker able to argue the group’s case on international news channels.

I was unsure of exactly how much we could discuss in front of Katrina – while she seemed to be paying no attention to our conversation, we were, after all, discussing her mother, who was likely to remain behind bars for the remainder of her childhood years. ‘It’s OK,’ said Fomchenkov. ‘She knows everything. Some of her relatives tried to make up some story at first, but there’s no point.

‘I try not to politicise her, but she said recently, “Dad, I hate the police.” If she asks what ‘Other Russia’ are about, I tell her we are fighting against injustice, and she says, “Ah, like in that cartoon I saw the other day.’’’ He smiled. Katrina cadged some cash off him and went to buy a cake.

One law for them, another for us

Under Russian law, mothers of children under the age of fourteen convicted of non-violent crimes can apply for a stay of sentence. Osipova’s application was turned down without explanation shortly after her initial conviction. The ruling compared starkly with the 2010 decision by a court in east Siberia’s Irkutsk to grant a stay of imprisonment to a young woman named Anna Shavenkova, who killed one pedestrian and crippled another for life when her vehicle went off the road. Video footage of the crash showed Shavenkova get out of her car and check it for damage, without so much as a glance in the direction of the two women who lay crumpled like rag dolls just metres from her. She did not even call an ambulance. Shavenkova was sentenced to three years behind bars, but, because she became pregnant shortly after the crash, she will not begin to serve her sentence until 2024. Lawyers suggest an appeal at a later date could see her avoid a custodial sentence altogether.

It is as depressing as it is predictable that Shavenkova is the daughter of a local influential member of the ruling ‘United Russia’ party.

‘It’s almost too obvious even to say out loud, you know?’ Fomchenkov grimaced. ‘But there’s one rule for people like us, and one rule for the elite. They will never allow my wife a stay of imprisonment.’ 

‘The Russian authorities have the mentality of wolves,’ Fomchenkov told me, before I left him and his daughter. ‘If you attack, you have to be sure to take your target down. If not, expect to be eaten alive.’

About the author

Marc Bennetts is a British writer and journalist. He lives in Moscow and is author of "Kicking the Kremlin: Russia's New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin" (to be published early in 2014).

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