Artur Panov (left) and Maksim Smyshlyaev in the North Caucasus District Military Court. Credit: Igor Gukovsky.Since the early 2000s, the fabrication of terrorism cases is one of the main reasons for the growing numbers of political prisoners in Russia. The victims of the Russian authorities’ “anti-terrorism” campaign are usually residents of the North Caucasus, as well as Muslims from other regions, or, less often, members of leftwing or nationalist groups.
Since the events of 2014, Ukrainian citizens have been increasingly subject to suspicion of “sabotage” and “terrorism” — for some, this suspicion has ended in criminal investigations and prison sentences.
When is advice not advice?
On 14 February 2017, a trial against two alleged “terrorists”, Artur Panov and Maksim Smyshlyaev, opened in the North Caucasus District Military Court. The prosecution claimed that before prior to arrest in December 2015, Panov, an underage Ukrainian citizen, planned to organise a series of explosions in Rostov-on-Don and manufactured an explosive device with which to carry them out. Maksim Smyshlyaev, a Russian student, supposedly offered to help him, providing him with advice on the best way to plan and carry out terrorist acts.
Mediazona, an online platform focused on Russia’s justice system, covered the initial detention and investigation of Panov and Smyshlyaev in detail. Back in December 2015, we knew that the prosecution’s evidence was weak, but what we didn’t know was that the investigation had information that proved Smyshlyaev’s innocence.
In 2016, the authorities turned the dubious case against Panov, 17, and Smyshlyaev, 33, into justification for harassing left-wing activists and journalists across southern Russia. In August 2016, Dmitry Remizov, a journalist for Rosbalt, was questioned by members of Russia’s Anti-Extremism Center in connection with this investigation — Remizov was beaten, harassed and threatened with the possibility of having his details leaked to a Neo-Nazi group. Likewise, Darya Polyudova, a member of Rot Front who received a two-year sentence in December 2015 on separatism charges, was interrogated as a witness in this case. Panov had connected to Russian social media users with leftwing views, openly inviting them to help prepare terrorist attacks. This gave the authorities the opportunity to call anyone who had had any contact with Panov as a witness.
In December 2015, Darya Polyudova was sentenced to two years in a Krasnodar court for "inciting extremism and separatism". Source: personal page on VKontakte.From the moment of Maksim Smyshlyaev’s arrest on 22 April 2016, the investigation worked on the principle that he, “as a political and ideological proponent of communist ideas and an opponent of the current Russian government”, should be considered a leftwing extremist. The fact that Smyshlyaev entered into correspondence with Panov thus became an offence under Article 205 of Russia’s Criminal Code (“Aiding terrorist cctivity”), while Panov, a teenager acting alone, became the de facto “leader of a terrorist cell”.
RAF, ISIS and other enemies of Russia
The Russian state keeps a register of organisations declared to be terrorist or extremist by courts at one level or another, and membership of any of these groups is by definition a crime. The list is controversial and, in a number of cases, is used to prosecute members of organisations that have been banned without proper cause.
There are also strange cases like that of Andriy Kolomiyets, a participant of EuroMaidan charged with, among other things, being a member of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a nationalist paramilitary group that dissolved itself in 1954 (and was declared extremist in 2014). But even so, the news that a Ukrainian teenager was planning to carry out terrorist acts in the Rostov region in the name of the German terrorist Red Army Fraction (RAF) was something of a shock.
Artur Panov. Image courtesy of author. Unlike the UPA, to which Kolomiyets supposedly belonged, the Baader-Meinhof Gang was never seen as a threat in Russia. The group never carried out any actions in post-Soviet states and was disbanded in 1998. It was probably the Baader-Meinhofs’ cult status among far-left political groups that led Panov to claim he was carrying on their work.
Russia’s security services have been unable to establish Panov’s exact political position. Having described himself as a successor to the German radical left, Panov told the police during interrogations that he was prepared to confess to carrying out his planned terrorist actions in the name of ISIS. He also styled himself a Ukrainian nationalist, and on top of all this, Panov’s “New RAF generation” posts on Blogspot contained elements of anti-Semitism. But the apotheosis of Panov’s omnivorous ideology was his claim that the “Red Army Fraction was prepared to cooperate with ISIS”, which led to the crime of public support for terrorism being added to the charge against him at his trial which has just opened in Rostov (Russian link).
The police have not been able to identify any of the Ukrainian “accomplices” that Panov mentioned during questioning, and nor have they managed to confirm the numerous improbable details in his statements
The police have not been able to identify any of the Ukrainian “accomplices” that Panov mentioned during questioning, and nor have they managed to confirm the numerous improbable details in his statements. He insisted, for example, that he had been abducted from the so-called Luhansk Peoples’ Republic (LNR), although all the available evidence refutes this. In a joint interrogation with Smyshlyaev, he also stated that he had been asked by a secret pro-Ukrainian group, whose name he can’t remember, to gather information about opposition tendencies among the Russian public and post them to an address ending in “<…>@usaid.org”.
Journalists writing about Panov and trying to talk to his defence team have said that he claimed to have been receiving letters from time to time, in which his anonymous “friends” attempted to prove that he couldn’t be a terrorist. These messages also ridiculed the FSB and the idea of a terrorist plot, but at the same time cast doubt on Panov’s psychological state. It’s unclear who sent these letters, but the style in which they were written was incredibly similar to that of Panov’s own blogs and statements.
Image of "Artur Romberg", Panov's suspected user profile on VKontakte. Via Mediazona. Panov’s obviously strange behaviour, in contrast to Smyshlyaev’s clear and consistent testimony, should, one would have thought, have led the police to admit their mistake when the suspects first met in custody. The fact that Panov was diagnosed with an “incipient mixed personality disorder” during pre-trial detention should also have made them sceptical of his testimony. But this didn’t happen.
Instead, Russia’s Investigative Committee, realising the weaknesses in their evidence base, resorted to “the queen of evidence” — confession — not by Smyshlyaev, who was still protesting his innocence at the time, but by Panov, previously convicted of making a false statement about a terrorist act.
The result of this work is the record of Panov’s interrogations, in which he confirms the accuracy of the detective’s leading questions. According to these documents, Panov appears incapable of describing the composition of his explosive device without prompting, how it was made, whether he filled it with projectiles and whether he planned to plant it somewhere or was ready to blow himself up with it, and so on. The police had decided to use this line of questioning despite the fact that asking leading questions is explicitly prohibited under Russian law.
A presumption of guilt
Memorial human rights organisation has recognised Smyshlyaev as a political prisoner on the grounds that there is no evidence of his guilt. Life goes on, and today we can definitely claim that the detectives have irrefutable proof of Smyshlyaev’s innocence — we only have to look at the official documents of his case.
According to the investigators’ version of the facts, Smyshlyaev’s crime was to “deliberately continue to offer help, in the form of advice and information” to Panov, while knowing that Panov was planning a terrorist act. He also supposedly advised Panov not to carry out an attack in a supermarket or other public place, and to instead attack some government building, preferably at night. Smyshlyaev also supposedly gave Panov more general advice that would lower the chance of his being found out: this included a suggestion that he not write about terrorism on his social media page.
Today we can definitely claim that the detectives have irrefutable proof of Smyshlyaev’s innocence — we only have to look at the official documents of his case
An analysis of the prosecution conclusion that the Investigative Committee took to court shows that, in fact, they have a considerable amount of evidence, but all of it insubstantial. There are no witnesses, apart from Artur Panov, who can testify to Smyshlyaev’s terrorist sympathies. All the material evidence, including the components of the homemade explosive device, point to Panov and no one else, and the correspondence between the two men makes it clear that Smyshlyaev was opposed to terrorism on principle.
Maksim Smyshlyaev in court. Image courtesy of the author.
But the most important proof of Smyshlyaev’s innocence was his correspondence with Nikita Yechkov, a friend with whom he discussed issues around leftist movements and communist ideology online.
Yechkov contacted Smyshlyaev’s lawyer off his own bat after realising that he was the same user who had asked for advice on how to talk to an underage supporter of terrorist ideology.
In their correspondence, Smyshlyaev had mentioned to Yechkov that he had been contacted by a young man who “was planning a terrorist action in Rostov, and I explained to him that there was no point – but what do you advise? His ideas were more anarchist than anything else. I tried to dissuade him, and I might meet up with him before he acts. He’s radically minded, he evidently has nothing to lose. What do you think - what arguments might make sense to him? I also told him that if the media got hold of anything about leftwing terrorists, they’d be down on us all like a tonne of bricks, unless of course they decide to pin a hooliganism rap on him.” This message shows that when Smyshlyaev suggested an attack on a government building rather than a supermarket, he wasn’t trying to increase the effectiveness of Panov’s terrorist activity. On the contrary, he was trying to stop it.
Summing up this correspondence and the fact that the prosecution used it as proof of Smyshlyaev’s guilt, we can now come up with a new definition of terrorism — here, it’s the desire to dissuade a terrorist from carrying out any terrorism.
Yarovaya’s Law is too liberal
One aspect of Smyshlyaev’s case that was somehow ignored by the police was the fact that his behaviour did, indeed, show similarities with one article of Russia’s Criminal Code. When Smyshlyaev was arrested in April 2016, this article was still at its draft stage and formed part of the infamous “Yarovaya Law”, which makes it a crime to not notify the authorities of “reliable” information about planned terrorist attacks, armed uprisings, hijacking and several other crimes.
What might theoretically happen to Smyshlyaev if he is found guilty, not of his nonexistent aiding and abetting preparations for a terrorist act, but of attempting to dissuade a putative terrorist on his own, without notifying the authorities?
If Maksim Smyshlyaev had come to the security services’ attention after the Yarovaya Law had come into force, he too would probably have got off with a fine or community service
In January-February of this year, Rostov’s regional press and TV carried stories about the first criminal cases to be brought under the new ‘failure to notify” law. Judging from these few cases, it is being used against Muslims who have associated with extremists going off to fight in Syria and who had known about their plans. The only person as yet to be convicted under the law, Ulukbek Gafurov, a resident of Astrakhan, was fined 70,000 roubles (about £900).
If Maksim Smyshlyaev had come to the security services’ attention after the Yarovaya Law had come into force, he too would probably have got off with a fine or community service. But Smyshlyaev was unlucky: he was arrested at a time when failing to inform the state of the intentions of a psychologically unbalanced teenager wasn’t a crime. They had to find a different charge. This innocent man is now facing a possible 10-20 year sentence in a high security prison camp with no right to parole until he has served three quarters of his sentence. The war on terrorism can be as unpredictable as that.