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Why Russian mathematician Azat Miftakhov is on trial

In Russia, the authorities are increasingly taking aim at left-wing activists - using any means necessary. The charges against Miftakhov, his lawyers say, stem from his anarchist beliefs and support for political prisoners.

Alexandr Litoy
1 April 2020
"Interest in science is stronger than repression". Solitary picket in support of Azat Miftakhov outside Moscow State University
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Source: FreeAzat / Facebook

Azat Miftakhov, a mathematics student and anarchist living in Moscow, is currently preparing to be tried on hooliganism charges. He’s been charged in relation to an incident involving a broken window at a district office of United Russia, the country’s ruling party. According to investigators, Miftakhov’s “criminal activity” also included participation in protests in support of Russian political prisoners.

Miftakhov, 27, was detained in early February 2019 - he was initially supposed to face charges relating to explosive material found in the Moscow satellite town of Balashikha. Miftakhov stated that the men who detained him tried to beat a confession out of him. Human rights activists recorded marks on his body left by an electric screwdriver.

In the end, Azat was not charged in relation to the Balashikha explosives, but he was jailed for another case: a year previously, unknown persons broke a window in the Khovrino district office of United Russia, before throwing a flare inside. These actions were filmed, and the video found its way to anarchist pages on Russia’s social networks.

That Miftakhov was present during the Khovrino events has been “confirmed” by a secret witness, according to investigators. This witness says that Azat was wearing a mask, but was identifiable by his “expressive eyebrows”. The investigators claim that Miftakhov “observed the situation [...] near the office of United Russia in order to warn accomplices of possible danger.”

Azt Miftakhov was known in Moscow’s anarchist scene, and does not deny his views. In June 2018 and January 2019, Miftakhov received threats and demands to stop his public activities — the threats were published in anonymous telegram channels allegedly connected with Russia’s law enforcement agencies.

“Azat is always very responsible about what he undertakes,” Matvey, an anarchist who spoke on condition of anonymity, says. “A person with diverse knowledge and interests. Never late. When he was free, he helped other political prisoners.”

Miftakhov’s lawyer Svetlana Sidorkina says that her client is solving mathematical problems while in detention, and corresponds with other mathematicians.

From vandalism to hooliganism

In the case of the broken window in Khovrino, there are other defendants.

Andrey Eikin, who allegedly recorded what happened on video, has admitted his guilt. (During the preparation of this text, it was not possible to contact him.) Elena Gorban, who, according to investigators, broke the window, says that she was present during the Khovrino events, but does not admit her guilt in the terms used by the investigators. Another defendant, Alexey Kobaidze, has since left Russia - investigators claim that he threw a flare through the broken window. Kobaidze also could not be contacted by OVD-Info.

KE5_Vp2mK18.jpg
Source: VKontakte / Free Azat

Of all the defendants of Khovrino case, only Azat Miftakhov is currently in detention. According to Svetlana Sidorkina, this is due to the fact that at the time of detention her client had an outstanding conviction.

Moreover, it was precisely when Miftakhov became a defendant in the Khovrino affair that the whole case was changed from “vandalism” to “hooliganism”. The Russian criminal charge of “hooliganism” allows the police to keep suspects in investigative detention.

Svyatoslav Rechkalov and Evgenia Sergeyeva, anarchists who were detained in the course of the Khovrino investigation, have left Russia.

"Colour revolution in Moscow"

“During the search at Miftakhov’s home, the police confiscated a broken tablet,” Sidorkina tells me. “It was hacked into and correspondence related to the [anarchist group] ‘People’s Self-Defense’ was found. This is how they made up an artificial secret witness, who was given the name ‘Karaulny’ [Karaulny means sentry or watchman in Russian]. Funny though, but true. ‘Karaulny’ claims that he has been in People’s Self-Defense since 2015, and Miftakhov was also in it. He adds that Miftakhov took part in pickets, as well as engaged in airsoft and martial arts. Apparently, this testimony was enough to justify the motivation for setting fire to the United Russia office.”

At the time of publication, OVD-Info had not received a comment from “People’s Self-Defense”. A list of dozens of internet pseudonyms and surnames of people who, according to security officials, are involved in “People’s Self-Defense”, is also attached to the criminal case.

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Azat Miftakhov’s Detention / Screenshot from REN TV Channel

“Nobody has recognised ‘People’s Self-Defense’ as an extremist organisation,” Sidorkina remarks. But this has not impeded investigators in the case.

OVD-Info possesses a document recently issued by an investigator in the case, which states:

“The activity of the ‘People’s Self-Defense’ movement consisted in propagating anarchist ideology, namely, in calling for a struggle against the authorities, including by force. Being a member of this criminal group, Miftakhov propagandised the denial of political power, studied political literature, and took part in illegal extremist actions organised by ‘People’s Self-Defense’, pickets in support of ‘political prisoners’, anarchists and anti-fascists etc., reports of which actions appeared on ‘People’s Self-Defense’ media.”

Similar wording about “People’s Self-Defense” is found in the decision to charge Elena Gorban. It says that “People’s Self-Defense” “uses acts of vandalism and hooliganism, attacks on administrative buildings and government agencies in order to destabilise the political situation in Russia, as well as instigate an unconstitutional change of government by organising mass riots in Moscow under the ‘colour revolutions’ scheme.”

A bit of hashish and a video

One of the possible conditions for criminal charges under “Hooliganism” in Russia is the presence of objects which are used as weapons.

“Forensic chemists did not acknowledge the smoke bomb as a weapon,” says Elena Gorban, who is a subject of the investigation. “But they added an expert interview to the case files. Who stated some rubbish: ‘who knows what might be in those smoke bombs, maybe it was poisonous, it depends on its manufacturer, and we do not know who it was.’”

Sidorkina highlights that the investigation decided that the flare could have presented a fire hazard.

Gorban says that the main evidence that the case investigators have regarding her and Eikin is their own confessions made at the early stages of the investigation, and also correspondence between the activists that security officers were able to extract. The participants of the Khovrino events were found through surveillance cameras, but this is not included in the case as evidence.

“During the trial, we are going to try classifying our actions under less serious charges by denying the use of any weapons, political hatred and, on the whole, ‘flagrant public order disturbance,’” Gorban says. “This happened on an empty street at night.”

Miftakhov denies that he was present during the Khovrino events.

Gorban also notes that there is a separate criminal case into “encouragement of extremist activity” in the Khovrino case, concerning the videos which were published. Russia’s Centre for Combating Extremism is providing operation support. No charges have been made in relation to extremism.

Anarchist Sviatoslav Rechkalov was detained on suspicion that he ran the social media pages for “People’s Self-Defense” and published the videos from Khovrino. Rechkalov told OVD-Info that he was beaten during detention. Rechkalov also mentioned that the Khovrino video did not originate from the “People’s Self-Defense” group, which merely reposted the video.

Svetlana Sidorkina says that a separate investigation was also opened in connection with hashish which was found during the search of Miftakhov’s premises.

“It did not weigh much. Evidently, they miscalculated when they planted it.” This is how Sidorkina explains why there were no drug charges made against Miftakhov.

The involved parties are now familiarising themselves with the Khovrino case files. It should soon be referred to the Prosecutor’s Office. Sidorkina claims that for many months, the main investigative actions have consisted of two forensic analyses - one on the flare thrown into the office’s broken window, another on Miftakhov’s old tablet.

“I am amazed that a man has already spent more than a year in detention for a broken window,” Sidorkina says, “and this is presented as an effective investigation!”

This article was originally published at OVD-Info, which monitors politically motivated prosecutions in Russia.

Translated by Anna Schetnikova, Vasilii Kalashnikov, Evgenia Sheina.

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