Human rights groups commemorated on Tuesday the 10th anniversary of the imprisonment of Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and said recent electoral successes by opposition activists offer hope for the future of political prisoners in Russia.
Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil company, was arrested on Oct. 25, 2003, and later convicted of tax evasion—charges many observers viewed as politically motivated. He was an outspoken critic of corruption in the Kremlin and has since became a symbol of what activists say is President Vladimir Putin’s deliberate efforts to repress his opponents. Khodorkovsky is expected to be released next August.
The event Tuesday, titled the "Decade of Injustice," highlighted several other activists who have been imprisoned by Putin’s regime, including the late tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky, members of the female punk rock group Pussy Riot, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, and residents detained last May in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square after protesting Putin’s inauguration.
Just 1 percent of all verdicts issued by Russian courts are acquittals, compared to an average of 15 to 20 percent in Europe, according to the Institute of Modern Russia (IMR).
Pavel Khodorkovsky, the jailed businessman’s son and president of IMR, said in an interview that the recent suspension of Navalny’s jail sentence suggests the Kremlin was unsure how to handle the case. Navalny surprised many observers by garnering 27 percent of the vote in the Moscow mayoral elections last month despite receiving a five-year sentence in July.
"[Navalny’s suspension] exemplifies the fact that those 27 percent of the votes that Navalny has received in the Moscow election really count," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "They count for a lot."
"The government is always sort of trying to tread this fine line between upsetting the population’s citizens too much and causing too much of a chain reaction," he continued. "Those votes that he has received, Navalny has received, acted as a sort of protection."
The Russian constitutional court recently found a law requiring a "limitless" prohibition on seeking public office for people with criminal convictions unconstitutional, he said. The law was seen by dissidents as a tool for Putin to bar activists like Navalny from running for office.
"This decision definitely throws a curveball in there," he said.
However, he said the court only found the "limitless" portion of the law unconstitutional, meaning Russian lawmakers could still impose restrictions on those with criminal convictions. The ball is now in the Russian parliament’s court, he said.
"It’s not clear what the response from the legislators will be, but there is definitely a very important dynamic going on," he said. "Not all is lost."
David Kramer, president of Freedom House, said at the event that political prosecutions continue despite Navalny’s success. A Moscow court indefinitely sentenced one of the Bolotnaya Square protesters to forced psychiatric treatment earlier this month, a ruling that mirrored the Soviet-era practice of confining dissidents in mental institutions.
Kramer called on U.S. lawmakers to more aggressively implement the Magnitsky Act, which denies visas and freezes the assets of Kremlin officials accused of beating tax attorney Magnitsky and leaving him to die in a Russian prison after he uncovered hundreds of millions in tax fraud.
"We need to hold our leaders accountable and make sure they uphold the principles and values of democracy in the face of what Freedom House has called the worst crackdown against human rights and civil society since the Soviet Union," he said.
Although Putin remains a popular figure among segments of the Russian public largely influenced by state-controlled media, Khodorkovsky said Putin’s United Russia party continues to receive low marks in polls. Russians are frustrated with the Kremlin’s inability to respond to floods and forest fires and invest in other basic services, he said.
"Once again [Putin] as a leader of this country has a choice—either gradual reform or more repression," he said. "And so far the choice has been toward repression."