Supreme court appeal hearing held via videoconference, September 2020.
Last week, Russia’s Supreme Court upheld the terrorism-related convictions of 19 men who are all serving prison sentences ranging from 10 to 24 years because of their alleged affiliation with Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), an Islamic organization banned in Russia since 2003, when the Supreme Court designated it a terrorist organization. But despite the charges, none of the men were found to have planned, committed, or supported any act of violence.
Although HuT does not call for violence in its organization or teachings, in Russia, affiliation with any organization banned as “terrorist” carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years.
A year after the men were arrested and charged for their alleged affiliation with HuT , they were further charged with plotting a coup d’etat for having attended gatherings, fundraising, and spreading the organization’s religious teachings.
A military court convicted the men on both counts in 2018. All but one of the defendants insisted they had no affiliation with HuT and didn’t share its ideology. The hearings were closed, and what evidence of them has emerged indicates the trial didn’t meet international fair trial standards. One of the lawyers told me that several folders of evidentiary documents, including interrogation reports, were “lost” before partially reappearing. The defendants alleged that the “found” evidence was at least partially forged, including falsified confessions and witness testimonies. The mother of one defendant stated that during the trial, a court clerk told defense lawyers that defendants who file the most motions or raise issues get the harshest sentences. And at least one accused stated in court that he was tortured to extract a confession. The trial also used a secret witness. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in another case involving HuT affiliation in Russia that using secret witnesses violated the defendants’ right to a fair trial.
Around 300 people are serving harsh prison sentences in Russia and Russia-occupied Crimea on HuT-related convictions, absent any link to violence. Russia should not be locking people up because of their beliefs, and the prosecution of those accused of acts of violence should adhere to fair trial standards. Anything less amounts to a rejection by Russia of respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law.