A Russian court today handed an activist 20 months of custodial sentence and ordered him to pay civil damages of 100,000 rubles (approximately USD 1,500) having found him affiliated with an “undesirable organization,” Human Rights Watch said today. The abusive law underlying the charges, the prosecution and sentencing, individually and together constitute a complete travesty of justice, Human Rights Watch said.
Mikhail Iosilevich, is the first person who may serve prison time for these charges as activists convicted previously had received suspended sentences or were ordered to perform community service (mandatory labor). In 2021, Iosilevich was also the first person placed in pretrial detention on these charges.
“The authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Iosilevich and vacate the absurd convictions against him and ensure restitution of his rights and good name, as well as repeal the repressive ‘undesirables’ law,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The very fact that he had to face criminal charges is outrageous, and sending him to prison is completely unjust.”
Iosilevich is an entrepreneur from Nizhny Novgorod and a local head of the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He provided space at his café for various civic society events, including open lectures.
In early September 2020, Golos, an election monitoring watchdog, held a workshop for election monitors at Iosilevich’s café. The police raided the event. Later that month, the authorities opened a criminal case against him, claiming that the event was organized by Open Russia, a group banned in Russia as “undesirable.” Under a highly controversial Russian law, a foreign or international organization designated as “undesirable” must cease all activities in Russia and anyone deemed to have an affiliation with the group can be held criminally liable.
Providing the venue for the workshop amounted to an “attempt on the foundations of [Russia’s] constitutional order and state security,” local investigators claimed.
On October 1, the police raided Iosilevich’s apartment and the homes of a number of other activists in Nizhny Novgorod and subsequently interrogated them in connection with the criminal case on “undesirable” charges. The following day, a local journalist and civic activist, Irina Slavina (Murakhtayeva), who was also targeted by the raid and interrogations, committed suicide by setting herself on fire. She left a note blaming “the Russian Federation.”
The authorities proceeded with criminal case against Iosilevich, ignoring a public statement from Golos that it had organized the workshop and not Open Russia. The local head of Golos even attempted to sue the police.
In January 2021, the police arrested Iosilevich, claiming that he had threatened a prosecution witness in a phone call, notwithstanding that a few months earlier the witness had recanted his alleged statement against Iosilevich. The court refused to consider a defense motion to enter into evidence analysis by independent experts who examined a recording of the threats and concluded that the voice was not Iosilevich’s.
The same month, Iosilevich’s defense learned that the prosecution had added a new criminal charge, failure to notify authorities that Iosilevich had become a dual national and obtained an Israeli passport. In April 2021, the prosecution brought further criminal charges in connection with the allegations of phone threats to the prosecution witness.
Iosilevich spent over half a year in pretrial detention. He was released under a regime of bans on certain types of activities and communications and was again arrested in early May 2022 for attempting to leave Russia for Israel.
The prosecution requested a sentence of four and a half years for the charges against him.
The time Iosilevich served in pretrial detention and under a regime of restricted activities and communications awaiting trial will count towards his prison term. He will have to spend a further five months behind bars. The civil damages awarded relate to threats allegedly made against a prosecution witness.
“Iosilevich’s prosecution, verdict, and sentence is truly a travesty of justice for him, his family, and supporters,” Williamson said. “But it’s also a grim message to other Russian activists and their supporters who have been targets of ever-increasing harassment and intimidation that has reached a whole new level.”