Masha Gessen, excerpts:
Two political prisoners are in danger of dying—two people may be dying right now—in Russian prisons. Theirs are two very different stories. One of the dying is a grown man who has made a series of conscious, well-articulated choices. The other is a teen-age girl who seems confused by her predicament. In both cases, the inmates’ families are issuing a cry of despair, and a broad community of supporters is watching the chronicle of deaths foretold in silent horror. In both cases, the machine of state terror seems intent on crushing a human life in order to demonstrate its power over the meek and the honorable.
The more widely known of the two cases is that of Oleg Sentsov, a forty-two-year-old Ukrainian writer and film director. He was arrested in Russian-occupied Crimea in May, 2014, and sentenced to twenty years in a high-security facility on trumped-up charges of terrorism. The Russian human-rights organization Memorial considers Sentsov to be a political prisoner.
(…) The World Cup came and went, and Sentsov’s hunger strike continued. Last week, his cousin, who visited him in prison, said that he was near death. Over the weekend, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, asked Vladimir Putin in a phone call to save Sentsov. Hours later, a rumor spread through Russian social networks: Sentsov, barely hanging to life, had been put on a plane to Ukraine. The rumor was false.
Gratuitous and downright absurd prosecutions have proliferated over the years, but, this year, one case has stood out. Ten young people, six of whom are in custody and four under house arrest, are facing charges of organizing an extremist organization in connection with an organization called New Grandeur, which, it appears, was created by Russian law enforcement for the sole purpose of entrapment. Before the security services got involved, New Grandeur was a raggedy collection of strangers of different ages who grumbled about the authorities in a Telegram chat. Then at least three people infiltrated the chat and turned it into an offline group with a leader and officers. The group had several meetings over the course of four months; by March, it was discussing disbanding. But then its participants were arrested and charged with plotting a violent overthrow of the government.
One of the accused, Anna Pavlikova, was seventeen years old when she was arrested, in March. According to her family, she suffers from a congenital heart defect and, separately, has been hospitalized for what appears to have been extreme anxiety. In pre-trial detention, Pavlikova has been continuously hospitalized. Her family members have said she has become disoriented and forgetful, and they fear she is showing symptoms of multiple sclerosis, which afflicts her mother. (Multiple sclerosis can run in families.)
Pavlikova’s defense has repeatedly tried, and failed, to get the now eighteen-year-old released pending trial. During the teen-ager’s most recent hearing, last week, her defense attorney broke down and said, “I am tired of speaking legalese. I’m going to speak as a person: this child is dying!” The court extended the term of Pavlikova’s arrest to September 13th.
Their stories are very different, but they may prove to be equally powerless beneath the machine of state terror.
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