A young activist faces trial in Russia for membership in a “red anarchist skinhead” group he claims does not exist.by Alexander Tretyakov 10 February 2012
MOSCOW | Artyom Bystrov, a young man from Nizhny Novgorod, was working the night shift as a security guard in an office building last April when police stormed in, handcuffed him, and threw him into a police van.
Bystrov, 24, says he is an anti-fascist, or “antifa.” He says he was initially shocked by the arrest but had anticipated something similar. He had been arrested several times before over his participation in demonstrations and marches against right-wing extremist groups.
He claims police threatened him and promised to release him if he gave false evidence against fellow anti-fascists arrested at the same time.
He says he was offered no explanation for and shown no documents authorizing his detention. “I was simply told that they didn’t care which of us went to prison – me or my associates – so it was in my own interest to testify against them. If I failed to do that I could easily be made a scapegoat. It was plain and simple,” he said.
Bystrov was charged with hooliganism, membership in an extremist group, and intentional infliction of bodily harm and assault based on hatred and enmity against a social group. Hearings in the case are set to begin 10 March.
Bystrov’s case has attracted the attention of human rights defenders, who say it is a clear instance of the justice system being used as a weapon against an innocent social activist.
Bystrov and the others were accused of taking part in a street fight outside a club in Nizhny Novgorod on the night of 31 October 2010, his lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, said.
“The club has a surveillance camera that must have recorded what was happening, and it could prove my innocence, because I was not there,” Bystrov said. Footage from the night in question has gone missing, he said.
All but one of the other suspects were later released. One remains under house arrest.
Bystrov is also accused of taking part in two assaults.
Nizhny Novgorod is Russia’s fifth-largest city, and ethnically diverse, yet activists and groups such as the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights speak of a growing climate of xenophobia, accompanied by demonstrations, and frequent beatings targeting members of ethnic minorities.
“Both the city police and private security typically turn a blind eye to the aggression of the nationalists. If, for instance, a group of skinheads or even neo-fascists attacks an immigrant or a punk musician in the street or in a club, then the guards pretend not to notice,” said Olga Sadovskaya, deputy director of the Russian Committee Against the Use of Torture, headquartered in Nizhny Novgorod.
Bystrov began taking part in the growing counter-movement in 2008. He also works with Food Not Bombs, a network of volunteers who serve vegetarian meals to the homeless.
When Bystrov was detained, he recalled, the police officers did not attempt to hide their prejudice and nationalist views.
One of the police officers “claimed that the anti-fascists were sponsored by the Jewish mafia who wanted to destroy the Russian nation. And then he accused me of betraying my own nation,” Bystrov said.
Police say they found Bystrov’s membership card for an organization called Antifa-RASH in his apartment. Bystrov denies any knowledge of the group.
“I was staring in disbelief at the photograph of my membership card – which was of course a fake – as the investigator was reading the organization’s charter to me,” he said.
Dinze said the material on Antifa-RASH in the police file was copied from Russian Wikipedia, including grammatical errors.
“Concocting evidence is so easy in Russia,” Nizhny Novgorod anti-fascist activist Oleg Matryonin said. “The charter of this mythical Antifa-RASH organization has nothing in common with genuine anti-fascist ideology.”
RASH, an acronym for Red and Anarchist Skinheads, is not an organized movement but a subculture professing left-wing, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist views, according to a post about Bystrov’s case on the Russian website Noviy smysl.
Bystrov also says he was tortured by members of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Combating Extremism.
“The officers used a torture method known as ‘the envelope.’ This is when they cuff your hands behind your back, attach a rope to them and throw it over a projection in the room, to haul the victim into the air,” Dinze said. “Artyom was tortured by three officers who tried to persuade him to give false evidence against other anti-fascists.”
Bystrov and Dinze say they reported the abuse to police but were told there was not enough evidence to justify an investigation of the claim.
Sadovskaya says police in Russia feel protected by impunity.
“These guys know bloody well that they are likely to stay unpunished,” she said. “The center that dealt with Bystrov is no different from others. Torture is the norm in Russia.”
Sadovskaya said she knew of only a handful of times when officers were tried and punished for using torture. “The police behave as if they have been given carte blanche to use whatever methods they find appropriate,” she said.
Investigators meanwhile were boasting of their success in detaining Bystrov, a member of “the extremist group Antifa-RASH,” according to a news release from the extremist crime department published in June on the website of the Nizhny Novgorod police. The extremist “was engaged in organizing attacks on residents of Nizhny Novgorod, including soccer fans, rappers, and members of ethnic minorities. The extremist was driven by political, social, and ethnic hatred,” the release stated.
An analysis of the case published in January by the extremist monitoring group SOVA said investigators tried to link Bystrov and several other activists arrested at the same time with an “extremist community” that they say arose in Nizhny Novgorod in 2007. The group’s objectives were to “prepare and commit extremist crimes,” “promote the ideas of violent political change as a manifestation of fascism,” and “establish anarchy” and the use of “violence motivated by ideological hatred and hostility,” the SOVA article said.
If convicted, Bystrov faces two to five years in prison. His case has attracted attention from human rights advocates and leftist groups. In June, several dozen protesters demonstrated in his support in Nizhny Novgorod, and activists have set up a Facebook page to raise the profile of the case.