Last week, as the Congress considered the new bill to rachet up sanctions in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, a mid-level manager named Alexei Pichugin filed his second plea for clemency with President Vladimir Putin. Within days, Russian authorities denied his petition, no reason given.
Imprisoned since 2003, largely forgotten by the Western press despite a renaissance in reporting on Russia, Pichugin is the longest serving political prisoner in Russia and the sole remaining Yukos employee in Russian prison. At a time when Putin’s machinations and motives are the subject of intense interest, Pichugin’s plight offers a cautionary tale of Russia’s autocracy that is ignored at our peril.
A publicly traded oil and gas production company founded in 1993, Yukos symbolized the promise of Russia in the capital markets after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The company adopted Western technologies, transparent accounting practices and profited enormously from bullish international investment. This ended abruptly when, in 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Yukos’ leader and an open critic of Vladimir Putin, was arrested in what international observers criticized as a politically motivated prosecution, then convicted on charges of tax fraud and embezzlement.
Over the next several years, in what multiple international tribunals have found to have been an illegal expropriation, Russian authorities sold off Yukos piece by piece to state-owned enterprises. By the time Khodorkovsky was pardoned by Putin in 2013, Yukos’ core assets had become a key part of Rosneft, the Russian state oil company that is now the world’s largest publicly traded oil producer.
With Yukos absorbed and its executives released to live in exile, Pichugin alone remains in prison. Formerly one of several security managers at Yukos, he was detained in 2003 on trumped up allegations of murder and attempted murder. Pressured to give evidence against his Yukos employers, Pichugin refused.
Russian courts nevertheless found Pichugin guilty in two trials, one conducted secretly in a closed courtroom and both widely recognized as politically motivated. Riddled with violations of fundamental rights and unsubstantiated allegations, Pichugin’s trials included the dismissal of a jury that appeared receptive to the defense, arbitrary refusal to hear defense evidence, and dismissal by the court of the recantations critical prosecution witnesses who testified that they had implicated Pichugin only after being given his name by investigators. Nonetheless, Pichugin was sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated in the notorious Black Dolphin prison, where he remains today.
Like the other Yukos cases, the case against Pichugin is entirely unfounded. Upon review of the charges and evidence, eight countries have refused to extradite Yukos’ leaders or comply with requests for legal assistance in the cases, finding the charges unsubstantiated and politically motivated. The Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe found that the cases violate the rule of law and specially acknowledged Pichugin’s plight. On appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, the Court ruled that Pichugin’s fair trial rights had been violated in both his trials and held a new trial to be the proper remedy.
Russia’s response? To change existing laws to allow the judiciary to ignore the decisions of the European Court.
Fourteen years after his arrest, Pichugin is the only Yukos employee who remains in prison. He remains the longest serving Russian political prisoner -- a forgotten pawn in the Yukos chess match. As America tightens sanctions on Putin’s Russia, it is incumbent on President Trump, Secretary of State Tillerson and Congress to remember Alexei Pichugin, a victim of the arbitrariness and excessive power of Russia’s executive, and to demand that President Putin grant his request for clemency.
Juliet S. Sorensen is the Harry R. Horrow Professor in International Law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Anna R. Maitland is a clinical fellow with the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.