The Last Pawn in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Vendetta Against Yukos
In 2003, Alexey Pichugin became the first victim of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to expropriate the Yukos Oil Company and to silence and punish that company’s leadership. At the time, Yukos had become Russia’s largest oil producer. Returning the company to state control was a centerpiece in Mr. Putin’s plans to leverage Russia’s oil resources into enhanced power for himself and his government. Simultaneously, Yukos’s leaders, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Leonid Nevzlin, were increasingly active in opposition politics and civil society. They publicly criticized the increasingly conspicuous corruption of the Putin regime, financially supported opposition political parties and, in Mr. Nevzlin’s case, they held political office. Yukos’s leadership were also in discussions with Western oil majors about a potential merger. None of this was tolerable to Mr. Putin, who launched a politically-motivated vendetta against Yukos and its leaders that continues today, 15 years later.
Mr. Pichugin was not one of Yukos’s leaders. He was one of a half dozen department managers in the company’s security department. Yet he became a pawn in Mr. Putin’s vendetta.
Yukos has long since been broken apart — its pieces being absorbed by oligarchs allied with Mr. Putin, its senior executives harassed, imprisoned and now released.
But today, Alexey Pichugin remains in jail, Russia’s longest-serving political prisoner.
Mr. Pichugin worked in government security before becoming employed first for the commercial bank, Bank Menatep, and then by Yukos. At the time of his arrest on June 19, 2003 as part of Mr. Putin’s anti-Yukos campaign, Mr. Pichugin, married and with three young sons, had no criminal history. By 2003, Mr. Pichugin was the manager of Yukos’s economic security group within the company’s Security Department — one of a half dozen managers who reported to the head of Yukos’s Security Department, Mikhail Shestapalov. The economic security group secured the company’s real estate, vetted new employees and investigated allegations of theft within the company. Mr. Pichugin is sometimes described as having been in charge of Yukos security, but that is not true. Like the other managers of groups within the Security Department, Mr. Pichugin was subordinate to Mr. Shetapolov, who strictly controlled the department. Mr. Pichugin’s substantive contact with Yukos upper management was limited to Mr. Shestapalov, his only other contacts with upper management coming on those occasions when he provided security to them.
After his 2003 arrest, Mr. Pichugin was charged with allegedly organizing various street crimes, including murder and attempted murder. The underlying incidents occurred mostly in 1998 and 1999. No physical or substantive non-hearsay evidence linked Mr. Pichugin to any of these incidents. Instead, the case against Mr. Pichugin was based on persons who had “confessed” to the crimes and were serving sentences in Russian prison, who years after their crimes began to claim at various times from 2003 to 2005 that they had heard second- or third-hand that Mr. Pichugin, and perhaps even those higher at Yukos, were ultimately the “organizers” of these crimes.
Despite the flimsy evidence against him, Mr. Pichugin was subjected to imprisonment in facilities run by the FSB, successor to the KGB. He was drugged and interrogated without counsel. He was subjected to a star chamber-like secret trial and denied the right to present defense evidence or to cross-exam the government’s evidence. Twice, the European Court of Human Rights found that Mr. Pichugin’s rights were violated during his two show trials, each of which proceeded in corrupt courtrooms where the results were predetermined by Mr. Putin’s will.
Mr. Pichugin’s life was turned upside down on June 19, 2003, the day his workplace and apartment were searched and he was taken into custody for allegedly ordering the murders of: Viktor Kolesov, another Yukos manager who was mugged and beaten up in October 1998; Olga Kostina, a functionary in the Moscow mayor’s office, whose mother had a small home-made explosive device detonate outside her apartment in November 1998 (Ms. Kostina did not live there); and Sergey Gorin and his wife, a Tambov couple who disappeared after their house was robbed by armed men in November 2002.
Mr. Pichugin was taken to the infamous Lefortovo prison, run by the Russian FSB, successor of the KGB, rather than to a facility run by the Ministry of Justice, which administers Russian jails and prisons in non-political cases. While in FSB custody at Lefortovo, Mr. Pichugin was repeatedly pressured to provide false incriminating evidence against Yukos leaders, and in particular Mr. Khodorkovsky and Mr. Nevzlin.
Mr. Pichugin was interrogated at Lefortovo outside the presence of his lawyers and with the use of psychotropic drugs. In one July 2003 incident, he was brought into an office at the FSB prison by two security officers. He recalls being told that he should simply confess and state that Mr. Nevzlin ordered the commission of the underlying crimes. He was then offered coffee, took a sip and fainted. When he awoke in his cell, he found two injection marks: one on his elbow and one between his right thumb and index finger. Though he demanded a medical examination, that request was denied for 10 days, until the injection marks had healed and the physical record of what occurred was obscured.
Igor Sutyagin, himself a political dissident, was Mr. Pichugin’s cellmate at the time of the July 2003 incident. Mr. Sutyagin recalls that Mr. Pichugin was removed from the cell for an extended period that day, until well after dinner. When he returned, he described Mr. Pichugin’s eyes as unfocused and not moving normally and he stated that Mr. Pichugin’s motor and speaking ability was impaired. Mr. Pichugin could not recall much about what was said to him in the interrogation, except that investigators told him to “just talk” and that it was “not necessary” for his lawyers to be present.
Between the time of Mr. Pichugin’s arrest and the commencement of his trial more than a year later in October 2004, the pressure on Mr. Pichugin was unrelenting to provide incriminating testimony about Yukos and Mr. Nevzlin. The European Court of Human Rights later found that the corresponding delay of his trial and his retention in FSB custody during this time constituted a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights.
When Mr. Pichugin’s jury trial finally began on October 1, 2004, it was conducted in secret. The court’s stated reason for the closed-door trial was that the evidence of these ordinary street crimes constituted Russian “state secrets” – a ludicrous claim on its face. When the jury in the case appeared to be sympathetic to Mr. Pichugin, it was summarily dismissed and a new jury empaneled – still behind closed doors.
With a new jury in place, the trial was begun again on January 25, 2005. It relied almost entirely on the testimony of Igor Korovnikov, a convicted serial killer who, during the fall of 1998 and winter of 1999, raped and/or murdered nearly a dozen men, women and children. Mr. Korovnikov was convicted of these killings and was serving a life prison term in a maximum security Russian prison when, in 2003, he suddenly “remembered” that he had been commissioned to commit attacks on Mr. Kolesov and Ms. Kostina in 1998.
In one of the interrogations in which Mr. Korovnikov changed his testimony from previous versions, Mr. Korovnikov stated that his future is now “in the hands of the President of Russia,” a reference to Mr. Putin. Critically, during Mr. Pichugin’s trial, the trial judge cut off attempts to cross-exam Mr. Korovnikov about his many prior inconsistent statements. The judge directed Mr. Korovnikov that it was not necessary to answer defense questions.
Another witness, and co-defendant, in Mr. Pichugin’s first case was Alexei Peshkun. He made multiple, inconsistent statements in the case, including that the missing Mr. Gorin had ordered the attacks on Kolesov and Kostina, but that Gorin had told Peshkun that Pichugin was the real “client” behind the crimes. Mr. Peshkun later made a written statement that he was coerced by investigators to implicate Mr. Pichugin about whom Mr. Peshkun knew nothing.
In the end, despite the absence of actual evidence tying Mr. Pichugin to any of the underlying crimes, but to nobody’s surprise, a guilty verdict was returned on March 30, 2005.
Mr. Pichugin was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Read more on the fabricated charges brought against Mr. Pichugin in his first trial, and their backstory here.
On July 4, 2005, Mr. Nevzlin was in the United States at the invitation of the U.S. Congress to speak about Russian abuses in Mr. Putin’s campaign against Yukos. The week before Mr. Nevzlin’s testimony, Mr. Pichugin was once again interrogated and the Russian General Prosecutors Office announced that both Messrs. Pichugin and Nevzlin would be charged with the organization of additional murders and attempted murders dating back to 1998 and 1999.
The new alleged crimes for which Mr. Pichugin was to stand trial (and for which Mr. Nevzlin would be tried in absentia) involved the organization of the attempted murder of businessman Evgeny Rybin, the murders of tea shop owner Valentina Korneyeva and mayor of the town of Nefteyugansk, Vladimir Petukov. In each case, it was alleged that Mr. Pichugin organized others to commit the crimes at the behest of Mr. Nevzlin. In each instance, as in Mr. Pichugin’s first case, there was no physical or other substantive evidence linking either man to the underlying crimes: no fingerprints, no DNA, not even any eyewitness testimony. Instead, each charge was based on hearsay statements by men who confessed the crimes and were currently serving their sentences, but claimed that they had been hired by someone else who had said that Pichugin, and ultimately Nevzlin, were behind it. In other words, the case depended on layered hearsay within hearsay – unsubstantiated statements about other unsubstantiated statements.
Critically, the “confessors” on which the second charges depended, like Mr. Peshkun in the first case, ultimately recanted. Gennady Tzigelnik, a witness to each of the incidents, testified that he had falsely implicated Messrs. Pichugin and Nevzlin after being told to do so by investigators. He stated he had never heard of either until investigators provided him their names. Similarly, Mikhail Ovsyannikov, who was purportedly involved in the Korneyeva incident, testified that the Russian investigator told him he would be branded the mastermind of the attack and “packed up” for 18 years unless he gave prepared testimony naming Messrs. Pichugin, Nevzlin and Khodorkovsky. Vladimir Shapiro, another Korneyeva witness, said that investigators offered him “mana from heaven” if he falsely named Pichugin and Nevzlin. And Evgeny Reshetnikov, yet another key government witness in all three incidents testified that Russian investigator Burtovoi told him in 2005 what to say.
None of this mattered in the case, however, because the result was predetermined. In fact, just a day after the charges against Messrs. Pichugin and Nevzlin were announced, Deputy Prosecutor General V. Kolesnikov appeared on multiple televised Russian news shows stating their guilt as a fait accompli. Investigator Burtovoi publicized selective portions of the underlying case file, negating Mr. Pichugin’s right to an unbiased jury trial.
On April 3, 2006, Mr. Pichugin’s second trial began. Because the jury pool had been tainted, he was forced to proceed with a bench trial, though the results would be pre-ordained in any event.
As noted, it made no difference to the court that each of the witnesses against Mr. Pichugin, Messrs. Tzigelnik, Ovsyannikov, Shapiro and Reshetnikov – each of whom was also named as a co-defendant – ultimately recanted their testimony that anyone had told them that Mr. Pichugin (or Mr. Nevzlin) was behind the crimes. As in the first trial, attempts by the defense to introduce exculpatory evidence or to cross-examine the government’s witnesses were rebuffed. As such, it was no surprise when the judge convicted Mr. Pichugin on August 17, 2006, sentencing him to 21 years in prison, to run partially concurrent with the sentence handed down in his first trial.
In February 2007, that conviction was “reversed” when the Russian Supreme Court concluded it was “based on assumptions” and that “exculpatory evidence is used to substantiate a guilty verdict.” At the same time, however, the Supreme Court stated that Mr. Pichugin’s sentence should be harsher after retrial and a subsequent conviction.
With the Supreme Court clearly expressing its preferred and preordained outcome for Mr. Pichugin’s trial, the lower court complied. After a retrial on the same evidence, Mr. Pichugin was convicted again on these charges on August 6, 2007. Again, the trial court ignored or disregarded the recantations of the witnesses against him. Again, the trial court refused defense attempts to introduce exculpatory evidence.
The trial differed in one way only: This time, after conviction, and as the Supreme Court had ordered, Mr. Pichugin was sentenced to life in prison. That satisfied the Supreme Court, which affirmed the conviction.
Having effectively exhausted the domestic appeals process for both of his trials, Mr. Pichugin subsequently filed applications against the Russian Federation lodged with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, asking that the court review both cases.
Instead of being imprisoned near Moscow, as would be the norm, Mr. Pichugin was sent deep into Siberia, to the notorious “Black Dolphin” prison colony near Russia’s border with Kazakhstan. This facility houses 700 of Russia’s worst criminals. Conditions there are brutal, as depicted in a National Geographic documentary on the facility.
In April 2008, Mr. Pichugin was called back to Moscow to testify in Mr. Nevzlin’s trial on the same incidents on which he had been convicted. As had happened to the witnesses against him, investigators continued to pressure Mr. Pichugin to testify against Mr. Nevzlin. True to his conscience, however, he refused to do so. Consequently, he was sent back to Siberia.
Mr. Pichugin suffered quietly for years while the attack on Yukos proceeded with additional trials of Messrs. Khodorkovsky, Yukos board member and shareholder Platon Lebedev and Mr. Nevzlin, among others. During this time, Mr. Pichugin put his hope in the European Court of Human Rights, which was reviewing both of his trials and convictions.
Finally, in October of 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Mr. Pichugin’s first trial had in fact violated his rights pursuant to the European Convention of Human Rights, to which Russia is a signatory. The court stated that Mr. Pichugin should receive a new, fair trial.
While Mr. Pichugin hoped this would make a difference, it did not. On remand, the Russian Supreme Court concluded that no new trial was necessary. Russia would simply ignore the European Court judgment.
Going further, and following a European Court judgment awarding shareholders $2.2 billion for the Russian expropriation of Yukos itself, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation ruled in July 2015 that Russia could choose not to enforce a European Court judgment, regardless of its treaty obligations. In December 2015, the Russian State Duma codified that ruling in national legislation, effectively leaving the decision of whether principles and rulings declared by an international tribunal are in fact applicable in Russia up to the discretion of the Constitutional Court.
In December 2015 – the same month the Russian Duma nullified international judicial rulings — Russian authorities once again dragged Mr. Pichugin back to Moscow to renew pressure on him to give incriminating testimony, this time against Mr. Khodorkovsky. Mr. Khodorkovsky had been released from prison two years earlier in December 2013, based on a political compromise. Much to Mr. Putin’s chagrin, however, Mr. Khodorkovsky had not accepted quiet exile, but instead renewed his push for civil society and freedom in Russia. To increase the pressure on Mr. Pichugin to testify against Mr. Khodorkovsky, the apartments of Mr. Pichugin’s brother and elderly mother were raided by Russian operatives, ostensibly to search for evidence of Mr. Khodorkovsky’s involvement in the Petukov murder incident. Mr. Pichugin’s brother was ultimately forced to leave Russia, fearful for his life and freedom.
Once again Mr. Pichugin was true to his conscience and refused to bear false witness against Mr. Khodorkovsky. Again, he was ultimately shipped back to the Black Dolphin. Undeterred, Mr. Putin nonetheless returned charges in December 2015 against Mr. Khodorkovsky based on the Petukov incident, on the theory that Mr. Khodorkovsky directed Mr. Nevzlin who directed Mr. Pichugin to hire Messrs. Reshetnikov and Tzligelnik (as well as a third man) to kill Petukov. It made no difference to Russian authorities, as it made no difference to the judge in Mr. Pichugin’s case, that Reshetnikov and Tzigelnik had recanted, stating that they had never heard of Pichugin until investigators told them to name him.
On June 6, 2017, the ECHR delivered its judgment regarding Mr. Pichugin’s second trial. It again determined that Mr. Pichugin’s rights pursuant to the European Convention for Human Rights had been violated, including his presumption of innocence, his right to present defense evidence, and to confront the government’s evidence. Again, the European Court stated that Mr. Pichugin should be given a new trial.
Mr. Pichugin’s hopes that this judgment would have any meaning for him were dashed again in November 2017, when the Russian Supreme Court once more stated that it saw no reason why he should be retried.
Russia’s refusal to abide by European Court judgments in Mr. Pichugin’s case has been the subject of consternation for the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe. On April 24, 2017, during free debate before the full assembly, French Representative Pierre Yves Le Borgn, appointed Rapporteur concerning the enforcement of ECHR judgments, called out Mr. Pichugin’s case, describing Russia’s treatment of him as “tantamount to moral torture,” stating: “There can be no place for such inhumanity in our community of law.”
And, in the summer of 2017, former German Minister of Justice and former Chair of the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, wrote: “The refusal to abide by European Court judgments is a canary in the coal mine for human rights – and for the sanctity of the signature of increasingly authoritarian nations like Russia, on human rights treaties. The risks are only greater in a world where isolationism seems all too ready to take root. The world’s citizens, and democratic nations, ignore these warning signs at their peril.”
During its September 2017 meeting, the Committee of Ministers, the decision-making body of the Council of Europe, addressed Russia’s refusal to adequately remedy the violations of Mr. Pichugin’s human rights. It concluded more must be done. The Committee of Ministers is composed of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Council of Europe states.
Russia, however, has done nothing.
The Committee of Ministers noted the possibility of pardon as one route to remedy the abuses in the Pichugin case. This was supported by Mixail Fedotov, Chairman of the Council for Civil Society Affairs and Human Rights attached to the President of Russia. However, when pardon requests were made, they have been immediately rejected in perfunctory fashion.
[For a history of Mr. Pichugin’s pardon requests, please click here.]
Meanwhile, Mr. Pichugin continues to serve his sentence at the Black Dolphin.
On the eve of December 20, 2017, the fourth anniversary of his brokered release from prison, Mr. Khodorkovsky called on Amnesty International to designate Mr. Pichugin a “prisoner of conscience,” stating that Mr. Pichugin was “stuck in the same vortex that entrapped me.” He cited Western democracies’ and even Interpol’s designation of his case to be “political and devoid of real evidence.” He said:
“In short, Russia holds Mr. Pichugin hostage, in hope that he will buy his freedom by giving false testimony against me. (…) For 14 years and counting – more than 5,000 days – Mr. Pichugin has held in his hands the key to his freedom: All he needs to do is bear false witness against me and other Yukos executives. Lie, and walk free. Every day, he wakes to that invitation. Every day, he refuses.”
By abiding his conscience, Mr. Pichugin continues to be Russia’s longest serving political prisoner.