In Russia, forgotten plight of jailed grassroots activists

Anti-corruption activist Yevgeny Kurakin has gained little attention, despite languishing in jail on fraud charges his family say are fabricated

When anti-corruption activist Yevgeny Kurakin went to make an official complaint about authorities destroying a park in his sleepy town near Moscow, he was arrested in the prosecutor's office. Three months later, he is still behind bars. Kurakin regularly denounces the corruption of officials in Reutov -- a city of some 100,000 in the Moscow region where he lives. He had planned to run in Sunday's local elections. Russian authorities have cracked down on mass protests calling for the elections to be free and fair, while the arrests of high-profile activists like Alexei Navalny have made international headlines. But Kurakin has gained little attention, despite languishing in jail on fraud charges his family say are fabricated. Investigators say the 42-year-old ran an embezzlement scheme in his apartment block through which he stole three million rubles that were supposed to go on building works and communal services. Kurakin's neighbours have stood by him, with 132 of them signing a letter saying the accusations are false. Kurakin has exposed the controversial links between the city's former mayor Alexander Khodyrev and a local real estate developer, TsentrStroy. According to him, the alliance turned Khodyrev into a millionaire -- allowing him to buy several villas, some exceeding 20 million euros ($20 million). "He's a very uncomfortable person for the authorities," his wife Zhanna Bass told AFP. "He exposes the crimes that they commit." Kurakin's case, lawyers say, is not unique. They say local authorities throughout the Moscow region have used such tactics to silence their critics. Khodyrev's personal office refused to comment, saying only that he is now mayor of another town. The current administration of Reutov also declined to comment to AFP. - 'Local mafia' - Kurakin's arrest in June coincided with that of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, which led to an unprecedented mobilisation of civil society which resulted in his quick release. But there is little public pressure to release Kurakin or others. "Yevgeny is not the only activist persecuted by the authorities in the Moscow region," said Kurakin's lawyer Dmitry Trunin. He said he could name "dozens" of names. But he said the cases often have "no resonance and these people are left alone to face the local mafia." The exact number of Russians jailed on trumped-up charges are difficult to estimate. A study published in April by US law firm specialising in human rights Perseus Strategies, Russia has at least 236 political prisoners -- a figure that has risen in recent years. - 'Absolute lawlessness' - Kurakin already spent 16 months in pre-detention under the same charges in 2015 before being released on bail. At the time, his case was returned to the prosecutor's office due to a lack of evidence. His wife said the second arrest came after he announced his candidacy in the local elections with the Yabloko opposition party. "The aim is to find someone guilty of fraud so that authorities can say they are not corrupt because those accusing them of corruption are crooks," said another lawyer Dmitry Sotnikov. Kurakin's lawyers have challenged the conditions of his arrest but the case has dragged on. Valery Borshchyov, the co-chairman of Moscow's Helsinki Group and a former Soviet dissident, said the investigation was taking place in an atmosphere of "absolute lawlessness." At one hearing, masked armed men with batons working for the court prevented Kurakin's friends from entering the courtroom, throwing them to the ground. Three women, including his wife, were hospitalised. In such a system, many people facing similar charges have little chance of being acquitted. According to Russia's Investigative Committee, the acquittal rate of Russian courts in 2018 was a mere 0.51 percent. Complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) are often the only hope for justice, said Tatyana Sukhareva, a lawyer working with former detainees. She spent a year in prison herself on fraud charges she denies. Following his initial arrest, Kurakin complained to ECHR. The Strasbourg-based court ordered Russia to pay him 8,000 euros ($8,800) in damages. But he refused to claim the money, saying he did not want a "peace agreement" with the Russian state. On August 20, a Reutov court considered Kurakin's case and sent it back to the prosecution to provide more evidence. The activist is in detention until November 2. Lawyer Trunin predicted the court would announce a guilty verdict.

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