Drugs as a tool for political repressions: Artem Loscutov`s case
On May 15, the young contemporary artist Artem Loskutov was arrested in his native Novisibirsk and charged with possession of a narcotic substance (marijuana) by the local branch of the Interior Ministry’s notorious Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”). Loskutov and his supporters claim that the police planted the marijuana in his bag in order to incriminate him.
Who is Artem Loskutov?
Artem Loskutov is a 22-year-old Novosibirsk artist, video cameraman, university student, and cultural activist. As a member of the art groups CAT (Contemporary Art Terrorism) and its successor, Babushka Posle Pokhoron (“Grandma After the Funeral”) or BPP, Artem has organized, participated in and inspired a number of exhibitions, projects, happenings, and film festivals. The most well-known of these are the annual flash-mob street parties known as Monstrations, which have taken place annually on May Day in Novosibirsk since 2004. During the Monstrations, the young people of Novosibirsk take to the streets with homemade banners and placards spotting absurdist, non-political slogans. These street parties have always been well attended, thus underscoring the need many young Russians feel to reclaim the streets while also avoiding capture by the ideological wreckage of the past and the empty consumerist populism of the hyper capitalist, proto-fascist current powers that be.
It is Artem’s association with the Monstrations that apparently led to his arrest on May 15. These events have caused consternation amongst law enforcement officials ever since their inception, but this year the authorities were determined to prevent the Monstration from happening. The Novosibirsk office of the Interior Ministry’s newly formed Center for Extremism Prevention (aka Center “E”) summoned Artem for a “discussion” in April, and city authorities refused to give a permit for the event. Officials from Center “E” also called Artem’s parents to inform them that Artem is a member of a sect and that he “sets fire to cats and dogs.” Artem would later make a public statement on the BPP blog explaining that, in view of the fact that the Monstration was seen as a manifestation of “extremism” (which under the current regime can mean anything from overt, active dissent to any form of thought and action that does not have the explicit imprimatur and support of the authorities), the Monstrations had outlived their usefulness.
Nevertheless, on April 27, BPP held an exhibition at Novosibirsk’s White Cube Gallery entitled “Plan of the Monstration”. The show consisted of a series of posters that outlined an absurd scheme in which “monstrators” would gather around the Novosibirsk city hall on May 1 and, employing shamanistic techniques, levitate the building “100 to 500 meters into the air”. That was obviously a joke, but half an hour after the exhibition opened, the police showed up in force. Organizers immediately closed down the show, but Konstantin Skotnikov, a member of the world-famous Blue Noses art group and a teacher at the local art academy, was detained by police and taken to a precinct house for a “discussion.” Skotnikov was given to understand by his interlocutor that it would be better were no such “youth initiatives” to took place at all.
The Monstration did happen on May 1, although Artem was not among the monstrators: he spent much of the day in yet another discussion with the sensitive souls at Center “E.” But the fact that the Monstration went ahead despite the Center’s best efforts (which, as it transpired during Artem’s first pre-trial custody hearing, had included wiretapping his phone for the past six months) seems to have inspired them to find more effective means of intimidating Artem and his allies.
Chronicle of a Political Frame Up
On the morning of May 15, Artem got a call from the head of the Novosibirsk Center “E,” who asked him to come to their offices for yet another “discussion.” Because he already spent all of May 1 in a “discussion” with this same person, and because he was busy both with work and preparations for his thesis defense at the Novosibirsk State Technical University, scheduled for June, Artem reasonably asked that he be sent an official written summons, as required by Russian law. This angered the “E” commander (identified on the BPP blog as “Sergei Alexandrovich”), who threatened to send a squad car “with a dog” to Artem’s workplace.
In the last posting he made on the BPP blog, just hours before his eventual arrest, Artem wondered aloud: A ‘discussion’—what is that? An interrogation? Then be so good as to send a summons indicating the nature of the case and my status in it. A ‘discussion’ and a ‘verbal explanation’ are not legal bases for a summons. Just like a summons over telephone without a written notification. I don’t want to be an accomplice to the illegal activity of the Center for Extremism Prevention. They promised to come to my workplace, but for some reason they haven’t shown up. Maybe something has happened? I’m worried.
On the evening of May 15, Artem met his girlfriend and BPP comrade Lyuba Belyatskaya outside her office. They were planning to move things from their “HQ” (an apartment on Gogol Street), and for this purpose Artem had placed a number of plastic bags in his own backpack. At some point, Lyuba transferred some of these to her own backpack. As she would write on the BPP blog a few days later, this is an important point because the state’s case against Artem is based on what they allegedly found in his bag—eleven grams of marijuana. Lyuba thus claims that, as she rummaged through Artem’s backpack in search of the plastic bags, she found no such damning evidence.
A few minutes later, they were surrounded by several men in plainclothes who handcuffed Artem and informed him that he had been accused of committing a crime. Lyuba tried to find out from them what this crime was and where they planned to take Artem, as well as their own identities, all to no avail. As Lyuba frantically called the police to inform them that Artem had been kidnapped, the unidentified men drove Artem to a quiet courtyard a mere hundred meters away from the spot where they had arrested him; they asked him questions about the Monstrations and about his dreadlocks. After official witnesses (so-called poniatye, whose presence is required by law during searches) arrived in another car, the plainclothes officers performed a search of his belongings. For some reason this search was carried out in the trunk of their car. It is there that they allegedly found the eleven grams of marijuana that forms the basis of the state’s case against Artem. Artem’s defenders contend that in fact the men planted the marijuana in his bag themselves. (It should be pointed out that, according to Russian law, possession of more than ten grams of marijuana is a criminal (rather than an administrative) offence. That is, the police knew what they were doing when they planted eleven grams on Artem—if that is what they did.)
Artem was taken to the Dzerzhinsky district police precinct. The following day he was transferred to a temporary detention facility, where he is being held to this day. At Artem’s first pre-trial custody hearing, on May 17, his lawyer was able to postpone the hearing for forty-eight hours so that he and Lyuba would have more time to assemble evidence that Artem was not a flight risk, that he could be released on bail or after having signed a pledge not leave town. According to Lyuba’s account, the authorities tried to conduct this first hearing before the lawyer arrived. They also intimidated her, trying to drive her out of the courtroom.
At the first official pre-trial detention hearing, on May 20, Artem’s lawyer asked that Artem be released on a written pledge not to leave Novosibirsk. In support of his case, he presented guarantees and character statements signed by various public figures; he also argued that because Artem is productively busy with work and school he presents no flight risk. In turn, although law enforcement authorities claimed at the hearing that Artem’s arrest was not politically motivated—that he was only being accused of unlawful acquisition and possession of a narcotic substance (Article 228 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code, punishable by up to three years in prison)—they were unable to present either the transcripts of the six-month wiretap of Artem and his friends that they claimed to have conducted or results of a fingerprint analysis that would show he had actually touched the packet of marijuana they had allegedly found in his bag. Their main argument for leaving Artem in custody was that, allegedly, he does not live at his registered address (his parents’ house), but in a rented apartment. Artem explained that three days before his arrest he had in fact moved back to his registered address. (If living at an address other than the one where you are registered were such a threat to public safety, the authorities would have to lock up half the population of Russia.)
Despite the flimsy case made by the prosecutors, Judge Elena Devyataikina remanded Artem to custody pending the completion of the criminal investigation. If he were released on a written pledge, he might, she concluded, “continue to distribute narcotics, engage in socially dangerous behavior, and go into hiding.”
On May 25, Artem was presented with the official written indictment. That same day, his lawyer, Valentin Demidenko, filed an appeal against the Dzerzhinsky court’s custody ruling with the Novosibirsk Regional Court. In this appeal, Demidenko pointed out several irregularities in the state’s handling of the case. One of their arguments for keeping Artem in custody was that he would otherwise “continue to distribute narcotic substances at the Novosibirsk State Institute on Marx Prospect.” Unfortunately, no such institute exists at that address. It is also unclear which of Artem’s neighbors signed the undated written testimony to the effect that he did not leave at his registered address; Artem’s actual neighbors have testified in writing that he has been living there since the beginning of May. Finally, at the custody hearing Judge Devyataikina refused Demidenko’s request to call his witnesses to the stand although they were present in the courtroom.
In the meantime, Center “E” began intimidating the defense’s witnesses—Lyuba, Artem’s coworker Marina, and Konstantin Skotnikov—by summoning their mothers for “conversations.” Lyuba’s mother was told by her interlocutor, “We want to show you what kind of person your daughter is dating.” He proceeded to show her a selection of BBP’s video clips, which have been screened at various festivals, where many of them have won prizes. According to Lyuba, her mother told the investigator: “Crowds of murderers and real extremists roam the streets and you’re showing me humorous videos shots three years ago? Don’t ruin the boy’s life.”
According to lawyer Demidenko, he has been receiving anonymous phone calls. One such caller asked him whether he had any “joy.” When Demidenko asked the caller to identify himself, he hung up.
On June 3, a judge in the Novosibirsk Regional Court postponed the appeal hearing until June 10, informing all present in the courtroom that “there is no delivery” (i.e., Artem had not been transported to the courthouse). Earlier, the court had scheduled the hearing for June 10, before suddenly moving it up to the 3rd.
Clearly, like so many other cases before it, the state’s campaign against Artem is an improvised affair, conducted in defiance of accepted legal norms, civil rights, and common evidentiary sense. Their goal, apparently, is to wear down and intimidate Artem’s defenders and force him to confess to a crime he didn’t commit.
Why Is That Happening?
Sad as it to say, the case against Artem Loskutov is probably not personal: to invoke a mafia cliché, it’s just business. But what is this business? Narrowly speaking, the Center for Extremism Prevention, which was formed from Interior Ministry units previously charged with combating organized crime (the so-called UBOP), has to justify its own existence. Since its mission is to prevent extremism (whatever that means), it has to find, interrogate, and intimidate “extremists,” even if there are no real extremists to be found. Whenever possible and using whatever means are necessary, it tries to bring criminal and administrative charges against its victims. Thus, young anarchists who want to advocate the free distribution of information are charged with jaywalking (on a street crowded with police and other May Day demonstrators). Likewise, in order to show free-spirited young people in Novosibirsk that their Monstrations are a nuisance to “public order,” Center “E” arrests one of the people associated with this terrible nuisance and charges him with narcotics possession, a crime that is not even in their remit.
More broadly, the quasi-terroristic methods of Center “E” (including a computerizedblacklist) serve a greater purpose—to discourage public dissent, dissident thought, and open discussion, whatever forms these might take. Regular readers of this blog will know that in recent months activists from a broad array of movements and professions—antifascists, anarchists, environmentalists, housing rights and historic preservation advocates, human rights activists, LGBN activists, leftists, unionists, militant liberals, journalists, archivists, and artists—have faced a concerted campaign of beatings, raids, arrests, interrogations, confiscations, trials, and (even) murders. Representing the interests of a tiny capitalist class grown fat on oil, gas, and construction business revenues, the current regime has a lot to lose. Hence it has engaged in a steady war of attrition against political, civil, and social rights since it took power ten years ago. It is aided in this task by a coalition of compliant media and cultural producers, members of the so-called Russian intelligentsia. Once upon a time, members of the intelligentsia created great art, music, and literature, and joined with workers and peasants in making three revolutions. Nowadays, with few exceptions, this class has joined with the regime to guarantee that Russia will face a future of tyranny, cultural, economic, and social backwardness, rampant bureaucratic corruption, and police violence.