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Homicide, cannibalism, embezzlement of billions, and other crimes Russia punishes with shorter prison terms than journalist Ivan Safronov’s

Russian journalist Ivan Safronov has been sentenced to 22 years in a penal colony for high treason. Lawyer and human rights defender Pavel Chikov describes the sentence as “gruesome”. Defendants in embezzlement cases get shorter sentences even if the investigation claims damage to the state of up to one billion dollars. Even murderers and serial rapists sometimes get off more easily. As human rights defender Ivan Pavlov explains, it happens because the Russian state’s primary value is the state itself and not human life, contrary to what its Constitution says.

  • Alexei Vorobyev: 20 years for Chinese dust on his phone

  • The case of Mikhailov and Stoyanov: 22 and 14 years respectively for “aiding the USA in the search of Russian hackers”

  • Gennady Kravtsov, 14 years in jail (reduced to six) for submitting his CV

  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia vs. Yukos 14 years (reduced to 10) for “embezzlement and tax evasion”

  • The case of the “Skopin Maniac”

  • The case of serial rapist Oleg Kosarev: Repeated sexual violence against minors

  • Lyudmila and Alexander Spesivtsev. Infanticide, cannibalism. 10 years in a penal colony each

Sentences for high treason

The maximum sentence under Article 275 of Russia's Criminal Code (“High treason”) is set at 20 years, as Pavel Chikov remarks, but Ivan Safronov was tried for two instances of the alleged crime. Prison sentences in high treason cases have always been notoriously long. However, they have become even longer in the last few years: compared to six- or nine-year terms handed a decade ago, today’s “traitors” often get jailed for 12 or 15 years.

Alexei Vorobyev: 20 years for Chinese dust on his phone

One of those who received the longest possible prison term was an associate professor from the Rocket Engines Department of Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI), Alexei Vorobyev, sentenced to 20 years in a penal colony in April 2021. He was indicted based on the particles of dust “from a Chinese region” detected inside his phone. This discovery led the investigators to believe that Vorobyev had visited China in November 2018 and had shared top-secret information with someone at the Harbin Institute of Technology.

The scientist’s defense underlines that the investigation failed to establish the fact of data transfer, the beneficiary, or the time of presumed contact. The case concerns research papers on engine RD-0146, which are publicly available.

The case of Mikhailov and Stoyanov: 22 and 14 years respectively for “aiding the USA in the search of Russian hackers”

Ruslan Stoyanov
Ruslan Stoyanov

This case also features a 22-year prison sentence on high treason charges. The defendants were arrested early in December 2016. Former FSB officer Sergei Mikhailov and the head of a department at Kaspersky Ruslan Stoyanov were charged with disclosing the means and methods of the investigation activity in the case of founder and CEO of Chronopay Pavel Vrublevsky to the FBI. Mikhailov, his subordinates, and Stoyanov allegedly received $10 million for this information.

The case was heard in a closed court, and the case file was classified. Neither the law enforcement nor the defense shared the case summary or any comments with the public.

The Bell interviewed two Russian sources and learned that the defendants may have helped US secret services to obtain evidence of Russian hackers’ involvement in attacks perpetrated on American soil. Those hacks triggered the most high-profile scandal concerning Russia's interference with the US elections. Another source privy to the investigation confirmed that the arrest of Mikhailov and his associates had to do with the American presidential campaign. As The Bell's source assumes, the defendants revealed the complicit hackers’ identities to the Americans. Mikhailov got 22 years in jail, and Stoyanov got 14.

Gennady Kravtsov, 14 years in jail (reduced to six) for submitting his CV

In 2010, radio engineer Gennady Kravtsov sent his CV to the National Defense Radio Establishment of Sweden (FRA). The investigators asserted that his CV had contained classified information about the spacecraft Tselina 2 and his earlier work for the GRU. The engineer’s defense insisted in court that the defendant's post was not clandestine. Meanwhile, almost all data on Tselina 2 is available in public sources, so the engineer may have been convicted purely on technical grounds. Russia was not even using the spacecraft anymore.

Kravtsov's case was heard in only six sessions, and the expert commission included his former colleagues, who may have lacked objectivity, as the defense pointed out. The engineer was sentenced to 14 years in jail. Subsequently, his lawyers appealed against this sentence, reducing the term to six years.

Sentences for financial crimes

The criminal cases of economic crimes involving claims of damage to the state of up to $1 billion end in more lenient sentences than high treason cases.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia vs. Yukos 14 years (reduced to 10) for “embezzlement and tax evasion”

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the co-owner and CEO of oil-drilling giant Yukos, was arrested on the charges of embezzlement and tax evasion in October 2003. The Russian court found him guilty of fraud and other crimes. Yukos went through bankruptcy. In 2010-2011, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony on a set of new charges. Following a series of appeals, his sentence was reduced to 10 years and 10 months. In December 2013, Khodorkovsky was granted clemency by Vladimir Putin after serving 10 years and two months of his sentence.

According to the Prosecutor General's Office, the damage to the Russian state from Khodorkovsky’s activities bordered on $1 billion. Meanwhile, Yukos’ shareholders assessed the damage from the authorities’ actions at $98 billion.

The case of embezzlement at the International Industrial Bank: 7 and 3 years for damages of over $1.6 billion

On August 29, 2014, the Basmanny District Court of Moscow sanctioned the arrest of Dmitry Amunts, the deputy head of the Federal Agency for Tourism (Rostourism). He was charged with complicity in the embezzlement of 28.5 billion rubles (~$466 million) in 2008-2009 from the interest-free loan granted by the Bank of Russia to the International Industrial Bank. According to the investigators, the crime group included the chairman of the Bank's executive board Alexander Didenko and the Bank's co-owner, former Yakutian senator Sergei Pugachev.

From 2004 to 2008, Amunts worked at the Ministry of Culture, then went on to head Pugachev's OPK Development, which was the primary beneficiary of the International Industrial Bank, also known as “the Kremlin's banker”. According to the case file, the perpetrators used the company to appropriate some of the funds. In October 2017, Amunts was sentenced to seven years in a general security colony. The court also sustained the claim of the Deposit Insurance Agency (a state corporation) for 28.5 billion rubles (~$466 million). Another defendant, Alexander Didenko, got three years behind bars. As the Prosecutor General's Office argued, former Yakutian senator Pugachev, currently a resident of France, had inflicted damage of over 90 billion rubles (~$1.5 billion). Russia is still seeking his extradition.

Murder and rape cases

Those convicted for murder or sexual violence often get shorter prison sentences than “the enemies of the state”. The maximum penalty, which is a life sentence, is only handed to those found guilty of multiple homicides or killing a minor. Normally, an individual homicide is punishable with a prison term of 10-17 years. Thus, Irkutsk resident Oleg Filippov, who killed a doctor in downtown Moscow, got ten years. Prison terms for opposition politician Boris Nemtsov's assassins varied from 11 to 20 years. Punishment for sex offenses is also not quite as harsh as journalist Ivan Safronov's sentence. The article on statutory rape stipulates prison terms of eight to twenty years. A sexual assault that involves violence or threats of violence “costs” three to six years in jail.

The case of the “Skopin Maniac”

On August 30, 2005, Viktor Mokhov, the infamous “Maniac of Skopin”, was sentenced to 17 years in prison, with a further reduction of two months. Mokhov was charged with three crimes: the abduction of two or more individuals, rape of a known minor, and sexual assault.

In 2000, Mokhov abducted two girls aged 14 and 17 in the town of Skopin, Ryazan Region. He kept them in the basement for four years and raped them repeatedly, impregnating the older, Elena, three times. Mokhov took the first two babies away and left them on doorsteps; the last pregnancy ended in miscarriage after the girls were liberated.

The case of serial rapist Oleg Kosarev: Repeated sexual violence against minors

Oleg Kosarev confessed to at least 140 episodes of rape, of which 40 were proved in court. He was convicted for rape for the first time in the USSR, spent eight years in lock-up, and walked free in 1992 to continue raping underage girls. The rapist once locked five children – two boys and three girls – in an elevator, raped all of the girls, and then forced the boys to have sex with him by holding them at knifepoint. He also confessed to raping a young mother in front of her small child, making the child watch. In March 1997, the court sentenced Kosarev to 15 years in a penal colony.

He got out on parole in October 2010 and raped a 13-year-old girl less than six months later, forcing her to take a mixture of Phenazepam (a Russian benzodiazepine drug) and Benadryl with vodka. Another month later, he assaulted two girls aged 17 and 18. He beat them with a knife handle and stabbed them multiple times, robbed them, and raped one of the girls. Kosarev was arrested in April 2011 and sent to prison for 20 more years in October 2021.

The investigation of his crimes was complicated by the presence of his “doppelganger”, Valery Deyev, born in 1969. After his arrest, Deyev revealed around 50 addresses where he had committed rape and armed robberies, but the evidence held only for 23 episodes. Deyev got 20 years in jail.

Lyudmila and Alexander Spesivtsev. Infanticide, cannibalism. 10 years in a penal colony each

The mother and son Spesivtsev committed their crimes in the period from 1991 to 1998; however, as lawyer Ivan Pavlov explained to The Insider, the Criminal Code article on murder has not changed much since then.

Alexei Spesivtsev's first victim was his girlfriend Evgenia Guselnikova. He met her in 1991, but once he beat her up, she decided to end their relationship. Spesivtsev locked her in a room and beat her regularly for a month. She died from sepsis, with her body covered in multiple abscesses. The criminal was institutionalized in a mental hospital but walked free in 1995.

After his release, Spesivtsev killed a girl called Lyudmila and dismembered her body to cover his tracks. His mother buried her remains in a wasteland. From April to August 1996, Spesivtsev murdered 15 more victims in his apartment, but the police never showed up, regardless of his neighbors’ complaints of corpse smell. The serial killer's sister Nadezhda also visited him, generally ignoring what was going on. His last three victims were lured into his apartment by his mother. He killed 13-year-old Nastya immediately and kept her two friends chained to a radiator for about a month: raped them, tortured them, and made them cut off and eat pieces of their dead friend's corpse. After that, he killed 13-year-old Zhenya and made the last surviving girl, Olya, eat the soup he made from her friend.

In 1997, Alexander Spesivtsev was sentenced to ten years in jail. His mother Lyudmila got 13, of which she served ten. His sister walked free.

Cases related to Vladimir Putin and his family

Only those who infringe on the interests of Vladimir Putin or his family get longer terms than traitors and murderers. Despite already being in prison, the head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation Alexei Navalny, who made a name for himself investigating corruption schemes that involve the Russian president and his entourage and attempted to run for president himself, is getting more and more prison sentences in a never-ending sequence of criminal cases initiated against him every three months.

Senator Igor Izmestyev, who used fireworks on Rublevo-Uspenskoye Highway some 600 meters away from the president's estate of Novo-Ogarevo, got a life sentence. Media reports suggest that he was warned many times to sell the house and move elsewhere because Putin was not too fond of his parties and his fireworks. Izmestyev believes that it was his refusal to sell the house “for peanuts” to agencies close to the Federal Guard Service that led to his arrest in January 2007. Eventually, the former senator was found guilty of heading a crime group, organizing eight assassinations and four assassination attempts, committing two arsons, and offering a $100,000 bribe to a senior FSB operative. He was put away for life, and his house is up for demolition. Human rights defender Lyudmila Alekseeva took an interest in his case and asked Putin for clemency. The Kremlin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that the senator may be pardoned, but his sentence remained in force and his petition for pardon was rejected.

Former banker Matvey Urin was somewhat luckier. After a fistfight with businessman Jorrit Faassen, a former executive at Stroytransgaz, Urin was charged with fraud, money laundering, and (naturally) battery. He was accused of embezzling almost 1.5 billion rubles (~$24.7 million) from Slaviansky Bank and Multibank and got 8.5 years in a penal colony. Vedomosti referred to Faassen as an acquaintance of Vladimir Putin’s daughter, and Reuters went as far as to call him her husband.

“High treason is a grave offense in many countries, but such prison terms are singular”

According to lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who specializes in high treason cases, this criminal offense implies harsh punishment in many countries, including in the West. However, such outrageously long prison sentences as those passed in Russia lately are rare.

“This Criminal Code article may well be the most politicized because even its title has little to do with jurisprudence and features a strong emotional component. High treason. It is considered to be the gravest crime against the state, punishable with harsh sentences both in Russia and abroad. Admittedly, in some countries, this article remains on paper and has never been applied. In the Baltics, there have been a few probation sentences but none of them were this long. It's hard to draw any parallels because there are only a handful of cases. The number of high treason cases in Russia is characteristic of the state, not the defendants. If there are so many ‘traitors’ all of a sudden, could it be that people aren't the problem?

Putin said that Safronov was not tried for his work as a journalist but for his tenure at Roscosmos, which has been proven false by the media based on data from official papers. <The Insider's note: the case against Safronov was initiated after he published an article on Russian shipments of Su-35 fighter jets to Egypt and after Egyptian dignitaries complained to the Kremlin.> On another note, with a war going on, every court turns into a military tribunal. Finally, the personality of the state prosecutor always matters; however, it has become obvious that courts follow the orders of a higher authority when passing sentences in such cases.

Even murderers get shorter prison terms. Our Constitution says that the supreme value of the state is the individual and their rights and freedoms. In practice, however, Russia's supreme value is the state itself.”

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