Russia wants this young anarchist to stay in prison forever

The Kremlin wants Azat Miftakhov and other political prisoners behind bars forever, says an exiled Russian journalist

A few months ago, I received a message from a random social media account in Russia, which asked me to sign an open letter in support of Russian political prisoner Azat Miftakhov.

I knew the man behind the account, which has since been deleted; these days, he is ‘deep underground’, trying to stay completely off the grid. I questioned what help a letter could be but signed anyway. A person who is safe has no right to refuse those who are in danger.

When I saw the letter published in French media outlet Mediapart days later, I learned that hundreds of others had also demanded freedom for Miftakhov: mathematicians, scientists, journalists, trade unionists, from countries including France, the US and Russia.

I know Miftakhov’s story well. Back in 2019, when I was still in Russia, I was reporting on ‘The Network’ case: a group of young men across Russia, who had anarchist and left-wing beliefs, were detained, brutally tortured and then sentenced to long prison sentences – allegedly for scheming to bring down the Kremlin through terrorist acts. It was a very high-profile case, and one that Miftakhov came to be implicated in.

This week, Miftakhov – one of at least 5,000 political prisoners in Russia today – was supposed to be released. But on 4 September, immediately on stepping outside the prison gates, he was detained on another charge – a classic FSB tactic.

As hundreds of thousands die in Russia’s war against Ukraine, it’s hard to come out in support of the Kremlin’s political prisoners. There’s simply too much pain, suffering, blood. But Putin’s regime is built on putting people behind bars.

The case against Azat Miftakhov

Miftakhov, now aged 30, is a talented mathematician, a graduate student at Moscow State University, and an anarchist.

In February 2019, he was detained in Moscow on suspicion of breaking a window in the office of the United Russia political party. Investigators claimed he was standing nearby when it happened “in order to warn accomplices of possible danger”. Miftakhov was beaten and tortured by FSB officers, who used a power drill on him.

Miftakhov, of course, knew what had happened to members of the supposed ‘Network’. He understood that the FSB investigators were not joking or trying to frighten him when they said they would use torture to get him to confess. They really would. In an attempt to prevent himself from being tortured, he slit his own wrists.

Indeed, the whole case against Miftakhov started with ‘The Network’.

As one lawyer told me, Russian investigators were claiming that there were different cells of activists in different cities across the country, uniting several left-wing initiatives – not only the so-called “Network” – in a single cause. But, as quickly became apparent in my reporting and others’, there was no terrorist organisation in reality. No coordination. The investigators’ ‘Network’ had been drawn up by… the investigators. They had no evidence to support their claims, aside from testimony gained via the most brutal torture.

In March 2018, the FSB tried to make Svyatoslav Rechkalov, another anarchist activist in Moscow, into the ‘leader’ of the ‘Moscow cell’ of the ‘Network’. He was also tortured and beaten. I spoke with Rechkalov when he was released on bail. I did not see any signs of torture, but I remember well how he shook and spoke with difficulty. A few days later, he fled to France.

Shortly afterwards, information from the investigators was leaked: they wanted the same confession from Miftakhov. They had failed with Rechkalov, and so they had to come up with another ‘leader’ of the ‘Moscow cell’: Miftakhov. This story is not yet finished, and as long as Miftakhov remains in prison, anything is possible.

Later, human rights activists and journalists managed to prove – definitively – that the young men in the ‘Network’ case had been tortured. Russian society went into shock. People took to the streets in protest.

In autumn 2018, Mikhail Zhlobitsky, a teenager in the north-western city of Arkhangelsk, blew himself up in the lobby of the local FSB building in protest against the torture. This prompted a new wave of repression. Now anyone who talked online about Zhlobitsky’s actions, or even mentioned it, could be prosecuted for “justifying terrorism”.

In 2021, Miftakhov was sentenced to six years in prison for his alleged role in breaking the window in United Russia’s offices. He was supposed to be released last Monday (he had served his time because one day spent in detention in pre-trial proceedings is counted as one and a half days).

But that didn’t happen. At the gates of Prison Colony No. 17 in Kirov region, he was put into an FSB car with Chechen licence plates and driven away. Now, a new case has been opened against him on charges of “justifying terrorism” for talking about Mikhail Zhlobitsky while in prison.

Apparently, the FSB wants him behind bars forever. Just like Alexey Navalny, just like many other political prisoners in Russia today.