The case in a process
Without the right to have an opinion: the case of journalist Georgy Pirogov
28 July 2020
This is the story how one speech at a rally turned into lawsuits lasting 14 years. In 2005, at a rally of the public movement “Mari Ushem”, a journalist and civil activist Georgy Pirogov criticized the policy of the former head of the region Leonid Markelov. Human rights defenders of the organization “Man and Law”, lawyer Marina Rechkina, daughter of Georgy Pirogov, and lawyer of the “Public Verdict” Foundation Tamara Kuchma defended the right to freedom of expression and freedom of political discussion.
Georgy Pirogov – a writer, poet, civil activist, member of the Union of journalists of Russia. In the 90s, he held the position of Deputy Minister of press of the MASSR, was the head of the Regional Inspectorate for the protection of press freedom and the Director of the Mari book publishing house. For more than ten years, he has been the Deputy Chairman of the Congress of intellectuals of the Republic of Mari El.
At the rally, Georgy Pirogov criticized the policy of Leonid Markelov, who at that time held the position of the President of the Republic. The civil activist said that the local authorities violated the rights and freedoms of citizens, that there was practically no freedom of speech in Mari El.
Already on 19 August, 2005, Leonid Markelov applied to the Prosecutor's office with a
statement. He demanded to recognize the speech of the activist as libel (p.3 article 129 of the
criminal code of the Russian Federation). Georgy Pirogov explained to law enforcement
agencies that his statements at the rally were a value judgment of the activities of the entire
executive branch of the regional government.
However, the Deputy Prosecutor opened a criminal case, arguing that during the rally of the “Mari Ushem” movement, Georgy Pirogov spread deliberately false information that discredited the honor and dignity of the President of the Republic of Mari El, Leonid Markelov. According to the investigation, the activist said that Markelov had created a criminal organization to commit crimes motivated by national hatred or hostility against a social group. The investigation found that Georgy Pirogov accused the ex-President of committing a particularly serious crime.
However, during the meeting on 26 March, 2007, members of the commissions that conducted forensic linguistic examinations confirmed that Pirogov had not publicly stated that Markelov had created a criminal organization to commit crimes motivated by national hatred or enmity against any social group.
After the criminal trial, a civil one took place. It also confirmed the guilt of Georgy Pirogov and ordered him to pay 30 thousand rubles in favor of Leonid Markelov and publish a refutation in the newspaper "Mariskaya Pravda" within a month. The journalist fulfilled the requirements, but tried to challenge them in higher courts. All of them left the decision of the city court in force.
To defend the right to freedom of expression
Having exhausted all legal remedies at the national level, in 2008 the human rights organization
“Man and Law” together with Georgy Pirogov filed an application with the European Court of
Human Rights. It alleged a violation of two articles of the European Convention: article 6,
paragraph 1, which guarantees a fair trial, and article 10, which protects freedom of expression.
9 years later, in April 2017, the European Court of Human Rights accepted the application of journalist and civil activist Georgy Pirogov. The court put questions to the government of the Russian Federation: whether a fair trial was provided during the criminal and civil trials; whether the permissible limit of public criticism of a government representative was violated.
After the positive decision had been made, the human rights defenders decided to reopen the case at the national level. In July 2020, Georgy Pirogov together with lawyers sent an application to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation with a request to review the case taking into account new circumstances and issue a verdict of not guilty, since the ECHR recognized that there was no crime in his actions.
“The European Court of Human Rights found that the Russian Federation violated the right to freedom of expression, and now the national courts are obliged to rehabilitate Georgy Pirogov. The work with appeals after the victory in the ECHR for lawyers does not end, it gives us the opportunity to return to a new round of reviewing criminal and civil cases, and thus restore violated human rights at the national level,” — sums up Sergei Poduzov, a co-chair of the human rights organization “Man and Law”, Georgy Pirogov’s representative.