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.

Seditious statement

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.

photo Idel.Реалии
On 14 August, 2005, Georgy Pirogov was invited to speak at the rally of the public movement “Mari Ushem” (Mari Union). This is the oldest Mari national organization, which was established in 1917. Its mission is to preserve and develop the culture of the Mari people.

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.
"Markelov tried to fight us with various criminal methods: yes, my apartment was opened, the Chairman of the all-Mari Council was beaten, they threatened, and some of us were spoken to in this tone, inviting us to the offices: “What article of the Criminal code do you choose? We can put you in prison for the rape of a minor and so on and so forth. There are such examples…", Pirogov said at the rally.

One-sided justice

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.

The journalist, together with lawyers, sent a series of complaints, applications and petitions, which remained unsatisfied. During the investigation, 3 forensic linguistic examinations were conducted in violation of procedural norms: Georgy Pirogov signed orders to conduct examinations, not knowing that these examinations had already been carried out in advance. This became known only in March 2007, when the court allowed lawyers to get acquainted with all the materials of the criminal case. At the same time, the court refused to attach the judicial linguistic expertise on the part of the defense to the case materials.

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.
Nevertheless, on 28 March, 2007, the Yoshkar-Ola Magistrate's court found that Georgy Pirogov's statements did not correspond to reality, went beyond acceptable criticism of a public person and were slander against the Head of the Republic of Mari El, Leonid Markelov. Pirogov was sentenced to 6 months in prison on probation for 1 year.

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.

In January 2020, the Court recognized that article 10 of the Convention, which protects freedom of expression, was violated in Pirogov’s case. The Court noted that the permissible criticism of a public person was not exceeded, and the discussion at the rally was of public interest and contributed to the development of political discussion. The journalist and civil activist was awarded compensation in the amount of 10600 EUR by the ECHR.

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.