'My soul aches for him': Mother of Russia's longest-serving political prisoner begs for his freedom
UN working group concluded conviction was based on hearsay evidence from convicted felons
Alla Pichugin is 80 years old and believes she could die before ever seeing her son, Alexey, freed from a Russian jail.
Next month, as she's done twice a year for the past 15 years, she'll travel to Russia's border region near Kazakhstan to visit one of the country's most notorious penal colonies, Black Dolphin.
It's where Alexey, now 57 years old, has been doing hard time alongside some of the country's most notorious mass murderers and rapists.
"My soul aches for him," Pichugin told CBC News in an interview last week in Moscow. "My son did not get a fair trial [and] if an innocent man is sitting in jail, of course, he's a political prisoner."
Human rights groups, backed by multiple rulings from the European Court of Human Rights as well as a prominent United Nations committee, say Alexey Pichugin holds the dubious title of being Russia's longest-serving political prisoner.
Last week, as Russians marked one of the country's most sombre commemorations, the Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repressions, Pichugin's name came up frequently.
Pichugin's last day of freedom was June 19, 2003, when he was arrested in Moscow and charged with multiple counts of attempted murder. Human rights groups say the alleged crimes were bogus.
He was a mid-level security manager at Yukos, which at the time was one of Russia's largest oil companies and run by billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was also arrested and convicted of a number of fraud-related charges.
Critics say both trials were shams and part of a broader effort by Putin's allies to dismantle Yukos.
A report by a UN working group that examined Pichugin's case concluded his conviction was based on hearsay evidence from previously convicted felons, some of whom later recanted. It also said there was no direct evidence linking Pichugin to any deaths.
Khodorkovsky was pardoned in 2013 after serving a decade in jail, but Pichugin continues to serve his life sentence.
Prominent Russian human rights activist Vladimir Kara-Murza said there are more political prisoners in Russian jails now than in Soviet times.
"In December 1975, when Andrei Sakharov wrote his Nobel lecture, he listed 126 prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union. Today, in the fall of 2019, according to the Memorial Human Rights Center, there are 314 political prisoners in the Russian federation — and that's not a full list either."
Kara-Murza was speaking at a forum organized by Moscow's Sakharov Center, a museum dedicated to promoting the legacy of the Nobel Prize-winning activist.
The Memorial Human Rights Center says that over the past year, Russian authorities released 57 political prisoners from jails, but incarcerated 168 others.
Those released included prominent Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was jailed for opposing Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as 24 Ukrainian sailors seized in the Kersch Straight incident of October 2018. All were part of a prisoner swap negotiated between the Ukrainian and Russian governments.
However, street protests by opponents of the Kremlin over the summer led to a wave of new detentions, with some protesters receiving sentences of up to seven years in jail.
"You have to understand that Russia is as dangerous as the Soviet Union — perhaps even more dangerous," said human rights activist Lev Ponomarev.
He said Russia's federal police force, the FSB, is assuming a greater role in orchestrating a crackdown on Kremlin opponents.
"It [is happening] now because of the massive disorder, with many people on the streets, and it's really frightened the government."
Alexei Pichugin's mother said Russian authorities have denied requests to pardon her son but his lawyer plans to keep trying.
"I talked to him and he said he had nothing to do with any murder," she said.
Russia's government has repeatedly denied that it interferes in the administration of justice and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said prosecutions against the protesters over the summer were not politically motivated.
In a rare high-profile reversal in June, several senior Russian police commanders were fired after prominent investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was arrested on falsified drug charges. The Kremlin said "mistakes" were made and Golunov was freed after thousands took to Moscow's streets.
Kara-Murza said the Golunov case, along with the public backlash against the treatment of other protesters who were given harsh sentences, give him hope that the Russian public is tiring of seeing their courts and judicial processes usurped for political purposes.
"I think it's absolutely undeniable that there's definitely a change in the air," he told CBC News in an interview.
"It's very clear more [Russians] are starting to care."
Kara-Murza has called for Canada to use its so-called Magnitisky legislation, which allows the federal government to impose sanctions on foreign officials responsible for gross human rights violations, to punish high-level Russian justice officials complicit in persecuting political prisoners.
A report released in May identified Russia's prosecutor general, the director of the country's penitentiary service, along with judges and investigators, as deserving of economic and political sanctioning.
Alla Pichugin doesn't share Kara-Murza's optimism, however, that change may be afoot in her country.
"I think things are getting worse," she said.
But then she quickly added: "I think no matter what, we have to keep fighting. [Alexey] can't be in jail like this for so many years."