(New York, NY) — On Wednesday, a Russian court in the Karelia region sentenced Russian historian Yury Dmitriev to three and a half years in prison. Dmitriev’s case, based on unfounded child pornography charges, is widely believed to be politically motivated in relation to his research into mass killings in the Stalin era. The groundless conviction against Dmitriev should be vacated and he should be released immediately, PEN America said today.

“Dmitriev’s sentence is a deplorable development and a hard hit to the academic community in Russia,” said PEN America’s Eurasia program director Polina Sadovskaya. “Given the government’s previous attempts to silence its critics with pretextual charges, today’s verdict is particularly suspect. In the eyes of the Russian government, which is so eager to rewrite and whitewash its country’s history, Dmitriev is seen as a dissident for his historical inquiry and efforts to tell the truth of the Stalin era. But pursuing academic research and illuminating crucial findings about the past should merit celebration, not harassment and prosecution.”

Dmitriev, a historian and human rights activist, is best known for his work documenting the mass executions of Stalin’s “Great Terror” in the area of Karelia, located in northwest Russia. Through his work, the gravesites of thousands of victims of the Great Terror have been located. Dmitriev is also head of the Karelian branch of Memorial, one of Russia’s best-known human rights organizations. Dmitriev’s work is acclaimed by the international academic community, and his trial is believed by many—including the European Union and the government of the United Kingdom—to have been fabricated under bogus pretenses because it undermines President Putin’s attempts to erase Stalin-era crimes.

Dmitriev was first arrested in 2016 on child pornography charges for possessing photographs of his naked child. Dmitriev denied the charges, noting that the sole reason for taking those photographs was to document his child’s health, and was acquitted in 2018. The Supreme Court of Karelia, however, overturned his acquittal two months later and accused Dmitriev of sexually assaulting his daughter. The verdict comes almost three years after his initial detention. Dmitriev is set to be released in November. 

Click here to read Dmitriev’s closing statement to the court.