(New York, NY) – On Thursday, a Russian court reportedly rejected an urgent appeal to immediately release historian, writer, and human rights advocate Yury Dmitriev due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the detention center where he’s being held. Dmitriev, 64, is head of the Karelia branch of the human rights group Memorial and has been persecuted on trumped-up charges since 2016.

This week, more than 150 Russian scholars, public intellectuals, and PEN members demanded his release in light of the risk that Dmitriev could contract the virus and that his age and poor physical condition make him particularly vulnerable.

“The refusal to release Dmitriev at this moment is an act of cruelty and yet another absurdity in his case,” said PEN America’s Eurasia program director Polina Sadovskaya. “In the face of charges widely seen as politically motivated, and the threat posed by COVID-19, the Russian authorities should take this opportunity to right the wrong they have done to Dmitriev by continuing to harass and detain him despite his initial acquittal. COVID-19 poses a particular threat to those in detention and prisons everywhere, and we call on the Russian authorities not to endanger lives unnecessarily, but instead to release Dmitriev and all others held on politically motivated charges.”

Dmitriev has worked to uncover and document mass graves from the era of Stalinist purges. He was first arrested in 2016 on charges of sexual misconduct involving children–a charge the Russian government has used before to discredit those it wishes to silence–and acquitted in 2018. That acquittal was overturned just two months later, and new charges were brought against him for which he faces up to 20 years in prison; he remains in pre-trial detention. In 2018, the OSCE expressed concern that Dmitriev’s arrest was “in response to…his work as a historian…investigating crimes committed during the Stalinist era.”


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