“Stand Against Absurdity and Unfairness”: Mathematicians Support Political Prisoner Azat Miftakhov

[This is an English version of an article that appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on June 29, 2021]

by Allyn Jackson

Last week mathematicians around the world joined in an expression of solidarity with one of its young members, 28-year-old Azat Miftakhov, a political prisoner in Russia.  He has been jailed for the past two and a half years and now faces a six-year prison term. 

A total of about 1.660 people tuned in to the live broadcast of the event, the Azat Miftakhov Day, which took place on Wednesday 16 June 2021 (the videos are now posted on YouTube).  Organized by the Miftakhov Committee, an international group of ten mathematicians, the event combined three mathematics lectures with information about Miftakhov’s case and expressions of concern and outrage by mathematicians from several countries.

“This is one of our colleagues, a member of our community, with whom we have shared work and mathematical dreams,” said Cédric Villani in his impassioned opening statement for the event.  Villani, who in 2010 received the Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics, now serves in the French National Assembly.  Focusing on Miftakhov could aid the approximately 100,000 prisoners of conscience the world over, he said.  “Mathematicians and scientists always have to stand against absurdity and unfairness.”

Born in the Russian republic of Tatarstan in 1993, Miftakhov showed early talent in mathematics and went on to study at Moscow State University, one of Russia’s major centers for mathematics.  As a student he got involved in anarchist movements.  By 2018 he had done brilliant work in probability theory and stochastic processes and was well on his way to get his PhD when he was suddenly arrested in February 2019, on charges of building explosives.

Three days later, the police, lacking evidence to support the charges, released Miftakhov—only to re-arrest him the same day, this time charging him with breaking a window of a building of the United Russia political party. The window had been broken more than a year before.  Two witnesses, whose identities have been kept secret, provided testimony.  One of the witnesses died in January 2020 and therefore could not be cross-examined.

“Does it not sound like a joke?” said Villani of the case against Miftakhov.  But it is no joke.  The trial took place in the last few months of 2020.  In January this year he was sentenced to six years in a penal colony on charges of “hooliganism” stemming from political hatred.  Throughout Miftakhov has steadfastly maintained his innocence.  He said he has been beaten and tortured, and human rights representatives have confirmed signs of this on his body.

After Alexei Navalny, Miftakhov is probably the best known political prisoner in Russia.  Two online petitions demand Miftakhov’s release: one in Russia has 86.000 signatures, and the other has 3.200 signatures of mathematicians from fifteen countries.  In January 2021, fifty members of the Russian Academy of Sciences signed a letter calling for the release of Miftakhov. Mathematical societies in Brazil, England, France, Italy, and the United States have made statements protesting his incarceration, as have human rights organizations.

One of the Russian mathematicians rallying to the cause is Anatoly Vershik, a professor in the St. Petersburg branch of the Steklov Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Born in 1933, Vershik spent much of his life under the Soviet system. It is obvious that the court had no proof of unlawful activity by Miftakhov, said Vershik in his presentation for Miftakhov Day.  Russia is “returning to a Soviet, Stalinist system and drifting further and further from a civilized norm.  Miftakhov’s case is an obvious demonstration of this fact.”

Russia has a stellar mathematical history.  The field flourished in the Soviet years, when mathematics provided a refuge for some of the nation’s most brilliant minds.  The Russian mathematical tradition was greatly weakened when many of the best mathematicians left after the fall of the USSR.  Recognizing the rebuilding of Russian mathematics over the past few decades, the International Mathematical Union (IMU) decided to hold its quadrennial congress in St. Petersburg in 2022.  The congress is the most important international event in mathematics and includes the awarding of the Fields Medals.

In January this year, 47 mathematicians, including the ten members of the Miftakhov Committee, signed a letter to the organizers of the congress.  “Attending the congress while our colleague Azat Miftakhov is arbitrarily detained will pose a serious dilemma for us and for the entire mathematical community,” they wrote.

While imprisoned Miftakhov has been able to do mathematical work, partly through correspondence with Russian mathematician Alexander Bufetov of the Institut de Mathématiques in Marseille and the Steklov Institute in Moscow.  Bufetov was one of the mathematical lecturers for the Miftakhov Day.  Before starting his lecture he looked straight into the camera and said the word “freedom” in eight languages.  One was Miftakhov’s native tongue of Tatar, where the word is “azatlyk”; his given name, Azat, means “free”.

The other mathematical lecturers were German mathematician and Fields Medalist Peter Scholze of the Universität Bonn and the Max-Planck-Institut für Mathematik in Bonn, and Ukrainian mathematician Maryna Viazovska of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

A week before Miftakhov Day, mathematicians received the grim news that Moscow City Court had denied Miftakhov’s final appeal.  He will be transferred to a penal colony any day now.  “I was more hopeful before the horrible six-year verdict,” said Bufetov.  But he and his colleagues are not giving up.

“We will not let go until Azat is free,” said Miftakhov Committee member Ahmed Abbes, a researcher at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques outside Paris.  “Our community’s long tradition of defending human rights has demonstrated that stubbornness pays off.”

Allyn Jackson is a freelance writer and editor with over 30 years of experience and a specialty in mathematics and theoretical computer science. She served as a senior writer and deputy editor of the Notices of the AMS.

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