The international mathematical community is deeply concerned about the situation of Azat Miftakhov, the graduate student from Moscow State University who has been detained by Russian state authorities since February 2019.
Mathematicians are appalled and horrified by the verdict of Golovinsky District Court, announced on January 18, 2021, condemning him to “six years in prison with serving a sentence in a general regime colony.” “Miftakhov’s rehabilitation is possible only in isolation from society in a medium-security penal colony,” the court decided.
Azat is a talented young mathematician who comes from the Tatarstan region in the Russian Federation. Already in school he won prizes in several math competitions and received support given to talented young people by the Ministry of Education and Science. As a student in Moscow he became involved with the anarchist movement. In February 2019, right after his return from a conference in Nizhni Novgorod where Azat gave his first talk in English, he was detained by the police and accused of manufacturing explosives. He was tortured at the police station. After three days Azat was released, since the court found no evidence to justify his detention. He was immediately detained in the backyard of the police station and accused of destruction of an office window of the United Russia political party, an act which had taken place more than a year earlier. He has been kept in jail since then. The lack of evidence in Azat’s case is disturbing, as is the fact that, for most of the time since his arrest, he has remained in pre-trial detention. Azat pleaded not guilty.
The charges against him are based on the testimonies of two secret “witnesses”. One of them is said to have recognized him by his “expressive eyebrows” (as the smoke-bomb throwers wore masks). He gave his first testimony almost a year after the incident. He explained that he saw Miftakhov at the United Russia office, but he couldn’t call the police at the time because his phone was dead. He remembered the incident only after he saw the news of Miftakhov’s arrest in February 2019. This secret “witness” died on January 15, 2020, several months before the trial and thus his testimony has not been cross-examined by the defense.
The other “witness” wasn’t present at the crime scene and testified only regarding Mitakhov’s membership in the anarchist movement People’s Self-Defense. During the hearing at the Golovinsky Court on October 13, this “witness” participated by video link from the courtroom of the Second Western District Military Court (the hearing itself was closed to journalists and the public due to the coronavirus). Nikita Taranishchenko, the lawyer of a co-defendant in the same trial, noted that the witness’s statements differed significantly from the information given during the investigation. The “witness” himself admitted during the hearing that much of his testimony about Miftakhov was only speculation.
In court, Miftakhov denied the accusations and declared his case a “fabrication”.
Russia’s main human rights organization, Memorial Human Rights Centre, has declared Miftakhov a political prisoner :
“Memorial Human Rights Centre considers that the prosecution of Azat Miftakhov is an unequivocal example of the use of pseudo-legal procedures to close down civil society activity unwelcome to the authorities (…) the use of torture did not help the law enforcement agents to plausibly fabricate the criminal case (…) the offences with which he has been accused were so lacking in substance that he was remanded in custody only on the third attempt, something that is virtually unheard of.”
Memorial is referring in this extract to the Court declining the prosecution’s request to arrest him twice for “insufficient evidence”.
The Inter-regional Union of professionals of higher education “University Solidarity” issued a statement on Miftakhov on August 3, 2019:
Заявление Центрального Совета профсоюза «Университетская солидарность» в связи с арестом аспиранта МГУ Азата Мифтахова
The statement notes the torture of Miftakhov and that “it is impossible to send him mathermatical literature”. The Union states that “it is necessary that Miftakhov be released from remand detention” and urges [Miftakhov’s] “colleagues-mathematicians to support this initiative”. Miftakhov’s lawyer requests the alternative of house arrest for Miftakhov until his trial takes place.
On January 16, 2019, threats to Miftakhov appeared in the anonymous Telegram page “Officer leaked” (“Опер Слил” https://t.me/s/operdrain/17490) presumably connected to the security forces. There is a photo of Miftakhov’s passport in the post, “greetings from Nizhni Novgorod” (literally) to the anarchists from Narodnaya Samooborona and a threat to Azat expressed in profanity.
Miftakhov’s arrest and torture happened soon after that, in early February:
Miftakhov declared to his lawyer to have been tortured by an electric-powered screwdriver. Mr Valery Borshchyov, member of the Independent Commission for Monitoring Prisons (Oбщественная наблюдательная комиссия), confirmed that Miftakhov has been tortured. “He has wounds on his body, on his neck. I saw traces of torture by an electric-powered screwdriver,” Borshchyov said (Radio Free Europe).This statement is also reported in an article of Novaya Gazeta.
Miftakhov’s arrest was filmed and diffused by the state-owned TV Russia-24 (starting at 0:20). This extremely shocking report which violates Miftakhov’s fundamental rights is not the only one broadcast by Russia-24. Another disgusting report aired on April 11, 2019 could even endanger his life.
There has never been an investigation into torture and the court has never ruled on this issue. There has been a pre-investigation check (доследственная проверка) but there was never a real investigation.
Pressure on Miftakhov’s family
Another disturbing issue about Miftakhov’s case is the pressure on his family by the state authorities. On June 6, 2019, Miftakhov’s stepfather and minor sister were called without summons to the police in Nizhnekamsk, where they live. There, according to relatives of Miftakhov, they were threatened with “problems” at work and at school if they did not stop supporting him.
Miftakhov’s previous conviction
Miftakhov was convicted in an earlier case in 2017. According to a BBC report, on the night of May 19-20, 2017, Miftakhov and a friend walked around Moscow and met two unidentified young people who, while walking, began to break the outdoor video surveillance cameras. On the street Tverskaya-Yamskaya 3, the police tried to stop them, but Miftakhov and a friend rushed to run. The police caught up with them, and then the fugitives took out cans of pepper spray and sprayed them into the eyes of the pursuers. Despite this, they were detained. Miftakhov and the second detainee fully admitted their guilt and were sentenced to fines of 45 thousand rubles each. The court took into account that Miftakhov “is exclusively positively characterized, provides materially to parents and a minor sister and made a public apology to the victim”, and also voluntarily compensated him for the damage caused.
This judgment cannot turn into a sword of Damocles which weighs indefinitely on Miftakhov, much less a reason to fabricate for him crimes he did not commit.
After numerous delays, the trial started on July 8, 2020 and lasted until December 23, 2020. Journalists and the public were not allowed into the courtroom due to the coronavirus restrictions.
According to the prosecution, on January 31, 2018, five people attacked the United Russia office in the Khovrino district of the capital. Elena Gorban is charged with breaking the window with a hammer, Alexei Kobaidze threw a smoke bomb into the office, Alexei Eikin filmed everything that happened, Svyatoslav Rechkalov posted a recording on the Internet, and Azat Miftakhov stood close by and watched the situation. Kaboidze and Rechkalov have left Russia and are currently on the international wanted list. Gorban and Eikin are co-defendants in the case, they partially admitted their guilt, and the prosecution requested suspended sentences for them. According to Novaya Gazeta, experts do not classify the smoke bomb thrown into the United Russia office as a weapon.
The court accuses Miftakhov of only being present and of witnessing an act of vandalism. The prosecution requested 6 years of prison for him.
According to a recent article, “throughout the preliminary and then judicial investigation, Miftakhov declared his innocence and refused to admit his guilt. His words are confirmed by the testimony of Eikin and Gorban, who stated that on January 31, 2018, Azat was not with them.”
According to another recent article, Eikin, who pleaded guilty, claims he hasn’t ever met Miftakhov. Another protagonist of the trial, Alexei Kobaidze, couldn’t recognize Azat during a police lineup. This information is confirmed in a Telegram post by Miftakhov’s lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina.
Miftakhov’s statement in the court on December 23 is available here.
During his detention Azat Miftakhov has managed to publish two mathematical preprints on arxiv. Dr Sergey Berezin, who co-signed with him one these articles entitled “On barycenters of probability measures” (Bull. Pol. Acad. Sci. Math. 68 (2020), no. 1, 11–20; arxiv), wrote:
“At the end of 2018, I participated in the conference on probability and mathematical physics for young mathematicians, organized in Saint-Petersburg Department of Steklov Institute. Another participant was Azat Miftakhov. He was giving a nice talk about estimating the Kantorovich distance between invariant measures of two Ito diffusions via the corresponding drift and diffusion coefficients. Later on, I learned about Azat’s arrest. Also, I learned that Azat was working on the characterization theorems for barycenters ofmeasures on infinitely dimensional spaces and got to read Azat’s notes. It was clear that the author no doubt has great mathematical potential. Many core problems had already been solved in the notes; and I tried myself to finish some related open ones. Then, I sent an email with my ideas to Azat. In several weeks or so I got the response, and we started exchanging emails back and forth until the preprint was ready. The most annoying part of the whole process was the delays– as I learned later, my emails were relayed via several people, printed, and only then delivered to the detention center where Azat is. At the end of the day, I am happy to realize that we have succeeded in publishing this paper.”
Professor Alexander Bufetov wrote on August 8, 2019 to the AMS Committee on the Human Rights of Mathematicians, the following message:
“In winter 2018, Azat Miftakhov gave a brilliant talk on his thesis work at an annual international young mathematicians’ conference in Saint-Petersburg organized by Ildar Ibragimov and myself. Miftakhov’s main result is an interesting estimate on the Kantorovich distance between stationary distributions of diffusions in terms of the coefficients of the corresponding Kolmogorov equations. This result is amply sufficient for a Ph.D. thesis. Miftakhov appeared to be well on track towards his Ph.D. defence planned for 2019. I was impressed by Miftakhov’s professional potential and encouraged him to apply for the conference and school of the CIRM Jean Morlet Chair that Tamara Grava and I organized in Luminy this last spring term. Miftakhov’s sudden arrest put an end to these plans.
Miftakhov is deprived of the opportunity to practise his profession in gaol. Prison regulations forbid most of Mathematics monographs and all Mathematics journal papers. Prison correspondence is subject to censorship. In Miftakhov’s letter to me about his work, the mathematical formula was censored out. In these conditions, Miftakhov cannot complete his thesis.”
Professor Anatoly Vershik, the former president of the St. Petersburg Mathematical Society, a member of the European Academy of Sciences, a Humboldt Prize laureate, chief researcher of the St. Petersburg section of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Novaya Gazeta on January 10, 2021:
“Actions in support of Azat began immediately after he, the only one of the accused, was imprisoned. Azat’s colleagues and students of Moscow State University have repeatedly stated that the criminal case was falsified. We mathematicians are meticulous people, we need proofs. Gradually, even the most conservative skeptics became aware of the absurdity of the situation around Azat Miftakhov. And although he is still very young and did not have time to make a significant contribution to science, the cynicism that is going on around this talented young man (even while behind bars, he managed to publish two scientific papers), made mathematicians from all over the world take part in his fate.
The International Mathematical Congress is held every four years, and this is a significant event in the world scientific community. Petersburg vied for the right to host the congress with Paris, and members of the executive committee leaned towards France. The Russian spokesman said the Russian authorities were ready to grant visa-free travel to all participants, and that tipped the scales.
The letter, signed by 2,500 scientists from around the world, says: ‘Freedom is one of the highest values for us as scientists’. Attending the congress while our colleague Azat Miftakhov is arbitrarily detained will pose a serious dilemma for us and for the entire mathematical community.’ And I completely agree with that.”
Petition in support of Azat Miftakhov signed by more than 3000 mathematicians from more than 15 countries
Letter of concern from Jill Pipher, the President of the AMS, to the court where Miftakhov is on trial, urging Russian law enforcement authorities to exercise leniency and compassion in the verdict
“Manifestação a favor de Azat Miftakhov” of the Brazilian Mathematical Society
Statement of concern of the Italian Mathematical Society
Another Political Activist Jailed in Russia : Human Rights Watch’s statement “Azat Miftakhov’s conviction is clearly unjust and unfair, and authorities should immediately and unconditionally overturn it.”
Further useful links and a timeline of the case are available on miftakhov.org.