Russia’s justice system has long been anything but: for years, the proportion of cases ending in acquittal in Russian courts has been less than one percent. With the latest bouquet of repressive laws criminalizing calling Russia’s Ukraine War a war, displaying a Ukrainian flag, or even holding up a blank poster, it’s clear that more and more dissidents will be standing trial.
The outcomes of political trials in Russia are mostly preordained, but activists have learned to use them as a way to speak out. Since the 1990s, Russian law has offered defendants an opportunity to deliver a speech before judges retire to make their decision. “The last word,” which can have no time limit or interruptions, has turned courtroom cages across the country into podiums where dissidents can exercise free speech, something that has long been banned by state media. These speeches may not be heard beyond the courtroom, but often they are printed by independent media and picked up by international newspapers.
We have chosen one such “last word,” given in April of this year by Vladimir Metyolkin, the 27-year-old former editor of DOXA, a student online magazine. He and three co-defendants, all young men and women, were put on trial after publishing a video of support addressing student protesters in early 2021. They were accused of “inciting minors to dangerous actions,” which can lead to a prison term of three years. In April 2022, the DOXA defendants were convicted and sentenced to two years of correctional labor. The original transcript was published in Russian by the news website Mediazona (Zona.media):
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