The Kremlin has long orchestrated the Russian justice system as a tool of repression and propaganda, using a veneer of legality to silence critics and impose its version of events.
Last December, for example, Russia’s Supreme Court liquidated the country’s most prominent human rights group, Memorial, and ruled that its work, which chronicled the brutality of the Stalin era, had distorted the Soviet Union’s historical image.
Months earlier, a Moscow court had condemned the political and anti-corruption organizations founded by Aleksei A. Navalny as “extremist” and ultimately sentenced the opposition leader to nine years in prison.
In 2020, Paul Whelan, a former US Marine, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage in a case widely viewed as a hostage situation by Russia. “Sham Trial!” mr. Whelan, still in custody, wrote on a piece of paper he held up in the courtroom.
The common thread in all these cases, analysts and opposition figures say, is that the verdict was staged to serve President Vladimir V. Putin with a coveted goal, such as belittling an opponent or supporting a propaganda point.
With nearly 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers from the besieged steel plant in Mariupol in Russian custody, the prospect of so-called show trials has resurfaced.
The fighters left the factory this week after maintaining the last line of defense in Mariupol, at a Soviet-era steel factory. The Ukrainian government said it had struck a deal for the exchange of fighters, but Moscow has not confirmed it.
At the same time, some Russian officials have pushed for a group of soldiers — members of the Azov battalion — to be labeled terrorists and to be tried for war crimes. The Russian stance has raised the prospect of laying the groundwork for high-profile lawsuits against the fighters that would advance its narrative of the war.
“Any case that Putin or his allies would want to manipulate will be manipulated,” said Ilya Novikov, a former Moscow lawyer who moved to Kiev three years ago. “You shouldn’t start by asking what the allegations are, you should start by asking what the outcome is.”
Mr Novikov was the lawyer for several Ukrainians accused in high-profile cases, including a 2018 episode in which Russia seized 24 Ukrainian sailors.
The Russian Defense Ministry has suggested that the Azov battalion formed the core of the force at the steel plant and estimated the initial number of those who surrendered at about 800. The unit’s far-right roots gave a gloss of credibility to the claim of Russia that it was fighting against Nazis, the reason it cites for invading its neighbor.
It is not yet clear whether Russia will continue with trials, but Moscow has sent out ominous signals. Russia’s Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing next Thursday to decide whether the Azov Brigade should be classified as a terrorist organization, a prosecutor general’s request; analysts say the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion.
The Commission of Inquiry, the FBI’s Russian equivalent, said it would question the fighters to investigate possible crimes against civilians. Members of the State Duma, or parliament, proposed banning Azov members from being exchanged for Russian prisoners. The State Department spokesman also suggested that some of the detained had committed war crimes.
A Russian soldier in Ukraine has already pleaded guilty to war crimes for shooting a civilian, so Moscow could try to show Ukrainian soldiers committed the same atrocities, Mr Novikov said. “It’s like a mirror reaction,” he said. “You have a trial, but we will have a more effective trial, with a lot more people being charged.”
Mr Putin suggested such processes in his February 24 speech announcing the invasion. “We will try to demilitarize and de-nazify Ukraine and bring to justice those who committed bloody crimes against civilians,” he said.
Even if the Kremlin didn’t issue a directive, that speech was enough for the bureaucracy to spring into action and spark more lawsuits, said Ivan Pavlov, a prominent human rights lawyer for suspects targeted by the security forces. He fled the country last year after they started chasing him, he said.
“Russian courts no longer have anything to do with the judicial organs of a democratic state,” said Mr Pavlov. “They are not guided by the law, but only by political needs, political ends.”
Show trials are part of the regular court proceedings that are held in regular courtrooms before a judge with prosecutors and lawyers arguing their side of the case. Despite all the official attributes, however, the outcome is almost never unexpected.
The trial of members of the Azov Brigade would serve multiple political purposes. Mr Putin could claim that he has taken down some of the “Nazi” oppressors he has falsely portrayed as leaders of Ukraine.
“We might suspect that he is seeking a show trial to first show that these so-called Nazis, whom he has invaded Ukraine to fight against, are real,” Mr Novikov said.
The trials would also highlight the capture of Mariupol, which might portray Moscow as a major achievement in a war with few of them. In addition, Moscow wants to reduce the fighters of Azov, a group that has come to represent Ukrainians fortitude and courage after weeks in the steel factory.
“Russia wants to say that they are not heroes, but terrorists and other things,” said Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in a Russian prison for resisting the annexation of his native Crimea in 2014.
Mr Sentsov, 45, a political activist, was charged with terrorism, charged with setting fire to the door to the headquarters of the ruling party in Crimea and plotting to blow up a statue of Lenin. No evidence was presented in court. He spent about five years in prison.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Russia’s punishment of Finland. Russia will stop supplying natural gas to Finland on May 21, the Finnish state energy supplier said. Russia said it was suspending delivery because Finland had failed to comply with its demand to make payments in rubles. Finland has also applied to join NATO, much to Russia’s anger.
“It was theatre, everyone played their part,” said Mr Sentsov, who rang the doorbell from Sloviansk in Donbas, where he is fighting the Russians. His second feature film, “Rhino”, debuts on Netflix on Monday.
In 2019, Russia and Ukraine agreed to exchange 35 prisoners, including Mr Sentsov and all the sailors seized the year before who never went to trial.
The Russians made that exchange conditional on the release of Volodymyr Tsemach, Mr Novikov said. Mr Tsemach was considered a potential key witness to an investigation into whether Russian-backed separatists shot down a Malaysian civilian plane over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.
Mr Whelan, who is a British, Canadian, Irish and American citizen, was arrested in a Moscow hotel in December 2018. A Russian he knew handed him a USB stick containing photos that Mr. Whelan believed were souvenir photos, but Russian officials said it contained classified military information.
It was widely believed that the Russians grabbed Mr Whelan to exchange him for a prominent Russian prisoner in the United States, but no such exchange has emerged.
Another American, Brittney Griner, one of the most decorated athletes in women’s basketball, has been in custody since February for drug possession, accused of having traces of hash oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport. She faces up to 10 years in prison.
Mr Putin inaugurated show trials shortly after his term as president began in 2000. In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon and one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen, made public his opposition to Mr Putin by challenging him over corruption in high places at a televised national Kremlin rally. Months later, he was arrested on charges of tax evasion and fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison before moving abroad after Mr Putin pardoned him.
Some of the most infamous trials in Russian history were held in the late 1930s, used by Stalin to eliminate dozens of Bolshevik old guards who made up known charges of torture and were executed. That coincided with hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens being sent to labor camps.