In unrecognized Transnistria, a retiree faces criminal charges for ‘anti-Russian’ rhetoric

Screenshot from video interview with the defendant, published on “Zona de Securitate” human rights monitoring website.

A 70-year-old retiree from Tiraspol stands accused of offending the president of Transnistria and “denying the positive role of Russian peacekeepers” in the unrecognized republic, according to public records revealed recently.

The charges against Mikhail Yermuraki were brought in February 2020 after he had a disagreement with the director of a secondary school in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, about the rationale for installing a memorial plaque in the school's premises to honor a Russian soldier killed in Syria.

Yermuraki was also charged with “inciting interethnic hatred,” though this charge was later retracted. His is the first case in the unrecognized republic to be prosecuted under a 2016 law that forbids citizens of Transnistria from publicly criticizing the Russian peacekeeping mission. The defendant is currently under a travel ban.

The case was first brought to public attention in December 2020 by Nikolay Kuzmin, a Russian-speaking blogger living in Transnistria, who wrote a note about it on his Telegram channel.

Earlier this month, “Zona de Securitate,” a Romanian-language Moldovan website monitoring human rights violations in Transnistria, published an interview with Yermuraki, in which he detailed what happened.

Transnistria (or Pridnestrovie) is a breakaway state on the border of Moldova and Ukraine that separated from Moldova in the early 1990s amid an armed conflict. The global community and Moldova do not recognize the de facto state of Transnistria, but consider it an autonomous territorial unit within Moldova with special legal status. In September 2016, the authorities of self-proclaimed Transnistria held a referendum, as a result of which they began preparations for joining the Russian Federation. Russian peacekeeping forces have had a long-standing presence in the republic, and the situation around Transnistria is often characterized as a “frozen conflict.”

He says the criminal case was launched against him at the end of 2019 after he had a debate with Tamara Gaydarly, the principal of a local secondary school, about a memorial plaque commemorating the death of a Russian soldier who was an alumnus of the school.

During the private discussion, Yermuraki says, the principal asked him provocative questions such as, “What existed earlier — Moldova or Romania?” and “Which language do you speak — Moldovan or Romanian?”

In response, Yermuraki, who was already known in the community for his critical views of Transnistrian authorities, offered the principal to peruse a text he previously wrote which outlined his stance.

The school principal secretly recorded the debate and passed the recording on to the Ministry of State Security of Transnistria. Soon after, the criminal case was opened against Yermuraki.

In the interview, the defendant said that it was his critical views on the status of Transnistria and the role of Russian peacekeeping forces that led to his prosecution:

Меня обвиняют в трех преступлениях: оскорбление президента ПМР, что категорически запрещено на оккупированной территории России; второе — оскорбление российских миротворцев, которых я называю оккупантами, и третье, наиболее абсурдное из них, — разжигание межнациональной расовой и религиозной ненависти на территории ПМР. 

I stand accused of three crimes: offending the president of PMR (Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, Transnistria's official name), which is expressly forbidden on Russia-occupied territory; second, offending Russian peacekeepers, who I call occupants; and third, and the most absurd, is inciting inter-ethnic racial and religious hatred on the territory of PMR.

The prosecution's side

On February 5, legal information center “Apriori,” one of the few remaining rights groups in Transnistria, published a detailed analysis of the criminal indictment in Mikhail Yermuraki's case.

According to the prosecution, Yermuraki wrote an article in 2006 titled “Thoughts about the obvious in ‘PMR'” in which he lays out critical views of the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian government and Russia’s involvement in the peacekeeping process.

During his debate with the school principal, according to the prosecution's statement, Yermuraki allegedly used “a number of offensive terms” to refer to the president of Transnistria, including “hired hand,” “puppet,” as well as other “demonstrably false statements about his activities.” This prompted the charge according to article 316-1 of the Transnistrian criminal code, “offending the president of Transnistria.” 

The criminal indictment also alleges that the official representative of the president of Transnistria in the state administration, T. Kharakhalup, “showed that the president reviewed the public statements made by Yermuraki and found them to be offensive, both as a private citizen and as a representative of the authorities, undermining his authority in the eyes of the public, and as such found these actions to be criminal.”

During his questioning in February 2020, the document says, Yermuraki did not plead guilty and “explained that the charges against him were brought by an illegal authority [and that they are] false.”

Public reaction

The subscribers of Kuzmin's Telegram blog were quick to react to the news. Alex, one of the subscribers, aimed their criticism directly at Russian President Vladimir Putin and rebuked him for tacitly supporting the efforts of Transnistrian authorities who launch “such cases without any apparent criminal substance, which are aimed at clearing the information space” (original spelling and punctuation preserved):

И вообще надо быть идиотом, чтоб стать на такой шаткий стульчик, как нелигитимное президентство в ПМР, да ещё размахивать пером, подписывая людоедские законы. Это публицистика. Идиотские мысли в публицистике должны осуждаться читателем и союзом журналистов, а не судом, да еще до пяти лет заключения. Иногда через резкие и радикальные высказывания автор пытается передать градус своего отношения к чему-либо, прекрасно осознавая, что никто и никогда не последует его строкам.

One has to be an idiot to climb on the shaky stool of the illegitimate presidency of the PMR and to wave your pen around signing such draconian laws. This is just current affairs essay-writing. Silly thoughts in current affairs essays should be ostracized by readers and the union of journalists, not sanctioned by the court with up to five years behind bars. Sometimes an author might strive to communicate the degree of their views on something through sharp or radical statements, fully mindful of the fact that no one will ever follow their call.

The court proceedings in Yermuraki's case are ongoing. The defendant faces a sentence of up to five years in prison. Stepan Popovskiy, a lawyer with legal information center “Apriori,” says that the case may go as far as the European Court of Human Rights:

У меня не вызывает сомнений, что это дело, если будет вынесен обвинительный приговор, окажется в Европейском суде по правам человека  с жалобой на нарушение ряда статей Европейской конвенции о защите прав человека и основных свобод, среди которых обязательно будет статья 10 Конвенции.

I have no doubt that, should a guilty verdict be pronounced, the case will reach the European Court of Human Rights with an appeal based on the violation of a number of articles of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, including Article 10 of the Convention. [Article 10 of the Convention provides for freedom of expression as “necessary in a democratic society” — ed.]

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