Despite a lack of material evidence, and no established intention of harm, three Russian 14-year-olds are facing lengthy prison sentences after being charged with "training for terrorist activities" in a case that initially alleged the schoolboys were planning to destroy a virtual Federal Security Service (FSB) building they created in the popular computer game Minecraft.
The case, which has attracted widespread attention due to the age of the accused and the notion that child's play could constitute terrorism, appears to have entered a sort of legal Nether -- Minecraft's hell-like alternate dimension.
Russia's Investigative Committee earlier this year dismissed the original case opened in November against schoolmates Nikita Uvarov, Denis Mikhailenko, and Bogdan Andreyev after determining that their relationship did not have the necessary structure, subdivisions, or distribution of functions "to regard this group as a terrorist community."
And the remaining charges against them under Article 205.3 of the Russian Criminal Code -- "training for the purpose of carrying out terrorist activities" -- no longer cite their alleged plans to "blow up" an "FSB building" in Minecraft as evidence they had established an online terrorist network.
But the pupils at School No. 21 in the Krasnoyarsk Krai city of Kansk are not in safe mode by any means: The three still face from seven to 10 years in prison on charges that stem from their detention nearly a year ago for pasting leaflets supporting a jailed anarchist on the local FSB department building.
Following their arrest in June after two days of interrogation, investigators determined that the boys had constructed at least one Molotov cocktail and set it alight in Kansk in March 2020. The following May, prosecutors allege, the three used another Molotov cocktail to set fire to an abandoned building.
And at some point between late May and early June they allegedly produced and detonated an "Ammokisa" explosive, for which investigators did not provide a gauge of strength but which was reportedly a crude and weak device using antiseptic tablets.
To buttress the argument that the three were engaged in dangerous activities, investigators have reportedly homed in on communication shared between the three on Telegram and VKontakte in which they discussed the American rock musician Kurt Cobain and his "fierce revolutionary struggle," the "Yellow Vests" movement in France and anti-government protests in Belarus, and the tsarist-era Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin.
The three schoolboys have been described by their parents and school officials as curious yet rebellious students with an interest in anarchy.
"They were normal children, like usual, like other kids," school director Sergei Kreminsky told Current Time in September, three months after they were arrested after pasting leaflets supporting jailed university student Azat Miftakhov on the building of the local FSB department. "In the case of some of their parents there was insufficient control. They were rude, snapped sometimes at school."
That the three were facing serious charges, the school director and current city-council deputy representing the pro-Kremlin United Russia party said: "Well, since the investigation is under way, it means they are guilty, I think. What else?"
The boys did not hide their interest in chemistry from their parents, and Svetlana Mikhailenko, Denis's mother, told Current Time recently that she was aware of their pyrotechnic activities.
"I always knew where the child was, even when they were making these bombs," she said. "But it was a small, childish prank, a child's bomb."
Svetlana Mikhailenko also told the Russian-language media network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA that the investigators skewed the boys' testimony, replacing their description of the devices as "bombochki" -- little bombs -- with "bombs," and focusing on the amount of material required to make them.
Anna Uvarova, Nikita's mother, spoke to Current Time following an April 16 court hearing. She said in the family's apartment that following her son's detention in June, investigators searched her home from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., seizing but eventually returning a toy musket that she shows to the cameras.
But after they realized that a case was being built against the three boys, "we looked at what was in their phones" and saw that they had recorded a video of them throwing a Molotov cocktail.
'Evidence' Working Against Them
The case against the three boys contains no material evidence -- no caches of explosives, no weapons. And while Vladimir Vasin, a lawyer for the Russian legal-defense organization Agora who is representing Uvarov, cited a previous case in which an activist in Russia was imprisoned for 10 years for throwing a Molotov cocktail in a public case, in this case there was no harm, and no intention of harm.
"The guys were really cooking something up with chemicals and were playing with something," Vasin said. "But they went far into a field, to a deserted place, and did it there."
"One was very fond of history, the other loved chemistry," he said of the boys. "And as I know my client, he had no thoughts of doing anything" more.
Unfortunately, Vasin said, to Russian prosecutors "the go-to recipe is a confession -- the queen of evidence."
Mikhailenko and Andreyev each provided confessions of guilt -- while facing a mix of "pressure, threats, and promises," according to the news site Baza -- to "undergoing training in order to carry out terrorist activities" following the initial interrogations into their pasting leaflets on the FSB building.
The two have since retracted their confessions and Mikhailenko's mother, in comments to Current time, said that investigators tricked the parents into implicating their own children.
Uvarov refused to confess -- a decision the teens' parents believe led the FSB to accuse him of being the leader of a group they say never existed, and of sending him immediately to pretrial detention, where he has remained for 11 months.
The case has drawn comparisons to other cases in which young people in Russia with views not in step with the official line have been accused of extremism and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.
Miftakhov, the avowed anarchist and graduate student at Moscow State University for whom the three teens were expressing support in their leaflets, stands as a prominent example.
In January, the 25-year-old was sentenced to six years in prison for aggravated "hooliganism" after being found guilty of involvement in an arson attack against the ruling United Russia party's office in Moscow in 2018.
The Russian human rights organization Memorial has said that his body showed signs of torture that Miftakhov, who denies the charges against him, said were the result of investigators' attempts to force a confession.
In late 2020, eight young men and women were found guilty of charges that they had created an extremist group called New Greatness with the intention of overthrowing President Vladimir Putin’s government. The eight received punishments ranging from four-year suspended sentences to seven years' imprisonment after an FSB agent infiltrated their chat group and suggested they turn it into a political movement.
Another alleged member received an 18-month prison sentence in 2019 after cutting a deal with investigators, and yet another left the country and applied for asylum in Ukraine. All 10 are considered by Memorial to be political prisoners.
Also in 2020, a regional court's decision in Penza was described as "heinous" after seven activists belonging to a group called Set -- or the Network -- were sentenced to prison terms of six to 18 years after being found guilty of planning terrorist attacks to destabilize Russia's presidential election and hosting of the World Cup in 2018.
The defendants all said the group never existed, and that while they shared anti-fascist views they merely played BB-gun war games together. Several of the young men said they were subjected to torture in order to extract their confessions.
Human rights groups believe the case was fabricated by the state as a signal to others who express political views that run counter to the government.
Date With Destiny
Today, Nikita Uvarov, Denis Mikhailenko, and Bogdan Andreyev sit in pretrial detention awaiting their own trial, for which a date has yet to be set.
Uvarov's lawyer Vasin, speaking while riding on a train to see his client, falls short of saying the entire case was fabricated, but does note that there have been three cases accusing adolescents of terrorism in Krasnoyarsk Krai in the last year alone.
He said he struggles to imagine how such situations involving youths play out.
"My colleagues and I were discussing how it could have been done -- invite the police to the children's room, I don’t know, to summon the director of the school to for a meeting" to try to talk and sort things out," Vasin said. "But instead, boom! -- immediately to interrogation. Two days of interrogation. A third interrogation. Endless interrogations."
Ten years ago, he said, the matter might have been settled by a spanking with a belt, but "now everything is different. And it will get worse."