A court in the Russian city of Bryansk has sentenced a local doctor named Michelle to three years in prison, a term experts say is likely to result in her death. Michelle, a 53-year-old transgender woman, was convicted of “distributing pornography depicting minors,” which can carry a term of up to six years in Russia. Maria Chashchilova, an attorney for the Moscow Community Center for LGBT Initiatives (MCC), told Novaya Gazeta about the sentence on November 30.
The criminal case against Michelle was opened in 2018, about four years after she posted several erotic manga illustrations, or hentai, on the social network VKontakte. The VKontakte profile in question had been inactive for at least a year when the case began, but the charges stemming from it ultimately resulted in Michelle’s firing from the children’s hospital where she worked as an endocrinologist.
According to Radio Svoboda, which gained access to the bill of indictment against Michelle, an “expert examination” concluded that the drawings posted on VKontakte included “individuals who have not yet reached 14 years of age,” including a “12-year-old” male. The drawings themselves contained no precise indication of the age assigned to the manga characters portrayed in them. The examination in Michelle’s case was conducted by the Center for Sociocultural Expert Examinations, which has also provided support for cases against Pussy Riot and Jehovah’s Witnesses members as well as a child pornography case against a prominent Gulag historian in Petrozavodsk.
Lada Preobrazhenskaya, a friend of Michelle’s, told Novaya Gazeta that the pornography investigation reached an active stage at the end of summer 2019, and Michelle subsequently signed an agreement not to leave Bryansk while her case was under consideration. Preobrazhenskaya added that her friend had refused help in searching and paying for an attorney because she initially felt the accusations against her wouldn’t lead anywhere: “The investigators were giggling, everybody was giggling, and Michelle said nobody was taking it seriously,” the doctor’s friend explained. In a subsequent interview with Radio Svoboda, Preobrazhenskaya added that Michelle and her wife also refused help because they were afraid their situation would become public as a result.
Chashchilova and Preobrazhenskaya said Michelle had a court-appointed attorney who convinced her to take a plea deal in hopes of receiving a suspended sentence. However, Chashchilova added that “Michelle initially looked for a lawyer and human rights advocates for a long time — she was prepared to fight. And then she threw up her hands and said she would confess to all of it.” Chashchilova noted that she had only been in touch with Michelle through VKontakte in the 10 days preceding the doctor’s sentencing and therefore did not have access to her case materials. However, the MCC’s Facebook page indicated on November 29 that Chashchilova had seen Michelle’s case, and the attorney herself said she had read the endocrinologist’s sentence.
Michelle had not yet undergone gender reassignment surgery or changed the gender and name listed on her passport, meaning that she may be assigned to a men’s prison colony. According to Radio Svoboda, she has already been sent to a men’s cell in a pretrial detention center. Lada Preobrazhenskaya told Radio Svoboda that while her friend was active in the trans community, Michelle’s colleagues and her wife were unaware of her identity until the case against her was brought forward. She also may not have mentioned her gender identity while going through the legal system: Preobrazhenskaya said investigators would probably not have known the difference between being trans and being gay in any case.
“Our country isn’t prepared to solve transgender people’s problems, so a lot of people solve their problems themselves,” Preobrazhenskaya said, explaining that endocrinologists and psychiatrists who specialize in transgender care are rare “in Russia as a whole, let alone in the Bryansk region,” leaving many individuals to seek hormone therapy outside the medical system. “I still tell everybody that you can’t do it that way; you have to consult with doctors. I told Michelle, too, and she would respond that yeah, she has to, she has to, but she wasn’t able to do it in time,” her friend concluded.
MCC Director Tatiana Vinnichenko told Radio Svoboda that “if Michelle’s transgender status is not accounted for in her treatment in prison, she will die there.” Chashchilova agreed that the doctor may not survive her time in pretrial detention and prison for multiple reasons. “Michelle […] probably doesn’t have a medical report confirming her gender transition, and that means she may not have access to hormonal treatment in prison. That’s very dangerous. Michelle has [bladder] cancer in remission. Insufficient hormones would cause her chronic illnesses to worsen,” the attorney noted, adding that Michelle has officially recognized disabilities. According to Radio Svoboda, the sentence may also threaten Michelle’s parents, who are both over 80 and rely on her care.
Chashchilova also explained that Michelle is likely to face violence at the hands of other inmates, especially if she is sent to a men’s prison colony. “If she can realign to present herself under a man’s name and behave like a man, then she’d have at least some chance [of surviving], at least for some time,” the attorney said. Vinnichenko agreed that “the threat stems primarily from other prisoners” even though individual prison administrators in Russia have made efforts to prevent the deaths of trans inmates in the past. Chashchilova does not yet know where Michelle will serve her sentence and has submitted a request to the local Social Monitoring Commission in an attempt to learn more about the state of the doctor’s health.