The February sentences pronounced by a Russian military court against those accused of membership in a terrorist organization called "Network" have not put an end to the controversy over the case. What appeared to be excessive severity has only further enflamed the controversy over whether justice was done or whether we are dealing with innocents who were victims of torture and convicted on spurious evidence. Interestingly, the usual divide was blurred in this case, with leaders of the pro-system opposition enlisting in the defendants' behalf, while a usually liberal outlet published a report painting the defendants as drug dealers and even murderers.
A survey of the twists and turns in the case follows below:
Demonstrators demand freedom for the defendants (Source: Rbc.ru)
On February 10, 2020, the Military Court of the Volga District pronounced sentencing on the "terrorist" organization "Network".
Dmitry Pchelintsev was sentenced to 18 years in a maximum security prison; Ilya Shakursky was sentenced to 16 years in a maximum security prison; Andrei Chernov was sentenced to 14 years in a maximum security prison; Maxim Ivankin was sentenced to 13 years in a maximum security prison; Mikhail Kulkov was sentenced to 10 years in a maximum security prison; Vasily Kuksov was sentenced to 9 years in a penal colony, and Arman Sagynbaev received a 6-year sentence to a penal colony.
These young men were activists, some considered themselves anti-fascists or anarchists. They were mainly charged under article 205.4 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code (CC) - "Organization of a terrorist community and participation in it". The oldest of the convicted was 31 years old the youngest was 25. During the investigation, defendants reported that they had been tortured and subjected to physical and psychological pressure by the law enforcement agencies. The FSB led the investigation.
In the fall of 2017, FSB officers in Penza detained Egor Zorin a Penza University student (under the charge of narcotics possession). After his arrest, Zorin turned state's evidence and testified against other Penza city residents: Ilya Shakursky, Vasily Kuksov, Dmitry Pchelintsev and Andrei Chernov. Soon after, the FSB opened a case under Article 205.4 of the CC.
The investigation findings purported that Pchelintsev had decided to weld anarchists from Penza, St. Petersburg and Moscow into "combat groups" in order to organize attacks on the security forces, authorities, military enlistment offices and the ruling United Russia Party's branches. The defendants were preparing to carry out terrorist attacks during the 2018 FIFA World Cup and during the Presidential election. These plans constituted the criminal act (actus reus) under paragraph 205.4 of the CC –organization of a group for the purpose of committing terrorist acts. So criminal liability is incurred even if no actual acts of terror took place; association is enough.
Still since the term terrorist community under the law is vaguely defined, the prosecution introduced documents found on the laptop of Ilya Shakursky. They included a "Code of the Network". Shakursky claims that during interrogations a large number of documents was shown to him, none of which, however, were on his laptop: The investigators claimed that they were restored from the deleted folder. The existence of the so called code, to which the defendants denied any connection or charged that it had been planted, helped solidify the charge that the participants had agreed to support terror and commit terrorist actions. 
Accusations Of Torture
At first, the detainees gave confessions, but later they reported that these had been extracted under torture and beatings. These confessions formed the basis for the prosecution case.
The convicted gave the following statements to their attorneys and journalists:
Dmitry Pchelintsev: "They began to pull off my underwear, I was laying down on my stomach. Then they tried to attach the wires to my genitals. I began to scream and asked to stop torturing me. They kept repeating: "You are a leader." To stop the torture, I replied: "Yes, I am the leader." [They said:] "You were preparing terrorist acts." I answered: "Yes, we were going to carry out terrorist acts".
Ilya Shakursky: "… wires were attached to my toes. I felt the electric current, and I could not stop moaning and trembling. They repeated this procedure until I promised to say what they would tell me. Since then I forgot the word "no" and said everything that the operatives told me". 
Victor Filinkov: "He alternated electric shocks in the leg with electric shocks in handcuffs… I gave up almost immediately, in the first ten minutes. I shouted: "Tell me what I need to say, I will say everything!"
Arman Sagynbaev: "After the search, they took me to a burgundy minibus that was parked near the house… they put a textile bag on my head, and one person began to beat me on the body and head so that I would give the address of my actual residence in St. Petersburg. (...) Unable to bear the beatings, I gave up my address (...). While we were driving there, I saw through the fabric of the bag that the man with the tattoo "For the Airborne Forces", who was beating me before, pulled out from under his chair a brown box (...) They told me that they'll check now whether there is current or not. After that, I felt extreme pain (...) At the same time, people in the car began to ask me various questions, including the names and surnames of unknown people. If I said that I didn't know them, I would receive an electric shock. Also, they hit me on the head with an object that looked like a diary. (...) When these people didn't like my answers, they beat me on the head and passed electric current through me until I gave the answers they wanted.”
Relatives of the Penza case participants also reported various violations including the planting of evidence and torture of the convicted. Marks of torture on Igor Shishkin and Viktor Filinkov were also recorded by members of the St. Petersburg Public Monitoring Commission. The Investigation Committee has not opened a single case on torture accusations or on complaints of pressure by security officials.
Picket demonstrations were regularly conducted at the Penza Regional Court, many open letters were sent in support of the defendants in the case.
Picket at FSB Moscow holding placard reading "I demand an investigation of the torture in the Network case (Source: Siapress.ru)
Demonstrator holds placard reading: "They are not terrorists! The terrorists are in the FSB they torture people" (Source: Grani.ru)
Even members of the pro-system opposition joined the protest. Gennady Zuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, called the sentences excessive: "Society is extremely split; youth is guaranteed neither normal work nor a normal education. The security agencies are overzealous. The sentences are clearly excessive and the accusations are unfounded."  Sergey Mironov, the leader of A Just Russia Party, petitioned the procurator general and the supreme court: " "According to the convicts themselves, the confessions were elicited under torture, but no serious verification of these facts was carried out, and the court did not require additional evidence from law enforcement officers on the legality of extracting confessions from the accused."
However, the pro-government media was massively mobilized against the defendants. The NTV channel (owned by Gazprom-Media holding) released the film "Dangerous Network" , where footage of the airsoft game was shown (the prosecution contends that in this manner the accused drilled urban combat tactics). The lawyers of the convicted defenders were also denigrated as "grant-eaters" (an innuendo that suggested that lawyers for the defense were in the pay of Western countries).
Tsargrad TV claimed that the liberals and human rights activists sought to create new political prisoners to arouse sympathy and raise funds. The question of whether a crime was actually committed was immaterial: "When young people are raised on Hollywood films where everything is allowed… when young people are raised on computer games, where one can and should kill others… then it's stupid and absurd to think that young people should be prosecuted only after committing a crime …" remarked political scientist Ruslan Ostashko.
Attorneys for the accused appealed the verdict.
Meduza Investigation Muddies Victimized Defendants Narrative
Then an unexpected development occurred. On February 21, 2020, the Meduza news portal published an investigation on the alleged link between the "Penza case" members and an unsolved murder. Meduza is considered an independent outlet that is not under the government's thumb.
According to the investigation conducted by Meduza and left-wing activists who approached the media with their findings, Dmitry Pchelintsev along with Ivankin, Kulkov and Chernov, were members of the leftwing "5.11" group and were involved in drug trafficking. The members of this group worked as "markers". Presumably Pchelintsev was engaged in the cultivation of drugs in an apartment specially rented for this purpose. [Another defendant in the Penza case, Ilya Shakursky, according to the Meduza investigation, was a member of the leftwing group "Voskhod"].
In 2017 in Penza, two teenagers disappeared: 21 one-year-old Artem Dorofeev and 19-year-old Ekaterina Levchenko. Artem Dorofeev was subsequently found dead buried in the forests near Penza. The acquaintances of the Penza case defendants claim that Artem and Katya helped members of the 5.11 group to distribute drugs. Artem and Katya, however, were not full members of the 5.11 group and the group's members referred to them as "civilians". On March 31, the two teenagers disappeared, relatives believed that their disappearance was due to fear of the police. According to the version of left-wing activists and Meduza journalists, Artem (Katya is still missing) was probably killed. The members of 5.11 needed to be sure that "they [Artem and Katya] will not rat everyone out" [the phrase was allegedly uttered Alexei Poltavets and is part of the private correspondence of 5.11 members].
According to the Meduza investigation, Aleksey Poltavets [who is hiding abroad] confessed to the murder in a conversation with reporters. According to him Artem was killed by a shot from a carbine, Katya was killed by Ivankin, and her body was hidden not far from Artem’s.
Meduza continues to argue that the extremism case against the people involved in Penza case is fabricated, and the charges under Article 204.5 of CC are absurd. This distinction notwithstanding, the Meduza report was damaging to the defendants and helped buttress the impression that they were criminals, who did not shrink from violence. Meduza admitted the problem but defended the decision to publish: "We acknowledge that this is a severe blow to everyone who supports the defendants in the Penza Network case. It will be especially hard for their loved ones. And for those who have protested in the streets against the injustice of their trial. We still struggle to wrap our heads around many of the facts in this report, but we as journalists have no right to conceal such important information."
Supporters Of The Defendants Attack Meduza Account
The journalist Arkady Dubnov,  believes that the Meduza investigation is biased, and the main beneficiary is the Investigation Committee, that is trying to score points over an FSB, which is now embroiled in a torture scandal over the Penza case. "The battle must be public, this will help the Kremlin demonstrate that the popular outcry has been heard, the illegality of the methods has been condemned and tortures will stop just as [the great terror] in 1939 was concluded, when the humanist Stalinist comrade Beria replaced the Stalinist People's Commissar [Nikolai] Yezhov. At the same time, the "impartial" Meduza investigation will show another thing: "Network" remains a criminal organization whose members were killers and drug dealers.".
Oksana Markeyeva, Dmitry Pchelintsev's defense attorney considers the Meduza investigation to be "a lie by the security forces" and claims: "If they were involved, they would have been interrogated as witnesses in the murder case when they were in jail, the FSB would certainly have used it.”  "These guys were tortured. Under torture, they admitted something that didn't happened. Wouldn't they, under torture, admit that they killed someone and something did happen?" – adds the defense attorney.
The director of the project "Jailed Russia" Olga Romanova stated «This is not an investigation; it has no more value than a tittle-tattle from an old woman [expression]. And it looks like an intentional leak. It is as if someone was holding the editorial office [of Meduza] by the throat, and was remembering something." The former prosecutor and head of the legal department of "Jailed Russia" Alexei Fedyarov also questions the Meduza investigation: "Why didn't the Poltavets version surfaced? There could be only one answer. I think this version has long been checked and was not validated by the investigation. And I also believe that Meduza knows this. (...)".
On February 27, the Investigation Committee opened a criminal case on the disappearance of Katya Levchenko under article 105 of the CC – "Murder".
Dmitry Pchelintsev's Reaction
In an MBK media article published on 27 of February Dmitry Pchelintsev commented on the Meduza investigation which he first heard about via his attorney.  He denied allegations of involvement in the death of Artem Dorofeev and in the disappearance of Katya Levchenko. "I had absolutely no relationship with Ekaterina Levchenko and Artem Dorofeev. I’m not even sure that I understand who are you talking about, because I have not seen their photos." - says Pchelintsev. Dmitry also calls the Meduza accusations of drug trafficking absurd: "I worked at a shooting range and owned sports weapons. And this obliges me to visit a psychiatric and narcological specialist regularly and undergo tests for CTS - a chemical-toxicological study... The story about marijuana and mushrooms is just insanity. This [story], as well as all the "correspondence", was invented in the FSB offices. The thing is that the message history was not taken from Messenger, it is a text note that can be filled with any content... FSB officers falsify evidence, it's obvious to everyone, but they appeared in the article of Meduza, who doesn't even understand what it writes about ..." According to Pchelintsev, one of the left activists who helped Meduza in the investigation (Ilya) spreads false versions of the disappearance of teenagers in Penza on account of personal hostility towards him. "They all understand that it is pointless and harmful to try to blame us for this tragic incident. I think that if the operatives from the Ryazan Investigation Committee thought that some of us knew at least something, they would not let us get off alive." - Dmitry argues, "As for Poltavets, I don’t want to make assumptions, but I don’t know for sure why he is saying that."
 Ovdinfo.org, February 10, 2020.
 The objective element of the crime.
 Kommersant.ru, February 28,2020,
 Zona.media, February 9, 2018.
 Zona.media, February 16, 2018.
 M.polit.ru, February 10, 2020.
 Novayagazeta.ru, September 6, 2018.
 Zona.media, January 29, 2018, May 5, 2018.
 Ovdinfo.org, February 7, 2020.
 Zona.media, April 19, 2018.
 Meduza.io, February 19, 2020.
 News.ru, February 20, 2020.
 Tass.ru, February 17, 2020.
 Interfax.ru, February 18, 2020.
 Meduza.io, February 21, 2020.
 The term in this context means a person who distributes drugs by placing «marks» that allows the buyer to find the drugs.
 Meduza.io, February 27, 2020.
Echo.msk.ru, February 22, 2020.
.Znak.com, February 22, 2020.
Newsru.com, February 22, 2020.
 Newsru.com, February 22, 2020.
 Penza.sledcom.ru, February 27, 2020.
 Mbk-news.appspot.com,February 27, 2020.