There was rejoicing in Moscow this week—and indeed throughout the Jewish world—at the surprise announcement that the authorities were dropping their charges against two Jewish dissidents, Boris Chernobilsky and Iosif As.
The two men had been held in prison since their arrest last month following sit-ins staged by a group of refuseniks. It had been feared that a show trial was being prepared for them on charges of criminal hooliganism, which carry a maximum five-year sentence.
In a dramatic move on Monday, the two men were released from custody and handed a statement from the prosecutor saying that the case against them had been closed. Though the charges had been “proven”, the statement added, they were being released because of extenuating circumstances.
Though Moscow will naturally deny it, those “circumstances” were determined by the international protests which have been mounting since the news of the arrests, as Chernobilsky and Ass themselves acknowledged at a press conference after their release.
Last week, a defence committee of nine Jews was established to spearhead the fight to obtain the freedom of the two men. It included Professors Lerner, Azbel and Fain, Ida Nudel and veteran Minsk activist Colonel Lev Ovsishcher.
In an open letter to Jewish organisations in the west, the defence committee stated: “We are disturbed by the extreme speed with which this investigation is proceeding, by the fact that persons who might act as witnesses for the defence are not being allowed to give evidence and the entire circumstances of this ‘investigation’ causes us to consider that the case must be looked at in the most serious light”.
Chernobilsky and As are both in their early thirties and have wives and young children. Iosif As, a doctor by profession, has been struggling to emigrate for the past two-and-a-half years. Chernobilsky, an engineer, is a newcomer to activist work and is relatively unknown in the west. He applied to leave with his family about six months ago and had not received an answer when he was arrested.
Although not strictly speaking a refusenik, his willingness to participate in the demonstrations and to be a member of the delegation that met Interior Minister Shchelokov is indicative of his fighting spirit. Indeed, his prominence in the protests explains why he was selected for victimisation.
Jewish Observer 19 November 1976