Putin shows his iron fist
Eight people were sentenced by a Moscow court on Friday February 21 to between two and a half and four years in prison. They are the first of two groups to stand trial in the biggest Russian political trial of the past half century. All were accused of attacking police officers during a march on May 6, 2012, a demonstration that ended the short-lived Snow Revolution in Russia. Their case is emblematic of the current Russian crackdown on dissent: the defendants appear to have been chosen almost at random to deter people from protesting.
The Snow Revolution began in December 2011, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities to protest against rigged elections and the seemingly endless presidency of Vladimir Putin. The outpouring shocked both the organizers and the police; both sides feared violence, chaos and the possibility of a large gathering turning into a crowd. Activists and the police quickly learned to cooperate, negotiating the placement of temporary metal barriers, the number of metal detectors used by the police and their location, the exact list of prohibited items (water bottles were a eternal sticking point) and the timing of each step. .
They did all of this on the eve of the May 6 demonstration. Passions had cooled since the winter, when it seemed like the hundreds of thousands of people in the streets would force Putin to abandon his plan to stay in power perpetually by alternating between the offices of the president and prime minister. But in March, Putin declared his re-election to a third six-year term as president, and part of the air seemed to escape the protest movement. People still came, but in smaller numbers.
On May 6, the day before Putin’s inauguration, the weather was magnificent. The people gathered slowly. Many came with children, so if one looked past the stern protesters with large banners leading the way, the rally felt like a family walk on the weekend. For a newcomer, the configuration might have seemed strange: the demonstration took place in a cordoned-off area. There could be no casual spectators, except residents of the buildings that lined the route of the march. No one who has not attended the protest will never hear their message – unless they log on to one of the opposition websites or watch the only independent cable and satellite TV channel. . A few critics said the arrangement killed the point of the protest, but organizers insisted it was the only way to keep the protests legal. Police permits were issued for the exact route, time and even number of participants. That way no one would be arrested or beaten.
The setup at the start of the trail looked like it always is: there was a row of metal detectors each protester had to pass through. But at the end of the journey, something seemed terribly wrong. Originally, people were supposed to cross the small, short but wide stone bridge and disperse over Bolotnaya Square, either drifting into the park to the right, where the rally would be, or passing through the park and passing by one of the two. routes. But as the police cordon now stood, protesters coming out of the small stone bridge, marching a hundred or more abreast, were expected to make a 90-degree turn in the park, marching no more than five or six. It seemed designed to create a bottleneck, and the march stopped almost immediately after the first protesters marched to the narrowing.
When the protesters staged a sit-in, organizers’ security did several things: They called their comrades onto the stage and scanned the crowd for people with children and led them through a small opening that the police said. provided. To those they took away from the demonstration, security volunteers said, “Something could happen. Better get away from here.”
At first, nothing happened. For nearly an hour, some people sat on the sidewalk, and thousands of other protesters stood more or less still as police gradually strengthened their ranks. Behind the rows of Moscow police and riot police were hundreds of Interior Ministry soldiers.
Then a lot of things happened quickly. Some protesters briefly crossed the cordon at one location. The police began to drive wedges into the crowd. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail, and someone’s clothes caught fire. The fire has been extinguished. Smoke bombs were thrown; one landed at the feet of a riot police officer, and he picked it up and threw it into the crowd. The police started to arrest people, to take men out of the crowd. A series of small riots broke out. In the evening, hundreds of people had been arrested, the stage had been destroyed and all sound equipment had been taken away. Riot helmets floated in the canal. Police pursued people they believed to be protesters in the neighborhood near Bolotnaya and a few other places in central Moscow. Some of the chases took them to several restaurants in the neighborhood, where other brawls broke out.
The Snow Revolution, loosely modeled on and hopefully the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of 1989, was over. Russian repression had started. Within weeks, new laws severely restricted the right to public assembly, instituting fines of up to around $ 580 and giving law enforcement wide discretion in choosing who to prosecute. Around the same time, the arrests began.
The hundreds of people arrested on May 6 were released within days; some were not even reserved. But three weeks later, police began arresting some of the protesters for felony charges. The first was Alexandra Dukhanina, an 18-year-old college student and environmental activist. She was interrogated overnight, confronted by a judge the next day when she was placed under house arrest and banned from using any electronic means of communication. She was arrested under two articles of the Russian Criminal Code, carrying a combined maximum sentence of 13 years. The indictment stated that Dukhanina threw stones and bottles at the police.
Two weeks later, five young men were arrested at their home in Moscow. They included grassroots activists and at least one man who had never been politically active but who had decided to attend the May 6 demonstration to see, essentially, what it was about. When it became clear that anyone who had been detained on May 6 and who could be identified in one of the many hours of video that day was likely to be arrested, dozens of people fled the country. In the end, charges were laid against 29 people, two of whom were at large, who were believed to be living abroad. Only one person – Sergei Udaltsov – is a well-known leader of the protest movement. The rest are names known only to their friends and family – and now to a small group of Russians who have gone through the biggest political trial of their generation.
A man, who had a history of mental illness, was sentenced to forced psychiatric treatment. Two men pleaded guilty and, in exchange for their testimony against some of the others, were sentenced to two and a half and four and a half years respectively behind bars. The first trial, of a group of 10 men and two women, began on March 5, 2013 and continued daily, with some breaks, until this month. Four of the defendants were granted amnesties in December under the same law that secured the release of the Pussy riot prisoners. The Bolotnaya prisoners had been behind bars for over a year at that time. On February 21, 2014, the eight people were found guilty and on February 24, their sentences were handed down: seven people will serve between two and a half and four years each in prison colonies; the group’s lone woman, Dukhanina, received a three-year and three-month suspended sentence. The second group of 10 is still awaiting judgment.
For the past 11 months, those convicted on Friday have spent almost every day of the week in court, all but the two accused women crammed into a plexiglass aquarium too small for them to sit down or take notes. . A long line of police officers testified as victims or witnesses, most often confused when telling their story, failing to identify an accused or to answer simpler questions, such as why, if the witness claims to have been assaulted by an accused as he tries to apprehend him, video footage shows the accused being held by someone else.
“At first I thought this whole thing was some kind of senseless mistake and misunderstanding,” Dukhanina said in her closing statement. “But now that I have listened to the prosecution’s speeches and heard the kind of sentences they are calling for, I have realized that they are taking revenge on us. They are punishing us for being there and seeing what really happened, seeing who caused the human crush, seeing them beat people, seeing unjustifiable cruelty. They are punishing us for not giving in and not pleading guilty to crimes we did not commit. “
On Monday, as the sentences were read, 234 people – about half the number who came forward in support of the defendants – were arrested outside the courthouse, most for standing silently. Others, like Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, were arrested for shouting “svoboda“-freedom.
That evening, more than 400 people were arrested in central Moscow during an unauthorized protest against the verdict; all have been accused of violating laws on public gatherings and some of resisting police, which may mean jail time for another group of protesters. Some people were actually arrested and booked twice on Monday, including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, who have been working to bring attention to the Bolotnaya Square case since their own release from prison there. at two months.