20 years under Putin: a timeline

January saw plenty of political turbulence in Russia—from opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia and immediate arrest to mass protests that resulted in a harsh police crackdown. Also last month, Azat Miftakhov, a graduate student of mathematics at Moscow State University, was convicted in a politically motivated case, while in Perm, the prosecutor demanded to toughen the punishment for local activists in the so-called “Putin doll” case, deeming the initial sentence too lenient.

 

Upper row (left to right): Alexei Navalny during the verdict announcement on February 2; a St. Peterburg march in support of oppositionist on January 23; a Navalny supporter in Moscow on Janury 23.  Lower row: a pro-Navalny demonstration on January 23; mathematician Azat Miftikhov; Perm activists Alexander Shabarchin, Danila Vasiliev, and Alexander Etkin. Photo: YouTube, Wikimedia Commons, Novaya Gazeta.

 

Navalny: real sentence, protests, searches, detentions, criminal cases

  • On February 2, a Moscow court satisfied the Federal Penitentiary Service’s (FSIN) claim against Alexei Navalnyand replaced the suspended sentence, to which the oppositionist was sentenced in the 2014 Yves Rocher case, with a real one. Accounting for the 10 months previously served under house arrest, Navalny will now spend 2 years and 8 months in a general regime colony.
  • The verdict was changed despite the fact that in 2017, in accordance with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, Russia paid compensation to Navalny, thus agreeing that the Yves Rocher case had been insolvent.
  • Navalny was detained on January 17 at Sheremetyevo airport immediately upon arrival from Germany, where he was undergoing rehabilitation after being poisoned by a chemical agent of the Novichok group, and arrested the next day. According to the FSIN, Navalny is alleged to have repeatedly violated his probationary period, and has been on the wanted list since December 29, 2020.
  • During the hearing in the Navalny case on February 2, 350 people who had arrived at the courthouse to express their support to the oppositionist were detained After the verdict was announced, the chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center, Alexander Cherkassov, said that what happened “has nothing to do with law and only continues the chain of lawlessness of the last weeks, months, and years.” “This new reality is not the future, but the past, with political repression and killings,” the human rights activist stressed.
  • In the runup to the trial, on January 23 and 31, over a hundred Russian cities held rallies in support of Navalny, as well as against the regime’s lawlessness.
  • The protests set a record for the number of detainees: according to OVD-Info, an independent group that monitors political arrests, more than 4,000 people were detained on January 23, and over 5,600 on January 31. Moscow topped the list with 1,800 detainees, with St. Petersburg coming second with 1,300. Other regional “leaders” include Nizhny Novgorod, Krasnoyarsk, Tver, Voronezh, and Vladivostok.
  • In many cities, rallies were violently dispersed by the police and OMON (special police force). During detentions, law enforcement officers reportedly beat protesters with truncheons, and used electric shockers and tear gas.
  • Most of the detainees are charged with violating the procedure for holding public events (part 5, article 20.2 of the Administrative Code), interfering with city infrastructure (part 6.1, article 20.2), and repeated violation of the rules for holding demonstrations (part 8, Article 20.2). They face fines ranging from 10,000 to 300,000 rubles ($130 to $4,000) and arrest from 15 to 30 days.
  • In addition, 40 criminal cases were opened in 18 regions of Russia in connection with the January 23 and January 31 rallies, according to Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora human rights group.
  • Cases were initiated for alleged violence against government officials (article 318 of the Criminal Code), calls for mass riots (part 3, article 212), hooliganism (article 213), violation of sanitary and epidemiological standards (article 236), involvement of minors in unlawful actions (article 151.2), and disabling communication lines (article 267).
  • In addition, preemptive actions were taken against coordinator of Navalny’s Moscow office Oleg Stepanov, the oppositionist’s brother Oleg Navalny, Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) lawyer Lyubov Sobol, Doctors Alliance head Anastasia Vasilieva, as well Pussy Riot member Maria Alekhinaall were put under house arrest until March 23.
  • A criminal case was opened against Leonid Volkov, head of Navalny’s regional network, for allegedly calling on minors “to participate in unauthorized rallies under conditions unsafe for the life and health of participants” (subparagraphs “a, c,” part 2, article 151.2). The accusations stem from a video Volkov posted on YouTube. Russia’s Investigative Committee put him on the wanted list; he faces up to three years in prison.
  • The authorities also increased pressure on opposition members and civil activists.
  • On January 27, in Moscow, police conducted a series of searches of Navalny’s family members and associates, as well as the offices of FBK and the Navalny Live studio. They also searched the homes of Anastasia Vasilyeva, Maria Alekhina, Nikolai Kasyan (press secretary of politician Yulia Galyamina), municipal deputy Lyusya Stein, and others.
  • Journalists were also targeted by the security forces. They were warned against participating in the rallies or deliberately detained—both before and during the protests. For example, on January 30, police detained MediaZona editor-in-chief Sergei Smirnov, who was out walking with his little son. He was charged with participation in an unauthorized protest on January 23, although on that day Smirnov was at home. On February 3, a Moscow court sentenced him to 25 days’ administrative arrest for repeated participation in an unauthorized protest (part 8, article 20.2 of the Administrative Code).
  • During the January 31 rallies, over 90 journalists were detained across Russia, despite the fact that many had press cards and wore bright yellow vests marked “Press.”

 

Azat Miftakhov sentence: 6 years in prison for a broken window  

  • On January 18, a Moscow court sentenced Azat Miftakhov, a graduate student of the Mechanics and Mathematics Department at Moscow State University, to six years in a general regime colony. He was found guilty of an attack on the office of the United Russia party.
  • Miftakhov was detained in February 2019 on suspicion of making an improvised explosive device found earlier in a Moscow suburb. A few days later, he was released for lack of evidence, but immediately detained again on new criminal charges of “hooliganism committed by a group of persons by prior conspiracy” (part 2, article 213 of the Criminal Code).
  • According to the investigation, Miftakhov was among a group of young activists who, on the night of January 31, 2018, broke the window of the United Russia office in the north of Moscow, threw a smoke bomb inside, filmed it all on smartphone, and then posted the video online. The FSB believes that the attackers are associated with the left-wing anarchist movement People’s Self-Defense.
  • Miftakhov is the only person prosecuted in the case who did not plead guilty. Other activists Elena Gorban and Andrey Yeikin, who received suspended sentences (four and two years, respectively), confirmed that he had not participated in the action. Two more defendants, Alexei Kobaidze and Svyatoslav Rechkalov, fled Russia.
  • The charge against Miftakhov was based on the testimony of the only (now late) secret witness, who, a year after the incident, identified him by his “expressive eyebrows.” During interrogations, Miftakhov was reportedly beaten and tortured with a screwdriver.
  • The defense argued that the punishment was disproportionate to the gravity of the crime: “Six years in prison [in Russia] are given for murder.”
  • Miftakhov believes that he was tried not for a real crime, but for his political views. “About five years before my arrest, I actively participated in the anarchist movement,” he said in his last word at the trial. “My activity included participation in opposition rallies and processions, distribution of leaflets with an anarchist agenda. There were also actions such as displaying banners and holding unauthorized marches in support of political prisoners. I was also involved in the fights against dishonest employers and apartment raiders. All this became a reason for the [FSB’s] Center for Combating Extremism to take revenge, which ultimately led to the fabrication of this trial.”
  • Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Miftakhov as a political prisoner and the case against him as part of “the ongoing repression of anarchists and anti-fascists, which sharply intensified in 2017-2018.” “State authorities, primarily the FSB, cultivate the image of anarchists as a public danger, [people who are] involved in terrorism and attempts to destabilize the social and political sphere,” the human rights center said in a statement. “At the same time, there is the suppression of any non-systemic, informal self-organization, especially, but not only, youth-based. This is evidenced by the numerous fabricated group cases against persons who have views different from those of the siloviki.”
  • Hundreds of academics from all over the world, including American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, voiced their support for Miftakhov.

 

The “Putin doll” case: a call for harsher sentences

  • On January 15, in the so-called “Putin doll” case—another case of hooliganism by prior agreement (part 2, article 213 of the Criminal Code) brought against three opposition activists from the Siberian city of Perm—the regional Prosecutor’s Office demanded to toughen the verdicts, deeming them “overly lenient.”
  • In August 2020, the court sentenced Alexander Shabarchin (22) to two years in a general regime colony, Danila Vasiliev (19) to one year conditionally with one year probation, and acquitted Alexander Etkin (26) due to lack of corpus delicti. Subsequently, Shabarchin’s sentence was commuted to a suspended one.
  • The criminal case was initiated as a response to a stunt organized by the defendants in November 2018 in Perm. A mannequin dressed in prison uniform was attached to a lamppost in the city center, bearing a Putin mask with the words “liar” and “war criminal Pynya V.V.” A satirical video was later published on YouTube showing people in camouflage detaining a man wearing a Putin-like mask.
  • Following the trial, the Prosecutor’s Office submitted a cassation appeal saying that Shabarchin and Vasilyev’s punishment “was given without taking into account in full measure the nature and degree of social danger of a crime belonging to the category of grave crimes.” In addition, it noted that “the panel of judges avoided evaluating the evidence confirming Etkin’s guilt” (Etkin filmed the action on his phone,—editor’s note).
  • Initially, no signs of a crime were found in the stunt and the video; experts regarded them as “political satire.” However, the repeated forensic examination, which the defendants called “a clear hit,” revealed that their actions had “the motive of political enmity and insults to supporters of President V. Putin.” “The witnesses for the prosecution [almost all were members of the United Russia party, the Young Guard movement, and other pro-government organizations,—editor’s note] unanimously argued that they were terribly offended by Shabarchin and Vasilyev’s actions and had suffered a moral trauma,” Shabarchin’s lawyer said.
  • Human rights activists have repeatedly criticized the hooliganism article of the Criminal Code. “The uncertainty and broad interpretation of the concepts of ‘political and other enmity,’ ‘gross violation of public order,’ and ‘public order’ itself make article 213 ‘elastic’ and useful in political persecution cases when there are no signs of other criminal offenses,” Memorial notes.

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