Conflict & Justice

Inside and outside a Moscow courtroom, Russia cracks down on dissent

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Credit:

Charles Maynes

Russian OMON security forces detained dozens outside a Moscow courthouse, where anti-Putin protestors were sentenced to up to four years in prison.

If there were suggestions of a political thaw during Russia's Sochi Olympics, Monday’s verdict in a Moscow courtroom seemed to show those hopes were illusory at best.

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A Russian judge sentenced eight protesters for rioting and attacking police during a demonstration against Vladimir Putin's inauguration for a third term in May 2012. 

The case is being seen by many as a litmus test for Russia’s tolerance of dissent, particularly following the dramatic events in neighboring Ukraine. 

Judge Natalia Nikishina read through the proceedings for four hours before sentencing the activists to up to four years in prison. All the defendents had denied that they attacked police, saying they merely intervened to prevent security forces from beating protesters.

The proceedings had dragged on for more than a year. According to Vyacheslav Makarov, one of the defense lawyers, the defendants did not receive a fair trial.

“Our arguments weren't included in the verdict,” Makarov says. “They weren't voiced or rebutted. The verdict did not reflect them."

The Kremlin’s tolerance for dissent seemed to be on short supply outside the courtoom. Russian OMON security forces rushed into a crowd of more than 1,000 protesters, arresting scores of people, sometimes at random and sometimes not.

Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokolnikova and Maria Alyokhina were both detained, as was a man in a chicken costume. 

“We're too few here,” says Lev Rubinstein, a Russian writer active in the protest movement, who was at the scene. “If they have enough buses to take us all away, they win — temporarily. I still think we're moving in the right direction, but slowly.”

Just a few years ago, Russia’s opposition movement looked to be on the ascent. Following flawed parliamentary elections in December 2011, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in protests that were largely peaceful.

But with Putin returning to the presidency in May 2012, a protest against his inauguration turned violent. The Kremlin quickly imposed new restrictions on public gatherings and several dozen activists were arrested in what became known as the Bolotnaya Affair.

The opposition has never recovered.

Andrey Mironov, a former dissident who spent time in prison in the Soviet Union, says the only hope for Russia’s beleaguered opposition movement now is the success of post-revolutionary Ukraine.  

“I hope that people in Europe and America understand that the best way to help democracy in Russia is to help Ukraine,” Mironov says.

The events in Kiev were clearly on the minds of many outside the Moscow courtroom. One man held up a sign that read “Maidan” (Ukraine’s Independence Square), as protesters cheered him on.

Others taunted Russia's security forces with chants of “Berkut” — the name of the once-feared security forces of Ukraine’s ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych.

Still, Alexey Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger who emerged as a leader of Russia's opposition movement, urged Russians to avoid seeking parallels with Ukraine. 

"Maidan is not important here,” Navalny said. “Maidan was in another country, citizens of another country were fighting for their freedom. The question is now, for us, whether we are ready to fight for our freedom."

But Navalny would have to fight for that freedom another day.   Soon, he, too, was arrested.

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    Charles Maynes

    Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokolnikova and Maria Alyokhina at the rally outside the courthouse. They were arrested shortly after.

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    Charles Maynes

    A protester urges the crowd in Moscow to form their own "Maidan", a reference to the protests at Ukraine's Independence Square.

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    Charles Maynes

    More than one thousand protesters gathered near the Moscow courthouse awaiting the sentencing of Russian activists. They were met by numerous OMON security forces and police.

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    Charles Maynes

    As numbers at Russian protest marches have dwindled, a question remains whether Russia’s opposition movement can hang on.

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    Charles Maynes

    Two protesters dressed in costumes – one as a chicken – were detained almost as soon as they appeared.

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    Charles Maynes

    Protesters resisting advances by OMON security forces.

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    Charles Maynes

    Detained protesters were driven away in police detention buses called 'avtozaki'.

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    Charles Maynes

    Within a few hours, Russian security forces had largely secured the area. More than 200 protesters were detained. Others promised to return near Red Square that evening.

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