Russia: Putin's fiercest political opponent receives criminal sentence but keeps his freedom for now
|Publication Date||23 July 2013|
|Cite as||Article 19, Russia: Putin's fiercest political opponent receives criminal sentence but keeps his freedom for now, 23 July 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/51f0db9d4.html [accessed 30 July 2016]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
On 18 July, well-known Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was sentenced by a local court in Kirov to five years in prison for embezzlement and was detained immediately after the verdict. However, the political theatre surrounding Navalny took a surreal turn when the Prosecutor's Office made a highly unusual and unexpected request for his release. Navalny was freed the following day pending the appeal of his sentence.
The KirovLes case
Throughout 2012, various investigations involving Navalny were opened, amongst them the so-called KirovLes case, for which he was sentenced on 18 July 2013. This case had previously been closed due to lack of evidence. However, following Putin's inauguration in May 2012, it was re-opened in July 2012. The case concerned Navalny's alleged embezzlement of $500,000 from a state-owned timber company while he was advisor to the governor of the Kirov Oblast. ARTICLE 19 believes the charges to be politically motivated, specifically targeting Navalny because of his political activism and aspirations.
Under current legislation, Navalny would be disqualified from running for or holding public office once this conviction came into force, even after completing his sentence. On 10 July, Navalny registered as a candidate for the Moscow mayoral elections scheduled for 8 September. Earlier this year, he voiced his ambitions to run for president one day. With Navalny behind bars, the Russian opposition will be deprived of one of its most popular and vocal leaders.
The 18 July verdict triggered a wave of street protests. Several thousand took to the streets in Moscow, while smaller rallies were held in several other cities across Russia, including St Petersburg, Omsk and Rostov-on-Don. According to the protest monitoring website OVDinfo, 195 protestors were detained in Moscow. One of the detained protestors received a 15-day administrative sentence on charges of 'disobeying police orders', while the others were released the same night after protocols were drawn up. They can still face criminal or administrative charges at a later stage.
Navalny's vocal opposition and the government's response
Navalny is known for his vocal opposition to Russia's ruling party, United Russia, and to President Vladimir Putin. On his popular blog, he exposes corruption scandals involving government officials. He played a leading role in the Russian protest movement that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets. This happened after the alleged rigging of the parliamentary elections in December 2011 and again in the lead-up to Putin's third inauguration as President in May 2012.
Navalny was detained following clashes between law-enforcement agencies and protestors during the 6 May 2012 protests on Bolotnaya Square. He served a 15-day administrative sentence for disobeying police orders. Ahead of a protest in Moscow and St Petersburg planned for 12 June 2012, armed officers searched the homes of Navalny and several other opposition figures. On 12 June 2012, the Federal Investigative Committee summoned these opposition leaders for questioning, thus restricting their involvement in that day's planned peaceful rally.
Pattern of silencing public dissent in Russia
This latest politically motivated conviction, along with further arrests of peaceful protestors, fit seamlessly into a pattern in which the authorities are gradually silencing public dissent through legislation and targeted persecution. The numerous arrests of protestors throughout 2012 and 2013 illustrate this:
Sergey Udaltsov, leader of Left Front, the umbrella organisation for left-wing youth groups, was arrested on several occasions during the 2011-2012 protests. He is currently under house arrest pending investigation into his involvement in 'plotting riots' during the 6 May 2012 protests in Bolotnaya Square. The investigation follows claims made in the state-sponsored documentary Anatomy of a Protest 2. This showed him conspiring with Georgian politicians to organise the 6 May protest. On 19 June Udaltsov was additionally charged with 'staging riots'.
Leonid Razvozzhayev, another member of Left Front, was also featured in the documentary shown on Russian state-television. Following this, he fled to Ukraine, where he requested asylum. While in Ukraine, he was allegedly kidnapped by Russian security forces and subjected to ill-treatment in order to extort a confession which would incriminate Sergey Udaltsov and others.
A total of 27 people have been charged in relation to their alleged organisation of, or participation in, the violent action that took place on 6 May 2012 in Bolotnaya Square. 15 of those charged have been placed in pre-trial detention and another three, including opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov, are under house arrest. The trial against 12 of the defendants started on 24 June 2013. One, who pleaded guilty, was already sentenced in November 2012 to four-and-a-half-years imprisonment.
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