How Russian Courts Manipulate Their Victims and the Public

by Julia Ioffe | February 26, 2014

photo credit: AP

On Monday, a Moscow court handed down a range of sentences for the eight men and women on trial for their roles in a protest on May 6, 2012, the day before Vladimir Putin's third inauguration. I wrote about one of the defendants, Maria Baronova, in my cover story, "The Loneliness of Vladimir Putin."

It was an important day for the lanky, blonde 29-year-old; for six months, she had been coming to the courthouse daily to stand trial along with eleven others for their roles in protests on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration. Sixteen more were awaiting trial, and together they were known as the Bolotnaya prisoners, for the name of the square where a peaceful protest on May 6, 2012, had turned violent. For the crime of yelling, or in Putin-era legalese, “inciting mass riots,” Baronova was facing two years in jail...Yet the two-year sentence Baronova was contemplating was actually on the light side. Some of the other protesters were facing up to eight years for charges of “using force against representatives of the state.” One young father was facing this sentence for throwing a lemon. It hit the Kevlar vest of a special forces officer who claimed that contact with the lemon had caused him “intolerable pain.” One defendant had already pleaded guilty and had been sentenced to indefinite confinement in a psychiatric institution. No cops had been charged with excessive use of force, of which there had been plenty involving objects far more menacing than lemons. In fact, some had been rewarded for their suffering with free apartments in the center of Moscow. The point was clear: Baronova and the others had been strung out as cautionary tales for the rest of the opposition...

Baronova got amnesty in December, but many of the others, like Denis Lutskevich, did not. 

During the Bolotnaya rally, the cops had grabbed Denis Lutskevich, then a 20-year-old former marine, tearing off his shirt as he tried to get away. There is a famous picture of him from that day, shirtless in khaki shorts, his back a canvas of red welts. One of the cops claimed Lutskevich had tried to pull his helmet off, and for this, he was facing eight years in jail, plus an additional five for participating in mass riots.

Yesterday, Denis got three years and six months. Yaroslav Belousov, the one who threw the lemon—which, by the way, never made its way to the courtroom as evidence—got two years and six months.

Along with the outrage among Russia's liberal opposition, though, there was a palatable sense of relief. The boys were originally facing 13 years in jail: five for "participating in mass riots" plus eight for "using force against representatives of the state." Then, the prosecutor in the case asked for five to six years for them. Then, when the verdict finally came down, they all got under four. Their families and lawyers were said to be happy with the sentences since they were much lighter than they were expecting.

This is how the Russian state toys with its subjects, and shows them its power over them; how it makes prisoners out of them all, thankful for the slightest morsel their jailer shoves through the cell door. It did the same thing with the girls of Pussy Riot. They were facing up to seven years in jail for "hooliganism," and this was the figure people got used to reading in the press. Then the prosecutor asked for three, and the judge handed down two. It repeated itself in the politically charged case of Alexei Navalny last summer. Navalny faced up to a decade in jail, and this is what was repeated over and over in the press. Then the prosecutor asked for six, and the judge gave him five. (The sentenced was later suspended on appeal.)

It's a perverse and manipulative way of showing mercy: first bracing the victim for a shot to the head and then stunning him into strange gratitude by a punch in the gut. But it's still a punch in the gut, and, usually, undeserved in the first place. 

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