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Far from Moscow, a harsh sentence and political overtones

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SMOLENSK, Russia — As opposition leaders wait to see how Russian authorities intend to handle continuing political protests in Moscow, a criminal case here, 250 miles to the west, suggests that tough measures are part of the equation.

The wife of a radical organizer was sentenced late last month to 10 years in prison for the alleged possession of half an ounce of heroin, a move that her supporters say is aimed at intimidating and dividing the Kremlin’s political foes.

The conviction and harsh sentence for Taisia Osipova follow a trial that was marked by dubious testimony and the exclusion of exculpatory evidence. She and her allies argue that her arrest was part of an attempt to target her husband for his political activity — and now a key prosecution witness has come forward to corroborate that charge.

Osipova is an unlikely heroine. A 26-year-old diabetic without much education, she generously salts her conversations with profanity and, as a member of the fringe Bolshevik National Party, once walked up to the governor of the Smolensk region and struck him in the face with a bouquet of carnations.

She gave up such activism when her daughter was born six years ago, and she’s not part of the big-city, middle-class cohort that has turned out recently for demonstrations. Yet some of the young stars of the new political movement — as well as the members of a guerrilla art collaborative and a famous rock singer — have rallied to her side. Far from keeping their distance from her, they are demanding her release.

“She’s in jail as a hostage,” said Zoya Svetova, who writes about crime and civil rights for the crusading journal New Times in Moscow. “This is a political prosecution.”

An added dimension

The case against Osipova began more than a year ago. Investigators obtained a warrant to tap her phone on the grounds that her husband, Sergei Fomchenkov, was sending money from Moscow to pay for illegal party work in Smolensk, according to a copy of the warrant provided by Fomchenkov.

When she was arrested in November 2010, he says, police told her they’d let her go if she could persuade him to return to Smolensk. This is typical of a system that also relies on arresting businessmen to force them to pay bribes, and an example of the official lawlessness that is one of the chief complaints of the political opposition.

But a criminal case that began as an investigation of a small radical group — which now calls itself Other Russia — took on an added dimension as political protests attracted thousands after the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Osipova was sentenced Dec. 30.

“People can’t understand such cruel, unfounded treatment,” said Osipova’s attorney, Natalia Shaposhnikova. “And now everybody thinks — it could happen to me.”

Svetlana Sidorkina, a human rights lawyer in Moscow who also worked on Osipova’s case, thinks the intimidation can be effective. “People here remember 1937, they can be scared,” she said, referring to the worst year of Joseph Stalin’s purges.

“They gave her such a harsh sentence to show the people who came out on the streets that they mean nothing,” said Fomchenkov, who has remained in Moscow and continues his work for the un-registered party. “The authorities can do whatever they want. They spit in the faces of the people.”

Up to a point, he concedes, the tactic may succeed in scaring off potential protesters. “But people,” he said, “get tired of fear.”

In fact, argues journalist Svetova, the eruptions of the past month show that many thousands of Russians have already gotten past fear. “Even people who would have nothing to do with Other Russia support” Osipova, she said. “Nobody’s intimidated, and nobody’s afraid.”

‘They were dishonest’

Osipova lived with her daughter, Katrina — born in 2005 and named after the American hurricane — in a white cement-block house halfway up a steep hill on the right bank of the Dnieper River. Her husband, wary of the police, had left for Moscow in 2009.

Investigators claimed to have found heroin while searching her house, which they did after three witnesses, all from Kremlin-related youth groups, allegedly saw her dealing drugs on the street.

One of them, Olga Kazakova, says she was summoned by a Young Guard leader and asked to act as a witness for a sting the police were setting up — a typical Russian practice. Investigators from the anti-extremism unit drove her to Osipova’s neighborhood, where at 9 p.m. one night, she says, she saw the transaction take place — from a distance of 200 to 300 yards, along a winding, dark, steep street. Cellphone records place Kazakova in another part of the city at that hour. But to this day she insists she saw the deal go down.

At the time, Kazakova thought this was a straightforward case about drugs, and she thought she was doing her duty as a citizen. But now she understands that it was about politics and that Osipova was ensnared as a way of getting at her husband.

“I feel very offended,” said the former Young Guard member. “They were dishonest. If I had known in advance that it was designed to put her husband in prison, I would hardly have taken part in this operation.”

Osipova’s conviction is under appeal, and Russian law prohibits prosecutors and investigators from making public comments.

Mushrooming support

Although Smolensk, like most of Russia’s smaller cities, doesn’t have many local news organizations, the Internet has started to pay attention to Osipova’s case. A Web site champions her cause. YouTube videos, some of them obscene, call for her release. Dozens of well-known figures, including the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, have lined up to back her.

“Guys, wake up,” Yevgenia Chirikova, who organized an effort to save the Khimki Forest near Moscow, wrote in her blog after visiting Smolensk. Invoking the Soviet gulag, or system of prison camps, she added: “The archipelago is not somewhere in the distant past, it is quite near. It is in the callousness of prosecutors and judges, it is in our indifference. Who will be next?”

In Moscow on Tuesday, five people were detained after a series of one-person demonstrations were held at subway stations in support of Osipova, the Interfax news agency reported. Russian law permits one person to demonstrate without obtaining a permit beforehand.

Osipova is in ill health. Svetova calls her a political prisoner. By all accounts, she is angry rather than demoralized.

The authorities threatened to take Katrina away from Fomchenkov but backed down in the face of negative publicity. The 6-year-old now spends half her time in Moscow with her father and half with his sister in Smolensk.

“They are ready to go to jail for their ideas,” Mikhail Yefimkin, a 25-year-old reporter who has written about the case for a weekly supplement, said of Osipova and her husband. “It’s worth admiring.”

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