Conviction is almost certain.
So goes the trial of the Bolotnaya 12, a dozen once-ordinary Russians who were arrested at a demonstration on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as president in May 2012. Most of them are charged with rioting and assaulting police on Bolotnaya Square, not far from the Kremlin. Nearly all are in jail, denied bail despite a lack of previous criminal records.
That protest was just one in a string of large demonstrations against dishonest elections and government corruption that had begun five months earlier. All the previous protests had proceeded peacefully. Detentions, when they happened, had lasted for only days.
But the May 6 march to Bolotnaya was a direct challenge to Putin as he was about to reclaim his Kremlin office, and this time the response was severe. About two dozen protesters in all were charged, but the Bolotnaya 12 are the first large group to go on trial.
The defendants’ supporters describe the proceedings as theater of the absurd, contending that the 12 were plucked out of obscurity to serve as examples of the peril of opposing the Putin government. The Pussy Riot case of last year, in which members of a punk-rock group were sentenced to two years for staging a protest in a Moscow cathedral, sent a similar message, but the Bolotnaya 12 defendants are remarkable for their anonymity and the seeming randomness of their arrests.
Since they were charged, Moscow’s protest movement has withered. On Sunday, perhaps 10,000 people turned out to call for the freeing of political prisoners, the Bolotnaya 12 prominent among them. Earlier protests had drawn several times that.
Just as the arrests marked a turning point, ushering in a period of repressive laws and revealing a more vindictive Kremlin, so are the verdicts expected to provide a signal of what lies ahead. Will the authorities decide they have made their point, impose suspended sentences and send a conciliatory message? Or will the defendants receive the full sentences — up to 13 years?
‘Why these people?’
The May 2012 protest had begun as peacefully as all the others. A few hours into it, with tens of thousands gathering, police confronted demonstrators on a bridge leading to Bolotnaya Square. Washington Post reporters standing about 100 yards away saw the riot police, wearing protective gear, begin surging into the crowd, batons raised, plucking out protesters and dragging them away.
The police said that when they prevented the crowd from heading toward the Kremlin, the officers were assaulted with chunks of asphalt. Protesters say some asphalt was thrown, but not by any of the accused in the current case.