Trials suggest a growing repression in Russia


Opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny attends a court hearing, July 2. Russian state prosecutors demanded a six-year jail sentence on Friday for Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin's biggest critics, on charges of theft. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
July 7, 2013

Last week was a busy one for Russian authorities, who arrested the only nationally known opposition mayor for bribery, sought six years in prison for crusading blogger Alexei Navalny and asked a court to declare a long-dead lawyer guilty of tax evasion.

The trial of a dozen demonstrators accused of rioting and attacking police at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration ground on. Maria Alyokhina, a punk rocker sent to a labor camp for two years for a singing protest in Moscow’s main cathedral, lost an appeal. An appeal filed on behalf of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodor­kovsky, who has been in prison for nearly 10 years, was rejected.

Leonid Razvozzhayev, an opposition organizer who was kidnapped and returned to Moscow after he sought asylum in Ukraine, was given permission to get married in jail — perhaps because he is not expected to get out soon. He faces 10 years in prison if convicted of planning riots.

And Putin signed not one, but two laws aimed at gays.

By week’s end, it was clear to anyone who held out hope to the contrary that the future here looks more and more repressive. The authorities appeared intent on using all their resources — police, courts, legislature and media — to pursue that end and silence dissent for years to come.

The courts have become the most important tool of repression, said Lilia Shevtsova, head of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, especially since Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012.

“We’re seeing the logic of the new regime,” Shevtsova said, “which I would say is based on the new principle of absolute loyalty. You cannot doubt. You cannot criticize, even softly. You need to obey totally.”

The middle-of-the-night arrest last week of Yaroslavl Mayor Yevgeny Urlashov reinforced the message, she said.

The former member of the dominant United Russia party was elected last year as the city’s mayor. In local elections this fall, he was preparing to support candidates from a new party started by billionaire Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov.

Then, masked men in camouflage hauled him into headquarters, where he was accused of taking thousands of dollars in bribes. In a matter of hours, close associates accepted plea bargains and agreed to testify against him. A judge ordered him behind bars until Sept. 2.

Television reports repeatedly showed stacks of bank notes police said they found in his apartment, and LifeNews, a channel with connections to Russia’s security forces, broadcast a video that it said showed Urlashov sitting in a restaurant taking a bribe delivered in a folded newspaper. The man’s face was not clearly visible — nor was any money.

New laws

On Wednesday, a prosecutor in Moscow asked a court to declare Sergei Magnitsky, who died in pretrial detention in 2009, guilty of tax evasion, along with his client, William Browder, who lives in London.

Magnitsky was arrested after accusing police and tax officials of stealing $230 million in a fraudulent tax return scheme using documents taken from Browder’s Hermitage Capital investment firm. The United States last year passed a law in Magnitsky’s memory imposing financial and visa sanctions on Russians associated with his case and other human rights abuses. No one has been held accountable in his death.

Oppressive laws have flowed steadily from Russia’s parliament over the past year, making it illegal to hurt the feelings of religious believers, imposing limits on protests and forcing nongovernmental organizations such as election monitors to register as foreign agents if they receive money from abroad.

Laws signed by Putin last week limit the rights of gays. One bans gay pride rallies and makes it illegal to give minors any information about homosexuality. Another prevents adoptions by same-sex couples. The law says it must prevent “artificial imposition of untraditional sexual behavior and spiritual suffering and stress, which, according to psychologists, are often experienced by children with same-sex parents.”

‘A big mistake’

On Friday, it was Navalny’s turn. The 37-year-old anti-corruption blogger has been on trial in the city of Kirov, accused of stealing $500,000 worth of timber from a government-owned company.

Navalny has been the most charismatic leader of the opposition demonstrations that began in December 2011. While serving as an unpaid adviser to the Kirov governor in 2009, he suggested paying a commission to a ­middleman to stimulate sales for the moribund state timber company. Now, authorities have accused Navalny of stealing the timber sold under those contracts even though local investigations twice found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov on Friday asked the judge to sentence Navalny to six years and the middleman to five years and fine each of them $30,000.

Navalny’s attorney Vadim Kob­zev explained the charge this way: “Navalny and his defense stay in a hotel in Kirov. . . . A bottle of mineral water at the hotel costs 50 rubles and in a cafe across the street it costs 100 rubles. According to the logic of the prosecution, this is embezzlement. And the waitress might be an accomplice.”

The judge said he would deliver a verdict July 18. Conviction would prevent Navalny from running for mayor of Moscow in September.

With his shirt sleeves rolled up and his voice urgent, Navalny delivered a closing statement Friday that spoke not only for himself but also for his country.

“If somebody thinks that I or my colleagues will stop doing what we are doing because of this trial or because of the Bolotnaya trial or other trials that are underway all over the country, this would be a big mistake,” he said.

“I declare that I and my colleagues will do everything to destroy this feudal order that exists in Russia.”

Navalny said he was glad the trial took place in provincial Kirov, allowing the whole country to see what was happening there, where, he said, people live so poorly despite years of high oil prices feeding government budgets. “What have we all got?” he asked. “What have we got from these people? Nothing.”

Only vodka has gotten cheaper, he said. And while citizens drink themselves into degradation, he said, the Federal Security Service generals put their children into good jobs and United Russia officials buy property abroad.

“We are going to destroy this feudal regime,” Navalny said. “And if somebody thinks that after hearing this [demand for] six years in prison I will get scared and run away, escape, move abroad, no. This is a big mistake. I am not running. . . . None of us has the right of neutrality now.”

Shevtsova believes, as do many others, that the judge has been ordered to convict Navalny.

“The new rules are tougher, much more assertive,” she said. “It resembles the pre-Gorbachev Soviet regime. Only now there’s no idea or ideology, only pure loyalty and repression.”

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