The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion My trial in Moscow this week was an exercise in absurdity

A man stands near a police bus after he was detained in Moscow on March 13, along with nearly 200 participants of a forum of independent members of municipal councils. (Victor Berezkin/AP)
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MOSCOW — Franz Kafka would have been jealous of today’s Russia. Even the most grotesque fables in “The Trial” pale in comparison with the reality of the judicial system under Vladimir Putin.

This week, Moscow courts continued to hand out administrative sentences to participants of the recent forum of opposition lawmakers that was broken up by police. Every one of its 194 delegates — including dozens of incumbent municipal legislators from across Russia, as well as prominent opposition figures invited as guest speakers — was taken into police custody. In every case, the charge was identical: “participating in the activities of an undesirable organization” under the recently added Article 20.33 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offenses. The copy-pasted indictments by Moscow prosecutors claimed that the forum had been organized by a United Kingdom-based organization called the Open Russia Civic Movement, led by exiled former oil magnate and Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Except it wasn’t — and, in fact, could not have been, for the simple reason that no such organization ever existed. A quick search in the U.K. register confirms this. There was a Russian political movement called Open Russia (indeed led by Khodorkovsky), but, by the very logic of the law targeting foreign “undesirable organizations,” it could not have been affected by the government’s designation, as was confirmed by the prosecutor general’s office itself.

But it doesn’t end there. The Russia-based Open Russia movement was officially dissolved in March 2019, so even its most ardent supporters could not have “participated in its activities” two years later.

These and other hard facts were presented to Moscow’s court No. 299 on Tuesday when, accompanied by my lawyer Vadim Prokhorov — one of Russia’s top civil law attorneys — I was brought before Judge Natalia Shapovalova. Prokhorov and I made the obvious point that peaceful political activity by Russian citizens in Russia — guaranteed by our Constitution and by the European Convention on Human Rights — cannot form a corpus delicti by definition. We also pointed to the fact that materials presented by the police and prosecutors did not contain a single piece of evidence linking the municipal forum with the (nonexistent) Open Russia Civic Movement.

Case closed, charges dismissed? Not in Putin’s Russia. And here is where the trial acquired a distinctly Kafkaesque feeling.

First, the judge denied every one of our motions, including the motions to call the arresting police officers to testify and to allow journalists and spectators (who were waiting outside) into the courtroom. Prokhorov asked that she make this closed status of the hearing official by declaring it to be in camera — which would have been a grave violation of the principle of judicial openness that is only allowed by Russian law in rare exceptional circumstances. But she didn’t relent on that point, either.

So the hearing officially remained “open,” even though no one besides us and the prosecutor was allowed into the courtroom.

Our motion to charge the indicting prosecutor with the crime of falsifying documents (the copy of the indictment in the court file differed significantly from the one handed to me in detention) was denied because the judge “could not ascertain the origin” of my copy. All of our other motions were denied simply because the judge described them as being “without merit.”

After several hours, Shapovalova arrived at her predetermined verdict: guilty. The evidence cited included a report by the arresting police officers that the municipal forum was “in actual fact” organized by “the Open Russia organization, which aims to incite protests and destabilize the domestic political situation in Russia.” There were also announcements of the forum on social media, hotel bookings made by Russian private citizens, and a copy of my passport. Russian law gives me 10 days to appeal the decision to a higher court, and the ruling only comes into force after the appeal is heard — but I received a notification to pay the fine 15 minutes after leaving the court building.

Apparently, this was actually quite late. My colleague Ilya Yashin — the head of one of Moscow’s municipal districts who was also detained at the forum — received a fine notification on the eve of his own court hearing.

For a while, even under Putin, Russian authorities pretended to follow the law by finding quasi-legal pretexts to charge opposition figures, who were indicted for such offenses as cursing in public or jaywalking. Such pretenses are no longer necessary. Now, apparently, it’s enough to make up a fictitious foreign organization, declare it “undesirable” and then charge anyone the authorities don’t like with “carrying out its activities.” Two or more convictions under this charge within a year turn a misdemeanor into a criminal offense and carry a penalty of up to six years in prison. It can also lead to disqualification from elected office — quite convenient for the Kremlin five months before the parliamentary election, with Putin’s party now down to 27 percent in the polls.

No doubt our convictions will be refuted by the European Court of Human Rights once it hears the cases (not a quick process). Thankfully, Russia is still a member of the Council of Europe, perhaps the only remaining achievement of our brief experiment with democracy in the 1990s. This gives us access to the only place we can find real justice, even it’s as far away as Strasbourg. And even if its proceedings lack the entertainment value of the Kafkaesque absurdity of Russian courts under Putin.