MOSCOW — Courts from Moscow to Murmansk sent out a broad and uncompromising message Tuesday: Russian authorities will not tolerate protest, not from the weak or the powerful, not on land or at sea.
In a reminder of the Soviet era that reduced even the toughest of former dissidents to tears, a Moscow court ordered a 38-year-old disabled man confined to indefinite psychiatric treatment. Mikhail Kosenko was found guilty Tuesday of rioting and assaulting police at a May 6, 2012, demonstration on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as president.
To the north in Murmansk, a ship’s doctor, a photojournalist on assignment and a former radio reporter who had all been on a Greenpeace ship seized after a protest against Arctic drilling lost their appeal for bail Tuesday. Accused of piracy along with 27 others, they will remain in jail until at least Nov. 24.
Kosenko had been classified as disabled ever since he was beaten as a young army draftee in a brutal hazing attack that left him with brain damage. No witnesses said they saw him hitting a police officer. Amnesty International called him a prisoner of conscience.
A psychiatrist from the Serbsky Institute, where many dissidents were confined in the Soviet era, said Kosenko was insane. An independent psychiatrist disagreed and pointed out that he had never displayed aggressive behavior.
As Kosenko’s trial drew to a close Tuesday, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, an influential human rights organization, sat at a table a few feet from where the prisoner stood in a courtroom cage. Alexeyeva, physically frail but defiant as ever at 86, had spent much of her young adult life resisting Soviet authoritarianism. She was exiled in 1977 and moved to the United States. She returned home in 1993, after the Soviet Union had dissolved.
“We will not abandon you,” she reassured Kosenko. “We succeeded in the Soviet times, and we will fight for you now.”
As she walked slowly out of the courthouse, an overflow crowd waiting to hear the verdict applauded her. Some wept when they saw her tears.
Oppositionists had packed the courtroom, assuming that the verdict had been ordered from above and would reflect official policy, regardless of guilt or innocence. Hundreds stood on the sidewalk. Alexei Navalny, a charismatic leader who has been threatened with jail himself, called Kosenko a courageous example for them all.
In a tweet, Sergei Mitrokhin, head of the longtime opposition Yabloko party, declared, “In fact, it is a restoration of the punitive psychiatry of Soviet times.”
Kosenko lived with his sister, Ksenia, and her 22-year-old son in a three-room Moscow apartment. Doctors had diagnosed him with mild schizophrenia, and he regularly took low-dose medication, she said.
“He organized his own small world,” Ksenia said in a recent interview. “He’s very quiet. He’s not very communicative. He reads a lot.”
Radio reports on the uncensored Ekho Moskvy had piqued his interest in rallies supporting fair elections, Ksenia said.Kosenko was detained May 6, 2012, accused of disobeying police. He spent a night in jail, was fined the equivalent of about $15 and was released. “We were so relieved,” Ksenia said.
On June 6, her son answered a knock at the door and eight police officers entered. They took Kosenko away. He has been in jail ever since, denied bail. Altogether, 28 people have been charged with May 6 offenses. Two entered guilty pleas. Twelve are being tried together, threatened with sentences of up to 13 years; others await trial. Kosenko was tried separately because of his disability.
“It was like a movie,” Ksenia said. “I was hoping even then that it was a mistake and everything would be fine.”
Their mother, 66, died last month. The judge refused to allow Kosenko out for the funeral, even though a well-known newspaper editor promised to guarantee his return to jail. “I was hoping they would show they were human,” Ksenia said.
One day in the courtroom, she drew her chair close to the prisoner’s cage and gave him the news. Kosenko had already heard on TV.
“He had tears in his eyes,” she said. “I cried, too, but I turned my back away from the judge. I would not give her the pleasure of seeing us cry.”
On Tuesday, after the verdict, she was near tears once more.Her brother, she said, had been very brave. She was proud.
“There is no justice here,” she said. “The authorities want to scare people, to leave them frightened in a corner so no one will ever dare criticize them.”
She had learned much about the courts here in the last year and a half, she said. “I understand they will make the ruling that’s ordered,” she said.
In Murmansk, the news site that employed 36-year-old Denis Sinyakov to document the Greenpeace protest in September submitted affidavits swearing that he was a journalist on assignment. Sinyakov, a widely known Russian photographer who has worked for a variety of news outlets, was refused bail.
“The criminal activity I am blamed for is called journalism,” he had told the court at an earlier hearing. “My only weapon is my camera.”
Also refused bail were a Russian doctor, Ekaterina Zaspa, and Andrei Allakhverdov, a 50-year-old Russian who made a name for himself as a radio reporter specializing in the environment before joining Greenpeace.
The 27 others aboard the ship, including its captain, American Peter Willcox, will appeal their detentions and request bail in the days ahead.
“They have been charged with a crime that did not happen,” Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said in a statement Tuesday. “They are being held for something nobody thinks they actually did. They are now prisoners of conscience, and as such they are the responsibility of the world.”