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'We Must Fight For All Of Them': Prominent Russians Protest Repression In The 'Moscow Case'

Russian actor Pavel Ustinov was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for allegedly dislocating the shoulder of a police officer during a demonstration on August 3.
Russian actor Pavel Ustinov was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for allegedly dislocating the shoulder of a police officer during a demonstration on August 3.

The government's heavy-handed manipulation of the recent Moscow City Duma elections -- the blanket disqualification of almost all the genuinely independent candidates seeking seats -- provoked a wave of unsanctioned mass demonstrations in the capital.

Now the government's heavy-handed response to those demonstrations -- serious prison terms for at least seven defendants so far -- has provoked a wave of protest that is quickly metastasizing to parts of society not known for resisting President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.

Actors, theater directors, television personalities, Russian Orthodox priests, a State Duma deputy, and a large group of schoolteachers have all made public statements expressing concern about the so-called Moscow Case in general and the fates of individual defendants in particular.

The current wave of outrage stems from a Moscow court's September 16 ruling sentencing actor Pavel Ustinov, 24, to 3 1/2 years in prison for allegedly dislocating the shoulder of a police officer during a demonstration on August 3.

Ustinov says he was not participating in the rally and that he did nothing to resist the police officer. The court refused to consider as evidence videos of Ustinov's detention that seem to support his account and to show that the police officer was not injured.

On September 18, dozens of people lined up to conduct brief one-person pickets outside the offices of Putin's administration to support Ustinov under the slogan "We Are All Pavel Ustinov."

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One-person protests have become a regular way for Russians to voice their opinions without violating the government's laws on public demonstrations.

Some staunch Kremlin supporters have come out against the perceived injustice against Ustinov, sparking speculation that the government might give in to the public pressure and engineer a change in the outcome of the case, handing the actor a shorter sentence or freeing him altogether.

'Outrageous Injustice'

State television host Vladimir Solovyov, who often advances the Kremlin's position on his programs and argued in July that a recent protest had been organized by people from outside of Moscow to provoke a police response, posted on Twitter that he was prepared to pay for a "qualified lawyer" to defend Ustinov.

In response to Solovyov's unexpected statement, humorist and Putin critic Viktor Shenderovich wrote on Facebook: "Bacteria are never wrong. Ustinov will be freed very soon."

United Russia party official Andrei Turchak posted on his social media accounts that the Ustinov case was an "outrageous injustice" that was "impossible to ignore."

Margarita Simonyan, who heads the state-funded network RT, formerly Russia Today, tweeted that "if society believes that an outrageous injustice has occurred, then it must be stopped immediately or proven to have not been unjust at all. Proven in such a way that it is impossible not to be convinced."

Sergei Shargunov, a Communist Party deputy in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, urged the Prosecutor-General's Office to appeal the verdict "with the purpose of freeing him from criminal responsibility" -- meaning he should not be sentenced to prison.

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Many of the actors and television personalities who have signed on to the Ustinov protests, according to a list compiled by Open Media journalist Yelena Malakhovskaya, have reputations as being politically silent or supportive of the Russian authorities.

The massive show of support for Ustinov was set off by a video posted by actor Aleksandr Pal, in which he called for an Internet flash mob.

In the video, Pal recalls the case of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was arrested in June on drug charges which, after massive public protests led by journalists, were dropped and all but acknowledged by the interior minister to have been fabricated by police.

"I well remember the case of Ivan Golunov," Pal said in his appeal to the acting community. "I was amazed by how journalists got united. I think we can do the same as well."

Leading non-state journalists, including Novaya Gazeta's Dmitry Muratov, Ekho Moskvy's Aleksei Venediktov, and Natalya Sindeyeva of Dozhd TV have also spoken out publicly against the perceived injustice of the Ustinov case.

More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition calling for Ustinov's "immediate release."

For its part, the Kremlin has issued its customary claim that Putin cannot interfere in the judicial process and has called on the public to wait for the outcome of all possible appeals.

But remarks from figures like Turchak and Solovyov are seen as evidence that the Kremlin -- which government critics contend ultimately decides the outcome of Russia's most prominent court cases -- is hedging its bets and preparing for a possible climb down.

'Political Prisoners'

While Ustinov's sentence was the immediate spark for the latest protests, others have expressed concerns about the entire so-called Moscow Case. Sixteen people have been charged in the matter, and seven have already been given prison terms ranging from two to five years. The human rights group Memorial has proclaimed the Moscow Case defendants to be political prisoners.

In all, more than 3,000 people were detained in Moscow during the wave of election protests that swept the capital in July and August.

On September 18, more than 100 primary and secondary school teachers signed an open letter expressing "alarm and concern" over the entire Moscow Case, arguing that the defendants were exercising their constitutional rights to express their opinions and assemble peaceably.

They expressed the hope that Russian society and the government would be able to learn the lessons of the country's history and literature. "We demand freedom for those unjustly convicted, an end to fabricated cases, and a legal and just evaluation of the actions of those who beat people in the streets, arrested people for no reason, gave false testimony, wrote false reports, and delivered clearly unjust verdicts," the teachers wrote.

The same day, some 40 Russian Orthodox priests published an open letter expressing concern about the case of Konstantin Kotov, who was sentenced to four years in prison for repeated violations of the law on public demonstrations. He denied the accusations against him.

The priests said they believed the sentences in the Moscow Case were intended "more to frighten the citizens of Russia than to reflect a just decision regarding the defendants."

"We call on all to pray intensely for the imprisoned and for those people who have their fates in their hands, for Russia, for its government, military, and people," the letter concluded. "May God bless us all with His peace and give us the strength and resolution to respect and love one another."

A spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, told the state news agency TASS that the letter was "political" because it singled out some "unjustly convicted" people among many.

In an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, actress Yulia Aug said it was important not to limit the protests to the Ustinov case.

"There are others who have been given unjust sentences for nothing as well. We cannot forget this,” Aug said. "All the others who have been sentenced or who are yet to be sentenced [and] all this unacceptable political repression. We must fight for every one of them."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Current Time television