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Public Pressure Mounting On Russian Authorities To Reconsider Harsh 'Network' Case Verdicts

A single-picket protester in Moscow holds a poster in support of a group of men who were given lengthy prison sentences in a case known as "the Network." The verdicts against the men who were found guilty of terrorism charges has drawn widespread criticism both in Russia and abroad.

Hardly a day goes by without a new expression of support in Russia for seven men who were given harsh prison sentences last week in a case that many observers in Russia and abroad contend was fabricated by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

On February 18, a group of more than 200 animators issued an open letter declaring "we cannot remain indifferent to the fact that young people are being punished for crimes they did not commit."

One day earlier, several hundred Russian artists, museum workers, and gallery curators across the country also issued an open letter "angrily condemning" the convictions and, particularly, the alleged use of torture by investigators in the case. The letter called for the convictions to be thrown out and the case, widely known as "the Network," reinvestigated from the beginning.

On February 16, several dozen members of the Association of Independent Public Monitors, a group of lawyers that monitors law enforcement and prisons, issued a similar statement "demanding an objective investigation into torture in the Network case."

These letters of protest echo like-minded initiatives by scientists.

All these reactions and more came in the first week after a district court in the provincial city of Penza on February 10 sentenced the seven defendants to prison terms ranging from six to 18 years after convicting them of belonging to a terrorist organization and plotting attacks aimed at destabilizing the country.

The case was known as "the Network" because that is the name investigators imposed on the group that they claimed the now-convicted suspects were involved in; all seven men have said that no such organization existed.

Several of the men say they were beaten and subjected to electric-shock torture to extract confessions. Human rights groups and activists contend that the case was fabricated by the state to send a signal to members of society who express political views that run counter to the positions of the government.

In addition to the open letters, there have been single-person pickets – the only form of protest that Russian authorities do not claim requires permission from the state -- in Moscow, Penza, and elsewhere aimed at drawing attention to the case.

There have also been numerous demonstrations in cities across Russia. On February 18, activists in Irkutsk, in Siberia, applied for permission to hold a demonstration against the Network convictions on March 1.

On February 17, at least 13 independent bookstores in at least nine cities shut their doors for a one-day strike to protest the Network verdicts. The following day, police in Tula visited the Svidetel (Witness) bookstore and its owner was asked to go to a police station to give an explanation.

"I refused," she said, according to a local media report. "I said I would not go without a written summons."

'Punitive Practices'

When Sergei Mironov, a parliament deputy and chairman of the party A Just Russia, issued a February 17 statement denouncing the "sad regularity" of cases of "punitive practices of law enforcement organs in relation to their own citizens," political analyst Yekaterina Schulmann wrote on Facebook that the public reaction to the so-called Network case has been "amazing" and "is proceeding vigorously."

"If this doesn't give a chance to [those caught up in the Network case], then it might help [the defendants] in the New Greatness case," Schulmann wrote, referring to an ongoing similar case in which eight alleged members of a group called New Greatness have been charged in Moscow with extremism. That case has drawn criticism from activists who say the entire group was a sting operation created by an FSB agent.

"Keep in mind, citizens, that pickets must be single-person and letters must be collective," Schulmann wrote.

In recent months, Russia has seen at least a few cases in which the authorities may have been moved to act by similar widespread expressions of discontent. A drug charge against investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was dropped in June following a massive outcry and accusations that the case had been entirely falsified to punish him for his journalism. Several high-ranking Moscow police commanders were dismissed after the case, for which prosecutors have since apologized.

Russian student and blogger Yegor Zhukov (file photo)
Russian student and blogger Yegor Zhukov (file photo)

In December, Moscow student and blogger Yegor Zhukov was given a three-year suspended sentence for purportedly "inciting extremism online." The sentence came after a months-long campaign calling for his freedom and despite a request from prosecutors that he be given a harsh prison term.

"The fact that I'm here now…is thanks to you," Zhukov told supporters after his release. "This is your victory."

In September, the Moscow City Court reduced actor Pavel Ustinov's sentence for supposedly assaulting a law enforcement officer from 3 1/2 years in prison to a one-year suspended term. That decision also followed a significant public outcry, including from numerous prominent cultural and artistic figures.

President Vladimir Putin has said repeatedly that he cannot interfere in court cases, but Russian courts are widely considered to lack independence, and rights groups and government opponents contend that the outcome of many high-profile cases is decided in the Kremlin.

On February 18, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin had been informed about the public outcry over the Network case. Peskov noted that there are still several stages of appeals remaining in the case and urged the public to "wait for the results of the appeals."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Maria Chernova