"There was a man who lived like a little sparrow stuck in the throat of a snake," wrote Russian human rights activist Aleksei Polikhovich on Facebook on May 29.
Russia's liberal opposition and human rights community is mourning the death of Sergei Mokhnatkin, an accidental dissident who over the last decade became a respected standard-bearer for those opposed to the authoritarian government of Vladimir Putin. Mokhnatkin died in Moscow on May 28 after a long illness at the age of 66.
"They have been killing him for many years," columnist and Kremlin critic Viktor Shenderovich wrote on Facebook. "[Now] they have killed him."
Relatives and supporters say that Mokhnatkin died of complications from injuries suffered at the hands of guards in 2016 when he was serving 4 1/2 years in prison in the Arkhangelsk region. That incident left him with a fractured spine.
"He wasn't able to walk for the last month," his wife, Anna Krechetova, told RFE/RL. "A week ago, he lost the ability to move his legs. He was just lying on one side. We couldn't turn him or put him on his back because the pain was so great."
Mokhnatkin became nationally prominent when he was arrested in Moscow on December 31, 2009, during an opposition protest to defend freedom of assembly under Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the right to gather peacefully and hold public protests.
He later said that he found himself in the vicinity of the protest by chance and that he was arrested when he tried to intervene when he saw a police officer roughly detaining an elderly woman. In April 2010, he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for assaulting a police officer, charges which he denied.
Blogger and photographer Rustam Adagamov posted a photograph on Twitter on May 28 showing Mokhnatkin in the background as police are detaining the woman. One commentator wrote beneath the photo that Mokhnatkin was "a man who couldn't just walk by."
In an obituary on May 29, the business daily Kommersant wrote of the incident: "A person can live a long time, but sometimes the essence of that life can be summed up by just one day."
'Strong, Free, Happy, Courageous'
During his first prison term, Mokhnatkin took up the cause of prisoner rights and was frequently punished for his activism.
In April 2012, then-President Dmitry Medvedev pardoned Mokhnatkin, the only one of 37 proclaimed political prisoners who were included by activists in a mercy appeal to the president. Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who organized the appeal, wrote that it was the first time in Russia's modern history that a prisoner was amnestied without first admitting his guilt.
Putin returned to the presidency one month later.
After that, Mokhnatkin devoted himself entirely to human rights activism. He became the head of the Tver branch of the For Human Rights nongovernmental organization. In December 2012, the Moscow Helsinki Group gave him its prize "for courage in the defense of human rights."
He carried out many one-person pickets for various causes and was outspoken in his support of the Pussy Riot performance-art group, three members of which were convicted in 2012 of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for performing an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral.
On December 31, 2013, he was arrested at another Moscow rally in defense of the right to demonstrate. His lawyer claimed at the time that he was beaten after being taken to a police precinct. He was subsequently charged with "using violence against a law enforcement officer." In December 2014, he was convicted and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison. Again, he denied the allegations.
In prison, he continued his advocacy of prisoners' rights. In March 2016, he claimed he was beaten by guards, suffering a spinal fracture. However, prison officials added 11 months to his sentence for allegedly insulting a prison official. In 2017, he was given an additional, concurrent sentence of two years for purportedly disrupting prison discipline.
In December 2018, Mokhnatkin was released from prison after completing his term. However, he was the subject of various criminal investigations and cases for the rest of his life.
"He was in great torment after his release," Olga Romanova, a colleague and fellow prisoners' rights advocate, wrote on Facebook. "The pain in his back nearly drove him insane. He was a martyr to his principles…. He was an old-fashioned man out of his time whose principles were stronger than his spine."
"We need to remember the names of all those who murdered Sergei Mokhnatkin," Shenderovich wrote. "The police and the investigators and the prosecutors and the judges and the prison executioners who broke his spine and, again, the judges and the 'doctors' who finished the execution."
"He was one of the best people I ever met in life," he continued. "The 20th century almost completely eliminated this type of person from Russia --strong, free, happy, courageous. Now the 21st century is killing off those who miraculously survived."