Mikhail Benyash. Courtesy of Andrey Loshak’s Facebook page
September 24, 2018
Achtung! Uwaga! Attention! Yet another outburst of lawlessness is underway in Krasnodar, an experimental region of Russia where the authorities test ever more repressive techniques and see whether they can get away with them or not. When I was making a film about volunteers in Navalny’s presidential campaign, it was Krasnodar where I encountered the gnarliest fucked-up shit. Provocateurs in hoods and masks attacked young people attending an “unauthorized” protest rally, and the cops, who stood nearby, claimed not to see anybody in masks attacking anyone. It was really frightening. The provocateurs assaulted the activists and assisted the cops in loading them into paddy wagons. I was also detained then for the first time in my life, despite my attempts to prove I was a reporter. I was quickly released, however. They were still afraid of causing a stir in the Moscow liberal media.
Afterwards, my cameraman and I stood outside the gates of the police station until one in the morning filming the activists, who were mainly really young men and woman, as they were let go after they were formally charged and written up. The whole time this was happening, the lawyer Mikhail Benyash was trying to get into the police station, but the police kept him out. He stood by the gate, writing down the names and numbers of the released detainees. He sadly reported that, due to the court hearings of the detainees, whom he would be defending, he would not be making it back to his hometown of Gelendzhik anytime soon, although there he was in the midst of civil court cases involving hoodwinked investors in unbuilt cooperative apartment buildings.
I asked him why he bothered with all of it when no one paid him for his work. His answer stunned me. It transpired he and I had the exact same motives. He also liked the young people who had been detained, and he also saw them as a source of hope. He was the first romantic lawyer I had ever met. (Unfortunately, I did not know Stanislav Markelov personally.) It was no wonder I took a shine to him. Later, in our correspondence, he suggested titling the series The Ugly Swans, after the novel by the Strugatskys, and wrote me a detailed explanation of why I should do it.
Here is an excerpt from his letter.
“These were the kind of young people with whom you spoke on October 7: quite сheerful, cool, and kind. Unspoiled. Clever, a little naive, and free of feigned helplessness. They grew up on the internet, in the chats on VK and Telegram.
“Instead of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, they imbibed fantasy novels and movies about superheroes, and they fashioned all of it into a model for doing the right thing.
“Instead of Dostoevsky’s subservience, they absorbed the humor of Marvel Comics and a primitive albeit correct sense of right and wrong from movies about Batman, the Flash, and Iron Man. They fire back at priests of all types with quotations from Sheldon Cooper.
“Now I have been watching all these crazy comics serials, but not for entertainment or by way of procrastinating, but in order to understand the young people who grew up on them and so I can speak their language. I’m holding my own for the time being, but the kids are evolving rapidly.”
On September 9, which the Navalny Team had declared a day of protests nationwide, Benyash arrived in Krasnodar as usual to defend activists detained at the march, which, as usual, had not been authorized by the authorities. On the eve of the protest, nearly all Navalny staffers in Krasnodar had been arrested on a ridiculous pretext: all of them were jailed for, allegedly, disobeying police officers. There was not anything like this preventive crackdown in any other city in Russia.
On the way to Krasnodar, Benyash got a telephone call informing him he was under surveillance by the police. The caller also told him his exact location. Mikhail does not scare easily, so he did not turn around. Once he was in Krasnodar, he headed with a female acquaintance to the police station where the detainees would be taken.
Suddenly, a Mazda stopped next to him. Several brutes in plain clothes jumped out of the car, grabbed Mikhail, and tossed him into their car, where they forcibly confiscated his telephone as he was trying to telephone colleagues. The men beat him, choked him, and pressed his eyes with their fingers.
At the police station, he was thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and dragged to the fourth floor. In Krasnodar, experienced opposition activists know the fourth floor is the location of the CID and that if you are taken there, it means the police will put on the pressure and try and beat a confession out of you.
All of these events were witnessed by Mikhail’s female companion, whom the cops also brought to the station.
On the fourth floor, they beat the living daylights out of Benyash. Several blows to his face caused him to fall and hit his head on the corner of a safe.
Meanwhile, the news got out that Benyash had been detained. Lawyer Alexei Avanesyan tried to get into the station to see him, but the police would not let him in. At some point, the cops donned helmets and armor before announcing the station was going into lockdown mode, which happens when a police state is threatened by an armed attack from the outside. In fact, the police in Krasnodar go into lockdown mode every time they don’t want to let lawyers into the station to consult with detained opposition activists. When Avanesyan learned Benyash had been beaten, he summoned an ambulance crew to examine Benyash, who recorded and certified his injuries. By ten p.m., i.e., eight hours after Benyash had been detained, the lockdown was called off and Avanesyan was let into the police station.
There Avanesyan encounted Deputy Chief Papanov, who lied, telling Avanesyan Benyash was not at the station. Avanesyan is not the shy and retiring type, either. He took advantage of the confusion to make a break for the fourth floor, where he found the beaten Benyash in a room and three field agents huddled over him. Avanesyan was then allowed to consult with the detained lawyer Benyash. The police were trying to frame him on two charges: organizing an unauthorized protest rally and resisting the police!
Avanesyan alerted their colleagues via social media, asking them to come to Banyash’s court hearing. Seven lawyers showed up. Although the hearing was scheduled for nine in the morning, it didn’t kick off until ten in the evening. Apparently, none of the local judges wanted to get dirt on their hands.
The court clerk, who was drunk, didnot want to let the lawyers into the hearing, but she was forced to back off, but ordinary members of the public were not admitted into the courtroom.
Judge Buryenko denied all the motions made by the defense. He did not ask police officers to testify. He did not admit the video recordings into evidence, and he even refused to view them. He did not call Benyash’s companion to testify, although she was standing in the hallway.
Benyash was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to forty hours of community service and fourteen days in jail. Although the lawyer had nothing to do with organizing or running the protest rally, he was given the harshest punishment for his non-involvement in it, despite the fact that the number of detainees in Krasnodar also broke all records: around one hundred protesters were hauled in by the police on September 9.
I quote Mediazona, who cite the court’s written verdict.
“According to the police officer’s report, Benyash got into the car voluntarily in order to go to the police station and have charges filed against him, but in the police station parking lot the lawyer banged his head against the car window of his own accord and kicked open the door in an attempt to escape. The police officer claims Benyash refused to stop hitting his head against the wall [sic], which was grounds for charging him with violating Article 19.3 of the Administrative Offenses Code.”
But there is more. Benyash was supposed to be released from jail yesterday. Avanesyan arrived at the special detention facility, seventy kilometers outside of Krasnodar, where Benyash had been jailed, to pick him up. But instead of picking up his released colleague, he was shown a new indictment against Benyash, this time on criminal charges. Benyash was alleged to have violated Article 318 Part 1 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code: “engaging in violence against the authorities.” Medical certificates attesting to the finger bites allegedly suffered by police officers and the enormous suffering they endured as a result have been admitted into evidence.
Benyash has again been detained: for forty-eight hours for the time being. Tomorrow, he will go to court.
Dear colleagues from Novaya Gazeta, TV Rain, and other independent media, please cover this case. Otherwise, the experiment in Krasnodar will very quickly expand nationwide. Even the Brezhnev-era KGB did not stoop to beating up and imprisoning dissident lawyers.
Thanks to George Losev for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader
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