December 19, 2013
A Muted Joy
Four Defendants in the Bolotnaya Square Case Amnestied
The amnesty passed yesterday by the State Duma has enabled charges against four defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case to be dropped. Today, December 19, opposition activist Vladimir Akimenkov and journalist Leonid Kovyazin, who had been held in a remand prison for over a year, were released. Human rights activist Nikolai Kavkazsky was released from house arrest, and charges were likewise dropped against Maria Baronova, who had been under travel restrictions. Our correspondent went to the hearing at the Nikulinsky District Court in Moscow to see how the “prisoners of Bolotnaya” were freed.
Lawyers and journalists waited for the hearing to begin in a small, five-table cafe on the first floor of the Nikulinsky District Court. It had been known since yesterday evening that motions to amnesty four defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case—Maria Baronova, Vladimir Akimenkov, Nikolai Kavkazsky and Leonid Kovyazin—would be filed today. The four had been charged under sections 2 and 3 of Article 212 of the Criminal Code (participating in rioting and incitement to riot). Yesterday, the State Duma amended the president’s amnesty bill, extending it not only those convicted of such crimes but also to suspects and defendants charged under this article. However, the hearing had already been delayed by two hours and the people in the cafe were nervous.
Someone suggested the motions would not be accepted until Vladimir Putin’s press conference was over, because Judge Natalya Nikishina was waiting for a go-ahead from the Kremlin. Someone else claimed that traffic jams were to blame: because of them, the defendants had not been delivered to the court on time.
“In our difficult times, any delay gives rise to conspiracy theories,” lawyer Sergei Badamshin said by way of summing up.
When asked whether the four defendants would be released, lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant answered quite cautiously.
“It often happens that courts like to drag things out until the verdict. In Russia, the authorities don’t like letting people go. Today, I heard that some lady from the Federal Penitentiary Service said that for Nadya [Tolokonnikova] to be amnestied they would need a paper from child protection services saying that Nadya had not been deprived of her parental rights. Can you imagine? What grounds do they have for suspecting her of this? Her daughter has a birth certificate in which Nadya is identified as the mother. But in Russia, if they don’t want to let someone go, they always come up with an excuse.”
Dmitry Agranovsky, Vladimir Akimenkov’s lawyer, was categorical.
“I prepared the draft amendments to the amnesty bill along with MPs from the Communist Party. We ensured that the cases against people eligible for amnesty who have been charged under Article 212 would be dropped not after the verdict, but at the stage where they are currently are. From a legal perspective, Akimenkov should be released today, end of story. Since yesterday, there has no longer been any need for his detention. His complaint has already been filed with the European Court of Human Rights, and if he’s kept in the remand prison even for a day after the amnesty bill is published, that will be tantamount to a real abuse of power, since they are no legal grounds for detaining him. He should be released in the courtroom.”
Agranovsky recited [the final stanza of Pushkin’s poem “Deep in Siberian mines”] with expression.
“The heavy fetters will fall, / The jails will crumble. And freedom / Will joyfully hail you at the entrance, / And brothers will give you back your swords.”
Lawyer Alexei Vetrentsev, who was representing defendant Leonid Kovyazin, did not think his client would be released today.
“I think Leonid will be released from the remand prison only tomorrow. There’ll be paperwork at the prison, and he’ll have to gather his things.”
The expression on Vetrentsev’s face was extremely sad.
“For us, the amnesty is a good decision, but I feel embarrassed before the others. It is inhuman to carry out an amnesty this way, releasing some people while others are left in jail.”
Nine other people were to appear with his client in the cage for defendants at the Nikulinsky District Court. Only two of them, Kovyazin and Akimenkov, were supposed to be released. Baronova, the mother of a young child, had been under travel restrictions, while Kavkazsky had been under house arrest.
“I’m ashamed, but I’m glad, and that’s an objective feeling,” said Baronova. “You can feel as guilty as you like because the others aren’t being let out, but now for the first time in two years I can leave the country for at least a few days. I’m looking here at names of banks that give consumer loans for the New Year holidays, so I can go to Berlin.”
(Left to right) Sergei Krivov, Stepan Zimin, Denis Lutskevich, Andrei Barabanov and Artyom Savyolov. Photo: Gennady Gulyaev/Kommersant
Anatoly, grandfather of anarchist Alexei Polikhovich, another defendant, sat motionless not far from Baronova. Anatoly’s grandson was first charged under “amnestied” Article 212, for involvement in rioting. But after a press conference last year in which President Vladimir Putin spoke out strongly against people who had [allegedly] assaulted police officers, Article 318 (“use of violence that does not endanger human life or health […] against a representative of the authority”), the standard charge, was added to the charges against Polikhovich. Riot police officer Igor Tarasov had then suddenly remembered that at the May 6, 2012, rally, Polikhovich had “hit him in the wrist, causing severe pain.”
Immediately after the defendants were brought into the courtroom, the four lawyers moved to have their clients released in connection with the amnesty decree published yesterday in [official government newspaper] Rossiiskaya Gazeta. The appeals were wholly supported by the prosecution. Judge Natalya Nikishina then asked whether the appeals were supported by the remaining defendants not covered by the amnesty—that is, Polikhovich, Alexandra Dukhanina, Denis Lutskevich, Stepan Zimin, Sergei Krivov, Andrei Barabanov, Yaroslav Belousov and Artyom Savyolov.
Polikhovich replied by chuckling ironically a few times, but the other defendants unanimously seconded the appeals. Stella Anton, Denis Lutskevich’s mother, wept loudly. Twenty minutes later, Judge Nikishina returned to the courtroom and read out her decision: to grant the motions and dismiss the criminal charges.
The first to exit the courtroom was Leonid Kovyazin. His wife Yevgenia threw her arms around him.
“The guys aren’t getting out, and that’s bad,” said Kovyazin, now free. “My joy is severely muted for this reason.”
When asked what conditions had been like for him in the Butyrka remand prison, Kovyazin answered calmly.
“At first, I had conflicts in the remand prison. Then I got used to it: the only tough thing was the waiting. Other than that, the people in prison, who are mostly there on drugs charges, are often quite outstanding. Incidentally, I was surprised it wasn’t only young people who used drugs: there were fortysomething men in jail with me who told me how they had got hooked on heroin on their birthdays. Basically, I can’t say anything good about jail: any term of imprisonment means stress, unhappiness and a few years deducted from your life. For example, it is physically painful to ride in the paddy wagon: it is very cold in winter, and extremely hot in summer.”
Kovyazin had been accused of overturning portable toilets that had been set up in Bolotnaya Square during last year’s May 6 rally, which ended in massive clashes between protesters and police. Kovyazin was frank about his actions that day.
“I had gone to the square to shoot video for the Vyatsk Observer newspaper, but then I lost my cool. When I saw the case materials, the video shot from above, I noticed that at the moment [when police dispersed the rally] only around fifty people remained in the square, but the police were on both sides. I had shot scenes of people being beaten by the police, but then I had put away the camera and yet was unable to leave. Perhaps that was my mistake: the camera distances you from what’s happening, but when you’re involved in the events, it’s different.”
Kovyazin did not deny that he had pushed the toilet stalls.
“It was an emotional decision. After the fact you can discuss it at length and reflect on it, but when you see [people being beaten] . . . I was caught up in the action. Later, when the task force came to arrest me, I said to my brother, ‘See you in five years.’ Fortunately, that hasn’t come to pass.”
After a pause, Leonid continued.
“If I could play it back, I would do what I did, only I would have gone without the camera. As Vova [Vladimir Akimenkov] joked to me, ‘When you get out, the journalists are going to slap you first, then shake your hand.’ Because that kind of involvement is, of course, a violation of professional journalistic ethics. But I don’t believe I was involved in rioting.”
“There was no rioting in the square,” asserted Nikolai Kavkazsky, one of the amnestied defendants and a lawyer with the human rights organization Civil Assistance. “It is obvious to everyone that on May 6 there was a sanctioned march and rally that the authorities wanted to disrupt. People who went to that rally are now on trial, but not the policemen who actually violated the law, which prohibits dispersing rallies. What happened to me, for example? I saw a police officer hitting some unknown people with a truncheon. He was beating them severely, you might say. I went up to the police officer and wanted to say to him, ‘Why are you violating the law on police conduct? Why are you beating citizens?” But I didn’t manage to say anything. He raised his truncheon. I wanted to cover myself with hands, but the blow landed on my arm, and to protect myself from this police officer, I lifted my leg. That was it.”
Kavkazsky was arrested on July 25, 2012, when he left his home to buy new pants. (He never did buy those pants.) Later, in the remand prison, he found that the hardest thing to endure was being cut off from the familiar, everyday world.
“When you’re cut off from the phone and Internet, from interacting with your usual circle of people, you feel completely isolated. That’s the scariest thing. And there’s not knowing. Conditions in prisons are horrible: they’re not meant to observe human rights but to violate them. Everything is forbidden there. Why do they forbid you from listening to music you want to listen to? Why can’t you put duvets on your blankets? Why can’t you eat the food you like?”
Kavkazsky spent nearly a year in the remand prison. He was switched to house arrest only in August of this year because endocrine disorders he suffers from had flared up while he was in custody.
Vladimir Akimenkov, an activist with the now-routed Left Front, was also released from the remand prison on Thursday. At first, he had wanted to turn down the amnesty.
“It’s a Byzantine decision: they’re planning to release some and not others. I don’t understand how I’m better than the others, why guys who have become real comrades to me, people with serious health problems, including fathers and men separated from their other halves, have to be in prison.”
His lawyer convinced Akimenkov to sign the appeal. He did not consider himself guilty.
“I did none of the things I’ve been charged with. I was not involved in a riot that, incidentally, did not happen.”
Akimenkov looked out the window and rubbed his wrists.
“I find it strange to go outside, strange to feel my hands without handcuffs on them. But after I find a job, I’ll be going to the Bolotnaya Square trial, making care packages, giving money and doing everything possible to ensure there is not a single political prisoner in this country.”
In the very near future, Akimenkov plans to attend another trial, that of Left Front coordinator Sergei Udaltsov, accused of organizing the “riot” in downtown Moscow a year and a half ago. The court has yet to begin examining the charges against him.
NB. The original article features a four-minute video of the December 19 court hearing and its aftermath.