Police in Moscow Clearing Protest After Putin Foe Verdict – Voice of America
Police in Moscow have begun detaining protesters at an impromptu rally staged just hours after a court found opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg guilty of fraud in a case seen by critics as politically motivated.
Several hundred protesters were peacefully assembled in Moscow’s Manezh Square when special forces moved in, hauling some demonstrators into police vans, VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from the scene.
Alexei Navalny himself, ordered under house arrest, was detained by police shortly after he joined protesters.
Earlier, a Russian court found the Navalny borthers guilty of fraud and sentenced them to three-and-a-half years in prison. But, in a surprise move, the court suspended the sentence against Alexei but not for his brother, in a twist that supporters say is aimed at going after the anti-corruption campaigner’s family.
The court sesssion was abruptly moved up by two weeks in a move seen as heading off a protest planned by the brothers’ supporters for next month. Over 33,000 people had signed up on Facebook to attend a rally on January 15, when the verdict was originally expected.
The judge found the Navalny brothers guilty of embezzling funds from a Russian subsidiary of French cosmetics company Ives Rocher. But, while Alexei, a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, was given a suspended sentence, his brother Oleg was ordered to serve three-and-a-half years in prison.
Both were ordered to pay 500,000 rubles (nearly $9,000) in fines. It was not immediately clear why the judge gave a harsher sentence to Oleg than to Alexei, but critics decried it as a blatant attempt to pressure the opposition leader through his family.
“Aren’t you ashamed of what you are doing?” Alexei told the court and judge Yelena Korobchenko. “What are you locking him (Oleg) up for? To punish me even more?” he asked after the verdict was announced.
Speaking later to reporters outside the courthouse, Alexei Navalny leashed out at the Kremlin.
“This government tortures relatives of their opponents. A government that tortures innocent people does not deserve to exist. I call on everyone to go to the square today,” said Navalny apparently referring to Moscow’s Manezh Square, the site of planned protests.
Less than one hundred protesters had gathered outside the courthouse earlier in the day, and a few were hauled off by police.
Police late Monday began setting up barricades in Manezh Square, adjacent to the Kremlin and Red Square.
The U.S. State Department has issued an advisory to Americans in Moscow, warning them of possible violence and arrests should protests materialize.
Experts see no merit
Prosecutor Nadezhda Ignatova said that the Navalny brothers’ guilt has been fully proven.
However, supporters of the brothers and many Russian legal experts point out that not even a minimum of evidence was collected in the case, victims were not named and no damage proven. Representatives of Yves Rocher in Russia have also said that they have no claims against the Navalny brothers.
Yves Rocher did originally file a complaint against the brothers, but later withdrew it. Still, prosecutors continued the case against them in what critics and rights activists view as an abuse of the court system aimed at persecuting political opponents of the Kremlin.
Alexei Navalny was a leader of the largest public protests against the Russian president in 2011 and 2012 that saw tens of thousands take to the streets.
Despite numerous charges against Navalny since then, Russian authorities deny political interference in the judicial system.
Last year, he was found guilty of embezzlement in another case and sentenced to prison. But, Navalny was released the next day after thousands protested in the streets. The anti-corruption campaigner was given a suspended sentence and ran for mayor of Moscow, finishing second.
Navalny is currently under house arrest while he and his brother are appealing their convictions.
Opposition leaders blast sentence
Prominent Russian opposition leaders promptly took issue with the verdict seeing it as a result of a political witch hunt.
Former prime minister of Russia, now co-chair of the Russian opposition party RPR-Parnas, Mikhail Kasyanov, in an interview with VOA’s Russian Service said he viewed the sentences against the Navalny brothers as “a cynical reprisal against political opponents.”
“We all understand that this case was fabricated; on such grounds any entrepreneur in Russia could be put in prison. Moreover, in this case, a suspended sentence for Alexei is a convenient method used by the authorities to neutralize a political opponent because now, on top of everything else, with an absolutely innocent brother behind bars, [Alexei] Navalny will be forced to exercise self-restraint in his activities,” said he.
Kasyanov also predicted that the Navalny case, along with other factors, will soon lead to some changes in Russia.
“I think that this event, along with the general increase of discontent in the country because of the economy, will be a contributing factor in that we, in 2015, can expect to see some changes in Russia. Citizens will begin to view things differently and, for opposition activists, today’s verdict only adds to their determination and enthusiasm,” said Kasyanov.
Kasyanov’s colleague and fellow opposition leader Boris Nemtsov laid the blame for the verdict squarely on Russia’s president.
“The Navalny sentence was dictated by Putin,” said Nemtsov, adding that the decision only points to deeper problems.
“The verdict is a blow to Russia’s reputation as a whole, [a reputation] which is already fairing poorly; and the blow is very powerful, because what happened today, demonstrates that there is no judiciary in Russia, that as an institution it does not exist,” said Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister.
He added that the absence of a judicial system will only lead to more capital flight, a worsening of the investment climate and will make it impossible for people to do business in Russia.
Daniel Schearf contributed to this report from Moscow.