Russia’s rubber-stamp courts play starring role in Kremlin crackdown

As editor of the news website Mediazona, Sergei Smirnov built a reputation covering grotesque tales from Russia’s judicial system.

So when police arrested Smirnov this month as he was out for a walk with his young son, and then charged him with “inciting illegal [anti-government] demonstrations” by retweeting a joke about himself, the editor was hardly surprised.

“When you write about this stuff, sooner or later it can happen to you,” Smirnov said after his release from a 15-day sentence in a detention centre outside Moscow on Thursday. “Obviously we live in a country where you unfortunately have to be ready.”

Russia’s rubber-stamp courts have played a starring role in the Kremlin’s crackdown on a protest movement led by anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, president Vladimir Putin’s pre-eminent challenger.

Sergei Smirnov, editor of Mediazona, in a Moscow court earlier this month © Moscow City Court/TASS/Getty Images

At least 90 protesters face criminal prosecution, according to Russia’s interior ministry. Hundreds of the more than 10,000 arrested at protests in January and early February were sentenced to short jail sentences like Smirnov.

Though many defendants argued that police forged evidence against them, almost none were acquitted, according to independent watchdog OVD-Info. A court in St Petersburg even fined Evgeny Agafonov Rbs5,000 for “chanting slogans” — even though he is deaf-mute and testified he could not hear the police while on the way to the shop.

The rush to prosecute the Kremlin’s political opponents has highlighted what experts say are longstanding problems in Russia’s court system. Convictions are all but guaranteed; prosecutions become tools in business disputes; and the phenomenon of “telephone justice” is so widespread that pranksters have passed themselves off as bosses from Moscow to convince lower-level officials to issue the required rulings.

“Political cases are a tiny fraction of the court system, but the way Russian courts are organised makes them very easy to use as part of a repressive mechanism when the central leadership wants to,” said Kirill Titaev, a sociologist at the European University in St Petersburg.

The protests began last month after Navalny, 44, was arrested immediately upon returning to Russia from Germany, where he had recuperated from poisoning by a nerve agent.

He was jailed following an impromptu hearing in a police station, and sent to prison for two and a half years for violating the terms of a 2014 suspended fraud sentence.

Alexei Navalny is surrounded by journalists prior to a flight to Moscow from the airport near Berlin, Germany © Mstyslav Chernov/AP

After Russia dismissed a demand from the European Court of Human Rights to free Navalny this week as “inherently unenforceable”, a Moscow appeals court upheld the sentence against him on Saturday. Hours later, another court found him guilty on separate charges of defaming a second world war veteran. Navalny was also fined Rbs850,000.

He said the second case, brought on charges filed by the grandson of 94-year-old former partisan Ignat Artemenko was aimed at providing fodder for state TV to slander him.

One television anchor compared him unfavourably to Hitler, who “unlike that codpiece führer [a reference to the nerve agent Navalny says Russian secret services smeared on his underwear] didn’t dodge the army, he fought honourably.”

Protesters out in support of Alexei Navalny in Moscow last month © Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

Navalny remained unbowed during closing arguments on Saturday. In a fiery speech before the verdict, during which he referred to the Sermon on the Mount, Harry Potter, Soviet dissidents, and the cartoon Rick and Morty, Navalny claimed his trials were designed to scare people off from protesting against Putin’s government.

“There’s some sort of signal that . . . Vladimir Putin, the owner of this wonderful palace, is sending: ‘Look, it’s all weird, but we can do it,’” Navalny said. “Like a juggler or a magician, he spins a ball on his fingers, then on his head, and says: ‘Look, we can twirl this court system around any part of our body. What do you think you’re doing against us? We can do whatever we want, just like this.’”

Police officers detain protesters during an unauthorised protest in support of Alexei Navalny in Moscow last month © Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

Defendants in Russian courts are all but guaranteed to be convicted. In 2020, 99.64 per cent of criminal trials ended in convictions, the lowest rate for the last six years.

Last month, Putin hailed judges for braving the pandemic and “giving their all despite the risks to defend the rights of citizens, the state, and society”.

Periodic attempts at reforming Russia’s courts have failed, leaving them effectively in the hands of the Kremlin, Titaev said.

“Corruption is out of control,” he added. “The presidential administration and the security services have complete control over judicial appointments . . . so neither the government, nor the judicial body that’s formed over the last 20 years have any interest in changing it.”

In cases with clear political overtones such as Navalny’s, any unexpected acquittals have come after the Kremlin has acquiesced to public opinion — most notably in 2019, when defendants in two such cases were released. Reversals, however, remain so rare that supporters interpreted the four-year suspended sentence given to activist Anastasia Shevchenko for being part of an “undesirable organisation” this week as a small victory.

Cameraman Pavel Zelensky at a Moscow court last month © Presnensky District Court/TASS/Getty Images

The Kremlin appears keen to send Navalny’s supporters a message after this winter’s protests. State-linked media have published leaked video confessions from defendants charged with assaulting police. Pavel Zelensky, a cameraman at Navalny’s foundation facing five years in prison for “inciting extremism” in two tweets, fired his lawyer and pleaded guilty this week, a move Navalny’s team claimed was probably made under duress.

Navalny on Saturday urged his supporters to continue their fight. “Don’t be part of the lie, don’t make the world around you worse,” he said. “There’s a risk, but it’s not that big, and as another great modern philosopher named Rick Sanchez (the main character in Rick and Morty) said: ‘To live is to risk it all, otherwise you’re just an inert chunk of randomly assembled molecules drifting wherever the universe blows you.’”

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