Foreign Affairs

Russia’s police bite off more than they can chew after Alexei Navalny sentencing

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Mass protests have continued throughout Russia after the recent sentencing of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. The Kremlin critic was sentenced to three and a half years in a ‘prison colony’. Due to the time he has already served, he’ll spend two years and eight months in prison.

As the decision was read out by the judge on February 2nd, Navalny drew a heart sign on the glass with his finger, aimed at his watching wife Yulia Navalnaya. She had been subjected to a fine earlier in the week for protesting her husband’s detention.

During the trial, Navalny fired off some incredibly hard-hitting and potentially historical statements to the court. Within his speech, he forcefully said: “Someone did not want me to take a single step on my country’s territory as a free man. And we know who and we know why – the hate and fear of one man, living in a bunker, whom I offended by surviving when he tried to have me killed.”

The speech was eloquently described by The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent who was at the trial. He said, “This speech doesn’t have much to do with arguing the case, it’s a political moment. Railing against Putin, corruption, demanding his freedom. Prosecutor breaking in to try to prevent him from picking up steam. Maybe Navalny’s last words but a political statement for the future.”

What was the fallout from the trial?

Navalny’s team encouraged his supporters to protest his sentence in the nearby Manezh Square in Moscow, but before the trial had even finished, it was teeming with armed riot police. Needless to say, the protesters were out in force.

The police’s tactics were clear from the outset. Arrest everyone and use violence against large, unarmed crowds. On the day Navalny was sentenced, OVD-Info recorded 1145 arrests of protesters in Moscow alone.

This spree of arrests means that Moscow’s jails are overflowing. It’s not possible to process that many people in a short space of time. This means there have been reports of almost 30 people confined to a cell designed for eight.

One person in such a cell, Sergei Smirnov, is a journalist who was arrested for retweeting a joke related to the current situation. His wife is now calling for as much coverage as possible of the squalid conditions detainees are facing.

Another detainee, Maria Silantyava, posted videos of the conditions to her Instagram story. Her cell contains 20 young women, with one toilet between them all. She is being held at the Sakharovo holding centre for immigrants just outside Moscow. It has become a jail in recent weeks due to the more than 10,000 arrests that have taken place in the past two weeks of protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Others arrested complained of being held on a bus for nine hours waiting to head into a holding facility, and some even ended up pushing their own prison bus when it broke down en route to Sakharovo.

What does the Kremlin think of the pile-up?

Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, began a statement that sounded like something you’d expect to hear from a government official in this sort of situation: “The number of detainees is larger than detention facilities can handle, the number of detainees is larger than what could be rapidly processed”. Mr. Peskov then decided to appoint blame for this and decided that blame lies at the cell doors of the protestors themselves. He said: “This situation wasn’t provoked by law enforcement, it was provoked by participants in unsanctioned demonstrations.”

While the protests aren’t going away any time soon, by Thursday afternoon the authorities had managed to catch up with themselves somewhat. Most detainees were moved to new cells that have been described as “normal”.  

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