UPDATE: On October 14, 2019, the Moscow City Court reviewed the appeal of the verdict given to activist Konstantin Kotov, who had been sentenced to four years in prison for participating in four protests, during which he was detained. Thirteen different lawyers served as his defense, filing 13 separate complaints demanding the court cancel the sentence. Nevertheless, the court upheld the verdict – four years’ imprisonment.
“The sentence will be canceled. If not today then in a month, in a year. This is the last chance for the Russian judiciary to show that it has something to do with justice.” said Maria Eismont, Konstantin Kotov’s lawyer.
This summer, mass protests and police brutality captured international attention in the lead up to the Moscow City Duma elections. Nevertheless, the protests persisted, with demonstrations (sanctioned or otherwise) taking place nearly every weekend up until the election on September 8. Meanwhile, the most important crackdown took place off the streets and away from the cameras – in the city’s courtrooms.
Among those detained during the wave of protests was 34-year-old Muscovite Konstantin Kotov. As a civil activist involved in demonstrations in support of a variety of causes, Kotov had been attending government-approved gatherings and unauthorized protests all year long. So when he was detained during an unsanctioned protest for fair elections on August 10, it was not his first arrest.
As such, Kotov was put on trial under Article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code – a controversial clause introduced in July 2014 to criminalize repeated violations of the country’s laws regulating public assemblies.
To give context to the wider judicial crackdown taking place in response to the wave of protests in Moscow, Hromadske breaks down the case of Konstantin Kotov.
Who is Konstantin Kotov?
Konstantin Kotov is considered a civil activist – not a political one. He has been actively participating in pickets and demonstrations in support of a number of causes since 2018, and is known as a peaceful protester, whose activism never involved violence.
“I will never throw pieces of asphalt at the police. The Police are people, they’re citizens like us. And the fact that they have to break the law and serve lawlessness rather than justice and order is a great tragedy,” Kotov told Hromadske’s partner outlet, Novaya Gazeta.
During the protests in Moscow this summer, Kotov was not involved in attacks against the regime. Instead, he stood up for its victims. That is, until he became one of them.
Kotov was detained on more than one occasion, but always for peaceful protests. His first arrest took place during a rally at Moscow State University on March 2, 2019, where he was taken away while giving an interview. Cutting him off mid-sentence, two police officers dragged away by his arms.
“This is illegal,” he said to the officers as they bundled him into a police van.
Kotov was detained once again on June 12, 2019, during the march in defense of arrested investigative journalist Ivan Golunov on Moscow’s Strastnoy Boulevard. Kotov was standing in the boulevard’s green space, practically in the bushes. He wore a t-shirt and a backpack, but carried no placards or posters with slogans. Nevertheless, officers from the OMON special police units (part of the Federal Police within Russia’s National Guard) dragged him into a police van.
According to the police report, Kotov was disrupting the passage of vehicles and citizens.
The activist’s third arrest took place on the evening of August 10, 2019. He was detained at Moscow’s Staraya Square, where an unsanctioned protest for fair elections was set to take place. Kotov was held at the Sokolinaya Gora police department for 48 hours and then released, only to be detained once again near his home in Kosino on the evening of August 12, 2019.
Following this arrest, Kotov was sentenced to two months in prison at a pre-trial detention center and his apartment was searched without a court order.
Kotov on Trial: Rise to Being a Crackdown Symbol
On September 5, 2019, Moscow’s Tversky Regional Court sentenced Kotov to four years in prison, under article 212.1 of the Criminal Code. He was accused of repeatedly violating laws regulating public assemblies.
At the end of the hearing, people who had come to the trial in support of Kotov crowded into the hallway, shouting “Shame!” and other slogans opposing the sentence.
Kotov’s case in numbers
2 days of investigations
3 days to get acquainted with the case
3 days in court
4 years in prison
According to Kotov’s lawyer, there was no evidence that her client had broken the law. And the judge, Stanislav Minin, rejected the defense’s request for the court to review videos of Kotov’s detention and interview witnesses who appeared in a meeting with the defense the day before.
“One of the witnesses saw Kostya before the arrest, someone [saw him] during or after. Someone else participated in the protest, someone watched, someone filmed [it] as a journalist. [There was] someone who knew Kotov only from participating in pickets, someone who knew him personally, someone who didn’t know him at all. But not one of these witnesses saw Kostya do anything illegal ‘with the aim of creating a real threat to the health of citizens, the property of individual or legal entities, [or] public safety and public order’,” Kotov’s lawyer said.
What’s more, the prosecution witnesses have been accused of lying on the stand.
“Of the thirty defense witnesses only four were interviewed. The prosecution witnesses testified, every other word was a lie, but even on the basis of their lies, there was no criminal offense. None of them admitted to having seen Kostya threaten the health of people or their property. And causing harm to the health of citizens or individual property is exactly what results in criminal liability under article 212.1,” explained Irina Bekshina, a colleague of Kotov’s at the campaign “All for All” (Vsekh na vsekh).
“After testifying, they [the witnesses] were whispering in the hallway about how ashamed they were of lying...The prosecutor asked for four years and six months in prison for Kostya. In the hallway, he said to one of the prosecution witnesses ‘it’s a shame, of course, lying, but thanks’ – and shook his hand,” Bekshina recalled.
Why Kotov’s Case is Emblematic: “Dadin’s Article”
For his participation in demonstrations, Kotov was sentenced to four years in prison under article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code. This is often referred to as the “Dadin’s article” after it’s first victim, Ildar Dadin, who was arrested in January 2015 for holding a single-person picket.
This part of the Criminal Code became the cornerstone in the ongoing legal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Russia.
As the first person sentenced under article 212.1, Dadin received two-and-a-half years in prison (following an appeal), on charges of multiple arrests at “unauthorized” public assemblies. Amnesty International declared Dadin a prisoner of conscience and he was later released after spending a year in prison, during which he was beaten and tortured.
For exceeding the limit of three violations in a 180 day period, those convicted under “Dadin’s article” can face up to five years in prison. Kotov was sentenced to four years – which is more than Dadin himself.
Part of a Wider Crackdown
At the beginning of September 2019, a number of high-profile sentences were handed down in a criminal case against “mass rioting,” which was initiated after the largest unsanctioned protest of the summer on July 27, 2019.
Of the 1,388 people detained that day, 15 were arrested on charges of “mass rioting,” while several cases were opened against other individuals in response to mild violence against police officers. This occurred in spite of the fact that during the protests there were no signs of “rioting,” as it is defined under the article in question, which includes arson, clashes, overturning cars and violence against law enforcement officers.
Four of the accused had their charges for “mass rioting” suddenly dropped on September 5. But one of the defendants – a student by the name of Egor Zhukov – was charged with “inciting extremism” despite the fact that there is no exact definition of extremism under Russian law.
Following Kotov’s sentencing on September 5, 2019, a petition appeared on Change.org calling for his release and the cancellation of Article 212.1.
“The court considered human rights activities and concern for other people’s troubles a criminal offense, equating Kotov with murderers, thieves and rapists. This is unfair and terrible. It’s not right. It should not be. Citizens of Russia, demand the abolition of Article 212.1 of the [Criminal Code]! Demand the release of Konstantin Kotov!” the petition read.
Meanwhile, Kotov is calling for a peaceful struggle for his rights and support for those who have lost their freedom.
“The authorities completely deprived society of the opportunity to influence the situation in the country. There are no independent parties, no fair elections. There is only one way out – going to the streets and trying to shout out our demands there. But even this is not allowed,” Kotov said after his trial. “If legal methods of protest are totally prohibited, sooner or later we won’t be seeing peaceful public protests in the streets, but uprisings from people at their limits. None of those who came with me to our events want [this]. With its actions, the regime is digging its own grave.”
/Adapted by Eilish Hart, with materials from Novaya Gazeta.