In Russia, No One Too Small to Intimidate ; Trial Seems Intended to Warn Ordinary Citizens against Political Activism

Article excerpt

A political science student who claims he only threw a lemon at a police officer has been held for a year without trial and could face 12 more years in prison.

Yaroslav G. Belousov, a political science student, found himself in the center of the mayhem when a rally last year against Vladimir V. Putin, then the prime minister, unexpectedly turned violent. As protesters grappled with helmeted riot police officers swinging clubs, investigators say, Mr. Belousov "threw rocks and pieces of asphalt, broke through the cordon and attacked police officers."

Some of his supporters, citing video evidence, say he threw only a lemon.

Mr. Belousov, 21, the father of a 2-year-old son, had no previous criminal record, but he has been in jail for a year and could serve 12 more years if convicted on all counts. He is one of a dozen participants in the May 6, 2012, demonstration -- representing a cross-section of the middle-class Muscovites who have turned decisively against Mr. Putin -- whose trial opened Thursday in a Moscow court. Legal experts say they face stiff sentences and slim chances of acquittal.

What sets the case apart from a series of recent political prosecutions in Russia is that not one of the defendants was a high- profile opposition leader when arrested. Most are unknown to the public, and their prosecution seems intended as a sharp warning to other ordinary Russians, especially educated professionals, about taking part in street protests.

"When they arrest not the leaders, not the heads of the opposition but the ordinary people representing different social strata, of different ages and views, when these people are just being pulled out, this is, of course, intimidation," Mr. Belousov's wife, Tamara, said in an interview Wednesday at a cafe across the street from Red Square.

But Mrs. Belousova, 21, who is also a political science student, predicted that the government's strategy would ultimately backfire. "Because it causes indignation," she said, adding: "Our child is 2 years old, and he hasn't seen his father for a whole year. The cruelty is absolute and unjustified."

Mr. Belousov, like his wife, was working toward a political science degree at Moscow State University and attended the protest on Bolotnaya Square, she said, largely because of his research interest in social media as a tool of political organizing.

Five of the defendants now on trial were students; six were self- declared political activists of varying views. Their ranks include a freelance journalist, a sales manager, an artist and a subway worker. Several were not previously active in politics.

They range in age from 19 to 51, but most are in their 20s, and among them are liberals, a leftist and an anarchist. The 10 men in the group have all been detained for about a year, while the two women were released -- one on her own recognizance, the second under house arrest.

The only defendant with name recognition, Maria Baronova, was a former media aide to an opposition lawmaker, Ilya V. Ponomarev, and gained prominence only after her arrest at the protest. She faces the lightest charges, of inciting disobedience and mass riots. Most of the defendants are charged with participating in mass riots and assaulting police officers. …