MOSCOW - A Moscow court sentenced Russian actor Pavel Ustinov to three-and-a-half years in prison Monday for injuring a Russian National Guardsman during a peaceful protest held earlier this year. The sentence was the latest in a series of fast-track punishments widely viewed as a government effort to intimidate growing unrest in the capital amid a charged election season.
Prosecutors say Ustinov, 23, dislocated the shoulder of a National Guardsman in riot gear in August as Ustinov was being detained by police on Moscow's central Pushkin Square, where a group of demonstrators gathered to protest the lack of opposition candidates in recent city council elections.
"He had his telephone in his hand and, yes, he was shouting slogans offensive to the government," said the guardsman, Sergeant Alexey Lyaglin, in testimony to the court, according to the online news source Mediazona.
"I felt that something with my shoulder slipped, when he [Ustinov] moved," Lyaglin told the court.
Ustinov denied the charges. He also denied taking part in the protest, maintaining that he was merely on the square waiting for a friend.
Video evidence appeared to support his defense — showing the actor on his phone and seemingly stunned and falling backward as police descended to make the arrest.
Judge Sergei Krivoruchko — currently facing U.S. sanctions under the Magnitsky Act legislation targeting human rights abusers globally — refused to review video evidence and multiple witness statements clearing Ustinov of the charges.
Krivoruchko did, however, appear to soften sentencing amid public pressure. Prosecutors had sought a six-year sentence for Ustinov.
'Insane and unlawful' punishment
Ustinov's sentencing drew wide condemnation online.
"Absolutely, insane and unlawful sentence for Pavel Ustinov. 3.5 years for absolutely nothing," wrote opposition leader Alexey Navalny in a post on Twitter.
"The video of his arrest is available to all and any can see for themselves that Ustinov is innocent. All the same, the authorities are spitting demonstratively on the law. This sentencing is a public act ofintimidation," added Navalny in the post.
Konstantin Raikin, a legendary theater director who has clashed on occasion with Kremlin officials over cultural policy, provided video testimony for Ustinov's character and criticized the ruling.
"For me, his innocence is completely obvious," said Raikin in comments reported by Kommersant FM."I will fight and I'm not alone. Alongside me will be our whole theater school."
Others questioned the silence of many in Russia's legendary theater community given what they say were fabricated charges against one of their own.
"Today it's him, tomorrow it's you," wrote opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov in a post to Facebook that took the Russian theater community to task.
"This is no game," he added, while closing with an oft-cited line from Shakespeare. "This is to be or not to be."
Ustinov's sentence marked the latest in a string of harsh punishments meted out for a series of "unauthorized" demonstrations over the banning of opposition candidates from local elections. The move launched a series of protests in the capital and led to more than 2,000 arrests by truncheon-wielding riot police.
While banned opposition candidates spent much of the summer in prison, Ustinov joins a small group of demonstrators given draconian punishment over seemingly minor infractions.
In other notable cases, programmer Konstantin Kotov, 34, was given a four-year sentence for participating in peaceful rallies the government deemed "unauthorized."
Another, blogger Vladislav Sinitsa, received a five-year sentence for an ill-advised tweet.
Yet key to prosecutors' cases has been testimony — often sheepish — from police who claimed injuries that stretched the imagination despite wearing heavy protective riot gear.
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One complained of whiplash after a protester flicked his helmet. Another claimed injuries from a plastic bottle.
"I know for a fact that among members of the National Guard and police are those who refused to appears as victims" in the Moscow trials. "Those who are ashamed to take on such a disgusting role," Ilya Yashin, a banned candidate for the Moscow city council who was detained multiple times for his role in the protests over the summer, wrote in a Facebook post.
Ironically, family members say Ustinov proudly served in the National Guard — a force formed by President Vladimir Putin in 2016 — before turning to a career in acting only last year.