“I’m Afraid It’s Not the Court Making the Decision”

February 24, 2014
Photo: RIA Novosti

This interview occurred before the sentencing earlier today, resulting in prison terms ranging from two and a half to four years. The sentencing was attended by protests which have been met with a sever clampdown by the Russian authorities, a situation which is being covered in a liveblog here— Ed.

On 21 February, Judge Natalya Nikishina began reading the sentence of the “first wave” of those charged in the case of the riots on Bolotnaya Square. About 1,000 people came to support them at the Zamoskvoretsky Court. Police cordoned off the building and detained about 200 people over the course of several hours. The judge did not finish reading the sentences and declared a break until 10:30 am Monday, February 24. Gazeta.ru asked attorney Sergei Panchenko, what verdict the defendants can expect.

The trial at the Zamoskvoretsky Court began late as is its tradition. The reading of the sentence to the “prisoners of Bolotnaya” who outside the courtroom are called only the “Heroes of 6 May” was scheduled for 12:00, but actually got underway at 15:10 and continued for about an hour. Then the judge announced a break until 10:30 a.m Monday.

Meanwhile, on the street, the police kept detaining those who came to what had been announced as an open court session, but could not even get near the court building, because it was cordoned off by a complicated mesh of metal barriers guarded by several police detachments. According to various estimates, between 1,500 and 2,000 people came to support the eight accused. About two hundred of them were detained.

As a result of the change in the date for the sentencing, the planned mass evening discussion of the sentence on Manezh Square had to be temporarily cancelled – in the opinion of the organizers, until the sentences are declared, there’s nothing to talk about (even so, on Friday evening, the authorities blocked off the central square of the city just in case.)

Gazeta.ru spoke with one of the attorneys in the Bolotnaya Case, Sergei Panchenko about what the defendants can expect and what their future holds.

The sentence is guilty, and evidently on all counts with which the defendants were charged. What prospect do they have?

Until there is a formal pronouncement of the final words, it is still early to talk about a guilty sentence. We listened in December to the amnesty decree – that text also seemed like a guilty sentence. But if they wanted to let them go, they would do all this somewhat differently. And now the principle of openness of the trial proceedings is being violated. The reading is not open and those who would like to attend it cannot get in. We are trying to get out of the court now permission for the relatives to come in. That goes without saying – it is already grounds for overturning the sentence. Restrictions are allowed only under conditions of an absence of technical capacity in the court room. But the fourth floor is free, although they removed the benches from the room, and now there are only lawyers, several relatives, public defenders and a completely inappropriate number of police.

The police who were in the cordon around the courtroom and those who were guarding the prisoners behaved absolutely inappropriately. I don’t know what they were prepared for, but they behaved extremely nervously and jumpily, they hurled themselves at anyone who photographed them.

A police with a badge with a typical number 007666, a young guy, began yelling at me when I simply tried to shake the hand of my client, Stepan Zimin. Then his superiors popped up and also began yelling at me. It seems as if these police are simply being pumped up in advance, and as if they are being psychologically worked over. I don’t know what they are being told and how they are being trained – most likely to defend Holy Russia from aliens, no less. But for the first time in my practice, a guard of a prisoner allowed himself to yell at a lawyer, and in fact quite piercingly.

The judge may give less than the minimum sentence? What would the lightest sentence be given the condition that it is a guilty one?

The minimal sentence of imprisonment here starts at two months. If imprisonment will be specified, then it cannot be less than that term. Moreover, under Art. 318, there is punishment by a fine, not to mention that the judge may set an even lighter sentence than specified by law.

The court has broad possibilities, but I’m afraid that it is not the court making the decision. And I very much fear that the tragic events in Ukraine will reflect on the defendants – a decision of a non-guilty sentence for our clients may be taken as a go-ahead to the opposition.

That is, beside the fact that they are innocent yet put in jail, they also risk bearing the burden for actions that are not theirs.

And what sentence would be the most harsh? The judge may give more than that requested by the prosecutor, but how much more?

With two articles, the total punishment can exceed that of either of the articles, so in our case it may be rather significant.

I would not be surprised at eight years in the worst case. This is possible theoretically, but I very much hope that the semblance of decency will be observed, and Natalya Nikishina, as often is the case, will “knock off the sentences” by a year or a year-and-a-half or two years.

And you know, I very much hope that with all the absurdity of the charges that they have the conscience not to take Sasha Dukhanina into custody. This is a terrible misfortune that the guys have been so long in prison. But they are adult men, plus, no matter how sad, they have already grown used to life in prison. But for Sasha, this could be a serious shock. Although, of course, she is a strong and independent girl.

What is the likelihood that on Monday, the sentence once again will not be read out to the end?

There is such likelihood, undoubtedly. First, the trial may not open at 10:00 a.m. Second, there is a well-founded hypothesis that the sentence was not read to the end because such a large number of people came. The main purpose of those who built an unlawful barricade across Zamoskvoretsky Court was to avoid an outburst of dissatisfaction.

So perhaps there will be an attempt to “soap over” i.e. hide the topic. It is possible that the sentencing will be postponed several times in the calculation that the support of solidarity will fall off.

People are saying that the final decision to not read the sentence in full today was taken with a calculation that so many people came to support them. The scene we observed from the fourth floor of the Zamoskoretsky Courthouse looked like a visible illustration of our case – it was a branch of Bolotnaya Square. The police burst out at the crowd, and dragged people who were standing completely peacefully. And what was going on had nothing in common with protecting public safety.

If the sentence will be guilty, and connected to real imprisonment, how long will the defendants remain in the Moscow pre-trial center before the appeal at Moscow City Court?

This is a fairly long process. There is a period for appeal – 10 days. Then all of them – attorneys, defenders, and defendants – must be given the right to review the appeal, and then comments are collected, and then there is a time period given for additional complaints… On the whole, I think we will not have to expect an appeals trial for two or three months at a minimum.