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Judge Vacates Activist’s Sentence, But Keeps Him Behind Bars

Konstantin Kotov Had Been Sentenced to 4 Years in Prison over Protests


Konstantin Kotov, on video link in a court in Moscow © 2020 Human Rights Watch

A Russian man sentenced to four years in prison for his involvement in a peaceful protest will spend at least two more months – unjustly – behind bars. 

Konstantin Kotov is a 35-year old software engineer who in September 2019 was sentenced to four years in prison for involvement in peaceful protests because he repeatedly flouted Russia’s abusive public assembly law. Kotov’s case has been wending its way through the appeals process, including the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court. 

The good news is that at a cassation hearing today the judge vacated the appeals court ruling, which had upheld Kotov’s outrageous sentence. The bad news is that instead of freeing Kotov, who was connected to the court through videoconference from a prison colony in Vladimir region, the judge sent the case back to the appeals court, and remanded Kotov for two months of custody. 

There may have been a case before Kotov in which a single person was represented by 14 lawyers, but it was the first time I witnessed this. The legal team diligently outlined all the crushing absurdities in his case. Yes, under Russia’s disproportionately harsh penalties adopted in 2014, involvement in peaceful protests more than once in six months can be a criminal offense. But Russia’s Constitutional Court twice ruled that in such cases, people shouldn’t be criminally prosecuted if they posed no public threat. This is certainly the case with Kotov, who had participated in several peaceful protests, the last of which was during this summer’s election-related protests in Moscow

The prosecution, some of his lawyers said, noted that Kotov’s actions had hindered pedestrian traffic. If you’re wondering how that amounts to a threat to public order, you would have nodded in agreement with his lawyers today. 

We could not see Kotov, because the video screens on which he appeared faced the judge and the defense counsel. But when it was Kotov’s turn to speak, his voice boomed through the courtroom. He talked about a few of the high-profile political cases that had brought him into the streets, including those in which law enforcement and security agents allegedly tortured the defendants. “What else can [a person of conscience do] in such cases? I wanted to show solidarity.” 

After the judge left, dozens of Kotov’s supporters in the courtroom flocked to the video screen, waving, smiling, and shouting out words of support to him. 

The prosecution should drop its absurd efforts to justify Kotov’s prosecution, end their case, and call for his immediate release.

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