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Russia: Pussy Riot & Russian Courts in Perspective

On August 2, four days into the Pussy Riot trial, another hearing began in Yekaterinburg, the regional center of the Urals. Unlike its more famous counterpart, this trial has failed to garner major attention both online and in the media, though it is in certain ways just as indicative of dysfunctional Russian approaches to law and order.

The public's lack of interest is especially curious considering the extensive coverage the original incident received. In 2011, a hired band of immigrants from the Caucasus allegedly attacked a village called Sagra [ru], over a local dispute involving a minor drug dealer. Aleksei Navalny compared the villagers, who managed to defend themselves successfully and even kill one of the attackers, to Spartan warriors [ru].

Russian music group Pussy Riot still on trial at Tagansky Court, Moscow, Russia (4 July 2012), photo by Anton Belitskiy, copyright © Demotix.

On the other hand, Navalny has called the arrested members of Pussy Riot “crazy broads,” and their actions “a publicity stunt.” This, it turns out, did not stop him from attempting, in a stunt of his own, to take the stand as a witness in their trial [ru], apparently to attest to the “political nature” of the band's February performance inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. (The court did not allow Navalny to testify.) He has not yet commented on the Sagra trial.

Perhaps the sentiment would be different, had Evgeny Roizman, Yekaterinburg-based anti-drug activist, not gotten involved in the case early on. It was partly his campaign to raise the public awareness about the incident's immediate aftermath that now makes the actual trial ‘boring’ to most Russians. Initially, it was the villagers, rather than the bandits, who were blamed for instigating the violence, resulting in ‘good, honest’ ethnic Russians landing in trouble with the law. Now, however, it is the 23 alleged gang members [ru] on trial.

Yet, even now, it is puzzling that the Sagra case should seem boring or unimportant. After all, a person died, and people’s lives and property were in danger. The entire incident speaks to dangerous trends of lawlessness and power vacuums in remote areas. Although this attack ended quickly and relatively bloodlessly, there have been other armed attacks on small communities that did not — one need only remember the Kushchevskaya Massacre [ru].

The case is also a good example of Russian law in action — it has all the hallmarks of dysfunction: a prosecution that swaps the victims with the perpetrators on a whim, bowing to public pressure; and the release of some of the accused on bail [ru], while a veteran tried by the same court in a different, nonviolent case has not been able to leave pretrial detention for over a year.

The Sagra trial even has defendants swearing in the courtroom and demanding that the judge recuse himself. (The judge of course refused.) One of the accused was bitten by a guard dog [ru], while another is a mixed martial arts champion.

There are also tie-ins to Senator Aleksandr Torshin's proposed handgun ownership liberalization. Could the villagers have defended themselves better with handguns instead of hunting rifles? Or would the gangsters have had an easier time attacking, if they had access to those same handguns?

Why then are Russian bloggers ignoring this? Is it a short attention span? After all, a whole year has passed since the incident. Or perhaps it is because this case is based far from Moscow, and so it fails to register on the national radar? Perhaps it is not political enough, even with Roizman’s involvement?

Maybe the culprit is a peculiar approach to presumption of innocence. Once the court of public opinion has convicted the assailants, the trial perhaps ceases really to matter. It is of course far from certain that all 23 of the hired thugs, who are being tried all at once, share culpability equally. Nevertheless, Roizman called them “dumb-asses” for not apologizing [ru], similar to the way apologies were demanded (and finally received [ru]) from Pussy Riot.

On August 3, journalist Vladimir Soloviev addressed on Twitter [ru] the endless discussions about the Pussy Riot trial: “No one will ever understand that our courts treat everybody this way.” Until the public stops fixating on one case at a time, and pays attention to the entire legal landscape, nothing is likely to change.

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