Russia, in rare U-turn, frees jailed actor after outcry

September 21, 2019

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Moscow: A still image, taken from a video footage released by a court, shows actor Pavel Ustinov after he was sentenced to three years in jail for violence against a law enforcement officer at an opposition protest.—Reuters
Moscow: A still image, taken from a video footage released by a court, shows actor Pavel Ustinov after he was sentenced to three years in jail for violence against a law enforcement officer at an opposition protest.—Reuters

MOSCOW: A Russian court on Friday ordered the release of an aspiring actor whose prison sentence for injuring a police officer on the sidelines of an opposition protest sparked a public outcry over alleged police brutality and judicial injustice.

The release of Pavel Ustinov, pending the outcome of his appeal, is a rare reversal by the Russian judicial system and follows a groundswell of public support for the 23-year-old.

But others sentenced in connection with a summer of Moscow protests calling for free elections remain behind bars, and Ustinov’s case is seen by some opposition activists as a way of de-escalating tensions with Kremlin critics while avoiding bigger concessions.

Footage of his arrest on Aug 3, which went viral, showed him scrolling through his mobile phone as he stood near a Moscow metro station, apparently minding his own business, as police disperse an opposition protest nearby. Four national guardsmen in full riot gear are then seen suddenly grabbing Ustinov, pushing him to the ground, and beating him with their truncheons before marching him off. One of the guardsmen is seen falling over in the melee.

Ustinov said he’d not been taking part in the nearby protest, one of several held this summer to demand free elections to the Russian capital’s assembly.

His protests fell on deaf ears however and a court on Monday sentenced him to three and a half years in prison after finding him guilty of hurting the guardsman who fell. State prosecutors had wanted a harsher sentence of six years.

Anger over what many saw as a glaring injustice swiftly bubbled over, with Russian celebrities, including those who work on Kremlin-backed state TV, taking to social media to demand Ustinov be freed.

Hundreds of others, including fellow actors, took turns to demonstrate outside the presidential administration and, as time wore on, others, including a senior figure in the ruling pro-Putin United Russia party, spoke out in his favour.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2019