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'Chilling echo' of Soviet past in latest Russian trial

A Moscow court has sentenced a 37-year-old man to indefinite forced psychiatric treatment after he took part in a mass demonstration in 2012. Human rights groups fear the ruling marks a return to Soviet-style justice.

On a spring day in May 2012, Mikhail Kosenko, an unemployed 37-year-old former soldier, headed out to a rally on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square near the Kremlin. He was there with thousands of others to protest the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency - a demonstration allowed by Russia's constitution and which had been sanctioned that day by Moscow's authorities.

But when rioting broke out between protesters and police, Kosenko soon found himself one of more than two dozen Russians arrested and charged with "inciting mass riots" in an attempt to overthrow the government.

To most observers, the state's case against Kosenko looked flimsy: video footage appeared to show Kosenko as a bystander to the melee. In addition, the officer Kosenko was allegedly said to have attacked refused to testify against him.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in Nusa Dua, (Photo: REUTERS/Edgar Su)

Kosenko was protesting Putin's return to the presidency

Still others noted the prosecution was being unusually cruel: an invalid after abuse he suffered in the army, Kosenko was refused access to medication. Doctors for the prosecution testified that he was insane. And his pre-trial detention lasted 16 months, during which time his mother passed away. Authorities refused to let him attend the funeral.

A lack of impartiality

After months of hearings, a Russian court this week convicted Kosenko on all charges and confined him to a psychiatric ward, and forced psychiatric treatment, indefinitely. The case has once again raised charges of a lack of impartiality within Russia's court system.

"Kosenko is not guilty of anything. He has done nothing wrong," his lawyer Valery Shukhardin told DW. Shukhardin said Kosenko and human rights activists implicated in the so-called "Bolotnaya Affair" are being punished for their political views in a return to Soviet-style policing.

"That there's no justice in Russia? We already knew that. But now it's like the 1930s all over again. They round people up, they put them under arrest, and that's how they instill fear in the public. The message is if [you] go [and] protest against the government, you'll end up like them," said Shukhardin.

Rights group Amnesty International has declared Kosenko a prisoner of conscience, and human rights workers point to his case as the latest in a series of politically motivated prosecutions that includes the conviction of members of the punk band Pussy Riot and former business tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Greenpeace activists and supporters protest during a solidarity march for the 30 activists jailed by Russia, from the Russian embassy to the Peace Palace in The Hague on October 5, 2013. (Photo:JERRY LAMPEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Recent cases like the jailing of Pussy Riot and the 30 Greenpeace activists have caused international outcries

In his closing statement to the court, Kosenko noted that "freedom is the greatest value in our society," adding "our people are used to suffering." The announcement of his conviction was met with chants of "shame" by hundreds of Kosenko's supporters outside the courtroom.

'Deja vu all over again'

Russian human rights organizations, among them Memorial, have said Kosenko's forced psychiatric treatment is a chilling echo of repressive techniques once used against dissidents for anti-Soviet views.

Pavel Litvinov knows this better than most. A Soviet dissident who was exiled to a Siberian labor camp - and later from the Soviet Union itself - for his political views, Litvinov told DW that the Kosenko sentence was "deja vu all over again."

"Especially in the 1970s, the Soviets used psychiatric abuse against many of my friends," he said. "So-called 'psychiatrists' invented the concept of a slow developing schizophrenia that had no symptoms and could happen to anyone. So it was a very convenient way for the Soviet Union to deal with people who were protesting against it. Because, they argued, 'normal people' would never do such a thing."

Photographer Denis Sinyakov, one of the 30 people detained after a Greenpeace protest at the Prirazlomnaya platform, has his handcuffs removed inside a defendants' box at a district court building in Murmansk, (Photo: REUTERS/Sergei Eshchenko (RUSSIA)

Human rights groups fear this is a return to 'Soviet-style' justice

'Politics, not justice'

Litvinov has still other reasons for feeling like his past is repeating in the present: his son, Dmitri Litvinov, was one of 30 people arrested by Russian authorities last month for a Greenpeace protest against Russian drilling in the Arctic. He and the others now face charges of "piracy" - a decision Pavel Litvinov said is more about the politics of Russia's pursuit of Arctic natural resources than any legal violation.

"Unfortunately, the Soviet court system was never reformed and it's basically the same legal machinery today," said Litvinov. "Like the Soviet police used to say: find me a man, and I'll find the crime."

With Kosenko's conviction, supporters of those implicated in the Bolotnaya Affair and the Greenpeace Arctic trial say their chances of a fair hearing in Russia's courts appear slimmer than ever. Indeed, many say without direct intervention from the Kremlin or President Putin, more convictions are all but assured.

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