A Russian court has given Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny a suspended sentence and jailed his brother Oleg. HRW's Tanya Lokshina says the move is an attempt to stifle political dissent, but it may have the opposite effect.
DW: Alexei Navalny (pictured left), the anti-corruption campaigner and a leading critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was found guilty on Tuesday of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars and given a suspended sentence of 3.5 years. His brother Oleg (pictured right) was given a 3.5 year jail term. What is your response to the sentence?
Tanya Lokshina: The imprisoning of Alexei Navalny's brother Oleg seemed to be aimed not only at punishing Alexei himself and stopping his political activity and his anti corruption work, but also at intimidating other critics of the government. Many factors - way too many factors - clearly point to political motivation in the case against Navalny's brother. The fact that his brother got a real sentence with over three years in jail is clearly meant to punish Alexei for his political activity. It represents a particularly cynical, vicious form of punishment, when his family member is used in order to silence him.
Alexei Navalny escaped a harsher sentence of 10 years, which is what the prosecution was seeking. Instead he was given 3.5 years. Is this a lenient sentence?
Well that's what Navalny himself said in that courtroom as soon as the sentence was announced - it's a particularly cruel way of punishing him. He returned home today to his family to be with the children for New Year, while his brother is left by himself behind bars. And Navalny has no doubt that his brother is being punished for him.
The charges against Navalny and his brother are quite similar, and initially the prosecutors wanted the maximum punishment under this article of the criminal code for Navalny - that is 10 years in jail, and eight years for his brother. Then finally at the end of the trial the verdict was announced and they get the same sentence, but one of them gets a suspended sentence and the other one gets a real sentence. The audience of this trial never expected Navalny to get away on a suspended sentence, there was a general feeling that if he was found guilty in this apparently political trial, he was going to go to jail.
What kind of message is this sentence likely to send to other critics of the Kremlin?
This is meant to silence Navalny. If he's not sufficiently frightened for himself to stop his political activities and his anti-corruption activism, the wellbeing of his brother is being used to silence him. It's also a very intimidating message to critics of the government in this country. The case of Navalny is about demonstrating to those critical of the government what sort of price there is to pay for public criticism.
The court case was also brought forward by two weeks - a move that has been interpreted as an attempt to prevent mass demonstrations planned for after the sentencing. Has that decision had an impact on protesters?
By moving the verdict the Russian authorities apparently wanted to diminish planned demonstrations, including by denying them enough time to comply with local regulations and actually register the protest. What has the government achieved? On the one hand, today is December 30 and a big chunk of Navalny's supporters are on vacation, as well as most of the Moscow-based diplomats, most of the international activists and some of the press. So there are fewer people watching the trial, fewer people reporting on the trial and fewer people are actually in town to gather for the protest itself. The number of people from among Navalny's supporters is much smaller today than it would have been on January 15 when the sentence was supposed to be announced originally. So it does seem like the authorities are achieving their apparent objectives.
However, those people who are in town are very much antagonized by this sudden moving up of the verdict date and by the cynical sentence itself. I think that in the long term this really serves towards radicalizing protesters as opposed to diminishing public protest. So I think that by doing this the government made a big mistake and did something counterproductive.
As a researcher in the field of human rights issues based in Moscow, how difficult is it for you to do your work?
It's really quite difficult these days. 2014 has been the worst year in human rights in Russia's contemporary history. The crackdown on civil society and on critics of the government has been truly unprecedented and unparalleled to anything since the fall of the Soviet Union. Doing research in Russia today is difficult, and you can only hope that the next year is going to be more favorable from the angle of human rights, but the current indications don't make one too optimistic.
Tanya Lokshina is the Russian program director for the organization Human Rights Watch. She is based in Moscow.