Russian celebrities and priests show support for jailed actor | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 18.09.2019
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Russian celebrities and priests show support for jailed actor

Celebrities, teachers and even priests have called for Russian actor Pavel Ustinov to be freed. Many of them have sided with the recent anti-government protests in Moscow and are calling for an independent judiciary.

Numerous Russian actors, artists, opposition journalists and entertainers, as well as some pro-Kremlin figures — have taken to social media to demand Pavel Ustinov's release from jail. Priests from the Russian Orthodox Church, teachers and even MPs of President Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party have criticized the 24-year-old's three-and-a-half year sentence as too harsh and called the judiciary's approach unfair. On Wednesday, Andrey Turchak, who serves as the secretary of the general council of United Russia, called Ustinov's arrest an "utter injustice" in an Instagram post.

Read more: Oleg Sentsov vows to fight for 'prisoners of the Kremlin'

Ustinov was arrested last month nearby an unauthorized opposition rally in Moscow. On Monday, a court found him guilty of resisting arrest and injuring a police officer.

The broad opposition against Russia's arbitrary judiciary includes not only the country's liberal media outlets, but also celebrities that do not normally speak out on politics. Dancer Diana Vishneva, who performs with the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Ballet, shared a picture on Instagram declaring "I am/We are Pavel Ustinov." Pop musician Sergey Lazarev, who twice represented Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest, called Ustinov's sentence a "horrible verdict" against an innocent person.

Russland Moskau Protest von Schauspielern (Privat)

Fellow actors took to the steets of Moscow to support Ustinov

Mass protests in Russia

Thousands of Russian citizens took to the streets on Saturdays this past July and August to protest against the exclusion of opposition candidates from the Moscow municipal elections. It was the country's largest protest movement in years. It was nearby one of those rallies on August 3 when Ustinov was arrested. The actor says he did not participate in the political rally and was arbitrarily detained by police.

Footage of his arrest shot by Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper and independent broadcaster Dozhd show that Ustinov had been standing on the street and looking at his phone when a group of police officers in heavy riot gear approached him, flung him to the ground and then led him off. The presiding judge, however, refused to review the video.

Priests warns of 'intimidation'

The footage may be one reason why so many Russians have expressed solidarity with the actor. Even so, it remains highly unusual that some Church representatives have called for all cases connected to the summer opposition rallies to be dropped and for sentences to be revoked. More than 40 priests of the usually rather pro-Kremlin Russian Orthodox Church, for example, have penned on open letter in which they side with the protesters.

Read more: Russian blogger sentenced to 5 years in prison for a tweet

They argue that the sentences against the protesters "seem more like intimidation than the outcome of fair trials." Andrey Kordochkin, of the Russian Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalene in Madrid, signed the open letter. He said the he and others had been waiting for the Church to take a statement about the protests. "It is not about the Church siding with one or the other political side, but about supporting the weaker side," he told DW.

Andrej Kordochkin stands in his church in Madrid (Victoria Koroleva Ermakova)

Kordochkin said the open letter was about 'supporting the weaker side'

However, the Orthodox Church's Moscow headquarters has criticized the letter. A spokesperson called it "political declaration" and said the Church distances itself from it.

Protests put pressure on judiciary

For years, controversial trials and court sentences have been commonplace in Russia. But until now there has never been broad pushback from civil society. Ustinov's arrest — and the subsequent solidarity movement — is somewhat reminiscent of the case of renowned Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov. He was arrested in June in Moscow for allegedly selling drugs. Golunov has denied the accusation, saying that Russian police were trying to frame him. After several influential media outlets and three leading business papers, as well as protesters, expressed solidarity with him, the case against him was dropped and he was freed — an unusual outcome in the country.

The Ustinov case, meanwhile, has drawn attention to other arrests and court cases connected to the Moscow summer protests. So far, seven people have been sentenced to jail terms ranging up to five years. Some activists have called for all the trials to be dropped. Meanwhile, it's emerged that another court will reportedly review Ustinov's jail sentence.

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