Russian police officer apologizes to protester | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 26.01.2021
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Russian police officer apologizes to protester

Russian police used brutal force in their crackdown on Saturday's pro-Navalny rallies. One officer has now apologized for a particularly egregious incident in St. Petersburg.

Police stand guard during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg

Hundreds were detained by police in St Petersburg on Saturday

On Sunday, Russian broadcaster Ren-TV shared highly unusual footage, shot on a smartphone: the video shows a St Petersburg police officer apologizing to 54-year-old Margarita J., whom he kicked in the stomach the previous day at a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The uniform-clad, mask-wearing man is seen handing flowers to the hospitalized woman. He says he was attacked with tear gas and was struggling with a foggy visor before he set upon the woman.

Nevertheless, the officer is heard saying the incident is "a personal tragedy" for him. In a weak voice, Margarita J. is heard replying: "Don't worry, everyone is alive." The commanding police captain also visited the woman to apologize for the incident, according to Russian media reports.

What exactly happened?

Margarita J. hails from a provincial town within the St Petersburg municipality. That fateful Saturday, Margarita was on the city's Nevsky Prospect boulevard, when thousands of Russians had gathered to demand the release of jailed opposition leader Navalny, in defiance of a protest ban. The woman witnessed a man's arrest and confronted the officers to find out what he had done. Without forewarning, one of the officers then kicked her in the abdomen.

Law enforcement officers detain a man during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

More than a thousand were arrested by police at a demonstration in the Russian capital

Footage of the attack appears to show the man acting unprovoked and in cold blood as if kicking aside an object. The officer's kick threw Margarita to the ground, where she injured her head. She was subsequently hospitalized.

There have been contradictory reports concerning the woman's health. Initial reports claimed she had lost consciousness. Now, however, she has apparently been transferred to a hospital in her hometown.

Online video sparks outrage

Footage of the attack, filmed by a passer-by, quickly spread on social media, sparking outrage. Russian opposition musician Wassya Oblomov even wrote a satirical song, mocking the police officer's apology. After all, the man claimed his visor was fogged up — when footage from the scene clearly shows his visor was raised.

Some are now calling for the officer in question to be held accountable. Boris Vishnevsky, a lawmaker in St Petersburg's Legislative Assembly and member of the opposition socially liberal Jabloko party, has urged Russian authorities to launch an investigation. "This was a brutal abuse of authority," Vishnevsky told DW. "I hope this case will be brought before court."

Letting off steam?

The odds of this happening, meanwhile, are slim. Police violence against opposition protesters is the norm in Russia. Truncheon-wielding police officers cracked down on pro-Navalny rallies all over the country last weekend. Thousands were arrested. It is not yet clear how many people were injured.

Watch video 02:00

Russian police break up nationwide pro-Navalny protests

Last Saturday, Elena Shachova, who heads St Petersburg's Grazhdanskiy Kontro human rights organization, together with her colleagues visited numerous police stations to document the treatment of arrested opposition protesters. One man reportedly told her he had experienced disproportionate police force leading to his hospitalization.

Shachova says the case of Margarita J. is nothing short of "astonishing" and "impossible to justify." She wants to see the officer in question and his commander fired. "Hospital visits with flowers change nothing."

Boris Vishnevsky says a court case would be "very important." He says until this day, police brutality in Russia has existed because officers do not face legal consequences for their actions. The opposition figure argues that this behavior would end if the state ceased condoning it.

Vishnevsky is somewhat surprised the police officer in question visited the injured woman in his hometown St Petersburg. He says this may result from a tangible "change in the societal atmosphere: citizens are angry and less loyal towards the leadership."

He says "the government understands that the pressure is mounting and is finding ways for society to blow off steam." The fact that Russian federal lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein of the governing United Russia party is calling for an investigation into the case, says Vishnevsky, is certainly telling.

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