It’s her word against theirs, but 21-year-old Alyona Kitayeva’s testimony about her treatment at the hands of police, after Sunday’s protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin, was powerful. She describes how frightened she was.
“I was alone in the room with those four men, officers, and one said, ‘How would you like a bag over your head?'”
According to Kitayeva, an officer put the plastic grocery-store bag — which had been lying on the floor at the ready — over her head and police continued to “lightly strangle” her until she told them her cellphone passcode. Then, they proceeded to dig into her contacts and personal data, she said.
Kitayeva also claimed the policeman leading her harsh interrogation gave himself a few scratches and said he’d say she’d done it. Injuring an officer would land her in further trouble with the law. And, he allegedly indicated his colleagues would back him up.
Kitayeva works for Luybov Sobol, one of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s allies and a political figure in her own right, now under house arrest.
“I’ve thought about it a lot. I would like to say that I’m not afraid and all that, but after that night, I am afraid and without Navalny, I see no hope that the protests will regain their force, because these repressions recall the Stalin times when they just closed the office door and tortured people,” Kitayeva continued.
She will have time to think about it even more. The latest reports are that she’s been sentenced to 12 days in detention for “violating traffic regulations.”
The mantra of Navalny and his wife, Yulia, has been, “we mustn’t be afraid,” but after the detention of nearly 11,000 people who took part in the demonstrations protesting his incarceration, there must be more than a bit of fear in more than a few Russians. The images of beatings with police batons, people dragged across snow and out of cars, and stories like Katayeva’s, paint an ugly picture of repression about which the Kremlin seems to have no qualms, insisting harsh measures are required for these “illegal rallies.”
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When asked specifically about some cases, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said claims had been false and overstated. “Quite a few such reports eventually turn out to be untrue or fakes or exaggerated. One has to be very accurate.” He added the government would be willing to look into complaints from people who believed their rights had been trampled upon.
Meanwhile, detention centers are filled to overflowing. Human rights activists have kicked into overdrive delivering supplies, food, water and toiletries to those still locked up, including the editor-in-chief of the independent website Mediazona, Sergei Smirnov, who was given 25 days for retweeting a joke about him looking like the rock musician in one of the advertisements for the Jan. 23 rally that drew tens if not hundreds of thousands out across the country. Officially, Smirnov’s been charged with “inciting participation in an unauthorized rally.”
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What’s different from Soviet times: All this is being documented, from arrests to conditions of lock-up. Video of Anastasia Vasilyeva, Navalny’s ophthalmologist (recall, he was almost blinded in one eye when green acid paint was thrown at him some years back) and head of the Doctors’ Alliance union, taken at the moment of her arrest, went viral. She performed a Beethoven piano concert calmly as a bunch of officers stood in her foyer lobbing questions.
There have been video appeals from people who claimed they had to spend days in police vans while awaiting processing. It’s cold, and they’ve had little opportunity to use facilities.
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Navalny has appealed to Russians to speak out and stand up against corruption. Putin and the power center are few in number compared to the population at large, and the police certainly can’t arrest everyone, his reasoning goes. It’s clear that even the 11,000 picked up in the last few weeks have represented a logistical challenge for law enforcement.
Navalny’s team, meanwhile, has asked people to stand down for now, saying there has been too much brutality and heavy-handedness used against the protesters, and it’s time for a pause. Navalny’s supporters said demonstrations will resume in the spring and in the meantime, they will try to get every world leader to discuss nothing but Navalny with Putin going forward. That is clearly a stretch. But, it is fair to say every Western leader is talking about Alexei Navalny this week and calling for his release, as well as the release of those who have been picked up for supporting him.