Pressed by Public Outcry, Russia Releases Jailed Actor

Pressed by Public Outcry, Russia Releases Jailed Actor

MOSCOW — Struggling to calm bubbling discontent, the Russian authorities on Friday freed a jailed actor whose conviction just days earlier for a supposed attack on a police officer had prompted pickets in front of the Kremlin’s executive office and a rare public show of solidarity from fellow entertainers, priests and teachers.

The actor, Pavel Ustinov, 24, was released from custody pending an appeal that will be heard next week. On Monday, a trial court in Moscow sentenced him to three and a half years in a penal colony for assaulting a police officer during his arrest at a recent protest rally in central Moscow.

The trial judge refused to admit as evidence a video that appeared to contradict the prosecution’s case, relying instead on the testimony of the officer, whose shoulder had been dislocated during the arrest. Prosecutors called for a sentence of six years.

The video showed four officers in riot gear attacking Mr. Ustinov in a busy Moscow square at the time of a protest rally nearby, pushing him to the pavement and hitting him with rubber batons. It was not clear why they had singled him out.

As the recording spread rapidly on social media, the visible discrepancy between the video and the verdict sparked a wave of public outrage that originated among Russian actors and spread from there.

Many high-profile actors posted videos of themselves making indignant statements against the case and the sentence. After the public clamor, prosecutors requested that the prison term handed down on Monday be lifted and that Mr. Ustinov be set free.

The solidarity campaign was unusual for Russia, where people in many professions are afraid to criticize the government for fear of losing their jobs — or worse. Many of the actors who stood up for Mr. Ustinov work in government-sponsored theaters and in state-supported films, making them particularly vulnerable to retaliation.

Daria Yegorova, an actress in the city of Perm, near the Ural Mountains, was criticized by her colleagues after she spoke out in Mr. Ustinov’s support at a final bow on Wednesday.

Ms. Yegorova said on Friday that she had filed her resignation letter and was looking for another job.

The outcry this week followed a similar public campaign to release Ivan Golunov, a prominent investigative journalist, who was arrested in June on drug trafficking charges that his supporters said were trumped up. The charges against Mr. Golunov were later dropped following demonstrations in front of Police Headquarters in Moscow and a coordinated publicity campaign in Russia’s scant independent media outlets. Three independent Russian newspapers published front pages in support of Mr. Golunov.

Actors’ solidarity behind Mr. Ustinov also demonstrated the growing power of social media networks in Russia. Collectively, the actors and other celebrities involved reach millions of people through their Instagram and Facebook accounts.

State-run television networks, which have enjoyed a virtual monopoly during President Vladimir V. Putin’s 20-year rule, have largely ignored the case. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a state-run newspaper, called Mr. Ustinov “a brigadier” of protesters. Mr. Ustinov has denied taking part in the demonstrations.

Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, was asked repeatedly about Mr. Ustinov’s case during regular conference calls with reporters this week. He has repeated the usual Kremlin line that Mr. Putin has nothing to do with the court system in Russia.

“It is not our business to draw conclusions about what influenced the decision of the court or what did not influence it,” Mr. Peskov told journalists on Friday.

Tatiana Ustinova, the actor’s mother, speaking in court after he was ordered released, said she hoped her son would be cleared of all charges.

The case was “a shock that the whole country experienced,” Ms. Ustinova said, adding, “I believe this is our common victory.”

The sudden about-face in Mr. Ustinov’s case highlighted how sensitive the authorities have become after a summer of street protests in Moscow to anything that might fuel public unrest.

All the same, there is little sign that the Kremlin is easing up on what has become a nationwide crackdown on individuals and organizations it views as a threat. In the southern city of Saratov, for example, a court on Thursday sentenced six Jehovah’s Witness followers to jail terms of between two years and three and half years for “extremism.”

The convictions continued a long, grinding campaign against the Christian denomination, which rejects violence, that began during the Soviet era. After a long pause starting in the late 1980s, it picked up with fresh vigor in 2017, after a ruling by Russia’s Supreme Court declaring Jehovah’s Witnesses an illegal extremist organization.

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