4 Years in Prison for Hitting a Riot Policeman’s Helmet: the Case of Evgeny Yesenov
Evgeny Yesenov, a resident of Moscow, was born on January 22, 1983. He is an entrepreneur and the general director of an LLC. He is married and has a young child. On May 20, 2021, he was sentenced to 4 years in a penal colony for hitting a riot policeman’s helmet at a rally in support of opposition politician Alexei Navalny by the Tverskoi Court in Moscow.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been in prison since January 2021. He was detained at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow after returning from Germany, where he had been treated after being poisoned with the Novichok chemical warfare. On February 2, 2021, the Simonovsky District Court commuted Navalny’s suspended sentence in the “Yves Rocher” case to a real one. Initially it was thought that taking into account the time previously served under house arrest, Navalny would spend 2 years and 8 months in a minimum-security penal colony. But on March 22, 2022, Navalny was sentenced to 9 years of imprisonment in a strict regime penal colony under part 4 of article 159 of the Criminal Code (large-scale fraud) and part 1.2 of article 297 (contempt of justice).
Nationwide protests broke out all over Russia on January 23, 2021, in support of the jailed opposition leader. The protests were met with police crackdowns, with thousands citizens detained. Since the time of the protests, more than 100 criminal cases have been opened against their participants and the number continuous to grow. Protesters are being charged with using violence, blocking roads, involving minors in illegal activities, and violating sanitary and epidemiological rules.
Mass actions occurred on January 23, January 31, February 2 and April 21, 2021. According to OVD-Info, over 4,000 people were detained on January 23, over 5,500 on January 31, over 1,400 on February 2, and over 1,974 on April 21.
On January 23, 2021, a 38-year-old businessman Evgeny Yesenov physically resisted law enforcement officers who detained participants of a rally in support of Alexei Navalny on Pushkin Square in central Moscow. Channel Mash on Russian social media platform Telegram later published a video, which allegedly captures the fight involving Yesenov, but the recording shows only the back of a man who takes a swing at law enforcement officers.
On January 24, 2021, the investigative department for the Central Administrative District (CAO) of the Main Investigative Directorate (MDI) of the Investigative Committee (IC) of Russia in Moscow initiated criminal proceedings against unidentified persons on grounds of a crime under part 1 of Article 318 of the RF Criminal Code.
On January 25, 2021, Judge of the Ostankino District Court of Moscow A. A. Terekhova found Yesenov guilty of committing an administrative offense under part 5, article 20.2 of the CAO (“Violation by a participant of a public event of the established order of holding meetings and rallies”). “Yesenov did not respond to repeated demands to stop his unlawful actions, thus disobeying police officers and resisting arrest,” reads the court decision. He was sentenced to a fine of 10 thousand rubles.
On January 25, 2021, police officer Zaraev went to the medical clinic (the record of the examination result: “visually no changes”), which referred him for examination to the departmental clinic of the Federal State Medical and Forensic Hospital of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. At the hospital, Zaraev was diagnosed with “bruising of the left frontal area” and a “concussion of the brain.” He was admitted as an in-patient and hospitalized there until February 16, 2021. The forensic medical examination, carried out subsequently by order of the investigator, considered that the specified injuries caused light damage to the health. In this regard, the investigator reclassified the charges from Part 1 to Part 2 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code.
At the same day, on January 25, 2021, Evgeny Yesenov was detained by the Investigative Committee as a suspect. On January 26, 2021, he was charged under Part 1 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation for intentionally striking police sergeant Zaraev with his right fist in the face “causing the latter physical pain and suffering, and also humiliating his honor, dignity and undermining his authority as a representative of authority”.
On January 26, 2021, the investigator petitioned the court for the selection of a preventive measure for Yesenov in the form of detention for the duration of the preliminary investigation. The Presnensky District Court of Moscow granted the petition for a period of two months until March 24, 2021. His arrest was then extended.
Evgeny Yesenov pleaded not guilty. The defense points out that the video recordings do not prove that the accused hit the victim’s head with his fist, and the testimony of police witnesses should not be trusted.
On May 20, 2021, Alexei Krivoruchko, judge of the Tverskoi District Court of Moscow, sentenced Evgeny Yesenov to 4 years in a penal colony under Part 2 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code. The prosecutor requested that he be sentenced to 5 years in a penal colony.
On October 14, 2021, a panel of the Moscow City Court chaired by Judge Yelena Ivanova rejected the appeal of the defense and upheld the sentence.
Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Evgeny Yesenov As A Political Prisoner?
Despite the fact that formally the actions of Evgeny Yesenov contain signs of an offense, the important thing is the context of what happened, as well as the degree of reaction to his actions from the law enforcement and judicial systems.
1. Evgeny Yesenov’s confrontation with the police occurred during an urgent peaceful rally of many thousands of people that was expressing public outrage at the blatantly illegal arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny following an assassination attempt against him. The rally in Moscow (as at other venues across the country) was characterized by law-breaking, unwarranted violence and mass detentions. This created an atmosphere in which each demonstrator’s right to demonstrate peacefully had already been violated, and each was at risk of being beaten and detained by the security forces without a legal basis. The atmosphere of police violence during those hours suggests an element of necessary defense in Yesenov’s actions. This was confirmed by the police officers, who testified that they detained Yesenov for resisting the detention of other demonstrators.
2. There is an obvious asymmetrical assessment by law enforcement agencies of the actions of demonstrators and law enforcement officers. “OVD-Info” recorded numerous cases of violence by law enforcement agencies, at least 64 demonstrators in Russian cities were injured that day. Detainees reported bruises, broken fingers, dislocations, and smashed heads and noses. People were beaten on the head with truncheons and tasers, thrown onto the floor of the trolleys, and kicked. However there are no known criminal cases of violence by law enforcement officers, including the well-known case of Maria Yudina, a St. Petersburg resident, who was hospitalized in intensive care units after being hit by a Rosgvardiya officer. All criminal prosecutions, usually on questionable grounds, are conducted exclusively against demonstrators.
The video of the incident with Yesenov shows him being hit with batons by several policemen in bulletproof vests: at least one of them strikes Yesenov’s legs with the baton, while the other strikes his neck or head from above with the baton. However, neither the investigation nor the court investigated the adequacy and legality of the blows made by the law enforcement officers, nor whether Evgeny Yesenov was harmed by these blows.
3. The injured policeman, who was wearing a protective helmet, did not suffer any serious damage, even if we believe the materials of the investigation (the defense casts doubt on the diagnosis of the Interior Ministry clinic). After the blow to his helmet at about 2:40 p.m., which he allegedly received from Yesenov, the policeman continued working until late in the evening and did not see a doctor until two days later. In court, the enforcer stated that he had no claims against the accused and asked for a mitigation of punishment for him.
4. Memorial has repeatedly noted differences in the enforcement of Article 318 of the Criminal Code in “political” and other cases. In “non-political” cases, courts usually impose significantly less restrictive measures and more lenient sentences, limiting them to fines or suspended sentences.
5. A massive campaign has been waged in the pro-government media and social networks to vilify opposition protesters and create an image of any protests as actions of particular social danger, from potential mass unrest and violence to the danger of pandemic contagion.
Without in any way condoning the use of violence, Memorial considers the punishment handed down to Mr. Yesenov disproportionate to the danger to society of his actions, and sees in it a political motivation to suppress freedom of expression and assembly, as well as to preserve the authority of their subjects. The overall context of the situation of police violence in those hours on Pushkin Square in the Russian capital allows us to speak of an essential element of necessary defense of the victims of this violence on the part of Yesenov and self-defense on the other hand. The investigation and the court established that Evgeny Yesenov was arrested precisely because he resisted the obviously illegal, in our opinion, forceful detention of peaceful political manifestation participants. On the other hand, given the specific circumstances, the attempt to hit the helmet of a heavily equipped police fighter, regardless of whether it achieved the result, can hardly be regarded as intentionally aimed at causing real damage to his health.
Based on the above, Memorial considers Evgeny Yesenov to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.