When Bumping into a Police Officer is Considered ‘Assault’: The Case of Olga Bendas
By Leah Silinsky, FRF Fellow
Who is Olga Bendas?
Olga Valerieyvna Bendas is a 35-year-old activist imprisoned for her participation in a pro-Navalny protest in 2021. Olga is a Russian citizen residing in Lyubertsy, a suburb of Moscow. Prior to her arrest, she worked as a furniture designer. Olga Bendas felt compelled to join the protest due to her dissatisfaction with the Kremlin’s pension reforms and vaccination policies. In a letter published by OVD-Info, she explained that she came out to protest because as a tax-paying citizen, she has every right to criticize the government’s policies as she sees fit. Olga is now imprisoned on exaggerated charges of assaulting a police officer, when in reality, she accidentally hit a police officer while defending herself from police assault.
On January 23, 2021, Olga Bendas attended the “Freedom to Navalny” protest at the Pushkin Square, one of the many pro-Navalny protests that took place throughout Russia last year. A video of Olga went viral, in which she was laying on the snow-covered ground, holding up a police baton and declaring that anyone who attacks citizens with the baton, will themselves be attacked by the baton.
The pro-Navalny protests of 2021 were marked by a massive police brutality unleashed on peaceful activists. On the day of Olga’s arrest, over 4,000 other people were taken into custody. In total, about 11,000 individuals have been arrested for participating in the protests. Despite reports showing that state authorities and national guards injured at least 64 protestors, there has yet to be any effective disciplinary action in response to police brutality. So far, none of the police officers involved in the abuse of 64 protestors have been tried or arrested.
On January 28, 2021, Olga was arrested and taken into police custody. She was charged with Part 1 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
Olga Bendas was taken into custody on January 23 and officially arrested on January 28, 2021, several days after her participation in a pro-Navalny protest. She was charged with Part 1 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation— “use of non-lethal violence against a representative of the power.”
On January 29, 2021, Olga was put in a two-month pre-trial detention by the Presensky District Court. During Olga’s investigation, police officer Boldin claimed that Olga hit him multiple times, causing him “severe pain.” Mr. Boldin is employed by the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia for Moscow. At the protest, he wore full protective gear and was armed, but apparently, an unarmed, young woman was able to inflict enough pain on this officer to warrant her arrest.
During the court proceedings, the viral video featuring Olga was repeatedly referenced as evidence. The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation has even posted the video of Olga on its official YouTube channel. In the video, however, Olga is not engaging in any forms of violence. Moreover, the allegedly injured officer Boldin does not even appear in the video at all.
The court sentenced Olga to two years in prison. According to Memorial, Olga’s investigation, trial, and arrest, are all politically motivated, and her charges are disproportionate to the alleged “crimes”. Though charged with assaulting a police officer, in reality, Olga Bendas accidentally hit a police officer in self-defense, after she was severely beaten.
Officer Boldin watched the video of Olga during the investigation, and identified her as the one who “assaulted” him at the protest. His colleagues—officers A.S. Starshinin and A.V. Smirnov— claimed that they saw Olga hit Boldin on the torso and identified her from the video as well.
On June 22, 2021, judge A.A. Belyakov of the Tverskoy District Court sentenced Olga to two years in prison.
Though she publicly apologized for hitting the officer in a video publicized during the investigation; Olga pled not-guilty during her trial, as she hit him accidently, while defending herself. It is possible that she posted the apology due to intimidation. The video of her apology was also posted and circulated by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation.
At the trial, Olga Bendas was represented by lawyer Tatyana Okushko, who works for OVD-Info. OVD-Info is an online human rights hotline and advocacy group, which documents and supports arrested activists in Russia. This organization collects information about arrests conducted at protests, and provides legal aid and counsel to those unjustly arrested.
Olga conceded that she brushed against the police officer, though this was done accidentally. She was under extreme stress and abuse at the hands of police officers and in response, swung her hands, accidentally hitting police officer V.A. Boldin. This account is vastly different from the aggressive assault claimed by police officers.
Olga reported being hit by police officers on her head and stomach multiple times. Detention center exam documented numerous bruises over Olga’s body. While officials were conducting the investigation, Olga was kept in a colony 621 miles from her home. She reported having extreme back pain but was denied medical care. Originally, she was kept in SIZO-6, but on October 14, 2021, was moved to SIZO-5 in Perm.
Olga and her lawyer tried to get records of these bruises to present to court but were unable to do so. This is because after her arrest, Olga was immediately taken to a temporary detention facility before being sent to the pre-trial detention center. Olga speculates that this was done so that her bruises would fade before her trial, and that authorities could conceal the evidence of their brutality. Despite Olga’s complaints to the investigators on her beatings, there have been no investigations against the officers who attacked her. Olga’s lawyer, Tatyana Okushko, states that Olga told authorities at her trial that she was beaten. Okushko states that investigators are required to conduct a medical exam, and interview witnesses at the event, but refused to conduct the investigation.
At the trial, prosecution emphasized the fact that Olga, while a Russian citizen, was born in Ukraine— in an attempt to appeal to anti-Ukrainian sentiments in Russia, undermining her credibility and her claims of acting in self-defense. A malicious disinformation campaign has been conducted attacking Olga’s character. Government-controlled RIA news agency aired specials on Olga’s case depicting her as an “outsider” who cannot be a peaceful citizen due to her origin of birth. Other media outlets slandered her, falsely reporting that she was previously convicted for other offenses and was unemployed. This has been done to prevent ordinary Russian citizens from feeling sympathy for the young woman.
Aside from Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Olga’s case has warranted no response from the Western media. In the Russian Federation, the reaction was different. Official news agencies ran smear campaigns defaming Olga’s character. They emphasized the fact that she was born in Odessa and exclusively referred to her as Ukrainian, despite her having a Moscow residency. All of this was done to play on anti-Ukrainian bigotry in Russia, to support her trial and arrest. She was portrayed as violent and hysterical. Government-associated news oulets purposely omitted the fact that she was badly beaten by police officers after defending an old man. Several pro-Kremlin twitter users cheered her arrest, referring to her as a violent, unhinged person.
Independent Russian news sources and social media influencers have voiced their support for Olga. Memorial, Radio Svoboda, and OVD-Info published information to shed truth on her case. Several twitter users with a large following posted statements showing their support and solidarity. User “XSoviet News” posted a video of Olga on the ground holding a baton, saying, “Olga Bendas and Alexander Glushkov, who fought back against riot police during the protest in Moscow on January 23, have been sentenced to two years in prison.” Another user, Kasablanka_03 quoted Olga, who said she was very hurt that she had received no letters of support from others. In response, this user expressed much sympathy for Olga. Other users, such as “Micr0ft” and “Ivan from Russia” expressed their support as well.
Why Memorial Recognizes Olga Bendas as a Political Prisoner
- Olga Bendas’s arrest and sentence are disproportionate to her actions. While she did hit a police officer, she did so accidentally, while defending herself from police brutality. She did not cause any physical damage to the police officer. Moreover, no legal actions were taken against the police officers who beat and physically attacked Olga.
- Olga Bendas’s lawyer stated that the video, which was used as evidence, does not sufficiently prove Olga’s guilt. Nowhere in the video does Olga even touch the lawyer. The police officer who was supposedly attacked could not provide any medical evidence to show that Olga harmed him in any way.
- There was police brutality at the pro-Navalny protests, yet none of the police officers have been held accountable. Olga’s arrest was done as a political statement by Russian authorities to discourage citizens from protesting, and from defending others against police violence.