FLORENCE – Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing increasing disdain for international law – a stance that is perhaps nowhere clearer than in his government’s continuing military support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. But, in view of Putin’s authoritarian rule at home, his perception of international law as little more than an instrument of foreign policy should come as no surprise.
When Putin’s regime wants to stamp out opposition, it typically deploys exotic and improbable provisions of Russia’s criminal code. For example, the young female performers in the punk band Pussy Riot, who dared to sing derogatory songs about Putin in an Orthodox church, were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and received two years in prison.
Similarly, opposition politician and lawyer Alexei Navalny was convicted for having given poor legal advice to a provincial timber company that caused the company to lose money – a “crime” that carried a five-year prison sentence. Fortunately, the authorities suspended the sentence following mass protests in Moscow by Navalny’s supporters; but the conviction remains on the books – and has hampered further political activism.
Politically motivated trials started to increase ten years ago with the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was head of Yukos, Russia’s largest privately owned oil company, after he ignored warnings not to support Putin’s opponents. Since then, there have been hundreds of politically motivated arrests and excessive sentences. Most recently, the authorities declared a peaceful anti-government protest by a score of young Muscovites a riot, despite a live Internet broadcast showing no unrest, and no reports by witnesses of any disorder. But several protesters are now in prison or in psychiatric hospitals.