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Russian celebrities demand release of actor jailed over protest

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By Reuters
Russian celebrities demand release of actor jailed over protest

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Many Russian celebrities took to social media on Tuesday to condemn what they said was the brazenly unjust jailing of a novice actor over an opposition protest and demanded that the authorities release him from prison.

Pavel Ustinov, 23, was sentenced on Monday to three and a half years in jail for dislocating a police officer’s shoulder when he was arrested during an Aug. 3 rally in Moscow. He denied the charges and said he had not even taken part in the protest.

The Kremlin’s critics have pointed to the conviction and others like it as examples of how the authorities have handed out harsh sentences to scare off would-be sympathisers from joining the biggest protest movement in the capital for years.

The authorities deny that and say many of this summer’s opposition protests were illegal because they were not formally authorised and that people were prosecuted for breaking the law.

Ustinov’s cause was taken up by celebrities such as TV star Maxim Galkin and popular singer Sergey Lazarev who shared their anger with millions of followers on Instagram.

“This is simply a monstrous sentence for a young man who wasn’t doing anything! He was just standing by the metro waiting for his friend…” Lazarev wrote to his 4.2 million followers.

“The (police) hurled themselves at one guy in such an inept group that it’s a wonder they didn’t break anything else of one another,” Galkin told his 6.4 million followers.

The opposition regularly confronts the authorities over what it considers abuses by the authorities, but it is unusual for those causes to be taken up by celebrities with mass appeal.

“You can clearly see in the video of his arrest that he didn’t resist the… police,” actor Alexander Pal said on Instagram. “This is an entirely fabricated case.”

“The monstrous injustice and cynicism that this is done with could concern anyone,” actor Danila Kozlovsky wrote.

The Kremlin’s spokesman said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on a court ruling, but that Ustinov could appeal if he chose to do so.

Some Moscow theatres issued calls for him to be freed following performances on Monday evening. Ustinov studied acting and has played minor roles in films.

“We’re convinced of his innocence. Let’s not be dead souls, let’s not be silent about this, let’s talk about this. Let’s support Pavel Ustinov,” a theatre worker told the audience after a performance at the Na Strastnom theatre in Moscow.

Police arrested more than two thousand people at protests over the summer that flared after more than a dozen opposition candidates were barred from taking part in a local election in Moscow that was held this month.

Several were given jail terms of up to three and a half years for assaulting police officers, convictions the opposition says are part of a broader crackdown aimed at stymying its activities.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)