Russian prosecutors call for jailed actor to be freed

Moscow (AFP) –


Russian prosecutors on Thursday asked a court to free a jailed actor and give him a non-custodial sentence in a case that has sparked protests and a star-studded solidarity campaign, in an apparent climbdown for the authorities.

Actor Pavel Ustinov, 23, was this week sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for violence against police at an opposition protest, despite his insistence he was simply a bystander.

The conviction sparked a major solidarity campaign, with supporters from film stars to priests, and saw hundreds of people demonstrate outside President Vladimir Putin's administration on Wednesday and Thursday.

On Thursday evening, the General Prosecutor's Office said that Deputy General Prosecutor Yury Ponomaryov had asked the Moscow city court to set the actor free.

"The Russian General Prosecutor's Office is asking for a change to the sentence of Moscow's Tverskoi district court with regards to Ustinov and to impose on him a penalty which is not related to the actual imprisonment," a statement said.

The General Prosecutor's Office stressed that it did not contest the proof of Ustinov's guilt or the interpretation of his actions.

But, it added, the sentence should be changed because the punishment was unjust "due to its excessive severity."

The prosecution had originally asked the court to jail Ustinov for six years.

One of Ustinov's lawyers, Dmitry Cheshkov, attributed the apparent backtrack to "public support, public outrage."

Speaking to AFP, he however said he wanted Ustinov to be cleared of all charges.

The apparent climbdown comes after a harsh crackdown on the anti-government protests that has seen six people sentenced to jail terms of between two to four years and thousands of participants briefly detained.

Ustinov's case caused particular outrage because the court refused to consider video footage from the scene that showed police in an apparently unprovoked attack on the actor.

The footage showed police in full riot gear lunging at Ustinov -- who was standing with a phone in his hand near a metro station -- and beating him with batons last month.

Prosecutors said he resisted arrest, causing a policeman to sprain his shoulder.

- 'Monstrous case' -

Dozens of stars with millions of followers on social media who usually steer clear of politics, spoke out in support of Ustinov, who is a little known novice actor.

They were joined by teachers, doctors, publishers, IT-specialists and more than a hundred clerics who said the other people jailed or awaiting trial after the protests should be released.

Earlier Thursday, prosecutors asked for Ustinov to be released pending his appeal.

A Moscow court was set to consider the prosecutors' request to release Ustinov on Friday.

"The authorities are clearly backtracking in the monstrous 'Moscow case'," political observer and satirist Viktor Shenderovich said on Facebook, referring to the prosecution of the protesters.

Tens of thousands of people rallied in Moscow this summer after authorities refused to allow opposition candidates to stand for the city parliament in September 8 elections.

The solidarity drive echoes a campaign for the release of journalist Ivan Golunov this year, who was arrested on trumped-up drugs charges over his investigative work.

The journalist was freed after support from public figures and top newspapers. Unlike Ustinov, he had not been convicted, however.