Putin: During and After Sochi

Dmitri Kalyadin
A weathered newspaper article on a wall in the Russian city of Voronezh, with a photograph of the local human rights activist Roman Khabarov, October 2013. The ad on the right reads, ‘Are they taking away your driver’s license? Or have they already? Call 232-41-20.’

You’ve probably never heard of Roman Khabarov—which is a pity, because he’s potentially one of the most important opposition activists in Russia today and he was arrested during the recent Olympics, when few would notice. Khabarov is a former cop from the city of Voronezh (some four hundred miles north of Sochi). During his eighteen years in the police force Khabarov “was openly critical of the government’s law enforcement policies and cooperated with human rights activists,” according to a recent brief by Human Rights Watch. In 2011, his bosses finally kicked him off the force, and Khabarov started a new life as a legal consultant to victims of police abuse. Shortly after his firing three years ago, he jolted his hometown by publicly accusing the Voronezh police force of widespread corruption, criminal behavior, and torture.

The local authorities tried to retaliate by charging him with libel, but the case soon collapsed. Sources within the police told Khabarov that higher-ups in the force had vowed to get revenge, and on February 12 he was arrested, accused of being “a member of a criminal group that allegedly offered a network of unlawful gambling spots in the region.” On February 14, a local court refused Khabarov bail, and ruled that he should remain under pretrial detention until the end of March. Chances are that he’ll stay in prison much longer than that. Russian courts are notoriously subservient to the political powers-that-be, and Khabarov’s case certainly hasn’t been helped by his open advocacy of fair elections and his participation in some of the public demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, including the remarkable opposition rally in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2012.

If there is any human rights activist in Russia whose work is likely to have some sympathy from the Russian public, it may well be Khabarov. Police corruption is one aspect of the current system that the average Russian citizen encounters on an everyday basis—to a point where it can be hard to distinguish police officials from the crooks they’re supposed to be pursuing. Vladimir Putin’s regime rests on the pretense that he has brought internal peace to Russia by enforcing a tough regime of law and order (“dictatorship of the law,” as Kremlin doublespeak calls it). By exposing the reality of police malfeasance, Khabarov gives the lie to such claims.

Yet Khabarov’s case remains virtually unknown, both inside and outside of Russia. Reporters rarely have cause to visit Voronezh, an industrial city of a million people. What is perhaps most striking of all about Khabarov’s recent arrest, though, is that it took place five days…

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