Ever since a protest movement fueled in part by social media erupted to challenge Vladimir Putin’s re-ascension to the Russian presidency, several opposition figures have found themselves arrested, charged and facing lengthy prison sentences. Only the latest one actually tweeted his own arrest and interrogation.
“I am being taken in for questioning by the SK,” protest leader Sergei Udaltsov tweeted on Wednesday, referring to the Russian equivalent of the FBI, the State Investigative Agency. Hours before, he announced on Twitter that his apartment had been raided. His computer was reportedly seized along with documents and cash. Elsewhere police raided the homes of his assistant, Konstantin Lebedev; and Ilya Ponomaryov, an assistant to a lawmaker in the Just Russia opposition party. Then he tweeted: “Brought to the SK. We are waiting for a lawyer to start questioning.” Several more tweets followed, including one: ”Do not be silent!”
Tweets from him, at least, went silent for hours after that. Instead, his Twitter account began retweeting messages from activists who had spoken with Udaltsov on the phone. They learned Udaltsov had been placed under house arrest. Late Wednesday, he was released: “Friends! My way out of the UK on bail – much your merit. Thanks for your support! Now we must fight for Lebedev!” he tweeted. His supporters have also since created a Facebook group to organize a protest set for Saturday. Protest leader Alexei Navalny — perhaps Russia’s most popular blogger — also kept tabs on the group. “What did they do? What crime was committed? Where is the evidence? Where, at least, common sense?” he blogged.
The State Investigative Agency, or SK, has accused Udaltsov of “organizing mass disorder.” Their evidence: video aired on state television channel NTV last week allegedly showing Udaltsov meeting with Georgian politician Givi Targamadze in June to discuss a plot to provoke uprisings. The channel also claimed Udaltsov was working and being funded on behalf of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili — a major foe of Putin during a 2006 war.
If convicted, Udaltsov faces up to 10 years in prison. He’s also reportedly sent his kids to Ukraine. Government spokesman Vladimir Martin dismissed accusations from Udaltsov and his supporters that the footage was fabricated or misleading, and accused those who “plan and prepare for terrorist attacks and other acts that threaten the lives of health of Russians” to “underestimate the professionalism of the Russian special services.”
The travel restrictions are “another step since the first time the authorities used the state propaganda’s ‘expose’ as a pretext to open the criminal investigation against the opposition leader,” Moscow-based online journalist Andrei Soldatov tells Danger Room. Targamadze — the Georgian politician Udaltsov allegedly conspired with — told Novaya Gazeta he’s never met the guy. Udaltsov told the Moscow News that “the government is doing anything it can to disrupt potential dialogue between itself and the opposition.”
The move against Udaltsov isn’t exactly shocking. In August, Putin’s prosecutors charged Navalny with defrauding a state-run timber company. Navalny later tweeted along while disassembling wiretaps discovered embedded in his office wall. The protesters, meanwhile, has been targeted with new laws effectively outlawing many demonstrations while giving the government a free hand to block websites featuring “extremist ideas.” Two members of punk rock group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison — likely a notorious penal colony — for an anti-Putin demonstration filmed and uploaded to YouTube in a case that brought international criticism down on the Kremlin. It’s doubtful that Pussy Riot will be able to tweet from jail, though.