A source reports from Moscow that Mikhail Schneider, a leader of the Solidarity opposition movement, has been jailed for three days in connection with a demonstration on Russia’s Flag Day, which was held on August 22. He follows to jail Lev Ponomarev, a well known human rights activist, who also received a three day sentence. Previously, a judge effectively ended the case against a third defendant, Boris Nemtsov, sending the file back to the authorities for further investigation. Of the Ponomarev verdict, Boris Nemtsov, also a leader of Solidarity, told Reuters, “It’s a crazy decision. There is no reason why they let me go and jailed Ponomarev. The only explanation is that the judge was pressured by the authorities.”
There is one other explanation for the disparate treatment: Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, is more well-known internationally. He met with President Obama during the president’s visit to Moscow in July 2009. Perhaps the Russian government was fearful of a tough response from the Obama administration if Nemtsov were jailed.
The jailing of Ponomarev and Schneider tells other Russians not to get involved in speaking up for their rights, and not to oppose the government. The decision not to jail Nemtsov tells the U.S. and other democracies that there can be limits to what Moscow does.
Another statement of concern by a National Security Council or State Department spokesman won’t mean much. President Obama could, by stepping briefly in front of a microphone, let Medvedev and Putin know that the policy of the “reset” will not cause him to overlook these and other moves against democracy and human rights activists.
Nemtsov remains the target of prosecution in connection with a July 31 rally. His arrest prompted this letter signed by American experts in foreign policy and human rights activists. Video of Nemtsov’s arrest shows he was singled out with groups of police periodically swarming him until they were able to isolate him and take him to a waiting police van. One way or another, the Russian authorities were committed to getting him. They are still. But what the president of the United States says and does about it will make a difference not only to Nemtsov, but also to the future of democracy and human rights in Russia.