MOSCOW (AP) — Sales manager Sergei Abanichev had just finished washing his hair in his Moscow prison cell’s sink and was sitting on his cot reading when a warden came in and told him to get his things. An hour later, he signed release papers and walked out of the detention center with a broad smile to greet his distraught parents.
The 25-year-old had been caught up in what has been seen as widening crackdown on Russia’s opposition, and was one of five released from prison Tuesday after all charges were dropped in a government U-turn.
Portrayed along with others arrested July 27 as a dangerous criminal bent on wreaking havoc on the streets of Moscow in protests instigated by foreign puppet-masters, Abanichev told The Associated Press he had actually been clothes shopping on Tverskaya street that day when he saw the crowds swell, and got curious.
Abanichev, a young, thick-set man with a ginger beard, said in his first interview after his release that he ended up getting trapped behind police lines but somehow managed to escape while hundreds were detained that day.
A week later, plainclothes men laid siege to his parent’s apartment, eventually breaking down the door. He was taken to the investigators as a witness in the rioting case but after a brief conversation with the investigator he was named a suspect and shipped off to the detention center.
In the notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison, where tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died a decade ago after being denied medical help, Abanichev was interrogated about his role in the protests. The investigator pressured him to confess, saying he had been captured in multiple acts on CCTV footage.
The only specific piece of evidence he was presented was a video showing what the investigators said was him hurling a beer can at the police. Abanichev said it was an empty paper cup from Burger King that he threw away during the commotion.
“By saying ‘We know everything, we have tons of video, tons of evidence’ they probably expected me to take the blame,” he said. “I had nothing to confess, I said it right away.”
Analysts have suggested that the sweeping criminal investigation against a random group of protesters is meant to scare off people from going to opposition rallies.
Protests started in mid-July after election officials barred a dozen opposition candidates from running for the Moscow city legislature, and kept on growing. Authorities originally allowed the rallies to go unhindered but later outlawed the gatherings and started detaining and beating the demonstrators, which only helped to swell the crowds.
On July 27, thousands thronged the area around Moscow’s main drag where authorities deployed a formidable riot police force. Officers were seen detaining and often beating men and women alike. In frustration, some bystanders hurled plastic bottles at police, and some tried to force their way past police lines.
While authorities dropped the charges against Abanichev and four others Tuesday, the courts also sentenced two men to three and two years in prison, respectively, for using force against police in an expedited hearing following the plea bargains. Another man was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday.
Two other suspects were released under house arrest, and five more people are still charged with rioting and are in custody. Separately, another man was convicted of inciting hatred and threatening violence and sentenced to five years in prison for a tweet threatening the children of riot policemen who beat up the protesters.
In jail, Abanichev shared his first cell with a repeated convict, joking as he sat in his parents’ cozy living room surrounded by friends and family, the man “had no room left on his body for more tattoos.”
Some of the prison facilities he shared were so filthy that “it was scary to lean on the walls,” and he was allowed to shower only once a week — leading him to turn to the cell sink to wash his hair on other days.
Facing eight years in jail, Abanichev would go to sleep every night, thinking that he would be released the next day: “I thought that a week … would be enough for them to study all the evidence and figure out that there was no crime in my actions.”
The Russian law enforcement system is notorious for refusing to admit its own mistakes. Typically, once a person is arrested and charged, the chances are that the suspect is going to get convicted.
Judges granted 90 percent of prosecutors’ requests for arrests last year, and only 0.3 percent of cases that went to trial ended in acquittals, according to government statistics.
Abanichev was unaware that he was part of the government’s sweeping crackdown on the protesters until several days into his jail time an inmate told him in the corridor during a walk that he saw him in a newspaper.
During his 30 days of imprisonment, Abanichev was not allowed a single visit or phone call so he had to take comfort in letters that family, friends and later random supporters sent him.
“They really kept my spirits up,” he said. “I missed my family. You get more or less used to being in those walls but not to the absence of your family and closed ones.”
Exactly a month after he was first detained, Abanichev was told Tuesday evening he was being freed, he was offered no explanation or apology.
“When the investigator gave me the papers, I started shaking a bit,” he said.
With the prison experience now behind him, Abanichev would not say whether he would be willing to join a protest ahead of the Sept. 8 Moscow election, even an authorized one:
“I fear that my words might be misconstrued in the light of recent events, knowing that people can be thrown into jail for a month without any reason only to be released all of the sudden.”