10 August 2021
Olga Bendas has been sentenced to two years in a penal colony for assaulting a police officer by ‘striking the officer’s bulletproof jacket and helmet.’
Source: Memorial Human Rights Centre
Memorial Human Rights Centre, in accordance with international guidelines defining the term ‘political prisoner,’ considers the criminal prosecution of Olga Bendas politically motivated and unlawful. Bendas has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment for her political beliefs and her exercise of the right of assembly.
Olga Bendas’ imprisonment is clearly disproportionate to the offence with which she was charged and her criminal prosecution is selective in nature when compared to the usual, ‘non-political’ practice with regard to the offence of assaulting a public official (Article 318 of the Russian Criminal Code).
We believe Olga Bendas should be immediately released from custody and the criminal case against her should be subject to review.
The case against Olga Bendas
On 23 January 2021 Olga Bendas took part in a demonstration in Moscow in solidarity with the opposition political activist Aleksei Navalny. On that day, security forces detained more than four thousand protesters.
Many protesters suffered at the hands of the police and National Guard. Law enforcement officers used brutal physical force against protesters on a massive scale.
The next day, a video circulated widely on the internet of a woman holding up a rubber truncheon to journalists and saying, ‘Who comes to us with a sword will be dealt with by the sword.’ This woman, it turned out, was Olga Bendas.
Five days later Olga Bendas was arrested. The Investigative Committee announced criminal proceedings had been opened against Bendas for assaulting a public official (Article 318, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code) and distributed a video in which she expressed regret for her behaviour at the rally.
According to the investigators, during a rally on Pushkin Square Bendas struck a police officer several times on the body and the head. There was no mention in the charges of the truncheon that drew such public attention.
Bendas agreed that she had lacked restraint and waved her arms in the direction of the police officer and possibly, in that manner, accidentally struck him. At the same time, Bendas stated that her actions were a reaction to the stress and frustration she felt after she herself had received several blows from truncheons and witnessed brutal treatment of an elderly man by the police.
Olga Bendas demanded that the actions of the police officers who beat her be investigated. When she had been admitted to the temporary detention centre numerous bruises had been recorded on her body. However, neither she nor her lawyer could obtain information about whether such a check had indeed been carried out.
At Bendas’ trial, as evidence of her guilt, the prosecution showed a video recording of the episode imputed to Bendas. However, according to Bendas’ lawyer Tatyana Okushko, the video showed that Bendas did not touch the police officer. Nor did the video show Bendas attempt to strike the officer on the head.
Nevertheless, on 22 June 2021 Moscow’s Tver district court found Olga Bendas guilty and sentenced her to two years in a general-regime penal colony.
Why we consider Olga Bendas a political prisoner
Memorial Human Rights Centre has studied the case of Olga Bendas and concluded that her actions at the protest rally must be viewed in the context of the events of 23 January, considering in addition the reactions of the law enforcement and judicial systems.
Olga Bendas took part in protests of solidarity with Aleksei Navalny. Navalny was, first, a victim of an assassination attempt with military-grade poison and was then arrested on fabricated charges that were politically motivated. The mass protests that took place across Russia in January 2021 were a natural result of the public outrage that resulted.
Violence was used against the participants in the winter protests on a massive scale. Police and National Guard officers seriously injured at least 64 protesters, as recorded in photographs and videos and confirmed by medical reports. Nevertheless, not a single law enforcement officer has been subject to criminal investigation. There is no evidence that cases of violence against protesters were investigated at all, even in the most egregious cases.
We believe such selectivity of criminal prosecution demonstrates a clear bias on the part of the Russian authorities.
We have repeatedly observed differences in the enforcement of the article of the Russian Criminal Code concerning violence against public officials (Article 318 of the Criminal Code) in ‘political’ and similar cases. In ‘ordinary’ cases, courts tend to impose relatively lenient sentences, restricted to fines or suspended sentences.
We believe Bendas’ criminal prosecution was initiated after publication of the video with the police truncheon. The Investigative Committee, although it knew the episode with which Bendas was charged had nothing to do with this video, in its statement on the opening of criminal proceedings cited this very video. Subsequently, this story was actively used by pro-government media for propaganda purposes to smear the protesters.
In addition, Bendas’ prosecution became part of the anti-Ukrainian campaign in Russian media. For a long time, Bendas was referred to as a Ukrainian, while failing to mention that she has long had Russian citizenship and lives, with official registration, in the town of Liubertsy near Moscow.
No real damage resulted from the incident. The police officer, who is the victim in the case and stated that he ‘felt pain,’ was in full protective gear. There is no record of any physical injury and the video footage of the incident presented in court showed no physical contact between Bendas and the police officer.
We do not know whether Bendas intended to strike the police officer or not, but the article of the Criminal Code under which she was charged does not concern intent.
We believe the court assessed the available evidence in a biased manner, disregarding arguments by the defence, and did not fully take into account the context of the alleged incident. The guilt of Olga Bendas has not been proven.
More information about the case of Olga Bendas and the position of Memorial Human Rights Centre is available on our website.
Recognition of an individual as a political prisoner or as a victim of politically motivated prosecution does not imply Memorial Human Rights Centre agrees with, or approves of, their views, statements, or actions.
How you can help
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Translated by Rights in Russia