Lives on hold
Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty’s Campaigner on Russia, meets Sasha Kunko whose boyfriend has been imprisoned in Russia for the last two years. He was arrested following the May 2012 Bolotnaya protest in Moscow, when tens of thousands of people demonstrated against much-contested presidential election results.
The trendy Moscow café is busy with chatter when I arrive. Vintage tables and chairs stand cluttered between bookshelves. People mill around noisily helping themselves to the free tea, coffee and biscuits– in this café you only pay for the time you spend there.
I’ve come to meet 22-year-old Sasha Kunko, whose boyfriend, Stepan Zimin, was arrested on 8 June 2012, a month after he attended a demonstration in Bolotnaya Square.
Two years since we spoke on the phone
Sasha’s memories of that day are still fresh. “It was summer, the weather was beautiful, and we had wonderful plans for the day” she tells me. “At lunch time a friend texted me asking: “Do you know what happened to Stepa?” She then sent me a link to a TV programme and I saw that the police had arrested him on suspicion of using violence against police officers and taking part in mass riots. They did not show his photo, but the name, the date of birth -– it all fitted. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I called Stepa, but he did not answer. And that’s it – since that day I haven’t spoken to Stepa on the phone. It’s been almost two years…” Her head drops.
I ask Sasha to tell me about Stepan and her face lights up. “We had known each other for two years before he was arrested. We were good friends. We met at a dance class, learning Lindy Hop… we went to dance parties, participated in international dance events. He’s a very enthusiastic person with many hobbies, including oriental culture – Stepan studied Arabic and even did an internship in Egypt.”
She returns to the day of his arrest. “I searched for him until late at night. A coordinator from a volunteer organization RosUznik helped me to get a lawyer and we went to Lubyanka [a pre-trial detention centre]. They told us he was there but we were not allowed to see him. At the time I was sure it was simply a misunderstanding and would soon go away.”
The court hearing was the following day. “I wasn’t allowed to attend because I’m not close family. So I waited for hours at the court doors.”
Stepan was charged with throwing a piece of asphalt at an officer which hurt his finger. Yet a medical examination proved that the finger was broken as a result of twisting. I ask Sasha if the prosecution provided any other evidence of his guilt. “There was testimony from the “victim” and his colleague…” she says. Two police officers. “But they really floundered and were not able to give clear answers to any of the questions that Stepa’s lawyers asked.” Her voice shakes with outrage. “So for this allegedly broken finger he got three and a half years in jail….I don’t know how they can live with that. I don’t know whether they understood what they did to Stepa or not”.
“It shouldn’t have happened to us. She pauses. “It’s hard to believe that his twentieth birthday was in January and only half a year later he was arrested.”
Keeping him connected to the outside
Injustice can make people feel angry but Sasha says that Stepan only became wiser, calmer. It is amazing, she says, that he manages to live through all this stress, all the absurdity of the situation and remain calm.
I ask her if she counts the months until Stepan’s release. “No”, says Sasha, “life goes on. It’s easier like that. I try to concentrate on positive things and stay connected with Stepa by writing letters.”
“It’s incredibly important to write letters when someone is deprived of the outside world. One day he sees his friends, he has a cell phone, he has internet access, he knows his plans… the next day he finds himself within four walls, totally isolated. So letters help him stay connected. Any small detail that he learns from outside, reminds him what life was like before his arrest.”
Sasha also talks about those people who they never met but who are still sending Stepan letters of support. “It’s important for Stepa to know that he is not forgotten, that he has support, from a lot of people – even abroad. We have huge support.”
“There are a lot of people who are imprisoned and no one really knows about it…and then the person is left on his own, face to face with the system.
I finish by asking Sasha, does she still dance? “I gave up the class. Without my partner there’s no fun in it anymore”.
Despite the rapidly shrinking space for freedom of expression, many people in Russia are speaking out. Between 6 and 12 October Amnesty International activists stand with them in solidarity during a week of action to make sure Russia’s leaders know that the rest of the world will not be silent. Take action and find out more on www.amnesty.org/Speak-Out-Russia