Russian prosecutors are seeking to take an infant child away from his parents after they brought him to an opposition protest in Moscow, a move condemned by human rights campaigners who called it part of a broader attempt by authorities to intimidate anti-Kremlin demonstrators.
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As protesters have gathered in Moscow for three weekends in a row to demand fair elections, authorities have used harsh tactics to try to quash the protests, and more than 2000 people have been arrested.
Prosecutors in Moscow on Tuesday accused one couple, Olga and Dmitry Prokazov, of handing their one-year-old child to another man during a protest two weeks ago, thereby putting his “health and life in danger.” Prosecutors asked a court to strip the couple of their parental rights.
The boy’s mother and father have rejected the case against them as invented, saying they were not near any clashes with police and that the man who held their child is a close relative. Dmitry Prokazov told the Russian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the case felt like a “surreal film.”
Police had searched the couple’s apartment, Prokazov said, and on Tuesday the two were called in for questioning by investigators.
“It is completely outrageous. Pure intimidation and nothing more,” Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Moscow, told ABC News, adding she believed the attempt to remove the child was “illegal.”
“It seems the Russian authorities are going to great lengths to basically dissuade and discourage people from continuing to protest,” she said.
The friend who was with the couple was an activist, Sergey Fomin, who is being sought by police for taking part in what they allege were “mass disorders” during one of the protests. Prosecutors accused the Prokazovs of giving their baby to Fomin to help him escape arrest.
The couple has told reporters that that allegation is a fiction and they had not seen any police or disorder when they were with Fomin.
The protests in central Moscow have attracted several thousand people each weekend, sparked by authorities’ refusal to allow opposition candidates to take part in city council elections. In response, heavily-armored riot police with batons and wearing masks have roughly detained hundreds of people, often seemingly at random. Videos have shown police clubbing protesters on the ground.
But authorities have sought to paint the peaceful protests as violent. Russian state media has produced reports using crudely-cut video to make it appear as though demonstrators were attacking police.
The case of the Prokazovs and Fomin has become a prominent plot-line in these reports and also in videos posted by Russia’s foreign ministry insinuating the protest were directed by foreign powers.
“This story just fell right into that narrative and they really took off with it,” Gorbunova said. “In fact the only people who endangered others during this protest were the police,” she said.
Some officials have criticized the case. The city’s children’s rights ombudsman, Yevgeny Bunimovich told the Interfax news agency that it was “unacceptable in any political situation to use children for blackmail.”
There have been signs that investigators might back off. The Investigative Committee, which handles serious crimes, has told the Prokazovs they are not suspected of any crime, their lawyer Maksim Pashkov told reporters Tuesday. But the request to strip the Prokazovs' parental rights remains open, Dmitry Prokazov said.
Prosecutors have now charged 11 people with involvement in “mass disorder”, which carries potentially lengthy prison sentences. On Wednesday, the national election commission rejected the final appeal of two leading opposition candidates, Lyubov Sobol and Dmitry Gudkov, to be placed on the ballot.
Authorities have also sought to diminish the protests in other ways. State TV did not cover the protests on the day, instead showing a previously unknown kebab-themed music festival in a central Moscow park called ‘Shashlik Live’, which was hastily promoted. Afterwards, the mayor’s office said 300,000 people had attended the festival, which would make it one of the world’s most popular, dwarfing the crowds at major festivals like Coachella or Glastonbury in the UK.
Officials appeared set to repeat the trick this Saturday when the opposition has called another protest. Moscow’s mayor’s office announced it would hold another festival on the same day, called ‘Meat and Beat’.