THE BLOG
24/12/2013 12:24 GMT | Updated 23/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Pussy Riot Are Finally Free, But What About Mikhail Kosenko?

When Pussy Riot member Nadia Tolokonnikova was freed this week in Putin's much-reported prisoner amnesty, she accused the Russian government of merely putting on "another show ahead of the Olympics...such is their big desire to prevent all European countries from boycotting our [Games]."

When Pussy Riot member Nadia Tolokonnikova was freed this week in Putin's much-reported prisoner amnesty, she accused the Russian government of merely putting on "another show ahead of the Olympics...such is their big desire to prevent all European countries from boycotting our [Games]."

Released with fellow band member Maria Alyokhina and around 20,000 other prisoners across Russia, as she walked out of jail Nadia told journalists there are many others who are "not much talked about and are even forgotten but who still need to come out of their jails as they don't belong here".

It's hard to see how the amnesty is anything but a politically expedient move, coming just weeks before the Winter Olympics in Sochi to which some countries are only sending low key delegations (or none), citing human rights concerns. Oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has also been released and charges are set to be dropped against the Arctic 30 Greenpeace activists, ensuring headlines around the world.

Many of those 'forgotten' prisoners have been on the receiving end of new laws that restrict the right to freedom of expression and speech - laws that have seen peaceful protesters put behind bars, gay rights trampled on and NGOs silenced.

Mikhail Kosenko is one of them. In May last year he joined the crowds in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square to protest peacefully against what he believed were rigged elections that returned Putin to power.

The demonstration was violently repressed by the police, who arrested people indiscriminately for chanting or objecting to the police beating demonstrators. Mikhail's sister Ksenia told Amnesty what happened next:

"When some people started to fight with a police officer, [Mikhail] just stood there, trying to shield himself. He was taken to the police station and they took a photo of him. When a decision was taken to open a criminal case into mass riots at Bolotnaya Square, they started to compare their photos with the video footage. They had a photo, they found a video, and interpreted them in a certain way. That was it: the charges were ready."

Ksenia was only allowed to see her brother once in the two months after his arrest, and only then after psychiatric "experts" found him to be "mentally incapacitated". While he was in detention their mother died, but the authorities refused to let him out for the funeral. In fact, the first Mikhail heard of her death was on TV because the letters Ksenia had sent him had been returned by the censor.

In October this year, Mikhail was convicted for taking part in a riot and using violence against police officers. A Moscow court sentenced him to forcible treatment and indefinite detention in a psychiatric institution, a move reminiscent of Soviet-era Russia.

Mikhail has a history of mental illness, but the only legitimate grounds for involuntary psychiatric treatment are when an individual is a danger to themselves, or to others - neither of which applied here.

Amnesty International considers Mikhail a prisoner of conscience. His case features in its Write for Rights campaign calling on people around the world to send a message of support to prisoners of conscience and those suffering, or at risk of, human rights abuses across the globe.

Ksenia is understandably worried about Mikhail's health.

"We know very little about what happens in a psychiatric hospital - it's like a state within a state," she said. "Mikhail told me someone on his wing was given an injection and felt so bad that the prison guards couldn't even drag him out of his cell when he had a visit. He is afraid that they will start using very strong medication and turn him into a vegetable."

Mikhail is now waiting for his appeal to go through. Four other Bolotnaya protestors have had charges against them dropped as part of the amnesty, but six others await trial. Mikhail is just one of a growing number of peaceful protestors imprisoned in Russia. Add that to the new law banning 'gay propaganda' and another forcing any NGO receiving funding from abroad to register as a foreign agent, and the human rights impact on ordinary Russians is of grave concern.

Russia has known for years it would be hosting the 2014 Winter Games, governed by the Olympic Charter. The charter states that the "practice of sport is a human right" and that every individual must be able to do so "without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play". Russia also signed an agreement after London 2012 to respect human rights during the next Olympics.

But Putin's human rights clampdown means there is little evidence of mutual understanding or a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play for those who fall foul of draconian new laws in Russia today. This should be of concern to all countries sending athletes to Sochi, and to fans travelling to the games. They should do so with their eyes wide open.

To send Mikhail Kosenko a message of support and for information about other Write for Rights cases cases visit www.amnesty.org.uk/write