The scandal around Ildar Dadin, the first person jailed for street protests under a new law on public assemblies, has renewed discussion about the possibility of a protest movement forming in Russia.

Pictured: A participant of a piquet in support of Ildar Dadin, an opposition activist imprisoned for his activity. He reported about numerous tortures at the penal colony. Photo: Igor Akimov / Interpress / TASS

Russian opposition activist Ildar Dadin, the first person jailed for repeated violations of the Russia’s new law on public assemblies, claimed he is being beaten, repeatedly tortured and threatened with murder at the penal colony where he is being held in northwest Russia. His claims became public through his letter to his wife that got into the media’s hands (the letter was published in English on Nov. 1 by The Guardian).

The case quickly received wide media coverage in Russia and the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the matter would get the prompt attention of the government and President Vladimir Putin himself. Amnesty International has also commented on the allegations, calling for a thorough investigation of the case and Dadin’s release.

Who is Ildar Dadin?

Dadin, 34, was sentenced in early December 2015 to three years in jail by a Moscow court for repeated anti-government street protests. The sentence was later reduced to two and a half years. Human rights advocates call him a political prisoner, while the authorities regard him as a simple criminal who violated the law.

He was born in Moscow’s suburbs, never finished his higher education, served in the navy and then worked as a security guard for seven years. It was in 2011 when he got involved in politics. This was the time when the most massive rallies against allegedly falsified election results took place and political questions became the hot topic of discussion in Russian society.

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Dadin became an active observer of elections in various regions and from different candidates. He was arrested a number of times during street rallies. According to his sentence, he was involved in 30 administrative violations from 2012 to 2014. Following his December 2015 sentence, he is now serving his time at a penal colony in Segesha, located in the Karelia Region.

Investigation into the Dadin case

As human rights advocates and the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service start their investigations, the media has been following the developments closely. Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of the human rights website, argues that the figure of Dadin and the politicization of his case has received too much attention.

“The figure of Dadin is less important than the fact that a person was tortured in the colony," he said. "And this is not the only case of this happening in the institution. There are other prisoners who were tortured there as well. I have specific examples proving that Dadin was the one who got lucky. There are people who were left with damaged joints and tendons as a result of the colony’s staff actions,” says the human rights advocate.

The only thing that can help in this situation is a large-scale and objective investigation. “It is necessary to interview the victims of torture, start real criminal cases against the head of the colony and those who were directly involved,” Osechkin explains. “What we are seeing now is a  game to make attempts to explain what could have happened. I have information that there are signs of handcuffs on Dadin’s hands, even though 40 days have passed since they were put on him.”

According to Osechkin, Dadin should be relocated to a colony near Moscow as soon as possible. “A person who has been convicted for minor offenses for the first time can serve his sentence next to his home. There is a suitable institution in the region. In order to avoid a scandal, it is simply necessary to transfer him there,” he says.

Osechkin is confident that the torturers of the activist helped the opposition activists keep up their criticism of the authorities. “I think that it was necessary to put Dadin under close monitoring so that his rights were addressed and he could fulfill his legal obligations,” he points out.  He and his colleagues have sent this request to the authorities.

Is there really a protest movement forming?

Pavel Salin, director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University under the Russian Government, believes that the protest movement in Russia is already emerging. It was more or less there in 2011, but there were no worthy leaders who could meet the needs of the public.

“The protest potential was present among a substantial part of the population, but the leaders of that time offered an outdated agenda, similar to that of the 1990s,” the expert explains. “There are no adequate leaders today as well. They get neutralized as soon as they appear on the scene. Those who are not dangerous attract a great deal of attention, but they are usually ridiculed.”

Also read: "Russian protest movement: smaller and more radical?"

Some Kremlin pundits argue that today artists and representatives of the creative professions are under close watch as they are seen as a potential source of discontent. Salin agrees with this assumption.

“Many representatives of the arts are very negative about the changes happening now in Russia because these changes could limit their freedom," he said. "They are also against the growing role of the law enforcement apparatus. That’s why any development that could potentially limit their freedom gets wider media attention. Dadin’s story represents an example."

Today the media try to create the image of Dadin as a protest leader, but it is unlikely to be a successful endeavor without a greater support in the current political environment, Salin argues.

However, could the creative class become a source of pubic unrest? Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies, questions this possibility, because such people are hardly likely to come together. “They are very individualistic, being more oriented towards consumption rather than bringing change," he believes. "They might be selfish and it is almost impossible to unite them.”