As aspiring actor Pavel Ustinov scrolled through his phone on a central Moscow square this August, four camouflaged, masked riot policemen suddenly pulled him at random from the crowd and beat him with rubber batons.

But despite being the victim of attack, it was Mr Ustinov who ended up in prison. After a one-day trial, a court this week found him guilty of “inflicting moral suffering” on one of the policemen, who dislocated his shoulder as the actor fell over, and sentenced him to 3½ years in prison.

Mr Ustinov was one of 16 people facing criminal charges as part of a crackdown designed to scare ordinary people away from some of the largest protests Russia has seen in years. “They arrested these people for political reasons and jailed them,” Mr Ustinov’s sister Yulia told the FT.

Now a huge public outcry against his conviction — led by leading actors and even some supporters of President Vladimir Putin — has forced prosecutors to ask for his release.

The Kremlin’s retreat underscores its fears over a swell of popular unrest. Mr Ustinov was arrested this summer, as part of the broader crackdown intended to deter people from participating in the protests.

The demonstrations in Moscow were sparked by the authorities’ refusal to let opposition candidates run for the city council. Across Russia, Mr Putin’s approval ratings are at their lowest-ever level thanks to low living standards, a rise in the retirement age, and widespread distrust of his officials.

After initially meeting new waves of dissent in the spring by backtracking on issues such as the construction of a park in Ekaterinburg and a new waste dump in northern Russia, the Kremlin reacted to subsequent protests with violent police tactics. But even as the initial protests have died down, the violence — recorded in viral videos like that of Mr Ustinov’s arrest — has galvanised the opposition.

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“There’s growing anger about the security services’ blatantly excessive reaction,” said Pavel Chikov, whose Agora legal foundation is representing seven people facing charges stemming from the protests. “Demonstratively freeing [Mr Ustinov] is an attempt to calm society down [and] dial back the public anger.”

Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, said on Thursday that Mr Putin was following the case but would not interfere with the court. “It’s progressing under the law, as it should,” he said, according to Interfax.

Mr Ustinov, 23, is an unlikely figurehead for the protest movement. The aspiring actor went to the capital’s Pushkin Square to meet a friend to discuss part-time work as a security guard — and had no idea protests were even taking place. “I’m an actor, I thought it was a concert or something,” he said at his trial.

Though Mr Ustinov’s trial initially attracted little media attention, a video of his arrest that the judge refused to enter into evidence subsequently went viral. It showed that — contrary to police testimony — he did not take part in the protest, assault the officers or resist.

The video sparked off a social media flash-mob where famous actors recorded videos in support of Mr Ustinov. “This hideous lawlessness and injustice should not go unnoticed or unpunished,” actress Alexandra Bortich said on Instagram. “Tell your friends and look at the other defendants’ cases, they’re being tried just as unfairly.”

Russia’s film and theatre community is heavily state-subsidised and tends to avoid political statements: most actors are more likely to be seen at gala events with the Kremlin beau monde than an anti-Putin protest. 

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Some of Mr Ustinov’s supporters say they were inspired by the case of journalist Ivan Golunov, who escaped fabricated drug charges in June after a solidarity campaign across the media prompted the Kremlin to sack the officers involved. Others have been politicised by the prosecution of avant-garde theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov, who spent more than a year under house arrest on fraud charges before the case was suspended last week.

Hundreds of them lined up outside Russia’s presidential headquarters on Wednesday to hold placards one by one — the only permitted form of spontaneous protest — in Mr Ustinov’s support. Associations of doctors, teachers, IT specialists, writers, and 39 Orthodox priests, all wrote letters in Mr Ustinov’s support.

Andrei Turchak, the head of Mr Putin’s parliamentary faction, called the sentence against Mr Ustinov a “whopping injustice” and criticised the court for not entering the video into evidence.

Five other defendants in the protest case have been acquitted but it is unclear if the Kremlin has appetite for a broader thaw. For Mr Chikov, the release of Mr Ustinov represented an easy win for the Kremlin.

“The other protesters are clearly political and Ustinov is apolitical, so it’s safe for everyone to support him. But if you support a politicised person, they can accuse you of trying to start a revolution,” he said.

For Ms Ustinova, heavily pregnant, the experience of campaigning for her brother had politicised her further. “How can you leave these people in jail? Nobody took away our freedom of speech. These people also have proof of their innocence,” she said.

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Via Financial Times