Yesterday began the trial of the political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky, whose critical books and articles were deemed by the Kremlin as “extremist,” allegedly aimed at inciting violence against Russians, Jews, and even Americans. In the context of this absurd legal system, Andrei is guilty. He is guilty of possessing courage, independent thought, and a willingness to tell the truth despite threats and consequences. He is guilty of expressing his beliefs honestly, and guilty of declining to perform the kowtow to the Kremlin that so many commentators and academics have succumbed to – that sordid, silent deal that allows Russians to travel in exchange for their silence and acquiescence of the thefts being carried out every day by Russia’s leaders and bureaucrats. Of these things he may be guilty, but of extremism, he is not. Press reports indicate that the prosecutors accuse him of inciting hatred by writing the words “incite hatred” in one of his books. An expert witness points out that Piontkovsky was quoting Putin in that section. Such details are rather unimportant to Russian courts, which enjoy vast powers thanks to new extremism legislation. After the procuracy ran into difficulties during their interrogations of Garry Kasparov last April following a series of mass protests, new amendments were proposed to make the law more flexible and arbitrary for the state to deploy at will. In July, the president approved amendments to the law to allow the state to imprison someone for up to five years for displaying “hatred or hostility toward any social group” – without any definition of what that social group may be. The new amendments also ban the distribution of so-called “extremist materials”, and give the authorities the right to confiscate such materials make arrests of anyone distributing them. The NGO Article 19 has declared that Russia’s new extremism law violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights, to which Russia is a party and which – in Article 19 and Article 10 respectively – guarantee the right to freedom of expression. (It is no small irony that the Kremlin has used the extremism legislation to ransack the offices of a Nizhny Novgorod civil society group called “Support Tolerance“). Yuri Schmidt, who is representing Piontkovsky in this trial, told the press that “What we are witnessing here today is a consequence and demonstration of the atmosphere that the authorities have built in society, an atmosphere of persecution of political opponents and critics and those who think differently.” He further speculates that the procuracy is probably acting on its own accord, without orders from the Kremlin, and that they “believe that they should guard the power totally, and if there is even the slightest manifestation of disagreement with the regime they should be on alert.” Another Russian journalist I knew would’ve likely been charged with this same crime, had she not been brutally murdered close to a year ago today. Anna Politkovskaya would’ve been able to see that this “extremism” case is another example of the “doppelgänger theory” – the Kremlin’s habit of charging their critics with the very activities in which they themselves engage. Therefore while Piontkovsky faces a Soviet-style show trial under the charge of extremism, the government actively goes about organizing the red-and-white-t-shirt clad Nashi brigades and quietly coddles the xenophobes and radical right, which has made Russia increasingly unsafe for minorities and those with alternative viewpoints. This trial is an obscene gesture, which although it is likely to pass unnoticed in the West, serves as a powerful reminder that Russia will not be able to legitimately claim that their upcoming elections are even remotely democratic when those who express disagreement with the government can be imprisoned simply by the discretion of the procuracy. This addiction to counterfeit legalism is now well documented across numerous political cases, and further erodes any remaining belief that Russia has minimal rule of law or a functioning judiciary. Andrei Piontkovsky had a choice – stay safe in Washington, where he was visiting when the charges were first issued, or go back to Moscow and fight for his country and for his innocence. His choice speaks volumes.