What we know so far about Moscow’s custody challenge against two parents who were seen with their toddler at an election protest
Moscow prosecutors are pursuing a custody challenge against a couple who brought their one-year-old child to a July 27 protest for fair elections. The prosecutors have asked Moscow’s Perovsky Court to deprive the two parents of their right to care for the child. In a press release, the city’s Prosecutorial Office claimed that “during the course of the protest, the parents gave their young child to a third party, which put the boy’s health and life in danger and caused him physical and emotional harm.” Later on, the second clause alleging “physical and emotional harm” was deleted from the statement (the original press release can be found here).
During the protest, the couple handed their baby to Sergej Fomin. Moscow officials have charged Fomin with rioting. On July 31, Fomin’s home was searched, and he was questioned as a witness in the mass rioting case Moscow investigators opened following the July 27 protest. Following his interrogation, Fomin was released. On August 5, however, Moscow’s Investigative Committee announced that Fomin had been charged in absentia because he had gone into hiding. He is now wanted by Moscow officials. The Investigative Committee described Fomin’s actions on July 27 as follows: “Open-source information indicates that as Fomin left the protest, he took someone else’s young child into his arms so as to safely cross police lines.” The day before, the state-owned television station Channel One made the same argument during a report that falsely claimed Fomin had been jailed to await trial. The Channel One segment called Fomin “an expert in street tactics” who “actively led” the so-called riots. Even before the segment aired, a video about Fomin began spreading on social media under the title “Who is radicalizing and leading Moscow’s protests and how?” The independent television station Dozhd reported that the clips in the video were recorded by employees of Russia’s Center for Combating Extremism.
Fomin said he was given a baby carrier containing his one-year-old nephew during the protest. After he was searched and questioned on July 31, Fomin posted a statement about the July 27 protest on his mother Tatiana Fomina’s account, saying investigators had taken away his own mobile phone and computer. Fomin wrote that he called on protesters to “walk out of range of the riot police’s batons” when they reached Bryusov Alley during the march. “I got about a thousand people out of Bryusov (and destroyed my vocal chords in the process). Nobody paid me to do it, and I’m not a member of any political organizations,” Fomin wrote (the video above accuses him of collecting signatures for opposition candidate Lyubov Sobol’s registration petition). Fomin said that he then walked peacefully along with the other demonstrators along Old Arbat Street while shouting slogans like “Fair elections!”, “I have a voice!”, and “Moscow, come on out!” He continued, “At the end of Old Arbat Street, my friends led me out of the march and put a baby carrier on me with my one-year-old nephew inside […] because they had started to worry about me.”
The one-year-old’s parents, Olga and Dmitry Prokazov, confirmed that they are related to Fomin. After the news broke that Moscow prosecutors would seek to deprive them of custody, the Prokazovs organized an ad hoc press conference outside Moscow’s Investigative Committee headquarters on August 6. They said that they and Fomin had gone to downtown Moscow together on July 27 to take a walk. The couple knew that a protest would be taking place at the same time and said they felt solidarity with the protesters but did not plan to participate: “with the baby, that would have been absurd,” they said. At some point, the Prokazovs and Fomin were separated, but Fomin later walked toward the two parents along with a crowd of protesters. The Prokazovs said they walked with the group until they reached Old Arbat Street and then turned to go back to their home with Fomin. “Sergej is my childhood best friend. He’s my firstborn’s godfather and my wife’s brother. At some point, I asked him to carry the baby, and we walked to the metro. There were no police, cordons, or National Guard troops anywhere,” Dmitry Prokazov said.
After the Prokazovs and their child were seen at the protest, investigators opened a criminal child endangerment and parental neglect case, Olga Prokazova said during the couple’s impromptu press conference. She told journalists that the family’s apartment was searched late in the evening on August 5 and that she and her husband were called in for questioning. The couple’s attorney, Maxim Pashkov, told Interfax that the Prokazovs are currently listed as witnesses in the endangerment and neglect case (TASS reported that the couple are also witnesses in the Moscow government’s broader mass rioting case). In Russia, it is common for witnesses in criminal cases to lose that status and become suspects after they are searched or questioned. Both Pashkov and the Prokazovs said the endangerment and neglect case was opened because of a “doctored video” about Fomin that had spread widely on the Internet. The couple denied the video’s claim that they gave their child to Fomin so that the latter could walk past a line of police officers. “There were no police at all. We didn’t see any,” Olga Prokazova said.
Government human rights officials and a federal senator criticized the Moscow Prosecutorial Office’s decision to pursue a custody challenge against the Prokazovs. Irina Kirkora, a member of Russia’s Presidential Council on Human Rights, said that bringing a child to an unsanctioned protest and giving that child to someone else does not provide the government with grounds to take away a parent’s custody rights, meaning that prosecutors who bring such a case have broken the law. Moscow Human Rights Ombudsperson Yevgeny Bunimovich agreed with Kirkora, saying, “In cases like these, you can’t talk about taking away custody. You have to work with the family so that they don’t put the child at risk in the future.” Meanwhile, Anna Kuznetsova, Russia’s federal children’s ombudsperson, offered a more equivocal approach to the subject, saying that depriving parents of custody is an extreme measure, but bringing children to unsanctioned protests is unacceptable. Senator Valery Ryazansky told Interfax that he would advise prosecutors not to expand Russia’s “army [of orphans], which is already tens of thousands strong.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen