The Russian authorities have launched a witch-hunt by effectively weaponizing the country’s criminal justice system to prosecute anti-war protesters and influential critics of the state who have expressed their opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Amnesty International said today, one month on from the start of the crackdown.
“The persecution of those opposed to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine goes far beyond previous efforts to stifle protesters and activists. Those caught criticizing the war face an absurd number of arbitrary charges merely for speaking out. They are not only charged with ‘discrediting’ the armed forces, but also with slander, fraud or accusations of ‘terrorism’,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Just a month on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at least 60 criminal cases have been initiated over peaceful protests against the war or public criticism of the Russian authorities, according to Agora, a Russian human rights group. They are being investigated under 14 separate articles of the Criminal Code.
At least 46 people have faced criminal charges, including nine who were taken into custody and three who were confined under house arrest. They have been charged with a myriad of “crimes”, including insulting government officials, libel, inciting extremist activities, inciting mass riots, hatred and fraud, and the desecration of burial sites, according to Agora.
Prosecuted for sharing “fake news”
At least 10 of these cases saw critics being investigated under a new law, for “discrediting” Russia’s armed forces. Under the new Russian law this is punishable by up to 10 years in prison — or 15 years if the comments caused “grave consequences”.
On 4 March, this legislation was passed unanimously by both chambers of the Russian Parliament and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on the same day. On 22 March, the law was expanded to criminalize the sharing of “fake news” about any activities of Russia’s government officials abroad.
On 16 March, Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a gastronomy blogger with 850,000 Instagram followers, became the first individual charged under the new law. She was charged with sharing “knowingly false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces to destroy cities and the civilian population of Ukraine, including children.”
Sergey Klokov, a technician at the Moscow City Police Department, was the first person taken into custody under this law after being arrested on 18 March. According to his lawyer, he was charged with spreading “fake news” during phone calls with residents of Crimea and Moscow region.
More cases followed. On 22 March, Aleksandr Nevzorov, a prominent journalist who gained popularity during perestroika (a state-approved series of political reforms in the 1980s), was charged with sharing “false information” about Russia’s strikes against a maternity hospital in Mariupol, after criticizing the shelling in an Instagram post on 9 March.
On 25 March, Izabella Yevloyeva, a journalist from Russia’s Republic of Ingushetia, was charged after sharing a post on social media that described the Russian armed forces’ pro-war “Z” symbol as being “synonymous with aggression, death, pain and shameless manipulation”.
Anti-war opinions are also prosecuted using other repressive articles of Criminal Code. On 18 March, Andrey Boyarshinov, a civil society activist from Kazan, was charged with two incidences of “justifying terrorism” and placed under house arrest for two months over anti-war messages he shared in a Telegram channel.
On 24 March, Irina Bystrova, an art teacher from Petrozavodsk, was charged with sharing “fake news” and “justifying terrorism” in relation to posts she shared on VKontakte, a Russian social media site.
“The ongoing criminalization of ‘fake news’ is as arbitrary and unlawful as the Kremlin’s efforts to crush all forms of anti-war sentiment. And by embarking on this unrelenting witch-hunt, the Russian authorities show they are capable of bringing charges against absolutely anyone. These shameful prosecutions are flagrant violations of the right to freedom of expression,” said Marie Struthers.
Detained for writing anti-war graffiti
As public criticism of the war mounts, the Russian authorities have also sought to criminalize street art and graffiti. At least nine activists and street artists have been charged for writing graffiti that is “motivated by hatred” — a crime that could see them imprisoned for up to three years.
On 18 March, Leonid Chernyi, a street artist from Yekaterinburg, was detained for putting up stickers that say “GruZ 200” — the official code word for military casualties — before being arrested for “public intoxication” and charged with “vandalism.”
Dmitry Kozyrev, a resident of Tula, was detained on 20 March for writing “War is a requiem for common sense” on the walls of the Tula kremlin. On 23 March, Saint Petersburg resident Nikolay Vorotnyov was taken into custody for painting the Ukrainian flag on a World War II howitzer in an open-air war museum.
While Amnesty International accepts that the authorities can legitimately sanction graffiti, we note with grave concern the imposition of particularly harsh penalties for political expression.
“Russia’s criminal justice system is being used as a tool to curb free speech, punish dissenting voices and instill fear in the wider population. By gagging all anti-war sentiment, the Kremlin seeks to crush those who oppose the conflict — or at least create the impression that such resistance does not exist,” said Marie Struthers.
“This heinous campaign of repression against critics of the state who are bravely standing up against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must stop now. All charges brought against those who have expressed anti-war opinions must be urgently dropped, and all those detained must be immediately and unconditionally released.”