A former police officer who discussed Russia’s invasion on the phone. A priest who preached to his congregation about the sufferings of the Ukrainians. A student holding up a banner without words – only stars.
Hundreds of Russians are being accused of speaking out against the war in Ukraine, since a repressive law was passed last month banning the spread of “false information” about the invasion and degrading military.
Human rights groups say the crackdown has led to prosecution and possible jail sentences for at least 23 people over the charge of “false information”, with over 500 others facing misdemeanor charges for dismantling the military which have either led to large fines or are expected to result in them.
“This is a large amount, an unprecedented amount” of cases, said Damir Gainutdinov, head of Net Freedom’s legal aid group focusing on freedom of expression cases, in an interview with The Associated Press.
The Kremlin has been trying to control the narrative of the war from the moment its troops rolled into Ukraine. It called the attack a “special military operation” and increased the pressure on independent Russian media, calling it a “war” or an “invasion”, blocking access to many news sites whose coverage deviated from the official line.
Extensive arrests stifled anti-war protests and made them a daily occurrence in major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Petersburg to rare events that barely attracted any attention.
Nevertheless, there are almost daily reports that the police have detained individuals in various Russian cities.
Even seemingly benign acts have led to arrests.
A man was detained in Moscow after standing next to a World War II monument that reads “Kyiv” for the city’s heroic stance against Nazi Germany and kept a copy of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. Another was allegedly detained for holding a package of sliced ham from meat producer Miratorg, with the other half of the name crossed out so that it read: “Mir” – “peace” in Russian.
A law against spreading “false news” about the war or reducing the military was passed by parliament in one day and came into force immediately, effectively subjecting anyone critical of the conflict to fines and prison sentences.
The first publicly known criminal cases of “forgeries” were directed at public figures such as Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a Russian-language cookbook author and popular blogger living abroad, and Alexander Nevzorov, a television journalist, film director and former legislator.
Both were accused of posting “false information” about Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine on their widely followed social media sites – something Moscow has vehemently denied, insisting that Russian forces only hit military targets.
But then the scope of the repression expanded, with the police apparently getting hold of someone.
Former police officer Sergei Klokov was detained and placed in custody after discussing the war with his friends on the phone. His wife told the news site Meduza that Klokov, who was born in Irpin near Kyiv and whose father was still living in Ukraine when Russian troops rolled in, in a casual conversation at home, condemned the invasion.
Klokov was accused of spreading false information about the Russian armed forces and risking up to 10 years in prison.
St. Petersburg artist Sasha Skolichenko also risks up to 10 years in prison on the same charge: She replaced price tags in a grocery store with anti-war flyers. On Wednesday, a court ordered Skolichenko to be remanded in custody for 1 1/2 months.
Pastor Ioann Burdin, a Russian Orthodox priest in a village about 300 kilometers northeast of Moscow, was fined 35,000 rubles ($ 432) for “discrediting the Russian armed forces” after posting an anti-war statement on his church’s website and speaking with a dozen congregations during a worship service about the pain he felt over the people of Ukraine dying.
Burdin told the AP that his speech provoked mixed reactions. “A woman made a scene over the fact that I was talking about (it) when she just came to pray,” he said, adding that he thought it was one of those who heard the sermon that reported him to the police.
Marat Grachev, director of a store that repairs Apple products in Moscow, similarly got into trouble when he showed a link to an online signature collection titled “No to War” on a screen in the store. Many customers expressed support when they saw it, but an elderly man demanded it be taken down and threatened to report Grachev to authorities.
Police quickly showed up and Grachev was charged with discrediting the military. A court sentenced him to pay a fine of 100,000 rubles ($ 1,236).
Another court convicted Moscow student Dmitry Reznikov of showing a blank eight-star piece of paper that could have been interpreted as standing for “No to War” in Russian – a popular song by protesters. The court found him guilty of discrediting the armed forces and fined him 50,000 rubles ($ 618) for holding the sign in central Moscow during a demonstration in mid-March that lasted only seconds before police detained him.
“It’s the absurd theater,” his lawyer Oleg Filatchev told the AP.
A court in St. Petersburg last week sentenced Artur Dmitriev to a fine for a sign containing President Vladimir Putin’s quote – albeit with a few words omitted for brevity – from last year’s Victory Day parade marking Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II.
“The war brought so many unbearable challenges, sorrows and tears that it is impossible to forget. There is no forgiveness and justification for those who once again house aggressive plans,” Putin said, according to the Kremlin’s website.
Dmitriev was fined 30,000 rubles for discrediting the Russian military. That led him to write on Facebook on Friday: “The sentence of Vladimir Putin, and ergo he himself … discredits the goals of the Russian armed forces. From this moment on (Internet and media regulator) Roskomnadzor must block all speeches by Putin and true patriots – take his portraits down to their offices. ”
Net Freedoms’ Gainutdinov said that anything about the military or Ukraine can make a person a target. Even wearing a hat with blue and gold from the Ukrainian flag or a green ribbon considered a symbol of peace has been shown to discredit the military, the lawyer added.
Reznikov, who is appealing his verdict for the poster with stars, said he found the embezzlement scary. Following his first conviction for misdemeanor, a second strike would result in criminal prosecution and a possible prison sentence of up to three years.
Both Burdin and Grachev, who are also appealing, received donations that exceeded their fines.
“I realized how important it is, how valuable it is to receive support,” Grachev said.
Burdin said the public about his case spread his message far beyond the dozen or so people who originally heard his sermon – the opposite of what the authorities probably intended to fine him.
“It is impossible to call it anything other than God’s providence,” the priest added. “The words I said reached a much greater number of people.”
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine