A former police officer who discussed the Russian invasion on the phone. A priest who preached to his congregation about the suffering of the Ukrainians. A student who held up a poster with no words — just asterisks.
Hundreds of Russians are facing charges for speaking out against the war in Ukraine since a repressive law was passed last month that bans the dissemination of “false information” about the war and criticism of the armed forces.
Human rights groups say the raid has led to prosecutions and possible prison sentences for at least 23 people on charges of “false information,” with another 500 facing lesser charges of denigrating troops, which carry a prison sentence. fines.
“It’s a large, unprecedented number” of cases, Damir Gainutdinov, head of the legal aid group Net Freedoms, which focuses on free speech causes, told The Associated Press.
The Kremlin has tried to control the narrative of the war from the moment its soldiers entered Ukraine. He called the attack a “special military operation” and has increased pressure on the independent Russian press that called it “war” or “invasion,” blocking access to many news portals whose coverage deviated from the official line.
The arrests have curbed anti-war protests, turning them from a daily occurrence in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg to rare occurrences that draw little attention.
Still, reports of police arresting lone protesters in various Russian cities come in almost daily.
Even seemingly benign actions have led to arrests.
A man was arrested in Moscow after standing next to a World War II monument that reads “kyiv” for the city’s heroism against the Nazis and holding a copy of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” And another was arrested for showing a package of Miratorg ham with the second part of the name crossed out, to read: “Mir — “peace” in Russian.
Parliament approved in one day a law punishing “fake news” about the war or denigrating the armed forces, which came into force immediately, with jail and prison terms.
it was approved by parliament in one day and came into force immediately, exposing anyone who criticized the conflict to fines and imprisonment.
The first publicly known “fake news” criminal cases centered on public figures such as Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a cookbook author and blogger living abroad, and Alexander Nevzorov, a broadcast journalist, film director and former lawmaker.
Both were accused of posting “false information” about Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine on their popular social media pages — something Moscow has categorically rejected, insisting Russian forces have only struck military targets.
But then the scale of the crackdown spread, with arrests left and right.
Former police officer Sergei Klokov was arrested after talking about the war with his friends on the phone. His wife told the Meduza news portal that, in an informal conversation at home, Klokov, who was born in Irpin, near kyiv, and whose father was still living in Ukraine when Russian troops entered, condemned the invasion.
Klokov was accused of disseminating false information about the Russian military and now faces up to 10 years in prison.
St. Petersburg artist Sasha Skochilenko also faces 10 years in prison on the same charge: She replaced price tags in a supply store with anti-war flyers. On Wednesday, a court ordered her detention for a month and a half pending trial.
The Rev. Ioann Burdin, a Russian Orthodox priest in a village 30 kilometers (185 miles) northeast of Moscow, was fined 35,000 rubles ($432) for “discrediting the Russian armed forces” after posting an anti-war statement on his website. church and speak to a dozen parishioners at a service about the pain he felt over the deaths in Ukraine.
Burdin told the AP that his words drew mixed reactions. “A woman made a fuss over the fact that I was talking about it when she just came to pray,” and he adds that she thinks she was among those who reported him to the police.
Marat Grachev, director of a workshop that repairs Apple products in Moscow, got into trouble when he flashed a link to an online petition titled “No to War” on a screen in the workshop. Many patrons expressed their support when they saw it, but one elder demanded that it be removed, threatening to report Grachev to the authorities.
The police soon came, accused Grachev of discrediting the armed forces and fined him 100,000 rubles ($1,236).
Another court ruled against Moscow student Dimitri Reznikov for displaying a sign with words with eight asterisks, which could be interpreted as “No to war” in Russian — a popular slogan of protesters. The court found him guilty of discrediting the armed forces and fined him 50,000 rubles (618) for displaying the poster in central Moscow at a protest in March that lasted just seconds before his arrest.
“It’s the theater of the absurd,” his lawyer Oleg Filatchev told the AP.
Last week, a court in St. Patersburg fined Artur Dimitriev for a poster containing a quote from President Vladimir Putin — albeit with some words omitted for brevity — from last year’s Victory Day parade, which commemorated the defeat of the Nazis in World War II.
“The war brought so many unbearable problems, pain and tears, that it is impossible to forget. There is no forgiveness or justification for those who once again harbor plans of aggression,” Putin had said, according to the Kremlin website.
Dimitriev was fined 30,000 rubles for discrediting the Russian armed forces. That prompted him to post a message on Facebook on Friday: “Vladimir Putin’s phrase, and thus himself… are discrediting the goals of the Russian military. From this moment forward, (internet and press regulator) Roskomnadzor must block all Putin’s speeches and true patriots must remove their portraits from their offices.”
Gainutdinov said that anything about the troops or Ukraine can make a person a target of the authorities. Even wearing a cap with the blue and gold colors of the Ukrainian flag or a green ribbon, considered a symbol of peace, has led to charges of discrediting the armed forces, the lawyer added.
Reznikov, who is appealing the verdict against him for the asterisked sign, said he finds the raid chilling. After being convicted of a misdemeanor, another conviction could result in a criminal trial and possibly up to three years in prison.
Both Burdin and Grachev, who have also appealed, received donations that exceeded their fines.
“I realized how important it is, how valuable it is to receive support,” Grachev said.
Burdin said the publicity surrounding his case carried the message beyond the dozens of people who originally heard his sermon — the opposite of what authorities allegedly wanted by fining him.
“It is impossible to call it anything other than the providence of God,” he said. “The words I said reached a much larger number of people.”