Repressions in the era of the "special military operation"
September 22, 2022
  • Rimma Polyak


Contrary to popular belief about widespread support for the “special military operation,” writes Rimma Polyak, protests happen daily in Russia and people continue to speak out against the war on social media. In response, the Russian regime dials up the persecution of dissidents, though it still can’t completely crush the protest movement.
The original text in Russian was published by Republic. A shortened version is republished here with their permission.
Movement for Defence of Voters' Rights Golos. Source: Facebook
In September's three-day elections, citizens used their ballots to protest against the SVO (Special Military Operation). The police began to look for the authors of the inscriptions and bring administrative charges against them for "discrediting" the army. Though the law in Russia guarantees the secret ballot, the courts will review the cases, stating that "voting is a public event."

Pacifist ballots

Lev Karmanov, a 21-year-old Muscovite, while voting at polling station No 2043 in the North Chertanovo district on September 11, drew a dove on his ballot and wrote a pacifist message. As he left the polling station, he was seized by the police, who drew up a report on him for “discrediting” the army. On the same day, the Chertanovo District Court fined the young man R50,000.

This and other similar cases have been compiled by Mediazona. The Yekaterinburg edition of It's My City wrote that on September 11 Darya, a resident of the city of Aramil, came to her polling station and instead of ticking a box for the Sverdlovsk Region governor election, wrote that the SVO should be ended. She posted a photo of the ballot on her social media page and dropped it in the box. In the evening, a police officer called her and demanded an explanation about what she had written on the ballot. The girl refused to communicate without a summons – the next day she was in fact summoned to the police station. There, a report was drawn up against her for “discrediting” the Russian army, which carries a fine of R50,000.

Most likely, there were many more such inscriptions on ballots; for example, the website Voice Against published a whole gallery of protest ballots with antiwar and opposition messages.

Grigory Melkonyants, cochair of the Golos voter rights movement, says there had been no such case since the Soviet era.
Russian rock singer Yuri Shevchuk was prosecuted after speaking out against the war in Ukraine at a concert in Ufa. Source: Wiki Commons
Punishment for speech

In all the above cases, it was Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code called “Public Actions Aimed at Discrediting the Russian Armed Forces,” which entered into force a week after Putin announced the SVO in Ukraine. The fine for violating the article is R30-50,000. Meanwhile, criminal charges can be brought for repeated violations of the same offense within one year under Article 280.3 of the Criminal Code.

Someone is charged under that article almost every day. Still, there is no definition of discrediting the Russian army in the relevant articles of the Administrative and Criminal codes. In practice, charges of “discrediting” have been brought for writing something on ballots, pacifist publications, memes, photos and videos, comments on social media, wearing a green ribbon on your clothes, displaying the flag of Ukraine or a poster painted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, listening to or singing Ukrainian songs during karaoke or at a wedding, “silent support” of a protest action, the demonstration of posters with any inscriptions that might be seen as “discrediting” to the police or vigilant citizens, etc. etc.

Yuri Shevchuk, the leader of the rock band DDT, one of the most famous Russian musicians, was fined R50,000 under the administrative article about “discrediting” the Russian army for saying from the stage at a concert in Ufa, among other things, that “the motherland isn’t the president's ass that you must kiss all the time." Under the same article, Yevgeny Roizman, the former mayor of Yekaterinburg, has been fined three times.

Judging by data from ⁠GAS Pravosudie, since the beginning of March 2022, more than ⁠4,000 administrative ⁠cases for “discrediting” the Russian army were sent to Russian courts, with nearly 3,300 of them having already been decided. The height of these cases came in mid-March, when they numbered over 300, while⁠ by June they had fallen to 100 a week. Most of the charges for "discrediting" came from Moscow, St Petersburg and Krasnodar Region.

Oftentimes those detained at protests or publishers of pacifist statements on social media are brought to administrative responsibility simultaneously under two articles of the Administrative Code: the abovementioned 20.3.3 and 20.2 – “Violations of the Established Order of Organization or Conduction of a Gathering, Rally, Demonstration, March or Picket."

Besides fines, administrative arrests for periods ranging from 1 to 30 days are widely used, with the average arrest being 10–15 days and sometimes several in a row.

Administrative arrest is used for those accused of disobeying a lawful order of a police officer (Article 19.3 of the Administrative Code), violating restrictions related to COVID-19 (20.6.1 of the Administrative Code and regional analogues), organizing an unapproved event (Part 2 of Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code) and violating the procedure for holding a public event (Part 5 of Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code). In St Petersburg, Article 20.2.2 is popular – concerning the “organization of mass spontaneous assembly and (or) movement of citizens in public places resulting in a violation of public order or sanitary norms and rules.”
OVD-Info notes that lawyers are often barred from seeing detainees. There are cases when lawyers weren’t permitted even in court.

Since February 24, human rights activists have recorded many cases when police officers took phones from detainees or demanded that they be given access to the phones. There were cases when detainees were threatened when trying to get in touch with lawyers and were forced to refuse professional assistance.
Criminal charges for political views

The toughest of the three criminal articles is 207.3, “Public Dissemination of Knowingly False Information about the Operations of the Russian Armed Forces,” or “fakes about the Russian Army” as it has become known. It carries a penalty of 15 years in prison. Bear in mind that any information that doesn’t coincide with the statements of the press service of the Ministry of Defense is considered “knowingly false.”

For repeated “discrediting of the Russian army,” or in the event of “serious consequences,” a fine of R100,000 or up to five years in prison is stipulated.

Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, writes:
Out of the 105 known criminal cases under Article 207.3, 10 have been considered by the courts. In all cases, guilty verdicts were issued. No one was acquitted, no case was sent back to the prosecutor's office, not a single cases ended in a fine, not a single one was halted for any reason. Half (five) of the sentences were issued under Article 207.3.1 and the other half under 207.3.2. Two of the convicted went to prison. The harshest sentence of seven years in a penal colony was received by Moscow municipal deputy Alexei Gorinov (Part 2,  Article 207.3)… Currently, at least 16 more criminal cases under Article 207.3 are being tried in courts.
Vladimir Kara-Murza makes the sign of the cross at the place of assassination of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, 27 February 2021. Source: Wiki Commons
OVD-Info monitors criminal cases against activists opposing the SVO. So far, there is no reliable information about cases initiated under the most serious Article 207.3.3, which is punishable with 10-15 years in prison. Under 207.3.2 – with imprisonment for 5-10 years – about 60 cases have been opened. Among them are some that were opened after repeated administrative sentences for pacifist statements.

The loudest of them include the case of opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza and that of Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Yashin. The reason for the criminal case under Article 207.3.2 was a broadcast on Yashin’s YouTube channel in which he talked about the killing of civilians in Bucha.

Besides Kara-Murza and Yashin, there are currently 23 defendants in criminal cases initiated under the article about “fakes” about the armed forces. Among them are journalists, bloggers, publishers, artists, military men, a deacon, a priest, a stoker and even one citizen of Colombia.

Other articles targeting dissidents

Protesters are often charged for the use of "non-life-threatening violence against a state official,” which is punishable with up to five years in prison.
If violence can’t be imputed in any way, they can turn to Article 319 of the Criminal Code “Insulting a State Official,” which is punishable with a modest up to a year of corrective labor.

Since the trial of members of the Pussy Riot group, Article 213 of the Criminal Code for “Hooliganism” has been used in the fight against political opponents, with the penalty reaching five years in isolation and up to seven years if a weapon was involved, you were in a group or you resisted state officials.

The authorities haven’t hesitated to apply Article 214 of the Criminal Code for “Vandalism” to their ideological opponents. It is punished with up to three years in prison.

A pacifist inscription made on any memorial can lead to up to five years in prison for "destroying, damaging or desecrating burial places, tomb structures... "

Article 243.4 of the Criminal Code, introduced in 2020, for “Destroying or Damaging Military Graves, as well as Monuments, Steles, Obelisks… that Perpetuate the Memory of Those Who Died Defending the Fatherland or Its Interests or Times of Russian Military Glory,” also carries up to five years imprisonment. It was under this article that cases were launched related to damaged monuments to Soviet soldiers in European cities.

For setting fire to military registration and enlistment offices and puncturing tires on cars with the letter Z, cases have been initiated under Article 167 of the Criminal Code for “Premeditated Destruction or Damage to Someone Else’s Property Based on Hooligan Motivations” – punishable with up to five years in prison, although the motivations here are clearly not hooligan.

Cases have been launched against civil activists who voiced pacifist slogans, as well as under old criminal articles like 159 "Fraud,” 162 “Robbery” and "ideological" articles: 212 "Insinuation, Recruitment or Other Involvement in Mass Riots" (up to 10 years in prison); 280 “Calls for Extremist Activity” (up to 4-5 years in prison depending on the section of the article); 282 “Actions Aimed at Inciting Hatred or Enmity… ” (up to six years in prison); and under the “serious” 205 “Perpetration of a Terrorist Act by a Group of Persons…” (up to 20 years in prison).
Law enforcement has also used new Criminal Code articles that appeared over the past few years:

  • 354.1: Dissemination of information expressing clear disrespect for society about times of military glory and Russia’s historic dates related to the defense of the Fatherland… including online. Up to five years in prison.

  • 207.1: Public dissemination of deliberately false information about circumstances that pose a threat to the life and safety of citizens. Punishable with a fine of up to R700,000 or three years deprivation of liberty.

  • 205.2: Public calls for terrorist activity… including online. Up to seven years in prison.
Criminal cases were launched under articles 207 “Knowingly False Report of a Terrorist Attack” (up to 10 years in prison), 239 “Creating a Noncommercial Organization that Infringes on the Life and Rights of Citizens” (up to three years in prison) and 283 “Leaking Information that Constitutes State Secrets…” (up to four years in prison).

Of course, the newly criminalized article for slander, 128.1, has also been used.

Opposition politician Leonid Gozman (declared a “foreign agent” by the government) and his wife, psychologist Marina Egorova, were charged under a rather exotic article, which was applied for the first time – 330.2 “Failure to File a Notice about a Russian Citizen Having Citizenship (Being the Subject) of a Foreign State…” (up to R200,000 fine or 400 hours of forced labor).

At the same time this nonserious case was going on, the 72-year-old Gozman was arrested for the second time in a row for 15 days. The first was for a Facebook post in which he compared Stalin to Hitler, and the second for a LiveJournal post from 2013 in which he allegedly identified the USSR with Nazi Germany.

“I’m not guilty of anything either before the people or before the country. The case has clearly been ordered up,” said Gozman during a court hearing. He fears that his administrative cases may become the basis for new criminal proceedings.
Municipal deputies brave

Despite the brutal suppression of any dissent, the protest movement in Russia hasn’t subsided. Before the September elections, deputies from the Smolny municipality in St Petersburg appealed to State Duma deputies to remove President Vladimir Putin from office "for high treason." The SVO, the deputies said, “has brought the death of able-bodied Russian citizens, problems in the Russian economy, the militarization of Ukraine and the expansion of NATO to the east,” which “harms the security of Russia and its citizens.”

They were charged with “discrediting the army” at St Petersburg city police department No 76.

Still, deputies from the Lomonosov municipal district in Moscow followed their example and wrote an open letter to President Putin demanding that he resign. In their wake, municipal deputies from 18 districts of Moscow and St Petersburg signed a public statement demanding the resignation of Putin: “We, the municipal deputies of Russia, believe that the actions of President Vladimir Putin have harmed the future of Russia and its citizens. We demand the resignation of Vladimir Putin as president of the Russian Federation!” It was published by Ksenia Torstrem, a deputy from St Petersburg’s Semenov municipality.
Pavel Chíkov, chair of Agora. Source: Wiki Commons
Commentary by Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora International Human Rights Group

The articles about “fakes about the Russian Army” and other similar charges are essentially punishment for speech. But there are many people against the war. On what basis do they charge the ones they do?

There are no single criteria. Among the accused are nonpublic people, doctors, students and even schoolchildren. There are well-known activists, journalists and politicians. The reason for the persecution of some public figures lies in their previous activities, and in these cases personal revenge could be a motive. For example, Andrei Soldatov is sure that the FSB initiated his criminal case, which seems clear judging by the materials of the case. Journalists Mikhail Afanasiev and Sergei Mikhailov have long been well known in Abakan and Gorno-Altaisk, respectively – they wrote extremely sensitive materials about local authorities for years. Overall, a little more than 100 cases under Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code have been launched and are being investigated by the Investigation Committee, all orchestrated through the agency’s central office in Moscow.

What determines the severity of the punishment?

The section of the article that is imputed. The first section is light, it doesn’t involve detention, usually just travel restrictions. In a couple of cases, some actions were prohibited. But if it’s the second section, which has a delta of 5-10 years in prison, in most cases it’s detention.

This also explains the sentence. For example, Gorinov has all three points of Section 2. Given these aggravating circumstances, the court imposed a sentence above the minimum of five years, but in the middle of the delta. Hence seven years.

What is the point of launching cases against people who left Russia?

To intimidate, to show that they can create problems for people who left. Of the hundred cases, about a third are in custody, and another third have been launched against people who left. In addition, they are put on an international wanted list, and there are attempts to tap into Interpol (so far unsuccessfully). Still, each person who left has property in Russia, and a judge can freeze his property to secure a possible penalty in the form of a fine.

On March 16, Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe. The ECHR continues to hear cases against Russia for alleged violations of the Convention on Human Rights related to events that occurred before September 16, 2022. For violations after September 16, 2022, Russians will no longer be able to appeal to the ECHR. Are there still opportunities for Russians to seek protection from any international bodies? Does this impact the work of lawyers and human rights defenders who take on such cases?

That’s another discussion. In a nutshell, there is still a big chunk of cases that will continue going to the ECHR as the events took place before September 16, 2022. There are over 20,000 cases pending in Strasbourg. Decisions will be made on them. In addition to the ECHR, there are four UN committees that consider cases from Russia. The flow there will increase. Of course, there will be an impact on us, but the work won’t become any less.

Do the lawyers defending Russian citizens in cases over pacifism have some kind of protection against persecution themselves? Is it dangerous now to defend people charged under political articles?

They don't have any special protection; yes, it's dangerous. The main reaction of lawyers now is to keep silent and do their job.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy