30.01.23 Repressions Review

Tightening the Screws: since the beginning of December, Russian authorities have identified a new foreign agent and opened a new criminal case every day

Between December 24 and January 24, as the conflict in Ukraine continued into its 11th month, more than 30 new criminal charges were opened against Russian citizens who opposed the war. The number of defendants in administrative cases for ‘discrediting’ the army rose by 43, and since the beginning of the war, more than 5,600 people have been prosecuted under this administrative article. The Ministry of Justice added 36 new ‘foreign agents’ to its list in January. The total number of foreign agents that have been ‘discovered’ since the beginning of the conflict now stands at 220. In total, tens of thousands of politically-motivated administrative cases have been opened; in the first half of 2022, nearly 23,500 of these were tried in Russian courts. Of these, 1,729 people were put under administrative arrest, and 390 were sentenced to forced labour. The repressive machine is alive and well: in January, for example, 22 people were arrested for protesting the war (a record low for the past 11 months of war). In terms of other indicators, the level of repression corresponds to that observed the previous month. However, the fresh wave of criminal cases and the labelling of people and organisations as foreign agents (one case and one foreign agent per day over the past two months) is indicative of generally high levels of repression.

According to OVD-Info’s monthly monitoring, from December 24 to January 24, 22 people were detained for opposing the war, and, since the conflict began, there have been 19,535 such cases. There were 31 new anti-war defendants in criminal cases in January, bringing the total number to 420 (the same increase was observed in December). An additional 43 administrative cases were opened under the article ‘discrediting the army’ (Article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences), with the total number of people prosecuted under this law reaching 5,601. It is also worth noting that under new, repressive legislation passed earlier this year, a repeat violation of this administrative law will lead to criminal prosecution. 

Moreover, the Ministry of Justice ‘uncovered’ 36 new foreign agents during the same period (24 December — 24 January) and included them on its register. This was a slight increase on figures from December, when there were 32 new foreign agents declared. Thus, it appears as though the Ministry of Justice has finally hit its stride and is currently identifying one new foreign agent per day. Over the last 11 months, 220 individuals and organisations were named as foreign agents. On January 14, the government also introduced a decree on the ‘Regulations on State Control over the Activities of Foreign Agents’, which describes various new methods at their disposal to exert pressure on those labelled as foreign agents. During the period in question, Roskomnadzor blocked 570 media resources.

It can be said, therefore, that the intensity of the repressive measures applied by the government remained relatively stable in December and January. However, the number of detentions fell to its lowest level since the war began, indicating minimal levels of street protests.

Introduced shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences, which concerns ‘discrediting the Russian army’, became a key instrument of repression against opponents of the war in the second half of 2022. Acts such as damaging images with the letter Z, posting on social media and even putting the word ‘special operation’ in quotation marks have fallen within the definition of ‘discrediting the army’. According to the data gathered by OVD-Info, by the end of November, 5159 cases had been opened under this law, and the authorities had issued a total of 86 million rubles worth of fines. 

It should be noted, however, that data on the application of this law in court does not provide us with a general picture of the measures used to place pressure on people who hold anti-war positions. At the beginning of the year, the government’s main instrument of repression was Article 20.2 of the Code of Administrative Offences, which is usually used to prosecute those taking part in ‘unauthorised protests’. According to the Judicial Department, in the first half of 2022, a total of 16,196 cases were brought to court under this law, of which 12,352 cases resulted in a fine (the fines issued under ‘enforceable’ decrees  totalled 72,529 thousand rubles). 1,465 cases resulted in administrative arrest and another 361 were sentenced to forced labour.

Generally speaking, it is possible to estimate the scale of the use of administrative cases as a means of politically motivated repression by measuring the number of prosecutions for breaches of laws such as ‘participation in unauthorised meetings’ (Articles 20.2, 20.2.2 of the Code of Administrative Offences), the aforementioned article on ‘discrediting the army’, or so-called anti-extremist laws(Article 20.3, 20.3.1, 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offences). In total, approximately 23,450 cases were submitted to the courts under these articles in the first half of 2022. As a result, 1729 people were placed under administrative arrest and another 390 were subjected to forced labour. 

Interestingly, there are also statistics concerning the number of cases where courts have refused to consider such cases. Mediazona has identified at least 127 cases on ‘discrediting the army’ that were dismissed by the court, with another 409 cases returned to the police. According to OVD-Info, the reasons why judges returned such cases to the police included minor violations in the arrangement of the report, a lack of evidence that an internet post had actually been written by the owner of the account, as well as the  poor quality of the investigation. For example, the ruling on a case under Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation of the Vyborg District Court of St. Petersburg states that a green ribbon and the inscription ‘PEACE TO THE WORLD’ ‘do not amount to actions aimed at discrediting or belittling the authority of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.’ While, as OVD-Info writes, the Uvelsky district court in the Chelyabinsk region asked the police to investigate further into whether the slogan ‘No to war’ actually discredits the Russian Armed Forces. As a result, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Justice are concerned with compiling guides on the issue of how to properly use the law on ‘discreditation’.

A similar ‘rejection’ pattern can be observed across the entire range of politically motivated administrative prosecutions. Statistics from the Judicial Department illustrate that out of 23,450 cases received by the courts in the first half of 2022, 2,150 were returned to the police, and a further 803 were dismissed. This means that there is a high ‘rejection’ rate among politically motivated cases, amounting to around 13%.