21.03.23 Repressions Review

The Courts as Guardians of The War: in the past year, over 3,800 people have received administrative penalties in Russia for their anti-war positions; the state has levied over 143 million rubles in fines

According to analysis of court decisions conducted by the human rights media project Avtozak LIVE, more than 3,800 individuals have been prosecuted for expressing anti-war sentiments under Article 20.3.3 of the Russian Administrative Code on ‘discrediting’ the army, in the year since it was adopted. 243 such individuals who have been issued multiple court orders are now facing criminal charges. The government has collected over 143 million rubles in the form of fines from those who have been prosecuted. Those charged under Article 20.3.3 cannot expect a fair trial, and the likelihood of the case being dropped does not depend on the competence of their legal counsel or objective circumstances, but rather, on the errors committed by law enforcement agencies. Ordinary police officers bear the lion's share of the responsibility for prosecution, as they initiated approximately 75 percent of these cases. 40% of ‘offences’ were committed online.

The experts from Avtozak LIVE analysed the texts of more than 5,693 court orders and decisions from appellate bodies pursuant to Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code. These included 4431 orders by courts of first instance and 1262 orders by courts of second instance. 

The Duma and Federation Council passed the repressive legislation against anti-war rhetoric and statements in a single day, and the President signed it into law on 4 March 2022, just ten days after the invasion of Ukraine began. The federal law (FZ-31) introduced two new articles to the Criminal Code: Article 207.3 on ‘disseminating false information about the actions of armed forces’ and Article 280.3 on ‘discrediting the armed forces.’ Administrative Code Article 20.3.3 on ‘discrediting’ the army was also added. This new regulation of the Administrative Offences Code established liability for any public actions (including those that occur online) that ‘discredit’ the actions of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, along with a fine ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 rubles, or, if the public action calls for demonstrations, a fine ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 rubles. At the same time, Article 280.3 of the Criminal Code established criminal liability for repeated violations of said article of the Administrative Code within one year. 

According to the analysis of Avtozak LIVE, in the first year of the article's application, more than 86% of cases resulted in convictions. The study's authors analysed the texts of 5,693 court decisions issued under Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Offences Code. In 3,831 cases (86.4%), the defendants were found guilty and fined a total of 143,657,000 rubles. 

The highest number of ‘defamation; cases were filed in Moscow (658), followed by Krasnodar region (217), St. Petersburg (159), Sverdlovsk region (129), and Perm region (108). Most prosecutions under this article were initiated by regular police officers, amounting to 3,217 cases. The remaining cases were opened by the Counter-Extremism Centre of the Interior Ministry, the prosecutor's office, or the FSB. The analysts identified at least 178 instances in which civilian informants were responsible for prosecutions. 

The most common basis for conviction was a police report or transcript, the contents of which were rarely questioned by judges. The study notes that defendants' and defence attorneys' arguments were frequently disregarded or deemed unreliable. Judges also rarely admitted the evidence provided by the defence counsel. 

Courts of first instance dismissed a total of 207 cases (4.7%) under this article, with just over half (118) dismissed due to insufficient proof of guilt, lack of substantiation or event of an offence, or as a result of the insignificance of the offence. Eighty additional cases were dismissed due to the expiration of the statute of limitations, and in 296 cases (6.6%), there were no convictions because the courts returned the case to the security forces for correction. Only 42 (3.3%) of the 1,262 appeals filed in courts of the second instance were successful. 

The overwhelming majority (98.5%) of ‘defamation’ convictions were for allegedly defamatory public acts against the Russian army. The remaining 1.5% were for the same actions, but with the addition of calls for protests. The bulk of prosecutions involved participation in pickets and rallies, accounting for 1,321 convictions (almost a third). In contrast, 41% of all cases involved so-called online defamation, including not only publications but also reposting and comments (about 1,400 fines). It is also possible to receive a fine just for ‘liking’ something; in such a case, the social network Odnoklassniki displays the fine received for the ‘like’ on the page of the user. At the same time, 93 convictions were tied to statements made in private WhatsApp and Viber messages. 

Article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences was most commonly used to punish individuals. 

The standard fine issued to individuals ranged from 30,000 to 50,000 rubles, but in some cases, repeat offenders were issued much higher penalties. A Volgograd resident was fined 22 times, corresponding to the number of antiwar leaflets he had hung, while a resident of Blagoveshchensk was fined ten times for ten ‘No to War’ inscriptions, which amounted to a total of 300,000 rubles. 

In a total of 14 cases, legal entities were also subject to prosecution under the article on ‘discrediting,’ for instance, for the publication of anti-war advertisements. The maximum fine levied against a legal entity was 450 thousand rubles. Those who have been prosecuted under Article 20.3.3 at least twice — 243 individuals and two legal entities — face criminal prosecution under the corresponding Criminal Code article. 

The authors of this project from Avtozak LIVE note that the article on ‘discrediting’ the Russian army criminalised any public expressions of opposition to the war. Those charged under Article 20.3.3 cannot hope for a fair trial, as the dismissal of their case does not depend on the competence of their attorneys or even the actual actions of those accused, but rather on the errors committed by law enforcement agencies.