07.04.23 Repressions Review

Russia’s Repression Reaches New Heights: the number of sentences resulting in incarceration increased significantly in early 2023, as did the length of the terms being handed out

The intensity of the crackdown on anti-war protests increased significantly in late 2022 and early 2023. During the first nine months of 2022, 69 individuals were sentenced under ‘anti-war’ laws, with 20 of those sentenced to real prison terms. However, between December and March, a total of 65 sentences were handed down, 27 of which resulted in incarceration. The length of these prison sentences also increased. Tougher judicial practices seem to indicate that the Russian authorities are struggling to cope with the ‘anti-war murmurs’ sweeping the country and sense the lack of support for the war in Russian society. The OVD-Info monitoring group reported that, in March, more than 800 individuals faced different forms of repression as a result of their anti-war positions. This figure includes not only those people who had administrative cases brought against them, but also victims of extrajudicial persecution and pressure, and those who were defendants in criminal cases.

According to regular monitoring conducted by OVD-Info on repression in Russia, there were 37 criminal cases opened against individuals under ‘anti-war’ legislation in March, this brought the total number of cases to 487 by the end of the month. Over the last few months, there has been an average of one new criminal case a day. The majority of these cases (over 40%) were opened under the already established articles within the criminal code on the ‘dissemination of deliberately false information’ (Article 207.3) and ‘discreditation’ of the armed forces (Article 280.3). March also saw the emergence of a new development in anti-war sentencing; in Khabarovsk, an activist from the ‘I/We are Furgal’ movement was charged with ‘incitement to treason’ (Article 275 of the Criminal Code).

The recent acceleration of Russia’s repressive tactics has been most evident in the increasing number of sentences handed out, and the fact that a higher proportion of sentences now end with real prison terms. Thus, over nine months, from March to November, the courts issued 59 verdicts against those opposing the war in Ukraine. 20 of those sentences resulted in real prison terms, as opposed to fines or suspended sentences. However, in the last four months, from December to March, the number of such sentences grew to 65, with 27 verdicts resulting in real prison terms. Thus, according to this measure, the intensity of repression has doubled, with nearly 40% of sentences ending in incarceration. Moreover, longer prison terms are also becoming increasingly common. In March, the most high-profile sentences included Dmitry Ivanov, who received an 8.5-year prison sentence for posts on his Telegram channel ‘Moscow State University Protests,’ a married couple from the Tver region, who received 6.5 and 7-year sentences for anti-war inscriptions, and Kirill Butylin, who received a 13-year sentence for attempting to set fire to a conscription office.

As a result, we can identify not only a trend in the increase in the total number of sentences handed down, which could be explained by the judicial system gaining momentum, but also an increase in the proportion of sentences which result in incarceration, and increasingly long prison sentences.  This may suggest that Russia’s repressive policies are not only being tightened, but are also becoming harsher. This shift is likely the result of the government’s inability to suppress the ‘anti-war murmurs'’ sweeping the country. 

In March, approximately 450 administrative cases related to the ‘discreditation’ of the armed forces were opened, which amounts to approximately 15 cases per day. Since the introduction of the corresponding legal article into the Administrative Code, a total of 6,296 ‘anti-war’ cases have been opened. Additionally, extrajudicial pressure on individuals who hold anti-war positions remains one of the Russian government’s key repressive tools. According to OVD-Info's repression monitoring, there were 328 such cases in March alone (more precisely, from February 24 to March 23), this included 130 instances of workplace harassment, 42 event cancellations, and 31 threats. Thus, during the course of the month, more than 800 people were subject to various forms of repression and pressure as a result of their anti-war position.

There was a significant increase in the number of cases involving pressure applied to individuals via their children in March. Two incidents that garnered widespread attention involved children, whose parents were defendants in anti-war cases, being sent to orphanages. In Tula region, 13-year-old Masha Moskaleva was placed in an orphanage for more than three weeks, and her father's parental rights were revoked. Similarly, in Buryatia, activist Natalya Filonova's 15-year-old adopted son was sent to an orphanage. Natalya herself has been held in a pre-trial detention centre since November last year. In addition to this type of harassment, extrajudicial pressure can take on many other forms. For instance, on March 19, a presentation of books by the artist Sasha Skochilenko, who has been accused of distributing ‘fakes’ about the Russian Armed Forces, was disrupted at the ‘Open Space’ civil club. Moreover, 16-year-old Yegor Balazeykin, who is suspected of setting fire to two conscription offices, has been threatened with physical violence, rape, and psychiatric confinement by security forces. Further, on March 21, news broke that Oleg Orlov, co-chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center, was under investigation for ‘repeated discrediting’ of the armed forces.In addition to the 33 laws passed since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, amendments to Articles 207.3 and 280.3 of the Criminal Code came into force in March. These amendments allow for the prosecution of individuals for ‘discrediting’ volunteers who are taking part in the war. The volunteers in question are, of course, prisoners recruited from Russian prisons to fight in Ukraine. The maximum penalty for crimes under these articles has been raised from three to five years, which allows the accused to be detained right away. The statute of limitations for these offences has been increased to six years.

In March, the number of new individuals and organisations added to the register of ‘foreign agents’ was 13, this was down from 23 in February. Among those added to the list in March were economist Sergei Guriev, blogger Ilya Varlamov, feminist Nika Vodwood (NixelPixel), the World Wide Fund for Nature, and others. While, typically, just one or two organisations were added to the list per month,  four were accorded ‘undesirable’ status in March: Transparency International, the British Institute of Public Administration, the German organisation Solidarus, and the Forum of Free Peoples of Post-Russia. Since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a total of 27 organisations have been deemed ‘undesirable’.

In addition to targeting citizens who oppose the war, the state's repressive measures also have an ‘anti-extremist’ aspect to them. According to the Sova analytical centre, during the first three months of 2023, Russian courts handed down 48 sentences to 53 individuals for making ‘aggressive public statements’; in March, 21 sentences were doled out to 22 individuals. The grounds for these sentences included offences such as social media calls to attack government officials and overthrow the regime, the publication of photographs of Hitler, the rehabilitation of Nazism, and the display of Nazi symbols. The articles of the Criminal Code most frequently employed by the authorities were Article 280, which deals with ‘calls for extremist activity’ (13 defendants), and Article 205.2 concerning ‘calls for terrorist acts’ (3 defendants). Additionally, in March, four people were convicted of ‘participation in extremist communities and organisations’ (since the start of 2023, the total number of people charged with this crime stands at 17). On March 21, police and criminal investigators raided the offices of Memorial, searching the organisation’s staff in connection with a case on the ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’. Similarly, in mid-March, volunteers and employees of Memorial’s Perm office were also raided in connection with an unknown case.

The most commonly used administrative articles are Article 20.29, which pertains to the ‘production and dissemination of extremist materials’ (21 cases); Article 20.3, on “propaganda and the display of prohibited symbols” (53 cases) and Article 20.3.1, on ‘inciting hatred’ (26 cases). Moreover, the list of what is considered extremist materials and terrorist organisations is continuing to expand. For example, the Maniacs: Murder Cult movement was recently added to Russia’s list of terrorist organisations, and in February, four new items were added to the federal list of extremist materials, including songs by Oxxxymiron and the punk band Pornofilmy.