25.04.23 Repressions Review

The Punitive Machine: prosecutions for anti-war attitudes continue to rise, with hundreds of people from increasingly diverse backgrounds already prosecuted

The intensity of criminal prosecutions has increased again, with cases brought against 50 new defendants last month. At the end of last year and early this year, there was an average of one new criminal case per day, according to OVD-Info's monthly repression monitoring. The number of criminal convictions continues to rise, including those sentenced to actual prison terms: 42 people have been sentenced to prison in the last three months, compared to just 23 in the previous nine months. Legislators have mastered a new deceptive method of expanding the regulatory framework of political persecution, namely by introducing corresponding amendments in the second reading of bills under the guise of technical corrections. Another new repressive trend is the rapid increase in the number of national security cases: nearly as many cases have been opened in the last three months as were in the entire ten months preceding. Five new ‘unwanted organisations’ were added to the register in April, setting another monthly record — the authorities are increasingly using this tool against infrastructure projects that appeal to Russian citizens. In April, the renowned Free University was the most high-profile addition to the list of undesirable organisations’.

Two new laws expanding the legal framework for repression were passed in record time in April. A new deceptive legislative scheme aided this process, with significant amendments passed under the guise of revisions before the second reading, even though such changes are only supposed to be technical in nature. Thus, the increase of sentences for the crimes of terrorism and treason, as well as the new Article 284.3 of the Criminal Code — 'Providing Assistance in the Execution of Verdicts by International Organisations in Which the Russian Federation is Not a Participant or by Foreign State Bodies' — were incorporated into a November bill that was only intended to be a minor expansion of Article 281 ('Diversion'). 

In a similar vein, the contentious bill on electronic military summons was passed. Further, in April, a slew of additional amendments aimed at strengthening the authoritarian regime and increasing pressure on citizens were introduced, including amendments to simplify the prosecution of minors, a rule allowing for the cancellation of minor and medium-level criminal cases if a defendant voluntarily agrees to take part in the ‘special military operation’, and others. According to OVD-Info monitoring, the Duma has considered 38 new repressive laws since the beginning of the war, 33 of which have passed in at least one reading.

The intensity of criminal persecution for anti-war protests continues to rise. According to OVD-Info, the number of defendants involved in relevant criminal cases had risen to 537 by April 24, with 50 new cases reported in the 30 days prior. As previously described by Re: Russia, in recent months there has been an average of approximately one new criminal case opened per day, with the number of new defendants rising to 37 in March and reaching a new high in April. Moreover, the record number of anti-war convictions handed down in a month is now 32 (up from 26 the previous month), and the number of resulting convictions with prison sentences is 19 (up from 12 in March). As a result, the number of verdicts handed down in the last three months now stands at 73, 42 of which resulted in prison sentences, while only 93 verdicts were handed down between March 2022 and January 2023, with only 23 of these resulting in prison sentences. According to OVD-Info, 17 people were sentenced to terms of up to 3 years in prison between April 2022 and April 2023, 10 people were sentenced to 3-5 years, 24 people were handed sentences of 5-10 years, seven people were sentenced to more than ten years, and one person (Vladimir Kara-Murza) was sentenced to 25 years. In addition, OVD-Info monitoring identified 265 new administrative cases involving ‘discrediting’ the army (all of which have the potential to become criminal cases under the prejudice principle).

Prison terms in ‘anti-war’ cases, 2022-2023

A new trend in recent months has been the filing of cases under national security articles (treason, espionage, and confidential cooperation with a foreign state). According to the First Division, 21 cases were filed under these provisions in the first three and a half months of 2023, this is compared to only 25 such cases in the entire year of 2022. Cases were opened under these articles in Sakhalin, Rostov, Tver, Sverdlovsk, Khabarovsk Krai, and Moscow. Among the reasons for the opening of such cases were money transfers to Ukraine and an alleged intent to join the AFU. This pattern adds to the growing number of cases involving ‘sabotage’ and ‘terrorism’ that have been initiated in connection with the arson of military enlistment offices and ‘railway protests.’ Thus, hundreds of people are now being prosecuted for expressing anti-war views, and the repression machine is gaining steam in its prosecution of such people. Further, 32 people involved in these ‘anti-war’ criminal cases were subjected to physical violence and torture in April.

In April of this year, there were three new cases of the persecution of journalists (a total of 37 journalists have been criminally prosecuted for their anti-war stance since the beginning of the year). The most high-profile case is that of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been charged with espionage (Article 276 of the Criminal Code). Moreover, criminal cases have been filed against RusNews journalist Roman Ivanov (three cases involving ‘fakes’ about the army) and DOXA journalist Maria Menshikova (for ‘calls to terrorism’). 

The unified register of foreign agents had 21 new additions in April, including media publications, public figures, NGOs, projects supporting the LGBT community, among others. The dynamics here are fairly consistent: the register has had 71 items added to it since the beginning of the year, compared to the 268 added during the first 12 months of the war. On two occasions, ‘foreign agents’ were fined for breaking the law: journalist Sofia Ivanova was fined for writing ‘strannyi agent’ (‘strange agent’) instead of “inostrannyi agentи (‘foreign agent’) in the mandatory foreign agent banner required by law to be placed at the beginning of any content created by those registered as foreign agents. Meanwhile, the human rights organisation Man and Law was fined for reposting a video without this aforementioned ‘foreign agent’ banner. It should be noted that after two violations of the administrative code, the law allows for a criminal case to be opened under Article 330.1 of the Criminal Code (‘malicious evasion of duties imposed by law regarding foreign agents’), which can result in up to five years in prison.

Five organisations were labelled ‘undesirable,’ a monthly high since the invasion of Ukraine began. The most high-profile of such cases was the labelling of Free University as ‘undesirable’. This is a humanities and social sciences-focused online educational project. As a result, the ‘undesirable’ label can be viewed as a repressive tool primarily used against infrastructure projects aimed at those who are still inside Russia.