26.05.23 Repressions Review

Stalinism-lite: the scope of repression is widening and is increasingly accompanied by violence

OVD-Info's May monitoring of the repressive activities of the Russian authorities recorded 47 new criminal cases against those with anti-war sentiments and 24 new sentences, 8 of which resulted in imprisonment. Thus, the intensity of criminal prosecution in the last two months has reached a new level: 1.5 new criminal prosecutions per day. In addition, the authorities continue to expand the repressive capacity and coverage of the foreign agents legislation, the register of which continues to grow steadily. The repressive machine of Putin's Stalinism-lite continues to accelerate. Impunity for physical violence against detainees is becoming increasingly common. The most high profile cases in May were the arrests of Yevgeniya Berkovich and Svetlana Petrychuk for the play Finist Yasny Sokol and the persecution of former employees of the banned organisation Memorial. Moreover, the authorities have cynically begun to use the so-called anti-terrorist laws as a tool of political repression.

As of 24 May, OVD-Info has identified 584 criminal cases initiated against those who have taken an anti-war stance. In their April summary of the regime's repressive activities they identified 537 such cases. Thus, the monthly increase was 47 cases, a figure close to the April increase (50 cases). Before that, the average for several months had been 30 cases; the spring intensity has seen an increase of one and a half times. At the same time, the intensity of administrative prosecutions under Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code on 'discrediting the RF Armed Forces' has decreased and reached its lowest level since the beginning of the war. According to updated statistics from OVD-Info, over the past month, only 109 such cases were initiated (as of May 19), while over the previous four months the average monthly number of administrative prosecutions under this article was 270. In the second half of 2022 this figure had been 410, and in March and June 2022 — about 740 (a total of 6839 cases have been initiated under this article since March 2022).

This dynamic is most likely evidence of the effectiveness of repression and a decrease in the number of cases of public demonstrations of anti-war sentiments. The parallel increase in criminal prosecutions is related to the mechanism of prejudice — a second violation under the article regarding 'discrediting the armed forces'  results in a criminal case. In addition, another 24 defendants in 'anti-war' persecutions have been sentenced (in March there were 32 such cases). Eight of these received prison sentences (19 in March 2023), and 15 were handed fines, suspended sentences or forced labour. A total of 106 convictions have been identified since the beginning of the year, and 49 of these involve actual prison sentences. Whereas, between March and December 2022, 78 sentences were identified and 22 of these involved imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the article on 'discrediting the army' is becoming a universal mechanism for the persecution of dissent. In April, for example, a man from Sochi was prosecuted under this article for sending a text from an investigation by Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign about Vladimir Putin to a WhatsApp chatroom.

Moreover, there are increasing reports of violence being used against those involved in criminal cases. For example, on 26 April, Stanislav Velichko was beaten up after his detention on the article 'fakes about the army'; and, the father of Masha Moskalova, Alexey Moskalov, who is in pre-trial detention in Smolensk, has reported violence being used by Belarusian law enforcement during his detention in Minsk. Askhabali Alibekov, who was convicted under the article of repeatedly 'discrediting the army', has said that he was beaten by  staff at his pre-trial detention centre. In total, at least 37 persons involved in 'anti-war cases' have been subjected to violence by law enforcement agencies. Torture violence is increasingly becoming the standard due to the impunity of police officers and the Federal Penitentiary Service. Many of those convicted in 'anti-war cases' have stated that their health problems were not taken into account by law enforcement.

The May OVD-Info report notes 19 new cases of extra-judicial pressure on anti-war activists. The pressure has also been exerted on the activists' relatives. There have been at least nine such incidents this month, including the detention of the mother of anti-war exhibition artist Andrei Semkin alongside a demand that he report to the police. Also, in May, two clergymen, Andrei Kuraev and Ioann Koval, were stripped of their ministry for making anti-war statements. OVD-Info is likely to catch only a fraction of the cases of extra-judicial pressure. In their database of approximately 400 cases, 140 of these were harassment at work, 60 were property damage cases and 60 were cancellations of public events.

In May, the State Duma passed five new repressive initiatives concerning 'foreign agents' and cooperation with foreign organisations. The additions provide for the creation of a register of structural subdivisions of foreign NGOs operating in Russia, which implies that cooperation with organisations that are not on the register or support of their activities may result in administrative or criminal liability. In addition, the State Duma has proposed a further tightening of the 'foreign agents' legislation: the restrictions applied to 'foreign agents' should be extended to an undefined circle of 'third parties' associated with their activities. The new draft laws also give the Ministry of Justice the right to monitor compliance with the 'foreign agents' legislation (previously, the Ministry of Justice only supervised the activities of 'foreign agents' themselves) and to issue injunctions requiring compliance by both the 'foreign agents' themselves and by an unlimited number of 'third parties' somehow related to their activities. The legislation on 'foreign agents' has become a full-fledged tool of political repression, bypassing judicial procedures, and the authorities are systematically expanding its sphere of activity.

The list of 'foreign agents' received 12 new entries last month. A total of 262 individuals and organisations have been added to the list since the beginning of the war. The intensive and systematic expansion of the register began in September, and by the end of the year the authorities had added 105 new persons and organisations to it. In January-May the intensity decreased slightly to 83 new additions to the register. The Ministry of Justice is clearly having difficulties 'making up' new entries on the list, but is complying with the requirement to add new entries on a weekly basis. In May, the Congress of People's Deputies, a gathering of former Russian deputies, and the international non-profit organisation Greenpeace International were assigned the status of ‘undesirable organisation’.

The most high-profile cases in May were the arrests of Yevgeniya Berkovich and Svetlana Petrychuk for the play Finist Yasny Sokol and the harassment of former employees of the banned organisation Memorial. In both cases, the authorities cynically use the so-called anti-terrorism articles as a tool of political repression.

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