29.09.23 Repressions Review

The Magnetism of Fear: As the scale of repression begins to stabilise, the space for freedom available to Russian citizens continues to shrink

The number of new criminal cases against those who hold anti-war views has stabilised at around 30 per month, while the number of administrative cases continues to decline. The stabilisation of the scale of persecution can be seen primarily as society adapting to the new standard of repressiveness and reducing in its readiness to protest. At the same time, the authorities maintain a significant degree of repressive brutality, opening cases based on old social media posts and semi-public statements, demonstrating their readiness for direct violence against the accused and those already convicted. This ostentatious cruelty and inhumanity are designed to maintain an atmosphere of fear in society, forcing people to increase their self-censorship. In other words, while the scale of repression has stabilised, the 'space for freedom' for Russian citizens continues to shrink.

In September 2023, 36 ‘anti-war’ criminal cases were opened, according to data from the monthly repression monitoring by OVD-Info. This is slightly more than in the previous three months (29 new cases in August, 26 in July, and 29 in June). As before, the main increase was in prosecutions under articles 207.3 ('Spreading knowingly false information about the armed forces,' 21 new cases) and 280.3 ('Discrediting the armed forces,' 11 cases). Thirteen defendants received sentences (an average of 24 sentences per month over the previous four months), nine of whom were sentenced to actual prison terms (the sentences of two further defendants are unknown). It is worth noting that some of the harsh sentences handed down by the courts are 'symbolic' punishments for journalists and activists who are located outside the country. In August, Ruslan Leviev and Michael Nakhe received 11-year sentences in absentia. However, the editor-in-chief of 'Novy Focus' Mikhail Afanasyev received a very real sentence of 5.5 years, and father Ioann Kurmoyarov received 3 years. In September, the proportion of sentences with real prison terms was 70%, whereas in the summer, about half of the sentences were of this nature. According to OVD-Info, a total of 713 criminal cases have been opened since the full-scale invasion began, and as of the end of September, 279 sentences have been handed down in connection with anti-war protests (half of them — 353 — related to the two aforementioned 'military' articles).

Repressive practices against political prisoners who are already serving their sentences are becoming increasingly widespread. This primarily involves subjecting them to torture-like conditions in detention facilities, especially through their systematic placement in punitive isolation units (SHIZO) and solitary confinement for various fabricated reasons. These measures are often applied to individuals whose cases have garnered significant public attention. According to OVD-Info, Alexey Moskalev has been sent to a punitive isolation unit for the third time in a month, and he will have to spend at least 34 days there. Alexey Gorinov has also been placed in isolation twice after FSB agents attempted to establish whether he had connections to terrorist and extremist groups.

As Re:Russia has previously noted, there is an evident trend of further reducing the number of administrative cases opened under the article related to 'discrediting' (Article 20.2.3 of the Administrative Code). In September, 157 new cases were recorded, compared to an average of 240 cases over the previous two months and 300 cases from March to June. The reasons by which fines were doled out included inscriptions in public places and even tattoos on the body (a case was filed against a 28-year-old Crimean individual for this). In total, 7,934 cases have been brought under this article since its introduction.

The stabilisation of the scale of persecution can primarily be seen as the adaptation of society to a new standard of repressiveness and a reduction in its readiness to protest and express oppositional feelings publicly. Meanwhile, the authorities maintain a significant degree of repressive ferocity by opening cases based on old social media posts and semi-public statements, demonstrating a readiness for direct violence against those accused and those already convicted, and even opening new cases against individuals who have served their sentences and been released from prison (as in the case of mathematician Azat Miftakhov). Such displays of cruelty and inhumanity are designed to maintain an atmosphere of fear in society, compelling people to increase their level of self-censorship. In other words, while the scale of repression has stabilised, the 'space for freedom' available to Russian citizens continues to narrow.

To mark the anniversary of the declaration of 'partial' mobilisation, OVD-Info analysed the practice of repression against those who protested against mobilisation. Despite this event being a significant social shock for the country and a direct violation of promises previously made by the authorities, the anti-mobilisation protests were relatively restrained. In the first 20 days, from September 21 to October 10 of last year, approximately 2,500 people were detained during such protests (2457 cases, according to OVD-Info). By comparison, in the first month after the start of the full-scale invasion, 15,400 people were detained, which is six times as many, indicating the scale of the protests themselves. OVD-Info has also managed to identify 1747 individuals who were charged over the course of the year under the 'protest' article (20.2 of the Administrative Code), with the word 'mobilisation' mentioned in 301 cases.

In 942 cases, detainees were charged with Part 6.1 ('Participation in an unauthorised rally that resulted in the disruption of transportation infrastructure'), while in another 664 cases, they were charged with Part 5 ('Violation of rules for conducting a public event'). The largest numbers of people were detained in Moscow (976) and St Petersburg (655), followed by Dagestan (121), Novosibirsk Oblast (93), and Sverdlovsk Oblast (59). At these protests, law enforcement personnel acted with particular brutality. OVD-Info is aware of cases where detainees lost consciousness at police stations, and some participants reported that police officers forced them to kneel. In addition, some detainees were directly handed draft notices for military service at the police station.

According to OVD-Info, at least 14 criminal cases were opened based on fairly usual allegations of violence against police officers in such situations (five cases under Article 115 of the Criminal Code, 'Infliction of light bodily harm,' and nine cases under Article 318); two individuals were sentenced to real prison terms, six received suspended sentences, fines, or community service. Further, 10 individuals are currently facing criminal charges for criticising mobilisation on social media platforms. They are charged under serious 'extremist' and terrorist articles (Articles 205.2, 280, 280.3, 280.4 of the Russian Criminal Code). According to OVD-Info, there have been at least 58 criminal cases opened for resisting mobilisation.

In addition, there are currently 100 known cases of arson, typically committed as a form of protest against mobilisation (36 of these occurred in September-October 2022, immediately following the start of mobilisation). According to Mediazona, 31 verdicts have already been passed in these cases, resulting in the conviction of 41 individuals.