​​​Russia: Authorities launch witch-hunt to catch anyone sharing anti-war views

​​​Russia: Authorities launch witch-hunt to catch anyone sharing anti-war views

The Russian authorities have launched a witch-hunt by using the country’s criminal justice system to prosecute anti-war protesters and influential critics of the state who oppose the invasion of Ukraine, Amnesty International said today.

Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said: “The persecution of those opposed to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine goes far beyond previous efforts to stifle protesters and activists. Those caught criticising the war face an absurd number of arbitrary charges merely for speaking out. They are not only charged with ‘discrediting’ the armed forces, but also with slander, fraud or accusations of ‘terrorism’.”

A month on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at least 60 criminal cases have been initiated over peaceful protests against the war or public criticism of the Russian authorities, according to Agora, a Russian human rights group. They are being investigated under 14 separate articles of the Criminal Code.

At least 46 people have faced criminal charges, including nine who were taken into custody and three who were confined under house arrest. They have been charged with a myriad of “crimes”, including insulting government officials, libel, inciting extremist activities, inciting mass riots, hatred and fraud, and the desecration of burial sites, according to Agora.

At least 10 of these cases saw critics being investigated under a new law, for “discrediting” Russia’s armed forces. Under the new Russian law this is punishable by up to 10 years in prison — or 15 years if the comments caused “grave consequences”.

On 4 March, this legislation was passed unanimously by both chambers of the Russian Parliament and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on the same day. On 22 March, the law was expanded to criminalise the sharing of “fake news” about any activities of Russia’s government officials abroad.

On 16 March, Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a gastronomy blogger with 850,000 Instagram followers, became the first individual charged under the new law. She was charged with sharing “knowingly false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces to destroy cities and the civilian population of Ukraine, including children.”

Sergey Klokov, a technician at the Moscow City Police Department, was the first person taken into custody under this law after being arrested on 18 March. According to his lawyer, he was charged with spreading “fake news” during phone calls with residents of Crimea and Moscow region.

More cases followed. On 22 March, Aleksandr Nevzorov, a prominent journalist who gained popularity during perestroika, a state-approved series of political reforms in the 1980s, was charged with sharing “false information” about Russia’s strikes against a maternity hospital in Mariupol, after criticising the shelling in an Instagram post on 9 March.

Ms Struthers said: “Russia’s criminal justice system is being used as a tool to curb free speech, punish dissenting voices and instill fear in the wider population. By gagging all anti-war sentiment, the Kremlin seeks to crush those who oppose the conflict — or at least create the impression that such resistance does not exist.

“This heinous campaign of repression against critics of the state who are bravely standing up against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must stop now. All charges brought against those who have expressed anti-war opinions must be urgently dropped, and all those detained must be immediately and unconditionally released.”

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