Vladimir Efimov, a local politician on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East, was charged with “discrediting the military” and had to pay a $500 fine three times in recent months for anti-war images he posted on social media. showed.
As he continued to repost battlefield photos, such as the massive destruction of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol under Russian bombardment, prosecutors stepped up charges and charged him with a felony – punishable by up to five years in prison or higher fines.
“They thought I would be scared,” said Mr. Efimov, that the fines “would give me cold feet and make me hide.”
Three months ago, President Vladimir V. Putin signed draconian measures designed to silence war critics, even banning the word “war.” They caused some Russians dismayed by the invasion to flee the country, forced independent news channels to shut down, and created a climate of mistrust in which neighbor turned against neighbor.
While the laws initially led to some highly publicized cases, it is now becoming apparent that local prosecutors across the country are applying them with particular zeal.
At least 50 people face prison terms of up to 10 years or five years of hard labor, or fines as much as $77,000, for spreading “false information” about the military. More than 2,000 people have been charged with minor violations, according to a human rights organization that monitors nationwide cases.
The charges against activists, politicians, journalists and ordinary Russians in major cities and remote towns, from Kamchatka in the Far East to Kaliningrad in the west, provide a sharp indication of how the Kremlin has intensified the repression of those who criticize the war.
“The aim was clearly to have a chilling effect on the public and on any critical voices against the military operation,” said Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora Human Rights Group, which has counted the cases and helped defend the military. some of the accused. “To some extent it was successful because people are a little bit reserved about how they express their opinions.”
The two laws pertain to slightly different actions. The tougher criminalized the deliberate spreading of “false information” about the military, interpreted as something outside the official version of events. If the actions have undefined “serious consequences,” the penalty is up to 15 years in prison or an $80,000 fine.
The second banned virtually any protest or public criticism of the war as potentially “discrediting” the military, in a sort of “three strikes” law. Fines are imposed for the initial incidents, while repeat offenders face criminal charges of up to five years in prison or financial penalties. To date, four criminal cases have emerged from the 2,000 indicted, but the number is expected to rise, said Mr. Chikov.
“If we are talking about cases involving freedom of expression, I would say that this is the highest number ever,” he added.
With the first criminal cases only now coming to court, it remains unclear how harshly judges — generally inclined to follow the Kremlin line — will treat suspects.
Lawyers are not optimistic. “I hope the courts will be fair and listen to our arguments,” said Marina Yankina, the lawyer for a freelance journalist in southwestern Siberia whose trial began on Wednesday. “But I’ve been working for a long time and unfortunately it’s not going to happen.”
The charges against her client, Andrei Novashov, 45, from a small town called Prokopyevsk, are a case in point. Mr Novashov said he was surprised he was accused of spreading “false information” on five social media posts, including a repost by a well-known photojournalist about the Russian army destroying a maternity hospital in Mariupol.
Officers began breaking into his door at 6 a.m. as if he were “a drug dealer or a pimp,” he said. Like most of the defendants, Mr. Novashov was barred from using the internet or his phone by the judge, but was able to speak to a local podcaster.
“It is impossible to remain silent,” said Mr. Novashov, noting that people in the city had been mostly indifferent to his case. He added: “People have learned that nothing is going to change, so the less you know, the better you sleep.”
Following the Stalinist times, the new laws have prompted people to denounce their fellow citizens. After Aleksei Gorinov, 61, a local politician in Moscow, publicly criticized the events on Children’s Victory Day when Ukrainian children died, five Russians reported him to the police, his lawyer, Sergei N. Telnov, said.
Authorities started the case against Mr. Gorinov on April 25, took him to jail on April 27 and issued a charge on May 1, Mr Telnov said, adding that “it’s super fast.” Gorinov was accused of spreading false information, including calling the conflict a “war”, as it officially remains a “special military operation”.
In letters to supporters from police custody – where he said he initially slept on a cement floor in a cell overcrowded with suspected thieves and drug dealers from Central Asia – Mr Gorinov wrote that Russia had reached a sad state when someone who criticized faced a 10-year prison term in a war.
Supporters flocked to the start of his trial on Wednesday, which was blogged live by a reporter from Mediazona, a website that covers lawsuits. “A man is judged by his opinion,” Mr Gorinov said, speaking from the metal cage in the courtroom where Russian defendants are being held. “When will you see this again?”
In one of the first sentences handed down, a court in the Zabaikalsky region, near the border with China, fined the operator of a social media channel called “I Live in Ruins” this week about $16,000 after being accused of accused of posting false messages. documents and videos containing false information about military operations in Ukraine, according to a local website, Chita.ru.
Mr Chikov says the new laws are modeled on those devised during the pandemic, when the government banned the spread of information about Covid that it had not approved. But only nine people have been prosecuted in two years, he said.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
To the ground. As the war in Ukraine approaches its centenary, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian troops now control one-fifth of the country. Though battered and exhausted by their failed attempt to take the Ukrainian capital Kiev, Russian forces are moving closer to their goal of taking over the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
It doesn’t take much to be accused of “discrediting” the military. Russians have been prosecuted for wearing sportswear and even nail polish in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag, lawyers said. A lawyer in Kaliningrad defending a client faced the same charge herself after using the word “war” in her arguments.
The vague language of the laws gives prosecutors great flexibility in filing charges, while defense attorneys struggle with how to respond. Defense attorneys said investigators actually compared what the defendants said to stacks of transcripts of briefings by the Departments of Defense and Foreign Affairs.
Anything not in the briefings or denied by officials will be treated as a lie, said Vladimir V. Vasin, a defense attorney. “If they write something is green, it means it’s green, and if they write something is red, it’s red and everything else isn’t true,” he said.
Mr. Vasin defends Mikhail Afanasiev, the editor of an online magazine, New Focus, which reports on the Republic of Khakassia in Southern Siberia.
Afanasiev has been in custody since April 14 for writing a story called “The Refuseniks” about the horrific conditions – including a perpetually drunk commander, no food and terrible battlefield organization – that led 11 members of Rosgvardia, the Russian National Guard, to , to refuse to fight.
The journalist believed he was just doing his job, said Mr. Vasin, but was charged because what he learned from interviews was not in the official briefings.
The growing list of cases across Russia indicates prosecutors realized Moscow wanted results, lawyers said. “There is a sense that there is a directive to bring the cases to court as soon as possible,” said Mr. Chikov. “Everyone immediately understood that this was the highest political priority.”
Still, the constant stream of new cases indicated that the laws have not silenced all opposition, he added.
In Kamchatka, a sparsely populated peninsula in the North Pacific, Mr Efimov, 67, heads the local branch of Yabloko, an escalating opposition party.
His anti-war posts criticized not the military, he said, but the mass “hysteria” in support of the war. Mr. Efimov promised to continue despite the criminal charges. “Sit there, shut up and praise the president, this is what it’s about,” he said.