HomeBreaking NewsMeet the people caught up in Russia's crackdown on dissent

Meet the people caught up in Russia’s crackdown on dissent

In wartime Russia, citizens risk decades in prison for acts that were previously permitted: denouncing the government and military on social media, making political speeches, and even criticizing the invasion of Ukraine in private with friends. .

The Kremlin is jailing its critics at a breakneck pace. After invading Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin’s government introduced draconian censorship laws that criminalize anti-war protests, make independent journalism nearly impossible and forbid calling his “special military operation” a war.

The crackdown on dissent in Russia has been expanding for years, notably with the 2021 arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and many of his supporters, but the number of political cases is now skyrocketing. Students, an essayist, a theater director and a former police officer, among many others, have been sentenced to years in prison.

Nearly 20,000 people have been detained for opposing the war, reports the human rights group OVD-Info; at least 537 people, including children and retirees, have been criminally charged. Most have fallen under the new laws, in particular under a provision that criminalizes the distribution of “false information” about the military.

“What we are seeing now is unprecedented,” said Maria Kuznetsova, a spokeswoman for OVD-Info. “We have never seen such numbers in Russia.”

There has also been an increase in treason cases. Historically, such cases have typically involved military figures or scientists who were investigated over the years and kept secret. But in recent months, ordinary citizens have been accused, many in connection with Ukraine.

“It is important that the authorities maintain the image of a collective ‘enemy’, whose components are opponents, Ukrainians, some ‘neo-Nazis’, minorities and, of course, traitors to the motherland,” said Dmitry Zair-Bek, head of the group of human rights First Department. Zair-Bek says the number of treason cases has skyrocketed this year. Thirty cases can be confirmed through open sources, he said, but the number is likely much higher.

The uptick in cases of repression and treason is followed by the arrest of an American journalist Evan Gershkovic in March on espionage charges, the first such case since the Cold War.

Below are some of Russia’s most distinctive wartime political prisoners and those facing the longest jail terms. His are a small fraction of the cases now being prosecuted.

Human rights defender Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian-British citizen and contributor to The Washington Post, was sentenced last month to 25 years for treason and other charges. The charges were based on speeches he made abroad and public criticism of the war.

Kara-Murza has likened his prosecution to a Stalinist show trial. “I know the day will come when the darkness over our country will be lifted,” he said at his sentencing. “And then our people will open their eyes and shudder to see the horrible crimes committed in their name.”

Outspoken Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza was jailed for 25 years by a Moscow court on April 17, 2023. (Video: Reuters)

Russian journalist Ivan Safronov, tried last year on secret evidence, was sentenced in September to 22 years for treason. A former reporter for Russia’s Kommersant and Vedomosti newspapers, he is believed to have been attacked for revealing details of Russia’s sale of fighter jets to Egypt. His was the first conviction of a journalist for treason in Russia since 2001.

In a recent letter from Krasnodar prison, Safronov told The Post that no ordinary person should have to endure what he has endured. “If you have this experience,” he wrote, “you cannot escape it.”

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced in December to 8½ years for posting on social media about atrocities committed by Russian troops in Bucha, Ukraine.

Yashin was one of the few vocal opponents of the invasion who decided to stay in Russia after the invasion. “Voices against the war are louder and more convincing if the person stays,” he said. At his sentencing, he said he had no regrets: “It is better to spend 10 years behind bars as an honest man than to burn silently in shame over the blood spilled by his government.”

Ilya Yashin was arrested in June 2022 for statements he made about war crimes allegedly committed by Russian forces in the kyiv suburb of Bucha. (Video: Reuters)

Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who survived a 2020 Novichok poisoning attempt, was initially sentenced the following year to more than two years in prison. With new charges, he could be sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Navalny continues to criticize Putin from prison for war, corruption and abuse of power. His followers say that he fears for his life: Since his arrest, he has lost weight rapidly, has been denied family visits and has been held in solitary confinement for up to 15 days at a time.

The hearing was to consider a motion by the federal prison authority to replace a 2014 suspended sentence handed down to Alexei Navalny with a prison term. (Video: Moscow City Court Press Service via Storyful)

Sergei Vedel, a police officer of Ukrainian-Russian descent, was sentenced last month to seven years for spreading “falsifications” about the military. The charge was based on his criticism of the war in private conversations with friends on his wiretapped phone.

Vedel, a former driver who worked at the Moscow police headquarters for nearly 20 years, expressed his concerns to friends in the days after the invasion. “We think we are fighting fascism,” he told one, “but there is no fascism there.”

Moscow city councilor Alexei Gorinov was sentenced last year for discrediting the army. He had spoken out against the war during a council meeting. Gorinov refused to plead guilty. He kept up the criticism during his trial. At his sentencing, he was holding a sign that read “Do you still need this war?”

“I am convinced that this war is the fastest path to dehumanization, when the line between good and evil is blurred,” he said.

Journalist Maria Ponomarenko was sentenced by a court in western Siberia for spreading “falsifications” after posting about Russia’s bombing of the Mariupol Drama Theater last year, which killed hundreds of civilians. The mother of two was sentenced to six years in a penal colony.

At her sentencing, she declared herself a patriotic pacifist. Under Russia’s constitution, she said, she had done nothing wrong. “No totalitarian regime has ever been as strong as before its collapse,” she said.

Five weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, Alexandra Skochilenko, an LGBTQ+ musician with no history of political activism, walked into a supermarket in St. Petersburg and began pasting notes criticizing the war on top of the price tags.

“The Russian army shelled an art school in Mariupol where about 400 people were hiding from the shelling,” read one. “Weekly inflation reached a new high not seen since 1998 due to our military actions in Ukraine. Stop the war,” read another. A fellow shopper reported Skochilenko to the police and his trial is ongoing. She could be sentenced to 10 years.

Yevgeny Bestuzhev, a St. Petersburg political scientist and essayist, was charged in November with spreading “falsifications” about the Russian military in dozens of antiwar social media posts. Bestuzhev, who reportedly has multiple chronic illnesses and has suffered several heart attacks, could be sentenced to 10 years.

Theater director Yevgenia Berkovich was arrested on May 4 and remanded in custody with her colleague Svetlana Petriichuk, a playwright, for allegedly “justifying terrorism.” The charge related to her play “Finist: The Brave Falcon,” about Russian women who joined Islamic State, which opened two years ago and won a national theater award last year. An expert opinion reportedly found that the work contained elements of ISIS thought and “the ideology of radical feminism.”

His is the first high-profile criminal case involving a play since the Soviet era. The charge carries up to seven years in prison. “Don’t make me a Joan of Arc!” he wrote to a friend from detention. “I’m a girl, I want to go home, I want prosecco and a big fat steak.”

Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova contributed from Riga, Latvia.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits from Ukraine: The lives of all Ukrainians have changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago, in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other. in extreme circumstancesin bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined markets. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has turned from a multi-pronged invasion that included Kiev in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated over a stretch of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between the Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has concentrated..

One year of living apart: The invasion of Russia, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law that prevents men of fighting age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make agonizing decisions about how to balance security, duty and love, with lives once intertwined that have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of goodbyes It seemed like last year.

Deepening global gaps: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on the issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russiathanks to its oil and gas exports.

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