A former policeman who talked about the Russian invasion on the phone. A priest who preached to his congregation about the suffering of Ukrainians. A student who held up a banner with no words – just asterisks.
Hundreds of Russians have been accused of speaking out against the war in Ukraine since a repressive law was passed last month that bans spreading “false information” about the invasion and disparaging the military.
Rights groups say the crackdown has led to criminal charges and possible prison terms for at least 23 people accused of ‘false news’, and more than 500 others face charges of military smear offenses that have either resulted in heavy fines or should result in them.
“This is a large number, an unprecedented number” of cases, said Damir Gainutdinov, head of the legal aid group Net Freedoms which focuses on free speech cases, in an interview with the ‘Associated Press.
The Kremlin sought to control the narrative of the war from the moment its troops arrived in Ukraine. He called the attack a ‘special military operation’ and increased pressure on independent Russian media which called it a ‘war’ or an ‘invasion’, blocking access to many news sites whose coverage deviated from the official line.
Mass arrests have stifled anti-war protests, turning them from an everyday occurrence in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg to rare events barely attracting attention.
Yet reports of police detaining lone picketers in various Russian cities arrive almost daily.
Even seemingly benign actions have led to arrests.
A man has been arrested in Moscow after standing next to a WWII monument that reads ‘kyiv’ for the city’s heroic stance against Nazi Germany and holding a copy of ‘War and Peace’ of Tolstoy. Another was reportedly arrested for holding up a package of sliced ham from meat producer Miratorg, with the second half of the name crossed out to read: “Mir” – “peace” in Russian.
A law against spreading ‘fake news’ about the war or denigration of the military was passed by parliament in a day and came into force immediately, effectively exposing anyone critical of the conflict to fines and penalties from prison.
The first publicly known criminal cases involving “counterfeits” targeted public figures such as Veronika Belotserkovskaya, author of Russian-language cookbooks and popular blogger living abroad, and Alexander Nevzorov, television journalist, director and former lawmaker.
Both have been accused of posting “false information” about Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine on their widely followed social media pages – which Moscow has vehemently denied, insisting that Russian forces are not hit only targeted military targets.
But then the scope of the crackdown widened, with police apparently catching anyone.
Former policeman Sergei Klokov was arrested and remanded in custody after discussing the war with his friends on the phone. His wife told the Meduza news site that in a casual conversation at home, Klokov, who was born in Irpin near kyiv and whose father was still living in Ukraine when Russian troops arrived, condemned the invasion.
Klokov has been charged with spreading false information about the Russian armed forces and faces up to 10 years in prison.
Saint Petersburg artist Sasha Skolichenko also faces up to 10 years in prison for the same charge: she replaced price tags in a grocery store with anti-war flyers. On Wednesday, a court ordered Skolichenko to be remanded for a month and a half.
Reverend Ioann Burdin, a Russian Orthodox priest from a village about 300 kilometers (about 185 miles) northeast of Moscow, was fined 35,000 rubles ($432) for “discrediting the forces Russian armies” after posting an anti-war statement on his church’s website and speaking to a dozen worshipers at a service about the pain he felt over the deaths of Ukrainians.
Burdin told AP his speech drew mixed reactions. “A woman made a scene about me talking about it (about it) when she just came to pray,” he said, adding that he thought it was one of those who heard the sermon that had reported him to the police.
Marat Grachev, manager of a store that repairs Apple products in Moscow, also got into trouble when he posted a link to an online petition titled “No to war” on a screen in the store. Many patrons expressed support when they saw it, but an elderly man demanded it be removed, threatening to report Grachev to authorities.
The police soon arrived and Grachev was accused of discrediting the army. A court ordered him to pay a fine of 100,000 rubles ($1,236).
Another court convicted Moscow student Dmitry Reznikov for posting a blank sheet of paper with eight asterisks, which could have been interpreted to mean “No to war” in Russian – a popular protester chant. The court found him guilty of discrediting the armed forces and fined him 50,000 rubles ($618) for holding the sign in central Moscow during a protest in mid-March that n It only lasted a few seconds before the police arrested him.
“It’s the theater of the absurd,” his lawyer Oleg Filatchev told AP.
Last week, a court in St Petersburg fined Artur Dmitriev for a placard containing President Vladimir Putin’s quote – albeit with a few words omitted for brevity – from the Victory Day parade. last year marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
“The war has brought so many unbearable challenges, sorrow and tears that it is impossible to forget. There is no forgiveness or justification for those who once again harbor aggressive plans,” Putin had said, according to the Kremlin website.
Dmitriev was fined 30,000 rubles for discrediting the Russian military. This prompted him to post on Facebook on Friday: “Vladimir Putin’s sentence, and therefore himself… discredits the aims of the Russian armed forces. From this moment on, (the internet and media regulator) Roskomnadzor must block all Putin’s speeches, and true patriots — take down his portraits in their offices.
Net Freedoms’ Gainutdinov said anything about the military or Ukraine can make someone a target. Even wearing a hat with the blue and gold of the Ukrainian flag or a green ribbon, considered a symbol of peace, discredits the army, the lawyer added.
Reznikov, who is appealing his conviction for the poster with asterisks, said he finds the crackdown frightening. After his first misdemeanor conviction, a second strike would result in criminal prosecution and a prison sentence of up to three years.
Burdin and Grachev, who are also appealing, received donations that exceeded their fines.
“I realized how important it is, how valuable it is to receive support,” Grachev said.
Burdin said the publicity about his case spread his message far beyond the dozen people who originally heard his sermon — the opposite of what authorities presumably intended in fining him.
“It is impossible to call it anything other than the providence of God,” added the priest. “The words I spoke reached a lot more people.”
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine