Kremlin crackdown silences protests, from benign to bold, as neighbours demand accountability for war crimes

Hundreds of Russians are facing charges for speaking out against the war in Ukraine since a repressive law was passed last month that outlaws the spread of 'false information' about the invasion.

Published: 14th April 2022 01:10 PM  |   Last Updated: 14th April 2022 01:10 PM   |  A+A-

Men walk in a street destroyed by shellings in Chernihiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, April 13, 2022. (Photo | AP)

By PTI

MOSCOW: A former police officer who discussed Russia's 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 are facing charges for speaking out against the war in Ukraine since a repressive law was passed last month that outlaws the spread of "false information" about the invasion and disparaging the military.

Human rights groups say the crackdown has led to criminal prosecutions and possible prison sentences for at least 23 people on the "false information" charge, with over 500 others facing misdemeanour charges of disparaging the military that have either led to hefty fines or are expected to result in them.

"This is a large amount, an unprecedentedly large amount" of cases, said Damir Gainutdinov, head of the Net Freedoms legal aid group focusing on free speech cases, in an interview with The Associated Press.

The Kremlin has sought to control the narrative of the war from the moment its troops rolled into Ukraine.

It dubbed the attack a "special military operation" and increased the pressure on independent Russian media that called it a "war" or an "invasion," blocking access to many news sites whose coverage deviated from the official line.

Sweeping arrests stifled antiwar protests, turning them from a daily event in large cities like Moscow and St Petersburg into rare occurrences barely attracting any attention.

Still, reports of police detaining single picketers in different Russian cities come in almost daily.

Even seemingly benign actions have led to arrests.

A man was detained in Moscow after standing next to a World War II monument that says "Kyiv" for the city's heroic stand against Nazi Germany and holding a copy of Tolstoy's "War and Peace".

Another was reportedly detained for holding up a package of sliced ham from the meat producer Miratorg, with the second half of the name crossed off so it read: "Mir" "peace" in Russian.

A law against spreading "fake news" about the war or disparaging the military was passed by parliament in one day and took force immediately, effectively exposing anyone critical of the conflict to fines and prison sentences.

The first publicly known criminal cases over "fakes" targeted public figures like Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a Russian-language cookbook author and popular blogger living abroad, and Alexander Nevzorov, a TV journalist, film director and former lawmaker.

Both were accused of posting "false information" about Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine on their widely followed social media pages - something Moscow has vehemently denied, insisting that Russian forces only hit target military targets.

But then the scope of the crackdown expanded, with police seemingly grabbing anyone.

Former police officer Sergei Klokov was detained and put in pretrial detention after discussing the war with his friends on the phone.

His wife told the Meduza news site that in casual conversation at home, Klokov, who was born in Irpin near Kyiv and whose father still lived in Ukraine when Russian troops rolled in, condemned the invasion.

Klokov was charged with spreading false information about the Russian armed forces and faces up to 10 years in prison.

St Petersburg artist Sasha Skolichenko also faces up to 10 years in prison on the same charge: She replaced price tags in a grocery store with antiwar flyers.

On Wednesday, a court ordered Skolichenko to pretrial detention for 1 1/2 months.

The Rev Ioann Burdin, a Russian Orthodox priest in a village about 300 kilometers (about 185 miles) northeast of Moscow, was fined 35,000 rubles ($432) for “discrediting the Russian armed forces” after posting an antiwar statement on his church's website and talking to a dozen congregants during a service about the pain he felt over people in Ukraine dying.

Burdin told AP his speech elicited mixed reactions.

"One woman made a scene over the fact that I'm talking about (it) when she just came to pray," he said, adding that he believed it was one of those hearing the sermon who reported him to the police.

Marat Grachev, director of a shop that repairs Apple products in Moscow, similarly got in trouble when he displayed a link to an online petition titled, "No to war" on a screen in the shop.

Many customers expressed support when they saw it, but one elderly man demanded it be taken down, threatening to report Grachev to the authorities.

Police soon showed up, and Grachev was charged with discrediting the military.

A court ordered him to pay a fine of 100,000 rubles ($1,236).

Another court ruled against Moscow student Dmitry Reznikov for displaying a blank piece of paper with eight asterisks, which could have been interpreted as standing for "No to war" in Russian -- a popular chant by protesters.

The court found him guilty of discrediting the armed forces and fined him 50,000 rubles ($618) for holding the sign in central Moscow in a mid-March demonstration that lasted only seconds before police detained him.

"It's the theater of the absurd," his lawyer Oleg Filatchev told AP.

A St Petersburg court last week fined Artur Dmitriev for a sign containing President Vladimir Putin's quote, albeit with a few words omitted for brevity, from last year's Victory Day parade marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

"The war brought about so many unbearable challenges, grief and tears, that it's impossible to forget. There is no forgiveness and justification for those who once again are harbouring aggressive plans," Putin had said, according to the Kremlin website.

Dmitriev was fined 30,000 rubles for discrediting the Russian military.

That prompted him to post Friday on Facebook: "The phrase by Vladimir Putin, and ergo he himsel are discrediting the goals of the Russian armed forces. From this moment on, (internet and media regulator) Roskomnadzor must block all speeches by Putin, and true patriots -- take down his portraits in their offices."

Net Freedoms' Gainutdinov said that anything about the military or Ukraine can make a person a target.

Even wearing a hat with the blue and gold of the Ukrainian flag or a green ribbon, considered a symbol of peace, have been found to discredit the military, the lawyer added.

Reznikov, who is appealing his conviction for the poster with asterisks, said he found the crackdown scary.

After his first misdemeanour conviction, a second strike would result in criminal prosecution and a possible prison term of up to three years.

Both Burdin and Grachev, who also are appealing, received donations that exceeded their fines.

"I realised 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 or so people who initially heard his sermon — the opposite of what the authorities presumably intended by fining him.

"It's impossible to call it anything other than the providence of God," the priest added.

"The words that I said reached a much larger number of people."

The presidents of four countries on Russia's doorstep toured war-ravaged areas near the Ukrainian capital and demanded accountability for what they called war crimes, as Kyiv and Moscow gave conflicting accounts of what happened to a badly damaged missile cruiser that is the flagship vessel of Russia's fleet in the Black Sea.

Wednesday's visit by the leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia was a strong show of solidarity from the countries on NATO's eastern flank, three of them like Ukraine once part of the Soviet Union.

They travelled by train to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, to meet with their counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and visited Borodyanka, one of the nearby towns where evidence of atrocities was found after Russian troops withdrew to focus on the country's east.

"The fight for Europe's future is happening here," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said, calling for tougher sanctions, including against Russian oil and gas shipments and all the country's banks.

Elsewhere, in one of the most crucial battles of the war, Russia said more than 1,000 Ukrainian troops had surrendered in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces have been holding out in pockets of the city.

A Ukrainian official denied the claim, which could not be independently verified.

And in the Odesa region, Governor Maksym Marchenko said Ukrainian forces struck the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, with two missiles and caused "serious damage".

Russia's Defence Ministry confirmed the ship was damaged but not that it was hit by Ukraine, it said ammunition on board detonated as a result of a fire of as-yet undetermined causes.

The entire crew was evacuated, it added; the cruiser typically has about 500 on board.

Russia invaded on Feb 24 with the goal, according to Western officials, of taking Kyiv, toppling the government and installing a Moscow-friendly one.

But the ground advance slowly stalled and Russia lost potentially thousands of fighters.

The conflict has killed untold numbers of Ukrainian civilians and forced millions more to flee.

It also has rattled the world economy, threatened global food supplies and shattered Europe's post-Cold War balance.

A UN task force warned on Wednesday that the war threatens to devastate the economies of many developing countries that are facing even higher food and energy costs and increasingly difficult financial conditions.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the war is "supercharging" a crisis in food, energy and finance in poorer countries that were already struggling to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and a lack of access to funding.

A day after he called Russia's actions in Ukraine "a genocide", US President Joe Biden approved $800 million in new military assistance to Kyiv, saying weapons from the West have sustained Ukraine's fight so far and "we cannot rest now."

The munitions include artillery systems, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters.

Appearing alongside Zelenskyy in an ornate room in Kyiv's historic Mariinskyi Palace, Nauseda, Estonian President Alar Karis, Poland's Andrzej Duda and Latvia's Egils Levits reiterated their commitment to supporting Ukraine politically and with military aid.

"We know this history. We know what Russian occupation means. We know what Russian terrorism means," Duda said.

He added that both those who committed war crimes and those who gave the orders should be held accountable.

"If someone sends aircraft, if someone sends troops to shell residential districts, kill civilians, murder them, this is not war," he said.

"This is cruelty, this is banditry, this is terrorism."

In his daily late-night address, Zelenskyy noted that the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court visited the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, which was controlled by Russian forces until recently and where evidence of mass killings and more than 400 bodies were found.

"It is inevitable that the Russian troops will be held responsible. We will drag everyone to a tribunal, and not only for what was done in Bucha," Zelenskyy said late Wednesday.

He also said work was continuing to clear tens of thousands of unexploded shells, mines and trip wires left behind in northern Ukraine by the departing Russians.

He urged people returning to homes to be wary of any unfamiliar objects and report them to police.

Also Wednesday, a report commissioned by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe found "clear patterns of (international humanitarian law) violations by the Russian forces in their conduct of hostilities".

It was written by experts selected by Ukraine and published by the Vienna-based organisation, which promotes security and human rights.

The report said there were also violations by Ukraine, but concluded those committed by Russia "are by far larger in scale and nature".

Residents in Yahidne, a village near the northern city of Chernihiv, said Russian troops forced them to stay for almost a month in the basement of a school, allowing them outside only to go to the toilet, cook on open fires, and bury the dead in a mass grave.

In one of the rooms, they kept a list of those who perished.

It had 18 names.

"An old man died near me and then his wife died next," Valentyna Saroyan said.

"Then a man died who was lying there, then a woman sitting next to me. Another old man looked so healthy, he was doing exercises, but then he was sitting and fell. That was it."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied his troops committed atrocities, saying Tuesday that Moscow "had no other choice" but to invade and would "continue until its full completion and the fulfilment of the tasks that have been set".

He insisted Russia's campaign was going as planned despite a major withdrawal after its forces failed to take the capital and suffered significant losses.

Russian troops are now gearing up for a major offensive in the eastern Donbas region, where Moscow-allied separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting since 2014.

A key piece of the Russian campaign is Mariupol, which lies in the Donbas and which the Russians have pummeled for weeks.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj-Gen Igor Konashenkov said 1,026 troops from the Ukrainian 36th Marine Brigade surrendered at a metals factory in the city.

But Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, rejected the claim, telling Current Time TV that "he battle over the seaport is still ongoing today".

It was unclear when a surrender may have occurred or how many forces were still defending Mariupol.

According to the BBC, Aiden Aslin, a British man fighting in the Ukrainian military in Mariupol, called his mother and a friend to say he and his comrades were out of food, ammunition and other supplies and would surrender.

Russian state television broadcast footage Wednesday that it said was from Mariupol showing dozens of men in camouflage walking with their hands up and carrying others on stretchers or in chair holds.

One man held a white flag.

In the background was a tall industrial building with its windows shattered and roof missing, identified by the broadcaster as the Iliich metalworks.



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