Russia’s growing number of political prisoners ‘OVD-Info’ reports on rising levels of repression

Meduza
Photo: Lipnitzki / Roger Viollet / Getty Images

The website OVD-Info has released a report on the criminal prosecution of activists for political reasons between 2011 and 2014. The number of such cases is growing, the study finds, and officials are now inventing new ways to put activists behind bars. Meduza summarizes the 20-page document.

‘OVD-Info’ was created in late 2011, after mass demonstrations in Moscow. The project started by monitoring arrests at protests, later beginning a detailed analysis of political repression across Russia.

Who are the political prisoners?

International organizations classify political prisoners as people whose prosecution involved violations of human rights and freedoms, including the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly. According to the report, however, these parameters aren’t practical in Russia, where the state violates the rights of almost all suspects, defendants, and prisoners.

With this in mind, OVD-Info suggests classifying political prisoners as those who engage in any social activities disagreeable to the authorities, and who have been prosecuted for crimes they did not commit, or people who received unusually severe punishments compared to others accused of committing similar crimes, even without being involved in political activism.

How many people are being prosecuted?

According to OVD-info, 139 criminal cases were initiated for political reasons between 2011 and 2014. By early 2015, 54 of them were still ongoing. By comparison, between 1999 and 2011, the group says there were only 122 political criminal cases.

Who is being persecuted?

Anyone who ruffle the authorities’ feathers in any way. Criminal cases are springing up against journalists and civil, opposition, and environmental activists. These people are being prosecuted under existing articles of Russia’s Criminal Code (280, 282, 282.1 and 282.2), and under new articles, like 280.1 ("public calls for action aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation") and 212.1 (repeated violations of the rules governing demonstrations).

Eleven people remain in custody for the Bolotnoe Delo (the case against allegedly violent participations of a mass anti-Putin rally on Bolotnaya Square in May 2012), which is one of the most high-profile cases in recent years. Most of these individuals are accused of assaulting police officers (318 of the Criminal Code), though OVD-info denies these charges outright for some in the group, and for others maintains that any resistance to police was justified by officers’ excessive force.

In Moscow, several base-jumpers remain under house arrest after being detained for repainting the stars on one of the Seven Sisters (Moscow’s oldest skyscrapers) in the colors of Ukrainian flag. They are accused of hooliganism, though several witnesses testify to their innocence. Three men who hung a German flag from the FSB building in Kaliningrad also stand accused of hooliganism. In Krasnodar, Daria Polyudova was sentenced to several months in prison on charges of inciting separatism for trying to organize a march calling for federalization of the Kuban region. A co-activist, Sergey Titarenko, was arrested for inciting extremist activity (Article 280 of the Criminal Code) in the same case.

Three opposition leaders—Vladimir Ionov, Mark Galperin, and Ildar Dadin—have been prosecuted for repeatedly taking part in unsanctioned demonstrations. They are now in prison awaiting trial. The most notable example of political repression under non-political charges is Alexey Navalny. He has already been convicted in two criminal cases, neither of which was formally connected to his political activism. In the first trial, the famous anti-corruption campaigner was sentenced to five years' imprisonment (later commuted to probation) on trumped-up embezzlement charges. Then, just last December, he received another three-and-a-half years’ probation for supposedly defrauding French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. This latter case also ensnared Navalny’s brother, Oleg, who was convicted and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison (not probation).

Taisiya Osipova, wife of one of the leaders of the Drugaya Rossiya movement, and Chechen human rights activist Ruslan Kutayev, were both imprisoned on drug-dealing charges. Kutayev ran afoul of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, organizing a conference to commemorate the mass deportation of Chechens under Stalin. Mikhail Savva, a human rights activist in the Krasnodar region, was given a suspended sentence for fraud. Several criminal cases were brought against Rostov journalist Sergei Reznik, including bribery, false accusations, and insulting one of the local bosses of The Russian Centre Against Extremism. He is now serving a three-year prison sentence.

State authorities have also taken to prosecuting political activists under other non-political pretexts, including murder. Nationalist Daniel Konstantinov spent 18 months in prison on murder charges, though he had an alibi. His conviction was later reduced to hooliganism, and he was immediately pardoned.

The new trend—Ukraine

Several cases connected to the conflict in Ukraine are now underway in Russia. Three people (in unrelated cases) have been accused under anti-extremism laws of publishing messages online in support of Ukraine. In Novocherkassk, local environmental activist Sergei Loshkareva was charged with possession of an illegal weapon, though his supporters believe his only “crime” was to calling on Dmitry Yarosh, leader of the Ukrainian extremist group Pravy Sektor (banned in Russia), to restore order in Novocherkassk.

Conclusions of the report

Though the number of prosecutions brought against people for attending public rallies fell slightly, the number of people targeted for other political activities increased dramatically. New articles that can be interpreted in ways that sanction political repression are continually being added to the Criminal Code. In 2014, people even began appearing in Russian courts accused of taking a pro-Ukrainian stance.