In Russia, COVID-19 criminal charges are starting to roll in. Attorneys say they're a scare tactic to keep people at home.
On March 26, a residential care facility in St. Petersburg called “Zarya” (“Dawn”) was reoutfitted to serve as an observation center for city residents returning from abroad. Ever since, the center has been used to contain dozens of Russians accused of breaking self-isolation rules, and some of those individuals are facing criminal prosecution.
A few of Zarya’s new residents told the St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka that they had in fact returned from abroad before travelers arriving in Russia were ordered to self-isolate. Some even declared a hunger strike to protest what they said was a violation of their rights.
On March 27, just one day after the facility’s opening, it saw its first escape: according to Fontanka, 32-year-old radio engineer Georgy Obraztsov climbed out of his fourth-floor window, jumped the fence, and ran away. Obraztsov arrived in Russia from Switzerland on March 21 and was told to self-isolate for two weeks. However, he continued to leave his apartment on a regular basis, leading authorities to transport him to Zarya.
St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov speculated that Obraztsov may have run away from his closed quarters under observation to throw himself a birthday party; the engineer was born on March 30. On March 28, the day after his escape, Obraztsov was arrested in a short-term rental apartment and brought back to Zarya, where he was forced to record a public apology later released on video by the Investigative Committee.
On the same day, the Committee opened a criminal case. The offense in question was an alleged “attempt” to “violate sanitary and epidemiological rules,” causing mass infections through “negligence” under Article 236 of Russia’s Criminal Codex. That crime, if it is found to cause a person’s death, can earn a sentence of up to five years in prison. Public health officials told Meduza that the statute is being applied to ordinary citizens for the first time: it was previously used only to curb violations by officials who broke sanitary regulations on the job.
Leonid Solovyov, an attorney for the human rights group Agora, told Meduza that criminal cases like the one likely targeting Obraztsov are probably just a scare tactic. “A person can’t attempt to commit a crime of negligence. If there was an attempt, then there was intent. That’s the kind of basic thing they teach undergrads in law departments,” the lawyer explained. Article 236 specifically describes infections resulting from negligence on the part of an infected person.
Solovyov concluded that “all this is happening exclusively within the bounds of scare tactics.” “Opening a criminal case doesn’t mean anything. You can open it and close it after a month,” he said, adding that officials would be hard-pressed to charge someone for causing “mass infections” if they only infected the relatives they live with or a couple of friends.
That hasn’t stopped St. Petersburg authorities from opening several more cases under Article 236 and on other grounds. The suspects in question include a 36-year-old from Perm who was in contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient but flew to St. Petersburg anyway, a 35-year-old woman arrested on a Petersburg-Petrozavodsk train after exposure to a confirmed case, and a group of hookah chain owners who kept their business open despite orders to the contrary.
According to the local St. Petersburg outlet 47news, one 24-year-old even escaped a hospital after receiving a positive COVID-19 test. Traffic and anti-extremism police later arrested her on a nearby highway, where she was riding in a taxi. The driver and one other passenger were ordered to self-isolate, and the young woman was sent back to the hospital.
Criminal prosecution related to the spread of COVID-19 has also reached beyond St. Petersburg. Crimea, the Bryansk region, Karelia, and the Murmansk region have all seen locals return from abroad and infect one or two other individuals. Some violated self-isolation rules: One individual recently returned to Crimea became a suspect under Article 236 after visiting a medical center despite government recommendations. The suspect infected the medical employee who examined them. In the Bryansk region and Karelia, locals returning from abroad did not report that they were planning to self-isolate with family members, leading to criminal accusations when those relatives contracted COVID-19.
There is reason to believe even more Russians will find themselves under investigation as the coronavirus pandemic spreads. On March 31, the State Duma and the Federation Council passed a series of bills containing administrative penalties for spreading false information about the virus. Violations that cause severe consequences, such as someone’s death, could carry the threat of years in prison. The bills only require President Vladimir Putin’s signature to become law.
Summary by Hilah Kohen