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‘I’m sure I’ll be locked up in a hospital’ Murmansk authorities threaten opposition candidate Violetta Grudina with forced hospitalization for allegedly breaking quarantine

Source: Meduza
Violetta Grudina on Facebook

Violetta Grudina, the former head of Alexey Navalny’s campaign office in Murmansk, announced her candidacy for the upcoming City Council election back in April. But in the midst of campaigning in June, she fell ill and decided to self-isolate — she didn’t leave home for 16 days straight. However, on July 9, the authorities opened a criminal case against her for allegedly violating epidemiological rules and thus, by negligence, creating a threat of mass infection. According to police officials, Grudina knew she had tested positive for the coronavirus but broke mandatory quarantine and “came into contact with an indefinite number of persons.” A source in law enforcement told the local news agency SeverPost that Grudina left home to organize the distribution of leaflets promoting her election campaign when she was supposed to be under quarantine. In conversation with Meduza, Grudina described herself as a “law-abiding citizen” and insisted that she complied with the self-isolation instructions, as she understood them. According to Grudina, who has faced repeated threats and attacks on her campaign office since announcing her City Council run, the criminal case against her is simply the latest attempt to pressure her politically. 

Please note. This interview was originally published on July 10 and has been summarized for length and clarity. You can read the full transcript in Russian here

Violetta Grudina recalls feeling unwell on June 10. By June 19, she had gotten really sick and stopped leaving the house. “I was alone, I had no contact with anyone,” she tells Meduza. “It’s not that I felt very sick, but my temperature had risen, and tastes and smells disappeared.”

Grudina went online and notified a local clinic that she was feeling unwell. “Usually, if you’re sick you have to inform [them] — I’m a law-abiding citizen, that’s why I did it,” she says. A doctor only came to see her after she contacted the clinic for a second time. By this point, it was June 25. “He [the doctor] came without any personal protective equipment. He said no one wanted to come to see me because ‘everyone is busy.’ There was no examination. He only asked what my symptoms were. At that point, the only symptom that I still had was the lack of smells and tastes,” Grudina says. “The doctor tested me for the coronavirus, but he left the tube with the cotton swab that he used to swab my throat at my house. He said: ‘Throw it out.’ And he left.”

Nevertheless, on June 27, Grudina received a text message saying that she had tested positive for the coronavirus. It instructed her to self-isolate for 14 days “from the date of contact,” but didn’t include a specific start date. “Given the lack of information, I started counting my self-isolation from June 19, when I stopped leaving the house. It’s logical. It didn’t say that I had to stay at home [from the day I received] the test results,” Grudina explains. “How was I supposed to guess? No one gave me this information.” 

While she was home sick, Grudina received daily visits from the police, who warned her about the “inadmissibility of misdemeanor offenses.” “I was quite rude [during] these conversations — I kicked them out and told them not to visit me. I had the feeling that [they were] putting psychological pressure on me,” she tells Meduza. “They grew insolent: they could arrive at ten at night, they could wake me up at nine in the morning. This is such torture: I’m lying down at home and they’re pounding [on my door] constantly.”

After sixteen days in isolation, Grudina left the house on July 5. She didn’t get tested for the coronavirus again, because she didn’t think she had in order to come out of isolation. According to her, the text message containing the results of her first COVID-19 test didn’t include any such instructions. “No one told me to go out [only] after the second or third test result,” she insists. “I went outside, I don't deny this. I went out with no aim to harm anyone. For which, in fact, they’re now trying to prosecute me.” 

On the afternoon of July 9, Grudina’s landlord tried to enter her apartment without her permission. He was accompanied by police officers and officials from Rospotrebnadzor (Russia’s consumer protection and human well-being agency). The officers told Grudina that there was a court order for her to be hospitalized forcibly: apparently, the Murmansk region’s chief sanitary doctor had filed a claim against her. “I said that I wouldn’t go anywhere with them and they left, leaving the claim outside [the door],” she recalls. 

“I wrote about everything that happened [on social media],” Grudina continues. “By four in the evening, the Murmansk regional police had issued a press release about the fact that a felony ‘sanitary case’ had been launched against me.” 

Grudina says the criminal charges against her stem from the fact that she wrote about the incident with the police and Rospotrebnadzor online, as well as the fact that she’s campaigning for a seat on the Murmansk City Council. “You can go on the website of the Oktyabrsky District Court, we have bundles of [ongoing] cases about violating self-isolation,” she tells Meduza. “But why did they launch a criminal one against me instead of a misdemeanor case? Because it’s me!”

“Of course, I have a theory that the results of my test were falsified,” Grudina continues, adding that she has long criticized the local authorities for falsifying coronavirus statistics. “The doctor left the tube with the test [swab] at my house and the Murmansk region’s chief sanitary doctor, who I’ve criticized many times, took over my case.”

Grudina is set to appear in court on July 12 for a hearing on her forced hospitalization. “I’m sure I’ll be locked up in a hospital,” she tells Meduza. “This is a method of political reprisal. I’m actively conducting my election campaign as a candidate for City Council deputy. And they’re trying to remove me in this way.”

The former Navalny staffer has faced threats ever since she announced her candidacy in April. “Flyers appeared in all the mailboxes [in] my building (and perhaps in the district, I don’t know) accusing me of pedophilia and child abuse,” Grudina recalls. “That same day, a volunteer called me and said that I needed to come to the [campaign] headquarters immediately. When I arrived, the door was completely filled with spray foam — it couldn’t be opened. And a swastika was drawn on it.” A few days later, Grudina’s deputy chief of staff was detained on board a plane when returning from a business trip — he was accused of transporting drugs. 

When Grudina’s team finally regained access to their campaign office, they discovered it had been broken into and vandalized. “The surveillance cameras’ wires were cut, swastikas were drawn on all the walls, the furniture and equipment were damaged. We paid 100,000 rubles [about $1,345] for the repairs in total,” Grudina says. A few days after that, she found a cardboard target in her mailbox. Then, in late April, someone fired rounds at Grudina’s campaign office, leaving behind “dozens of bullet holes.” The police didn’t open a single criminal case, despite appeals from Grudina’s team. 

In recent days, the accusations of breaking quarantine have fueled a whole new smear campaign against Grudina, both online and in local state-funded media. But she believes that locals see this for what it is. “I live in a very small city: the population of Murmansk is 250,000 people. They know me all over the region. If there’s a goal to neutralize me in the political arena, then it has to be done by destroying my reputation,” Grudina says. “You’d never believe it, but 90 percent of people are for me, everyone understands everything. We have a rather oppositionist north. When they say ‘They found drugs on Grudina’ or ‘Grudina is a crook’ no one will ever believe it.”

The way Grudina sees it, the authorities have latched on to a story that she partially confirmed herself — and she’s being honest with her supporters about it. “Yes, I may have been stupid. But do I deserve to be put in jail for this? Not at all,” she maintains. “All these events that are unfolding around me were invented with the aim of discrediting me and destroying me as a politician in the region. So that even when the elections are over, I won’t be able to carry out any political activity, because no one will believe me. But I believe in my victory.”

Grudina says that if she’s barred from registering her candidacy, as has been the case already with other opposition politicians linked to Alexey Navalny, it would cause a greater upset in Murmansk than in Moscow. “Here, so far, I’m the last stronghold for people’s hopes for honest politics. If they remove me, everything will be clear to everyone. That’s why they’ve dealt with me so harshly and demonstratively. My colleagues have left. The human rights activists have too. I’m the only one left here, you understand? I have to be destroyed.”

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Interview by Kristina Safonova

Summary by Eilish Hart