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‘Telephone terrorism' The St. Petersburg authorities' new strategy for preventing protests
On May 13, the St. Petersburg news outlet Bumaga published an in-depth investigation into a new method the city's police have devised for suppressing protests: shortly before planned protest rallies, security officials use bomb threat charges to detain large groups of activists and hold them in detention facilities for 48 hours, causing them to miss the protests. On March 5, just one day before a nationwide protest rally against the war, St. Petersburg police used this method to arrest dozens of people; the same technique was used to curtail protests on Victory Day. Read Meduza’s summary of the investigation in English below.
On the morning of March 5, just one day before nationwide protests against Russia’s war in Ukraine, St. Petersburg police showed up at the home of feminist activist Lele Nordik to conduct a search. Claiming Nordik had witnessed an act of “telephone terrorism” — a bomb threat — officers confiscated her electronics and her protest materials from past rallies and interrogated her; after that, the officers left. A few hours later, they returned, having changed her status in the investigation: she was now officially considered a suspect. Nordik was taken into the police station and subsequently detained for 48 hours.
Nordik wasn’t the only activist police officers visited that day. Paladda Bashurova was wearing underwear and a tank top when she opened the door to find the cops who’d come to search her apartment. “I put on some Tchaikovsky and offered them coffee, but they declined,” she told Bumaga. “The SOBR [Special Rapid Response Unit] officers sat in the kitchen and read some material about feminism that they found in my home. Investigators, officers from the Internal Affairs Ministry’s Center for Combating Extremism, and other officials who were present searched the apartment: they went through every room, reading letters from my exes and all of that kind of stuff.”
Just like Nordik, Bashurova was initially told by police that she was being investigated as a witness; they promised she would be released as soon as they interrogated her at the police department. Not believing them, Bashurova took all of her essentials with her in case she ended up staying the night in the cell; she ended up staying two.
18-year-old Darya Kheininen, a popular TikTok creator and founder of the opposition movement Mayak (“Lighthouse”), also had her apartment raided that morning, as did Rina Matsapulina, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Libertarian Party. They were named suspects in a criminal case and detained for 48 hours.
All of the activists Bumaga spoke to said that they were searched and detained in connection to a “telephone terrorism” case; on March 1, somebody had allegedly called in a bomb threat to police precinct No. 77 in St. Petersburg’s Admiralty district.
27 people were arrested that day — united only by their anti-war stance
The activists gave differing descriptions of the search warrants police used. According to Lele Nordik, the police told her the number that had been used to make the bomb threat was (812) 495-48-85-32. That number, however, includes more digits than Russian phone numbers allow — and the first six digits are the St. Petersburg and Moscow area codes.
According to Rina Matsapulina, her search warrant said that the alleged bomb threat had been made by email. She couldn’t remember the complete email address, but she noted that several of the detainees had been given conflicting information about the circumstance of the case.
Bumaga estimates that on March 5, at least 27 people, including activists, artists, and even municipal deputies, were detained in St. Petersburg. Most of the cases weren’t officially related to one another; the only common thread was the suspects’ anti-war stance.
That same day, city police reported that they had identified 40 people who had allegedly been involved in bomb threats against courts, school, malls, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, and other establishments in the city. The Internal Affairs Ministry also reported that criminal cases had been opened according to Article 207 of the Russian Criminal Code, according to St. Petersburg outlet Fontanka, which cited sources in the Ministry.
It’s unclear how the police obtained the activists’ addresses. Many of the detainees were living at addresses different from their official registered ones, had no criminal history, and had not yet taken part in any anti-war rallies or protests. The activists suspect that the police tracked them, possibly with the help of food delivery app Yandex.Eda’s address database, which was stolen and leaked online in March.
The majority of the detainees were detained for 48 hours before being released as suspects, meaning they’re required to report regularly to the police. As a result, they were unable to participate in the March 6 anti-war protests.
Another round before May 9
48 hours before the anti-war rally announced by the “Vesna” (“Spring”) movement for May 9, the authorities started detaining activists against, this time for allegedly calling in bomb threats to Moscow’s Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
The activists arrested included Eve’s Rib coordinator Yulia Karpukhina and her friend Dara Shchukina, as well as Vesna activist Polina Barabash and former Vesna press secretary Artem Uymanen.
According to the search warrant, on April 19, an unknown individual sent an email describing an explosive device to one of the branches of the Presidential Academy. The author claimed to have signed a contract with the Ukrainian military.
Bumaga’s correspondents tried to get in touch with the email’s author, but every attempt to email the address allegedly responsible for the threat returned an error “typical for addresses blocked for spam.” The phone number named in the case, however, turned out to be active, and Bumaga managed to get in touch with its owner.
That person turned out to be St. Petersburg resident Artem C. (Bumaga confirmed his identity using the service GetContact and its social media accounts.) Artyem didn’t answer when Bumaga asked whether he had really sent the letter and whether any law enforcement officers had come to him.
The May 9 Vesna rally still occurred — dozens of people, including St. Petersburg residents, who went to march in the city’s Immortal Regiment with portraits of veterans and anti-war signs. Just like on March 6, however, many activists spent the day behind bars.
The easy way
The lawyers of the activists Bumaga spoke to believe the “telephone terrorism” cases' main purpose is to scare their clients. “It’s a point of leverage,” said Mikhail Shiolashvili, Daria Shchukina’s lawyer. “In my opinion, that was the end of it; now the case will fade away in the back rooms of investigators’ offices. It’s clear that she didn’t do anything, and it will be hard for them to make a convincing argument otherwise.”
Some of the activists have decided to leave Russia in the days and weeks since their searches and arrests, but most of them have stayed in the country.
A source from law enforcement who spoke to Bumaga said that detaining activists as suspects in a criminal case is easier than initiating new administrative cases against them. “You can just ask someone to write a complaint accusing someone else of something. Under our current political conditions, that's enough to detain them for 48 hours so that activists miss a rally,” said the source.
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