‘Holding people liable for stating the facts’ Condemning the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine is a criminal offense in Russia. Here’s how investigators are building their cases.
Days after launching its full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, Russia outlawed the spread of “knowingly false information” about the country’s armed forces. The new law, which came into force on March 4, carries punishments of up to 15 years in prison — and it has so far been used to persecute those who openly condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine. Meduza looks into how state investigators are building criminal cases against anti-war Russians for sharing facts and opinions that stray from the Kremlin line.
Seventeen-year-old Alexey from Novosibirsk (name changed) only started closely following the news after the outbreak of the war. On the evening of March 4, he saw a post on the Telegram channel Ateo Breaking that read, “Kadyrovites have taken charge over captured nuclear sites. They’ve killed the staff responsible for nuclear safety. Terrorist groups have taken over nuclear sites — Podolyak.”
Alexey reposted the message in an anti-war chat. A month later, he found himself accused of disseminating “knowingly false information” about the war. The teen’s lawyer, Egor Solunin, told Meduza about the case.
Investigator Mikhail Tretyakov brought charges against the teen under Russian Criminal Code Article 207.3. The State Duma adopted this statute in a great rush back in March. The lawmakers made the amendments to a 2018 bill (which had already passed in its first reading) on March 3, and the next day, they gathered in an unscheduled plenary assembly and passed the bill in its second and third readings.
The new law came into force that same day. Immediately after its official publication, the text of the statute appeared on Russia’s Official Internet Portal for Legal Information. According to the metadata for the PDF file, the document was created at 11:00 p.m., Moscow time. Alexey reposted the message in the anti-war chat at 9:22 p.m., Moscow time (5:22 p.m., Novosibirsk time), also on that day.
After the repost, he wrote: “I hope that he [Podolyak] is lying […] because if he’s not, this might be the worst news of the 21st century.”
Persecuting opinions and facts
In addition to the law on “fakes,” on March 4, the State Duma approved punishments for “discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces. This can lead to either administrative or criminal charges; the latter are applied in cases of repeat violations within a year or when the actions in question lead to “serious consequences.” Disseminating “knowingly false information” about the military is automatically a criminal offense, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
“Roughly speaking, being charged with ‘discrediting’ means facing penalties for simply having an opinion, something that cannot be punishable in any way in a normal democratic society […] Criminal liability for ‘fakes’ means holding people liable for simply stating the facts,” said Pavel Chikov, head of the international human rights group Agora.
The very concept of “false information” is completely novel in Russian legislation, said lawyer Egor Solunin.
“The concept lacks a clear legal definition, and thus, it is not entirely understood how to determine the threat that ‘fakes’ actually pose to society. At the same time, various outlets are constantly releasing huge quantities of information, 80-90 percent of which is actually fake. People understandably want to discuss this information — to get input and assessments of it from the people they know, confirmation or denial. Naturally, these are not criminal acts.”
“The whole approach people are taking in cases regarding military ‘fakes’ was based on analogous legislation on coronavirus disinformation,” said Pavel Chikov. Russian Criminal Code Article 207.1, which outlines punishments of up to three years in prison for spreading “false information” about COVID-19, appeared in the spring of 2020. According to juridical statistics, over the course of the past two years, nine people have been charged with violating it.
“That article was formulated in the following way: any disseminated information that contradicted the official position of Rospotrebnadzor was to be considered fake,” Chikov said. “And that’s exactly the same way it is with military ‘fakes.’ Only the information disseminated by the Defense Ministry (or any other state organ) is considered reliable.”
Chikov explained that, “If the Defense Ministry were to say that the Russian army did not bomb the maternity hospital in Mariupol then anyone who publicly claims that this isn’t true is risking criminal liability.”
According to human rights organizations, 138 Russians have been charged with various legal violations for anti-war statements since February 24, 2022. Agora reported that at 46 of these people have been charged under the statute on “fakes,” including journalist Aleksander Nevrozov, former Meduza publisher and former Yandex.Lavka CEO Ilya Krasilshchik, blogger Veronika Belotserkovskaya, and politician Vladimir Kara-Murza.
‘They said they’d put his wife in prison’
People have been charged with disseminating “fake news” all across Russia — in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Tomsk and Kemerovo, Petrozavodsk and Magas. Police learn about “offenders” in all sorts of different ways, including through tips from concerned citizens. For example:
- At the end of March, a 75-year-old woman in St. Petersburg noticed that the price tags at a Perekrestok supermarket on Vasilyevsky Island had been replaced with anti-war stickers. The woman filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office (or the Interior Ministry, according to some reports) and on March 11, police arrested artist Sasha Skochilenko. She was sent to a pre-trial detention center and is now facing 5 to 10 years in prison on charges of disseminating “fakes” (in accordance with Criminal Code Article 207.3, part 2).
- Around the same time, a group of eighth graders from an Olympic reserve academy in Penza handed over a recording of their foreign language teacher Irina Gen to the police. The recording was of Gen trying to explain to her students why they would not be traveling to competitions in Europe. She expressed her opinion on the war in Ukraine, which differed from the official position. Now the 55-year-old teacher, like Sasha Skochilenko, is also facing real jail time.
Most often, law enforcement agencies like the FSB and Anti-Extremism Center (Center E) find “knowingly false information” themselves by monitoring social media.
For instance, on April 9, senior lieutenant A. A. Yuferev — a criminal intelligence investigator from the Kirov regional branch of the FSB’s Constitutional-System Protection and Anti-Terrorism Service — found a video clip on Instagram that said Russian troops had murdered civilians in Bucha. The video had been posted by 36-year-old Kirov resident Richard Rose. The authorities also found the same clip on the VKontakte page of 31-year-old Maria Rose, Richard’s wife.
On April 14, the couple were charged with disseminating “knowingly false information” about the Russian army “motivated by political hatred and enmity” (under Article 207.3, part 2). That same evening, the Roses’ apartment was searched, they were interrogated, and arrested. Richard was sent into pre-trial detention, while Maria was released on the condition of certain pre-trial restrictions, including a ban on using the Internet.
“Kirov is a small town — it’s not Moscow or St. Petersburg. There is no widespread protest movement here. I was actually really surprised that we had a case like this in Kirov,” said Inna Kosheleva, a lawyer who works with Agora. She began representing Richard, and then Maria, soon after their arrest.
The Roses are a young family. They have a six-year-old son, also named Richard. According to Richard senior (who answered Meduza’s questions from the pre-trial detention center through his lawyer), he has two college degrees — he’s a musician and a theater director by training, but he has never worked in this field. Instead he works in transportation and logistics, and was also a sound producer in a studio he opened with his friend.
Lately, Richard had been making ends meet as a bus driver. “Five years ago, Richard got in a car accident that resulted in a brain injury. I suspect that it hasn’t been fully treated because he still has a very serious hand tremor and really, a tremor all over his body,” said Kosheleva. “At the time of their arrest, Maria was not working.”
Richard refused to answer almost all questions during his interrogations, citing Article 51 of the Russian Constitution (the right to silence). But he did say that he has Ukrainian roots. As Richard explained to Meduza, his grandmother was born in the Lviv region of Ukraine. Rose also said he considers himself a Ukrainian because he is a “free man.” “Right now, being Ukrainian is a symbol of freedom and resilience,” wrote Rose. “They [the Ukrainians] have demonstrated how important it is to stand up for your home, your land, your democracy.”
“The authorities believe that he wanted to go there [to Ukraine],” said lawyer Inna Kosheleva.
As evidence of this, the investigators cited Richard’s phone conversations and Telegram chats (from March 29 to April 11, 2022). The FSB had received permission to monitor to his phone calls and read his messages in court on April 13, a day before the Roses’ arrest.
According to the investigators, at the end of March, Richard called the Ukrainian consulate in Armenia twice; he wanted to know how he could, as a Russian citizen, join Ukraine’s foreign legion (President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the formation of the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine on February 27). On Telegram, he got in touch with an unknown person with a Latvian phone number. He asked about the possibilities of 1) Evacuating his entire family from Russia and 2) Helping Ukraine. At approximately the same time, Maria Rose contacted the Municipal Services Center in order to change her and her son’s registered address. According to Richard, the family had been planning to move to Moscow.
Rose does not deny that these phone calls and correspondence took place, but says that the prosecution is drawing false conclusions. “I never even served in the army, I’m a pacifist,” he wrote to Meduza. “You can wage war without human casualties — information war, that is. Which I was waging, am waging, and will continue to wage.”
According to Richard, he suspected that his phone had been tapped and that’s why he “often provoked and trolled whoever was listening.”
Inna Kosheleva has never encountered cases where the court granted law enforcement permission to access Telegram correspondence. It’s also unclear when and how (whether it was before or after the Roses were arrested) the investigators received this access. The head of Agora, Pavel Chikov, said that the 2018 case on blocking Telegram cited legal precedents of allowing the authorities to access the correspondence of alleged terrorists. “But no one has seen the rulings themselves,” he underscored.
“Did you see how the active search measures were conducted, the framework for them? It’s not just the Defense Ministry… There were other agencies at work there,” said Kosheleva. “It’s very surprising to me why they would have been keeping such a close watch on him [Richard Rose].”
Unlike her husband, Maria Rose did not refuse to testify. During her first interrogation on April 14, in the presence of a court-appointed attorney, she stated that she had posted videos and images about the actions of the Russian army on VKontakte, in which she “assessed their actions negatively.” When the interrogator asked her what she thought of the Russian army, she answered that her opinion was equivocal: “I don’t know who is telling the truth and who is lying.” At the end of the interrogation, Rose said that she had “repented” and that she should have never posted anything on social media.
In a letter to Meduza, Richard Rose said that the authorities tried to force a confession out of him. “They held me at the FSB for six hours. They beat me and forced me to stand with my legs far apart and my hands handcuffed behind my back. They threatened to take revenge on my family.”
Lawyer Inna Kosheleva added that authorities made a second attempt to obtain a forced confession from Rose when he was in pre-trial detention (according to Richard, his case file was labeled “extremist,” which put him under increased surveillance). “Some officers showed up, he doesn’t remember their last names, and they tried to pressure him to confess,” his lawyer said. “They threatened him, told him they’d put his wife in prison, and so on. He’s more concerned about her than he is about himself.”
Meduza submitted questions about Richard Rose’s case to the FSB’s Kirov regional branch, but has yet to receive a response.
The selectiveness of the law
According to Agora head Pavel Chikov, in certain cases, anti-war protesters whose actions were “identical” to Sasha Skochilenko’s (the artist who replaced price tags at a supermarket with information about people killed in Mariupol) were only subject to administrative penalties under the article on “discrediting” the Russian military.
Such selectiveness has also been encountered in the other criminal charges that the Russian authorities have used as punishments for anti-war statements. Chikov brought up the example of felony vandalism (Criminal Code Article 214), which is second-most frequently invoked among criminal charges related to the war against Ukraine. There have been at least 27 such cases since February 24.
“In some regions, very similar actions have led to criminal charges [of vandalism], while in other regions, people are charged with administrative violations for ‘discrediting the armed forces.’ For instance, a young man in Krasnodar did an anti-war performance in which he set a chair on fire on a town square. Everything related to arson has counted as a criminal violation in other regions, while in Krasnodar, in this case, it did not. Why not? Hard to say. That was just the investigators’ choice,” Chikov explained.
The contradictions in how the article on “fakes” is applied is influenced by the fact that the precedents are in the process of being set, Chikov said. “There are no methodologies in place for which cases receive criminal charges and which ones don’t or how they should be investigated.”
Criminal Code Article 207.3 consists of three parts:
- Under part one, the accused faces up to three years of incarceration, or a fine ranging from 700,000 to 1.5 million rubles ($10,800 to $23,000), or community service for up to one year, or compulsory labor for up to three years.
- Part two is applied if the act was perpetrated a) by a person through their official position, b) by a group, c) together with the artificial creation of evidence for prosecution, d) for financial gain, or e) “out of hatred for a specific social group.” This charge carries penalties of five to ten years in prison, or a fine ranging from 3–5 million rubles ($46,000 to $77,000), or compulsory labor for up to five years.
- Part three is applied if the action has led to “serious consequences.” This carries punishments of 10 to 15 years in prison. What exactly these “serious consequences” may be is not defined in the law.
“The first month [after the law was passed], the majority of cases came under the first part,” Chikov said. “Then, it feels like there was a political decision made to begin applying the second section — as a rule, invoking the ‘political hatred’ clause, but also, in a number of cases, for using [one’s] official position. Because these are already serious crimes, there is also clearly a political decision to keep the accused in custody when their charges fall in this category.”
Lawyer Inna Kosheleva believes that there is nothing unusual about the fact that prosecutors prefer to initiate cases using the second, more serious part of the article on “fakes.”
“When I was still in [law] school in the early nineties, our criminal justice teacher always told us, ‘Lay more than enough [charges]. What doesn’t apply will fall off in court. But if you charge people with less, you won’t be able to get more serious charges later on’,” Kosheleva said. “It’s been so many years but all of the prosecutors still work by this logic.”
‘Put your ******* hands on the desk’
Altan Ochirov is a 40-year-old expert who works for the municipal government in Elista (the capital of Russia’s Republic of Kalmykia). He has been in custody on charges of disseminating “false information” about the Russian military for a month now.
As seen in police footage released by the FSB, on the morning of April 12, Ochirov was sitting at his desk when people in camouflage uniforms and masks ran into his office screaming, “Put your ******* hands on the desk! Hands on the desk, bitch!”. In a moment of confusion, Ochirov instead raised his hands in the air. The men tackled him, threw him on the ground, and started beating him. They didn’t stop when he told them his cellphone password or even after they handcuffed his hands behind his back.
“Can I put my shoe back on?” Altan Ochirov asked Konstantin Mandzhikov, a senior investigator from the regional branch of the Investigative Committee (Mandzhikov’s name isn’t mentioned in police video, but it appears on the search protocol). At this point, the men had picked him up off the floor. After he was granted permission to put the shoe that had flown off his foot back on, Ochirov added: “I am innocent, I do not plead guilty.”
“You’ll tell me that a little later,” the investigator replied.
Later that day, Ochirov was charged under two clauses of Article 207.3, part 2. According to the prosecutors, he had published “false information regarding the number of casualties among the troops and the circumstances of the special operation in Ukraine” on a Telegram channel he had allegedly created, called “Volny Ulus.” What information was actually shared isn’t clear from the documents at Meduza’s disposal.
According to the prosecution, Ochirov was acting “intentionally, out of hatred toward the troops of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation as a social group” and used his official position “against the interests of the service” while using his office computer and Internet network.
The case materials include evidence against Ochirov collected by district police officers working at his address in Elista. In one of these reports, it states that Ochirov has “shown himself to be a negative person, inclined to lying, and secretive by nature.” It also claims that he had already been charged with taking part in a criminal racket (under Criminal Code Article 159, section 4). When speaking with Meduza, Ochirov’s lawyer Igor Koldunov said that his client doesn’t have a criminal record. The police report also said that in February 2022, a court had fined Ochirov 1,000 rubles ($15) for “displaying Nazi symbols” on social media (a misdemeanor offense). Thus, the police concluded that Ochirov “doesn’t draw the proper conclusions for himself and shows no obvious desire to break away from criminal subculture.”
“Way back in the ’90s, I was an investigator for the prosecutor’s office myself,” Igor Koldunov said. “Sometimes you’d arrest someone, call the local police, and tell them, we need a character report. The police would ask, ‘Positive or negative?’.”
Altan Ochirov has been divorced since 2018. He has two children. “Altan is a responsible, caring father. He is completely devoted to his kids,” a friend of Altan’s, who asked to remain anonymous, told Meduza. “He always does everything with his own hands. He loves gardening, cooking, he even bakes. He’s a fair, hardworking, and responsible person.”
According to the case files, Ochirov is an “active member of the non-systemic opposition” in Kalmykia. Ochirov’s friend said that before his arrest, Altan liked to read Meduza. However, according Ochirov’s friend and his lawyer, he does not run the “Volny Ulus” Telegram channel. The channel’s anonymous administrators also refuted this claim. “The channel’s owner is abroad,” lawyer Igor Koldunov said. “It was in February, or maybe March, when the [channel's owner] made Altan the second moderator.”
The lawyer does not agree that the charges of disseminating “knowingly false information through [his] official position” apply to Ochirov. “This qualifying tag,” Koldunov explained, “is usually tied to violations taking place in the course of fulfilling the accused’s professional duties. The fact that it was his work computer — I feel like that’s a completely misleading phrasing.” Moreover, said the lawyer, Ochirov denies that he ever posted anything from his work computer.
After he was place in pre-trial detention, Altan Ochirov wrote a letter that his lawyer shared with Meduza. It reads as follows:
“It’s true: I was involved in a conspiratorial organization with Mahatma Gandhi, Andrei Sakharov, Valeria Novodvorskaya, and Pope Francis. Having deserted my civilian life for an Elista pre-trial detention center, I have committed a crime against the following people: 1) My spouse, having left her alone to deal with the problems I created; 2) My children, age 6 and 11, having left them without paternal care; 3) My mother, age 83, who was politically repressed when she was 3 years old, having left her without a son’s care. Please forgive me, I could not have acted otherwise.”
‘Alarm, fear, anxiety, and defenselessness on the part of the state’
Sixty-year old activist Alexey Gorinov, a municipal deputy from Moscow, is also facing charges for spreading “false information” about the Russian Armed Forces. The authorities launched a criminal case against him on April 25 and Gorinov was indicted on May 1.
“The investigation lasted a total of five days,” said Sergey Telnov, the deputy’s lawyer. The case will soon go to trial, he added, and the defense was given just two days to study the case materials.
Gorinov was charged in connection with remarks he made during a discussion that took place a meeting of the Krasnoselsky District Council of Deputies on March 15.
“How can we talk about a children’s drawing contest for Children’s Day, or organizing dance recitals for Victory Day when there are children dying every day?” Gorinov asked his colleagues at the meeting. “For you information, I will say that nearly 100 children have already died in Ukraine, and that every day, more children are being orphaned. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of World War II survivors have been thrown into the fire of these combat operations. I believe that all of the efforts of our civil society should be directed exclusively at stopping the war and getting the Russian troops out of Ukraine.”
Municipal Deputy Elena Kotenochkina supported Gorinov’s speech, and investigators later brought analogous charges against her for disseminating “false information.” According to Gorinov’s lawyer, the indictment accuses the two deputies of being part of a “prior criminal conspiracy,” developing a “plan for perpetrating crimes,” and choosing “criminal roles” for themselves to play.
Kotenochkina and Gorinov stand accused of publicly discrediting Russian troops, “using [their] official positions.” The deputies were supposedly “motivated by political hatred” and “anticipating the inevitable, socially-dangerous consequences” of their actions. The authorities allege that they knew their actions would lead to “alarm, fear, anxiety, and defenselessness on the part of the state.”
The investigators learned about these alleged crimes from various sources, said Sergey Telnov. Among these sources were two State Duma lawmakers who reported Gorinov and Kotenochkina to the prosecutor’s office — United Russia’s Aleksander Khinshtein and Oleg Leonov (an independent).
“The case materials include at least ten witness testimonies from the investigation. A lot of them have word-for-word identical paragraphs,” the lawyer added. He quoted one of the witnesses testimonies:
“Kotenochkina made calls to end the military operation for the defense of the citizens of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics and the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine. It seems that Kotenochkina is intentionally justifying the actions of the Neo-nazi groups fighting on the side of Ukraine, who are also perpetrating repressive policies toward the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.
I think that some people who see these videos may, taking into account Kotenochkina’s official position, take her words to be the truth and then form negative opinions of our citizens and the leadership of our country. I believe that her actions must not go unpunished.”
According to Telnov, the same testimony was provided in Gorinov’s case, as well. Alexey Gorinov refused to answer investigators’ questions, citing Article 51 of the Russian Constitution (the right to silence). “Alexey still doesn’t understand the essence of the charges against him. And honestly, neither do I,” said the lawyer.
Telnov is sure that the accusations “have absolutely no basis.” “Why do they believe that this is deliberately false information?” The lawyer wondered. “He [Gorinov] never read the Defense Ministry briefs and, in fact, wasn’t released from the special detention center until March 10 — he was jailed for 15 days for participating in a non-violent anti-war protest. He didn’t have any kind of information about what was going on in the world.”
* * *
“I never intended to confuse anyone by spreading deliberately false information under the guise of it being credible. Everything I said at the Council of Deputies meeting reflected my personal opinion and convictions,” Alexey Gorinov said in response to the accusations against him during his final interrogation.
Gorinov’s lawyer maintains that Article 207.3 is unlawful. He also drew attention to how it’s worded. “If you interpret it literally (and every lawyer must interpret every law literally, to the letter) then it turns out that [you could be held] liable under this article for spreading false information — presented as credible — about the Russian Armed Forces acting to maintain international peace and security,” Telnov explained. “Departing from this, I can’t understand the merit of claims against Gorinov at all.”
Despite the fact that people charged under Article 207.3 are being accused of distributing “knowingly false information,” investigators aren’t doing anything to prove that they “knew” what they were doing. “It’s being presented as though, since the person has disseminated the information, it means they did it knowingly,” said Pavel Chikov.
“In my 20 years of experience, I have constantly come across the fact that nobody is prepared to prove that there has been a crime in accordance with all the rules regarding the legally-defined crime and all the circumstances of the case,” said lawyer Inna Kosheleva. “The investigators just copy and paste the description from the statute and act like that is enough. No matter how much we say in court that there is no evidence of this qualification, it doesn’t mean anything to them.”
There has yet to be a verdict in any case concerning “false information” about the Russian military — but Pavel Chikov believes the courts will likely side with investigators. “Administrative cases on the dissemination of ‘coronavirus fakes’ were terminated precisely on the grounds that there was no proof of knowledge. But criminal cases are usually much harder to stop.”
The lawyer is convinced that the political element is what will make terminating these cases so difficult. “It’s obvious that the purpose of these criminal cases is to prevent the viral spread of anti-war rallies, performances, and other protests,” Chikov said. “They want to nab all initiatives in the information space.”
Translation by Bela Shayevich