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Monday, March 4, 2024

Ahead of New Year holiday, Russia sentences more people to prison

Ahead of New Year holiday, Russia sentences more people to prison

As Russians prepare for their own holiday season, the government’s crackdown on political activists and citizens who have voiced their opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, does not appear to be taking a break.

On Friday, a court in Siberia sentenced a former head of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s local headquarters to nine years in a penal colony. And on Thursday, two Russian poets who publicly staged antiwar poetry readings in a central Moscow square, were sentenced to seven and five-and-half years in prison respectively.

Alarm bells have also been sounded over the deteriorating health of two other men who are serving long sentences for antiwar statements, with their lawyers saying they are afraid the men could die in prison.

Missing Russian dissident Navalny located in penal colony in Siberia

The latest convictions and sentences follow the news that well-known dissident Alexei Navalny finally resurfaced at a penal colony above the Arctic Circle, after his whereabouts remained unknown for almost three weeks, sending panic through his supporters and opposition circles.

The latest developments indicate that Russia’s repressive machine shows no signs of slowing down, and form part of a broadening political crackdown, where Russians are handed sentences on increasingly absurd and conflated charges, often under wartime censorship laws such as spreading “fake news” or “discrediting” Russia’s armed forces, as well as “inciting terrorism.”

The number of treason cases was two and a half times higher in 2023 than it was the previous year, with at least 37 such cases, according to First Department, a Russian watchdog. While OVD-Info, another watchdog group, has documented 776 criminal cases brought against citizens for antiwar protests or statements since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Igor Baryshnikov, a 64-year-old anti-government activist was sentenced this June to a seven-and-a-half-year prison term for posting about Bucha and Mariupol on Facebook. His lawyer says he is in severe pain and needs surgery.

Former Moscow municipal deputy Alexei Gorinov, 62, who went missing for over two weeks, resurfaced at a prison hospital in Vladimir earlier this week. His lawyers have also sounded the alarm over his health. In 2022 he received seven years for spreading misinformation about the Russian army.

The crackdown now appears to be extending to LGBTQ+ groups and anything the government dubs as an expression of LGBTQ+ identity, as President Vladimir Putin has singled them and antiwar activists out as scapegoats. In a Nov. 30 ruling, Russia’s Supreme Court endorsed a Justice Ministry application to ban the “international LGBT public movement” as an extremist organization, following other repressive laws.

A raunchy party for Moscow’s elites earlier this month drew the ire of Russian politicians and Christian Orthodox activists, leading to police investigations and a tearful public apology after the partygoers were accused of violating laws prohibiting “gay propaganda.”

One rapper, who attended the party in nothing but a sock, was arrested for 15 days for hooliganism and “spreading gay propaganda.” The scandal has highlighted how increasingly anything that deviates from Russia’s conservative patriotism will not be tolerated.

On Friday, Ksenia Fadeeva, the former head of Navalny’s political headquarters in Tomsk, in Siberia, received a nine-year sentence in a penal colony and fined 500,000 rubles ($5,500), after she was found guilty of organizing the activities of an extremist group. Russian authorities designated Navalany’s Anti-Corruption Foundation an extremist group in 2021.

“Ksenia is wonderful, brave and honest,” wrote Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokesperson, on X, formerly Twitter. “Ksenia did not commit any crime, she is a brave politician who has been fighting against Putin’s corrupt regime,” read a statement from the Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Fadeeva, an elected city councilor who won the election despite monumental odds, was arrested in 2021. She was emblematic of Navalny’s — and the opposition’s — potential in Russia’s far-flung regions.

Fadeeva joins a growing list of former Navalny staffers who have been handed long prison sentences for their work, including Lilia Chanysheva from the city of Ufa, sentenced to seven and a half years and Vadim Ostanin of Barnaul, serving nine years.

Meanwhile, in a dramatic verdict, Russian poets Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtoyba were sentenced to seven and five and a half years respectively on Thursday, after a Moscow court found them guilty of calling for action against the state.

Prosecutors accused the poets of holding “anti-mobilization” readings, after they were detained in September 2022 when they publicly criticized Putin’s “partial” mobilization drive through poetry readings in a central Moscow square that has historically served as a spot for dissident readings and speeches.

Kamardin was reportedly hospitalized following his arrest and alleged that police beat him and raped him with a dumbbell. “What have I done that’s illegal? Read poetry?” said Shtovba in his closing speech in court.

Kamardin, meanwhile, told the judge: “I fear that neither my physical nor mental health will withstand prolonged imprisonment.”

“My convictions will not change, as they didn’t under torture, they wouldn’t with a real sentence, and they wouldn’t even under the threat of death,” he said.

Kamardin’s wife, Alexandra Popova, was reportedly dragged from the courtroom after she started chanting “shame” in response to the convictions, and was detained alongside other supporters and journalists.

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