Vladimir Akimenkov / novayagazeta.ru

Russians actually go to jail for supporting Ukraine on social networks – Former Russian political prisoner

09:00, 27 April 2016
417 0 Interview

Former prisoner in a so-called "Bolotnaya case" Vladimir Akimenkov has told an UNIAN correspondent in Moscow how people get persecuted in Russia for dissent, as the expression of points of view may equal extremism.

The Russian government, having taken control of almost all the country’s media, is trying to gain full control, over the minds of its citizens. The authorities are pursuing this goal not only through propaganda, but also by tightening legislation on combating dissent. The Russian security forces have been recently targeting the Russians who in one way or another express support for Ukraine or dare condemn Russia’s aggressive foreign policy.

One of the main Russian bogeyman stories is "extremism." Especially if it’s about the “Ukrainian issue.” The situation with the Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow is a perfect example. The library director, Natalia Sharina, has been under house arrest for almost six months. However, there are actually much more “Ukraine-related” criminal cases being opened in Russia. And the Russian citizens are being charged with all kinds of extremism way too often.

UNIAN sat down with the former prisoner in the so-called "Bolotnaya case," Vladimir Akimenkov. He is one of those who attended the March of Millions – a Moscow rally held on May 6, 2012, on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration. That rally ended in clashes with police, and more than 400 protesters were detained. To date, several dozen people were sentenced to actual prison terms for "participation in mass disorder" and "use of violence against a government official."

Vladimir Akimenkov calls himself "ex-political prisoner," as he has been repeatedly taken to court for "thoughtcrimes." Now he is trying to help the people alike – those whom the Russian state persecutes for political reasons. According to him, it has become extremely dangerous to publicly support Ukraine in Russia. But what’s even more peculiar, the Russian law enforcement system begins to wipe out the "Russian patriots" who took direct part in the takeover of Crimea and hostilities in Donbas.

Vladimir, what do you know about the persecution in Russia of people who publicly support Ukraine?

After the Maidan, the Ukrainian issue has taken a significant share in the flow of political repression in Russia. Over the past two years, there have been a lot of political cases both in Moscow, and across our country. They related to information materials, reposts (!!!) on social networks, comments under online articles, and other ways of self-expression. The State persecutes people for the so-called “thoughtcrimes.”

A man could be charged for an art performance, making it a criminal offense. An artist Petr Pavlensky is being tried in court just for that. In Saratov there is a case against Andrei Martsev, who was accused of extremism for the image of a red and black flag [the colors used, inter alia, by the Right Sector organization in Ukraine widely feared in Russia as a quintessence of a made-up “Ukrainian threat”], which is banned in Russia. There are plenty of similar cases in various regions across Russia. People are persecuted for "vandalism" when they spray-paint something, such as a statue of Lenin, in the colors of the Ukrainian state flag.

The recent trend is that the people are thrown in jail for expressing their opinion, their political position. And the courts increasingly sentence these people to actual prison terms.

Can you tell us more about the persecution for, as you say, "thoughtcrimes"?

I'm working on the case of Andrei Bubeyev from Tver, who has been doing time since last spring for reposts in "Vkontakte" [a Facebook-type Russian social network]. He only had 12 online friends, the page was only accessible to authorized users. In August 2015, he was sentenced to a one-year imprisonment in a penal colony on charges of inciting extremism on the national basis or a basis of being part of a particular social group. He was also accused of storing several cartridges matching the caliber of his hunting rifle. He will serve 10 months of his one-year prison term for “extremism,” which was reposting articles and images on political issues. For almost a year Andrei has been in jail. And, after the sentence came into force, he was not transferred to the colony, because the FSB [Russia’s Federal  Security Service] launched a new criminal investigation into the alleged calls for extremism, aimed, inter alia, against Russia's territorial integrity. The case was initiated into the fact of his repost of in Vkontakte of an article by Boris Stomakhin titled "Crimea is Ukraine" and an image of a tube of toothpaste, painted in the colors of the Russian flag, signed "push Russia out of you." Moreover, at the time of publication, this article has not been recognized as extremist.

My friends and I are trying to help Bubeyev’s family – we do fundraising, visit court hearings, attract moral support. For example, people began writing letters to Andrei Bubeyev...

In general, many of my fellow Bolotnaya protesters, upon being released from jail, got involved in social activities immediately. I stress, it’s the people who are tried in the regions, need support the most. There they find themselves alone with their troubles. They almost have no friends and allies. Sometimes, even relatives turn away from them. It is very important people pay attention to such cases, so we pull them into the spotlight. For example, in the spring of last year, we were engaged in a case of an anarchist from Ivanovo, Yelizaveta Lisitsyna, whom the prosecutors sought to charge her of "public calls to extremist activity" in relation to her pro-Ukrainian reposts in social networks. Her case ended with a fine of RUB 100,000. We collected the required sum quite fast, and after the amnesty, that money was transferred to other convicts...

I cannot but remind you of the case of Dmitry Bychkov, who was convicted for public justification of terrorism. The image he reposted depicted a live round with the caption "The only argument that the authorities are willing to hear, for the rest there are liberal rallies." Bychkov added a comment to the image: "I agree with Max, terrorism should become a fashion among the general population..."

How many people were persecuted in Russia for their reposts in social networks and publications in support of Ukraine, according to your information?

If we talk about the "Ukrainian cases," there are dozens of convicted citizens across the country. The human rights center Sova [Owl] keeps track of the use of a so-called anti-extremism legislation. Personally, I cannot talk about all Ukraine-related cases. Many activists and bloggers were forced to go into political exile. This is despite the fact that your country does not grant political asylum to all of them. I adamantly oppose the government persecution of the people for their words, for “thoughtcrimes.” Our group opposes Article 282 ["incitement of hatred or hostility, and humiliation of human dignity"] and similar articles, which have been actively applied in the Russian Federation – for the reposts, leaflets, speeches at the rallies.

Is there any information on what the percentage is of the Russian citizens prosecuted for "extremism" who were pro-Ukrainian and, thus, actually suffered for Ukraine?

The Supreme Court has published a report stating that 544 cases were opened into the extremism-related crimes. This also applies to the so-called “thoughtcrime” – for self-expression on social networks. Several dozen people were held in pre-trial detention facilities or sentenced to actual prison terms.

Previously, such sentences were extremely rare. Now the screws are getting tightened, the new offenses are being introduced in the Penal Code of a formally terrorist and extremist nature. Prison terms are being extended. In other words, Russia’s punitive machine is gaining momentum. Anti-extremism police units need to constantly justify their existence, so they are on the hunt. Especially careful should be the people with an active civil position in the country’s regions – all of them are under a magnifying glass. Meanwhile, 200 Russians applied for political asylum in Ukraine, with some of them being persecuted in Russia exactly for their pro-Ukrainian posts on Facebook or Vkontakte.

Are there any criteria that are used to persecute people? Obviously, not all of them are ground by the system...

Well, they don’t imprison people for the likes on social media so far – this is the reality in Belarus, but there are a lot of cases for reposts, including those ending with actual prison sentences. It is difficult to forget the case of, perhaps, one of the high-profile Russian journalists, prisoners of conscience, Boris Stomakhin, who adheres to a firm pro-Ukrainian position. It calls for the destruction of Russia, seeing it as a salvation for the people of Europe and Asia. Mr. Stomakhin has already been convicted three times and is now serving his second sentence for “thoughtcrimes.” His term is from 2012 to 2019.

I would like to note that the public understands some political prisoners and feels sorry for their families, but it’s not always the case. That is why I, along with other former political prisoners in the "Bolotnaya case" engage in the cases of the so-called uncomfortable political prisoners.

How is your support expressed?

In our group there is a lawyer, I draw attention to the case, helping in fundraising, constantly exchanging letters with a large number of political prisoners; if necessary, we attend the court hearings.

How can an ordinary citizen understand, for what repost he might get in prison?

The procedure is very despicable. The thing is, it can affect anyone, not necessarily some well-known political activist and human rights defender. It depends on how “lucky” you are. I should add that in Russia there is a so-called list of extremists and terrorists made up by Rosfinmonitoring: the people convicted under these articles are banned from carrying out financial transactions. They can only cash their social benefits by court order as well as get pensions and salaries under RUB 10,000 per month. They can’t get a job either. In other words, if they do not have friends and relatives, these people are doomed to starvation. The list already consists of more than 5,000 names, and it is constantly being updated. It is made up of very different people: from distributors of leaflets or those who made an unfortunate repost to radical Islamists from the North Caucasus. Most of the criminal cases affect ordinary citizens in the best sense of this word – not some activists, but simply the people with an active social position.

The most important thing is not to hide in potholes, but is very difficult, especially for the people in the regions. It is necessary to defend your rights with the greatest efficiency, thinking your steps through and doing everything possible so that the security forces had as few reasons to get to you as possible. For example, I choose my words when I post something on the internet, but it does not mean that I'm lying. We can express our point of view, including using the so-called Aesop language. We need to act wisely, the main thing is to not be afraid. Authorities provoke people to fear, and fear is ruining the country and corrodes society.

What is the main goal of the Russian authorities in taking such harsh action against the Russians who support Ukraine?

The Ukrainian theme is important, but it’s not only Ukraine because which people are persecuted. When political oppression is starting – not individual anymore, but not yet massive – the authorities are making it clear that we should not fight for our rights and speak out; that it’s better to sit quietly and not go anywhere, not to "rock the boat."

That is, when they locked up Bubeyev – that was an attempt to intimidate the Tver residents; when they convicted 35 "Bolotnaya protesters” – they put pressure on Moscow protests, to discourage the people from taking to the streets...

The authorities crack down on any political opponents. By the way, they don’t need those guys who rushed to seize Crimea and try to create Novorossiya [in eastern Ukraine]. The situation is simple here: the Moor has done his job, the Moor can go. That is to say, the Kremlin has used the reactionist elements as expendables, so now it is getting rid of them. Criminal cases are also launched against them, while in the so-called “DPR-LPR” they are being thrown in the basements.

In Russia, top leaders of the "Russian Spring" movement might as well get physically terminated. The Kremlin can only rely on fully controlled forces, so it will press out the others. For example, the criminal cases are now being opened against the supporters of Eduard Limonov [former leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party, following the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, he has emerged as a strong supporter of Putin on Russia's nationalist right], who were so happy to back the Kremlin's course and took active part in foreign “adventures” of Putin’s regime. And now they are screaming: "Wait, we're patriots!", "Krymnash!" [Crimea is ours!], "Let us unite!”, and “This is all done by Ukrainian agents of influence in the Kremlin..."

Roman Tsymbaliuk, Moscow

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