At least 60 criminal cases initiated over peaceful anti-war protests or public criticism of the authorities

Cases include prominent food blogger and perestroika-era journalist, and a crackdown on street art and graffiti

‘The Kremlin seeks to crush those who oppose the conflict – or at least create the impression that such resistance does not exist’ – Marie Struthers

No to war’ poster at a railway station in Moscow earlier this month © Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty ImagesNo to war’ poster at a railway station in Moscow earlier this month © Ko

The Russian authorities have conducted a “witch-hunt” against anti-war protesters and influential government critics for expressing opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Amnesty International said today, one month on from the start of the crackdown.  

At least 60 criminal cases have so far been initiated over peaceful anti-war protests or public criticism of the Russian authorities, according to Agora, a Russian human rights group. They are being investigated under 14 separate articles of Russia’s criminal code. 

At least 46 people have faced criminal charges, with nine taken into custody and three confined under house arrest. According to Agora, they’ve been charged with a range of “crimes”, including insulting government officials, libel, inciting extremist activities, inciting mass riots, hatred and fraud, and the desecration of burial sites.

At least ten of these cases saw individuals investigated under a new law which criminalises acts deemed to “discredit” Russia’s armed forces – with those found guilty punishable by up to ten years in prison, or 15 years if the actions caused “grave consequences”. On 4 March, this legislation was passed unanimously by both chambers of the Russian parliament and signed into law by President Putin on the same day. On 22 March, the law was expanded to criminalise the sharing of “fake news” about any activities of Russian government officials abroad.   

On 16 March, Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a gastronomy blogger with 850,000 Instagram followers, became the first individual charged under the new law. She was charged with sharing “knowingly false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces to destroy cities and the civilian population of Ukraine, including children”.  

Sergey Klokov, a technician at the Moscow City Police Department, was the first person taken into custody under this law after being arrested on 18 March. According to his lawyer, he was charged with spreading “fake news” during phone calls with residents of Crimea and the Moscow region. 

More cases followed. On 22 March, Aleksandr Nevzorov, a prominent journalist who became well-known during the perestroika period, was charged with sharing “false information” about Russia’s attack on the maternity hospital in Mariupol after criticising the shelling in an Instagram post on 9 March. On 25 March, Izabella Yevloyeva, a journalist from Ingushetia, was charged after sharing a post on social media that described the Russian armed forces’ pro-war “Z” symbol as being “synonymous with aggression, death, pain and shameless manipulation”. 

Anti-war opinions are also being prosecuted using other repressive articles of the criminal code. On 18 March, Andrey Boyarshinov, a civil society activist from Kazan, was charged with “justifying terrorism” and placed under house arrest for two months over anti-war messages he shared on a Telegram channel. Similarly, on 24 March, Irina Bystrova, an art teacher from Petrozavodsk, was charged with sharing “fake news” and “justifying terrorism” in relation to posts she shared on VKontakte, a Russian social media site.

Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director, said:

“Russia’s criminal justice system is being used as a tool to curb free speech, punish dissenting voices and instill fear in the wider population.

“By embarking on this unrelenting witch-hunt, the Russian authorities show they are capable of bringing charges against absolutely anyone.

“The Kremlin seeks to crush those who oppose the conflict – or at least create the impression that such resistance does not exist.

“This heinous campaign of repression against critics of the state who are bravely standing up against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must stop now.

“All charges brought against those who have expressed anti-war opinions must be urgently dropped, and all those detained must be immediately and unconditionally released.”

Street art and graffiti protests

As public criticism of the war in Ukraine mounts, the Russian authorities have also sought to criminalise street art and graffiti. At least nine activists and street artists have been charged for producing graffiti that is “motivated by hatred” – a crime that could see them imprisoned for up to three years. Cases include: 

-On 18 March, Leonid Chernyi, a street artist from Yekaterinburg, was detained for putting up stickers that said “GruZ 200” – the official code word for military casualties. He was accused of “public intoxication” and charged with “vandalism”.  

-On 20 March, Dmitry Kozyrev, a resident of Tula, a city in western Russia, was detained for writing “War is a requiem for common sense” on the walls of the city’s kremlin fortress building.

-On 23 March, Saint Petersburg resident Nikolay Vorotnyov was taken into custody for painting the Ukrainian flag on a World War II howitzer in an open-air war museum. 

While Amnesty accepts that the authorities can legitimately sanction graffiti, Amnesty is gravely concerned at the imposition of particularly harsh penalties for political expression.