Crimean journalist prosecuted and declared a ‘foreign agent’ for opposing Russia’s war against Ukraine
At least 200 prosecutions for supposedly ‘discrediting the Russian army’ have been passed to Russian-controlled ‘courts’ in occupied Crimea. Russia has already enabled prisoners convicted of the gravest crimes to gain ‘a pardon’ and even ‘hero’ status by fighting in Ukraine. It is now planning to legislate impunity for war crimes committed ‘in Russia’s interests’, while aggressively fining or imprisoning those who write of the war crimes, or simply say ‘no to war’.
Anastasia Zhvyk, a journalist from Sevastopol, has been fined twice for supposedly ‘discrediting the Russian army’. The charges are preposterous, but, for the moment, are at least administrative proceedings. That could, however, change. The draconian silencing laws rushed into force on 4 March 2022 enable criminal charges to be laid merely if a person has already faced one administrative prosecution that year. At present, this possibility is being used very selectively, against those that the regime clearly wishes to imprison.
Zhvyk, who is just 26, was added to Russia’s notorious list of so-called ‘foreign agents’ back in December 2022. She has, apparently, written for Medusa (also labelled a ‘foreign agent’) and ‘Takiye Dela”. As well as being aimed at stigmatizing individuals or organizations, the labelling as a ‘foreign agent’ results in onerous restrictions and demands to account to the authorities.
Zhvyk’s first administrative prosecution came just days after the full-scale invasion, and the passing, ten days later, of the law on so-called ‘fakes’ and ‘discrediting the Russian army’. Zhvyk told Crimean Realities that the full-scale invasion had come as a total shock to her. By the following day, she had stuck a ‘No to war’ sticker on her car. By 8 March, administrative proceedings had been initiated against her, with the sticker claimed to be ‘discrediting the Russian armed forces’ (Article 20.3.3). She was fined 30 thousand roubles for this in June 2022, with her appeal against the ruling rejected.
The journalist explains that for some time after this, she was nervous, as she knew that a so-called ‘repeat offence’ could result in criminal charges. These are under either Article 280.3 of Russia’s criminal code (public actions aimed at discrediting the Russian armed forces; carrying a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment) or Article 207.3 (‘fakes’ about the armed forces – up to 15 years). She had also been the target of hate speech in the media and certain particularly scurrilous Telegram channels, and had even received death threats.
She had initially been very frightened, and “listened to footsteps on the landing” of those coming to arrest her. Then she got used to it and continued on with her life.
In October, however, new administrative charges (under the same article) were initiated and Zhvyk subjected to a search, during which the enforcement officers removed her laptop and mobile phone. The prosecution reached the Russian-controlled ‘Leninsky district court’ in Sevastopol in January 2023, with ‘judge’ Yulia Sergeevna Stepanova finding her guilty of ‘discrediting the Russian armed forces’ and imposing a 40-thousand rouble fine.
The ‘court’ ruling states that one of Zhvyk’s social media posts contained a photo with the words ‘FUCK WAR’ and a text containing the words: “Blood pours from my eyes when I see ‘sieg heils’ around [the term used normally refers to the Nazi salute, but it is possible that here the ‘Z’ that has become a symbol for Russia’s war of aggression is meant. Another of the photos has the words ‘NO TO WAR’ as well as the following text: “It is always darkest before the dawn. The darkness will undoubtedly be replaced by the sun. The question is when is it darkest of us – is it totally dark now? Or will it still be worse. I suspect the latter.”
Since these are the bits that are quoted, it was presumably in these that the ‘judge’ clamed that Zhvyk had ‘discredited the armed forces’. Stepanova’s ruling reads that, through her posts, Zhvyk “undermined faith” in the 22 February 2024 decision which permitted the use of Russian armed forces outside of Russian territory, and that she had therefore committed the administrative ‘offence’ under Article 20.3.3 § 1 of the Russian code of administrative offences.
Zhvyk was not herself present in ‘court’ and is outraged that the representative of the prosecution claimed that she had admitted ‘guilt’ with this treated as an extenuating circumstances. On the contrary, Zhvyk rejects the charge and plans to appeal, though is aware the chance of success is minimal. “I don’t understand how it’s possible to admit to being guilty of saying that something white is white, and something black – black,” she says.
Russian occupation ‘courts’ have been imposing absurd fines or terms of imprisonment since the full-scale invasion began, with many of these merely for saying ‘Glory to Ukraine!’, for Ukrainian symbols or for Ukrainian songs. Several Crimean Tatars or other Ukrainians have, for example, faced fines and / or been jailed for up to 15 days for singing or playing (at a wedding) the Ukrainian patriotic song ‘Chervona Kalyna’ or Red Vibernum.
Criminal charges are also being applied. In July 2022, Oleksandr Tarapon was sentenced to two and a half years’ harsh-regime imprisonment after posting a placard with the words ‘‘War criminal and child killer’ on the gate of a relative who was directly involved in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was claimed that this constituted circulation of ‘knowingly false information about a member of the Russian Federation armed forces’. Tarapon denied the charges, and appealed against the sentence but this was rejected.
Andriy Bielozierov is currently under house arrest and facing criminal charges under the article on ‘discrediting the Russian army’. This is the largest stage in his persecution, since he lost his job as a lecturer in September 2022, was beaten by enforcement officers and spent two brief terms of imprisonment for Ukrainian songs, including one about Bayraktar drones.