war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Imprisoned Russian poet Alexander Byvshev charged with ‘calls to terrorism’ for poem condemning Russia’s war against Ukraine

Halya Coynash
Alexander Byvshev has refused to be silent about Russia’s aggression despite persecution since 2014. He is now, however, facing a likely long term of imprisonment for no more than naming Russia’s war crimes

Alexander Byvshev Photo Vlad Dokshin, Novaya Gazeta

Alexander Byvshev Photo Vlad Dokshin, Novaya Gazeta

Russian poet Alexander Byvshev has been imprisoned in Russia since February 2023 over a four-line poem about Russia’s war against Ukraine.  He is now facing additional criminal charges for posting an entirely truthful statement about the war crimes that Russia is committing. Byvshev has openly condemned Russia’s aggression and spoken out in support of Ukraine since 2014, with this resulting in constant harassment and numerous prosecutions.  This time, however, he is facing a potentially long sentence for his poetry and refusal to remain silent.

Byvshev (b. 1972) is from Kromy in Oryol oblast where, until he was dismissed for poems protesting Russia’s invasion of Crimea, he worked in a school, teaching German.  Byvshev was arrested on 2 February 2023 and has been in detention ever since.  He is accused of ‘public calls to carry out terrorist activities’ in the media or on the Internet under Article 205.2 § 2 of Russia’s criminal code. Although the sentence envisages anything from a steep fine to up to five years’ imprisonment, the fact that Byvshev has already been in custody for over nine months suggests that a custodial sentence is likely.  So too does the recent laying of new criminal charges.

The ‘calls to terrorism’ charge is over a 4-line verse posted on Facebook.  This reads as follows: “Missiles are being fired at Ukraine, the Kremlin has spurned conscience and morality.  Officer’s honour, where are you?  Where is the Russian Stauffenberg?”

This poem might well have prompted criminal charges under the draconian legislation rushed through within ten days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however the enforcement bodies decided to go for ‘terrorism’ charges.  The pretext for this was Byvshev’s mention of General Claus von Stauffenberg, who played a major role in the, unfortunately, unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944.  The investigators claimed that Byvshev was calling for the assassination of Russian president Vladimir Putin (with this treated as ‘calls to terrorism’).

On 14 April, the Memorial Support for Political Prisoners Project declared Alexander Byvshev a political prisoner. Memorial dismissed the investigators’ claim, pointing out that Byvshev’s verse is not a call to any kind of action, and merely an expression of his feelings in artistic form. There is no way that the words could, even in theory, have presented a danger to society and they cannot be viewed as a crime.

The charge, Memorial insists, “violates his right to freedom of expression and is aimed at stifling and intimidating opponents of Russia’s war against Ukraine. It is totally disproportionate to the actions over which he is charged.” 

Aleksander Byvshev is being persecuted in order to punish him for his consistent voicing of opposition and anti-war views in poetic form, and to stop him expressing these views. It is clear that Byvshev’s consistent position, his point of view, expressed over many years in spite of mounting pressure aroused particular irritation among the security service.”

Memorial demanded that the charges be dropped and that he be released from detention.

Instead, it was reported on 12 October that new charges have been laid against the poet, this time, indeed, under the worst of the four new charges introduced on 4 March 2022.  Article 207.3 of Russia’s criminal code punishes for what the regime chooses to call “the circulation of knowingly false information about the use of Russia’s armed forces”. 

Byvshev has been accused of this over a post on VKontakte in which he wrote about Russia’s mass killing of civilians, including children, in besieged Mariupol and Bucha.  Although there is ample photographic, video, witness, satellite and other evidence of such mass killings, it is claimed that Byvshev’s post was “aimed at undermining the authority and discrediting the authorities and army”.  In essentially all cases accusing people of ‘fakes’, it is claimed that information is “knowingly false” if it contradicts the position of Russia’s defence ministry.  The latter has, since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion denied that civilians are being targeted, with such denials repeated, regardless of how many hospitals, schools, residential buildings and other civilian targets Russia bombs or shells.  

The charge under Article 207.3 is currently resulting in long sentences (of seven years or more).

Russia’s persecution of Byvshev, who is now 51, began in 2014 and included at least six criminal prosecutions over poems in which he expressed his support for Ukraine and opposition to Russia’s invasion of Crimea.  As well as the criminal proceedings, he lost his teaching job and was placed on Russia’s notorious ‘List of Terrorists and Extremists’. This made it hugely difficult for him to look after his parents who were in their eighties and in very poor health, with the need to care for them meaning he could not think of leaving the country.

In 2015, for example, he was convicted of ‘inciting enmity’, under Article 282 § 1  of Russia’s criminal code, and sentenced to 300 hours of community service, as well as being banned from teaching in schools for two years and having his computer confiscated.  All of this was over a poem ‘To Ukrainian Patriots’ in which he expressed his opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and suggested that Ukrainians should ensure that not one inch of Crimea was handed “to Putin’s chekists”.  

In 2018, he was convicted on the same charge over a poem entitled ‘On Ukraine’s Independence’.  He received the same sentence, with this, however, after the prosecutor had demanded a 2.5 year term of imprisonment.

It was reported back in 2015 that the Russian Wikipedia had deleted its entry on Aleksander Byvshev despite his being a published poet.  There was, and is, an entry in English, however Russia has been allowed to blot him out of the Russian Wikipedia to this day, although the latter is described in Russian as “free encyclopaedia’.

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