Russian police officers detain a protester

Police officers detain a protestor during a demonstration against Russia's war on Ukraine on March 6, 2022 in St. Petersburg. (Photo: Stringer/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Russia Conducting 'Witch Hunt' Against War Critics, Says Amnesty

"This heinous campaign of repression against critics of the state who are bravely standing up against Russia's invasion of Ukraine must stop now," the human rights group said.

The human rights group Amnesty International warned Wednesday that the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched a "witch hunt" against critics of Moscow's deadly assault on Ukraine, hitting anti-war protesters with criminal charges over peaceful demonstrations and prosecuting activists for condemning the invasion on social media.

"These shameful prosecutions are flagrant violations of the right to freedom of expression."

"The persecution of those opposed to Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine goes far beyond previous efforts to stifle protesters and activists," Marie Struthers, Amnesty's director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement. "Those caught criticizing the war face an absurd number of arbitrary charges merely for speaking out. They are not only charged with 'discrediting' the armed forces, but also with slander, fraud, or accusations of 'terrorism.'"

Thousands of anti-war demonstrators have been arrested inside Russia since Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and rights groups have accused Moscow of brutalizing detained protesters in an effort to squash dissent.

Amnesty noted Wednesday that a number of anti-war critics have been investigated and charged under a recently enacted law prohibiting the spread of "fake" information about Russia's military. Violations of the new law are punishable by fines or--if the "fake" information leads to "serious consequences"--up to 15 years in prison.

Russia's parliament, with Putin's backing, later expanded the law to criminalize the dissemination of "false" information about all Russian state bodies operating abroad.

"The ongoing criminalization of 'fake news' is as arbitrary and unlawful as the Kremlin's efforts to crush all forms of anti-war sentiment," said Struthers. "And by embarking on this unrelenting witch hunt, the Russian authorities show they are capable of bringing charges against absolutely anyone."

According to Amnesty:

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 Moscow region.

More cases followed. On 22 March, Aleksandr Nevzorov, a prominent journalist who gained popularity during perestroika (a state-approved series of political reforms in the 1980s), was charged with sharing "false information" about Russia's strikes against a maternity hospital in Mariupol, after criticizing the shelling in an Instagram post on 9 March.

On 25 March, Izabella Yevloyeva, a journalist from Russia's Republic of 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."

"These shameful prosecutions," argued Struthers, "are flagrant violations of the right to freedom of expression."

In addition to punishing criticism of the war expressed online, Russian authorities have "sought to criminalize street art and graffiti," Amnesty said Wednesday.

"At least nine activists and street artists have been charged for writing graffiti that is 'motivated by hatred'--a crime that could see them imprisoned for up to three years," the group noted. "On 18 March, Leonid Chernyi, a street artist from Yekaterinburg, was detained for putting up stickers that say 'GruZ 200'--the official code word for military casualties--before being arrested for 'public intoxication' and charged with 'vandalism.'"

"While Amnesty International accepts that the authorities can legitimately sanction graffiti," the group added, "we note with grave concern the imposition of particularly harsh penalties for political expression."

Struthers argued that "by gagging all anti-war sentiment, 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," she added. "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."

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Amnesty's statement came as Russia's assault on Ukraine continued for the fifth straight week, despite indications that some progress has been made in negotiations over a potential peace settlement.

Ukraine has reportedly submitted its demands to Russia in writing, and Moscow promised Tuesday to scale back its attacks near Kyiv and other major cities in an effort to "increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations."

But Ukrainian officials claimed Wednesday that Russia has yet to act on that pledge and has actually "increased" the intensity of its operations in Chernihiv and elsewhere.

"While negotiations continue, Russia has not ceased hostilities," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Wednesday.

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