Moscow’s mayor-elect Alexei Gurinov was sentenced on Friday to seven years in prison for condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine amid a wave of crackdowns aimed at silencing any criticism of the military operation.
Authorities have passed a series of laws that impose harsh penalties on those who publicly condemn the attack and have banned the use of the words “war” and “invasion” since February 24, when Russian troops entered Ukraine. Judge Olesya Mendeleeva charged the 60-year-old dissident with “spreading knowingly false information” about the Russian military using their “official functions” and that they did so as part of an organized group motivated by “political hatred.” Before sentencing the opponent to seven years in prison, the judge stated that “the correction of the accused is impossible without depriving him of his liberty.” Before the announcement of this verdict, the audience in the courtroom applauded the accused, which led to the expulsion of those present who came to support him. Gurinov is the first dissident and the first elected member to face jail time for criticizing Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine, but other detained activists are also awaiting trial.
“Seven Stolen Years”
Before the verdict was announced, a white-haired man standing in the defendants’ glass cage held a piece of paper in front of the cameras with the inscription: “Do you still need this war?” On the other hand, Yelena Kotinochkina, another municipal deputy accused of the same incidents, is not on trial because, like many opposition activists, she fled Russia to escape the country’s increased repression in recent years.
Lawyer Gorinov was arrested in April for exposing Moscow’s “war” and “aggression” against Ukraine on March 15 during a meeting of the local city council. This meeting was filmed and broadcast on YouTube, which was an aggravating circumstance for the court. “All the efforts of civil society should be aimed at ending the war and the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine,” he said at this meeting. His lawyer, Katerina Tertokhina, indicated that Gurinov would appeal the verdict given that he was convicted because of his “words, opinions and beliefs.” Tertokhina quoted her opponent: “They stole my spring and my summer. They stole seven years of my life from me,” emphasizing, “He will fight and we will be by his side.”
Gorinov stressed during his trial on Thursday that he is “against all wars,” noting that his father “came back disabled from World War II.” He also mentioned the names of Ukrainian cities, such as Bucha, where Russian troops are accused of war crimes and violations that Moscow calls lies or fakes. “I have expressed my opinion and now I am in court,” said Gorinov, who has been imprisoned in Moscow since April 26. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine on February 24, dozens of people have been prosecuted for publicly criticizing the invasion. Most have been fined, but others face harsh jail terms, including Vladimir Kara-Murza, one of Russia’s few remaining opposition figures. Among those persecuted is St. Petersburg artist Alexandra Skochilenko, who has been imprisoned since April and is awaiting trial for placing peace posters in a supermarket.
Russia has suppressed the Kremlin’s critical voices for years, but recently it has greatly expanded its criminal arsenal to silence or punish those who denounce Russian rule. This week, the lower house of parliament (the Duma) passed a series of laws providing for vaguely harsh prison sentences for thwarting calls to action against Russia’s security, and passed a law on “foreign agents” to crack down on organizations and individuals critical of the Kremlin. Since February, Russia has also banned many Russian and foreign media on its territory, as well as some of the largest social networks such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.