Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 21 April 2023]

23 April 2023

By Simon Cosgrove

Simon is chair of Rights in Russia but writes these comments in a personal capacity and they may not necessarily represent the views of the organisation

This week Vladimir Kara-Murza began serving his 25-year sentence; the State Duma adopted in second and third reading amendments providing for, among other things, life imprisonment for treason, longer sentences for a range of offences and a new of offence of ‘assisting in the implementation of decisions of international organisations of which the Russian Federation is not a party’; Aleksei Navalny continues to be subjected to harsh treatment amounting to torture in his place of detention; two men, Vladimir Sergeev and Anton Zhuchkov, have been sentenced to eight and ten years in prison respectively for conspiracy to commit arson on a police van during an anti-war demonstration; a criminal investigation has been opened against Svetlana Anokhina, a human rights defender and journalist, in Makhachkala for discrediting the Russian military; and the authorities raided the offices of the North Caucasus division of Crew against Torture in Pyatigorsk, seizing a flash drive and an old laptop. Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders published a report exposing how Aleksandr Malkevich, an associate of Evgeny Prigozhin, who has created a Russian propaganda system in occupied Donbas.

In Russia

OVD-Info reported that Vladimir Kara-Murza has begun serving a sentence of 25 years in a strict-regime prison colony. Kara-Murza was found guilty of disseminating ‘fake news’ about the Russian army, engaging in activities of an ‘undesirable organisation’ and of state treason. OVD-Info noted that Kara-Murza had been held on remand for almost a year before his trial, during which time he developed serious health problems (such as polyneuropathy, a disorder on the list of conditions that should excuse a person from serving a prison sentence), the consequences of poisonings in 2015 and 2017. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were among the organisations that condemned the conviction of Vladimir Kara-Murza and the harsh sentence handed down to him.

Such a sentence seems monstrous even in comparison to other sentences handed down to defendants in political cases in recent years. Most of the sentence is for treason. Valeriya Vetoshkina, a lawyer for the First Division human rights project noted that this was the first publicly known case of treason in a form not involving the transfer of state secrets.


Vladimir Kara-Murza’s 25-year prison sentence is yet another chilling example of the systematic repression of civil society, which has broadened and accelerated under the Kremlin since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. The so-called ‘crimes’ Vladimir Kara-Murza was tried for – speaking out against the invasion and advocacy on behalf of victims of human rights violations – are in fact acts of outstanding bravery. This verdict wrongly conflates human rights activism with ‘high treason’ and is reminiscent of Stalin-era repression.

Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Russia Director

The verdict against Vladimir Kara-Murza is a travesty of justice. Russian authorities should immediately vacate the verdict and unconditionally free him. […] Vladimir Kara-Murza has been detained, prosecuted, and is facing a monstrous prison term for no more than raising his voice and elevating the voices of others in Russia who disagree with the Kremlin, its war in Ukraine, and its escalating repression within Russia. The Kremlin’s persecution of Kara-Murza, which is part of its efforts to demoralize and quash civic activism, should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch

The Duma has passed amendments introducing life imprisonment for treason in their second and third readings, OVD-Info reported. In addition, the amendments introduce a new article into the Russian Criminal Code – ‘Provision of assistance in the implementation of decisions of international organisations in which the Russian Federation is not a party, or of foreign state bodies.’ The amendments also make more severe the penalties for sabotage, terrorist activity and attacks on persons and institutions under international protection. In addition, the Duma passed amendments that allow for naturalised citizens to be stripped of citizenship for discrediting the army or cooperation with an ‘undesirable organisation’. 

Both bills aim to persecute those who disagree with the authorities and speak out against the war. The life imprisonment for treason amendments came after the conviction of Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was found guilty under this article because of public statements he made. Apparently, 25 years of imprisonment seemed to the Russian authorities to be insufficient punishment – now they will probably want to jail opposition activists for life.


A provocation has been set up against Aleksei Navalny in the penal colony where he is serving his sentence, OVD-Info reported, citing the lawyer Vadim Kobzev to the effect that a man who ‘has great problems with hygiene’ has been moved back into the politician’s cell. Kobzev believes that prison staff provoked the opposition politician to use force against his cellmate. Navalny is now facing a new criminal prosecution for disrupting the activities of an institution that ensures people are isolated from society. 

The prison authorities are finding ever more perverse ways of putting pressure on Aleksei Navalny – they are not letting him serve his unjustly-imposed sentence in peace. The politician is repeatedly thrown into a punishment cell for absurd reasons, denied access to his lawyers and not given his letters. The health of the opposition politician’s health is rapidly deteriorating in prison – he has started having stomach problems, but he is not given any medication. His defence suggests that prison staff may even be ‘harassing’ Navalny.


Two residents of Omsk, Vladimir Sergeev and Anton Zhuchkov, have been sentenced to eight and ten years in prison respectively in a case of conspiracy to commit arson on a police van during an anti-war demonstration, OVD-Info reported. Sergeev and Zhuchkov were found guilty of preparing to commit an act of terrorism.

It’s unknown whether the men would have actually set light to the police car. Zhuchkov claimed that he only wanted to kill himself ‘so as not to see what’s going on in the world’. His lawyer Dmitry Sotnikov also mentioned that police officers only found a bottle of kerosine and a cylinder of gas in Sergeev’s backpack, but there was no lighter among his things – meaning it was impossible to set the mixture on fire. Additionally, experts concluded that the bottle of incendiary mixture could not have exploded without a so-called ‘initiator’, which was not present in the bottles that were found.


Front Line Defenders condemned the opening of a criminal investigation by the Russian authorities against Svetlana Anokhina, a prominent woman human rights defender, journalist, and outspoken advocate for women’s rights from Dagestan. The investigation was opened on 18 April 2023 in the city of Makhachkala, Republic of Dagestan, under Article 207.3, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code for ‘public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces.’ If convicted, Anokhina may face up to three years’ imprisonment. Svetlana Anokhina is the editor-in-chief of Daptar, the only online media outlet in the North Caucasus that focuses on women’s rights.

This is not the first instance that the Russian Federation targets human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists for their public condemnation of Russia’s war against Ukraine. In 2022, the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Ingushetia launched three criminal cases against woman human rights defender Isabella Evloeva. In the summer of 2022, human rights defender and lawyer Dmitry Talantov was arrested and placed in pre-trial detention for the anti-war statements that he posted on Facebook. Recently, in March 2023, human rights defender Oleg Orlov was put on trial for his anti-war public protests and social media posts.

Front Line Defenders

Front Line Defenders reported that law enforcement officers in Pyatigorsk raided the premises of the North Caucasus division of Crew against Torture’s office in Pyatigorsk on 14 April 2023. Human rights defender Ekaterina Vanslova, head of the North Caucasus Division of the Crew against Torture, was present during the raid during which law enforcement officials seized a flash drive and an old laptop. According to Ekaterina Vanslova, the authorities targeted the office because of one of the torture cases that Crew against Torture is litigating in the North Osetiya region.

Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned about the raid in Crew against Torture office in Pyatigorsk and recognises that this attack is informed by their legitimate and peaceful human rights work. Front Line Defenders condemns continued targetting of human rights defenders in Russian Federation, as well as Russia’s continious effort to dismantle human rights work in the country and further isolate human rights defenders.

Front Line Defenders

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Reporters Without Borders [RSF], in a report, The Malkevich Propaganda Machine, the Wagner-allied network in Ukraine, describes how entrepreneur Aleksandr Malkevich, who is associated with Evgeny Prigozhin who heads the Wagner Group mercenary groups, has set up a propaganda system in southern Ukraine. RSF shows the details of the dynamic system established by the Malkevich and the resources at his disposal. The investigation shows how Malkevich has channelled funds and personnel to media in the occupied Ukrainian Donbas.

Information is a major factor in the hybrid war underway in Russia. Our investigation of Malkevich’s operations shows the inner workings of the Russian propaganda machine at work in the occupied areas of southern Ukraine. These coordinated actions, additional proof of the disinformation environment the Kremlin has established, underline the urgency of fighting against propaganda and for the right to reliable information.

Jeanne Cavelier, Head of RSF‘s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk

OVD-Info called the 25-year sentence handed down to Vladimir Kara-Murza ‘monstrous’. Amnesty International described it as ‘reminiscent of Stalin-era repression’ and ‘yet another chilling example of the systematic repression of civil society, which has broadened and accelerated under the Kremlin since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.’ Human Rights Watch called the sentence ‘a travesty of justice’ and a sign of ‘escalating repression within Russia’ that ‘should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.’ One is inclined to ask how much further can this repression exercised by the Putin regime against Russian society further escalate?

In the first instance the answer lies in the State Duma’s ratcheting up of the severity of punishments for various crimes and the introduction of new crimes related to connections with foreign organisations and states. In the second, in the case of Aleksei Navalny, where we see an innocent individual and prisoner of conscience subjected to officially organised and encouraged torturous conditions of imprisonment before the eyes of the whole world. And third, in the anxiety of lower-level officials to keep up with the mood music of repression coming from on high – this week we see, for example, the cases of Vladimir Sergeev and Anton Zhuchkov, given long sentences for an alleged arson attempt. and repressive actions against human rights defenders (Svetlana Anokhina in Dagestan and the North Caucasus division of Crew against Torture in Pyatigorsk). All these are examples of repression that can no doubt escalate yet further. Other examples are of course are in the area of repression of media and the yet further extremism in official media (and witness this week’s report by Reporters Without Borders on the spread of the Russian propaganda system in eastern Ukraine).

Escalation may of course also be a sign of desperation – and in this particular case, desperation by a regime losing what it had thought would be a victorious war against Ukraine. Russian history has not a few salient examples of a regime losing power as a result of military failure and this knowledge may well be causing Putin and his henchmen and women sleepless nights. The regime will no doubt seek to maintain itself in power at any cost, despite military defeat. But military defeat is hard to plan for. Defeat itself may create such societal and intra-elite pressures that the regime may well, probably metaphorically, be blown apart. At that point, will a peaceful transition to a post-Putin Russia be possible? One can only hope that those peaceful activists and other innocent citizens unjustly held in prison now will live to enjoy their liberty and to have a say in the peaceful future of their country. At that point, a shared awareness that a commitment to human rights norms would provide a basis for cooperation among different competing interests may well be a sine qua non for a peaceful post-Putin settlement.

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