Ivan Pavlov: Remember that expressing one’s opinion does not constitute high treason. But there are enough other repressive laws out there

28 February 2022

by Ivan Pavlov

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Advokatskaya Ulitsa]

On Sunday, the General Prosecutor’s Office announced that “rendering financial and other assistance to a foreign state in activities aimed against the security of the Russian Federation” would be treated as high treason. This statement was made on the backdrop of Russians’ many statements against the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. Ulitsa asked attorney Ivan Pavlov to explain specifically which actions by dissenters will be considered high treason.

Understandably, the main (and possibly sole) purpose of this statement is to put a damper on anti-war moods. To frighten people so that they are afraid to render anyone financial assistance, afraid to sign petitions and, most importantly, to come out for anti-war demonstrations. Although many have been deathly afraid even so. Even before the letter from the General Prosecutor’s Office, people were asking lawyers and legal experts of First Department to assess the legal consequences of some statement, report in the media, open letter, or transfer to a charitable fund.

“When children’s writers cannot bring themselves to publish their pacifist letter without consulting lawyers with respect to the article on high treason, this says a lot about just how scared our society is.” – Ivan Pavlov

Since yesterday, though, the First Department Telegram bot has simply been bursting with requests for consultations. People are ready to pack their things and flee the country because they transferred 1000 roubles to a Ukrainian philanthropic fund – and then read about Article 275 and the 20-year prison term. Let’s sort out how well founded these concerns are.

The General Prosecutor’s Office writes: “It is essential to bear in mind that rendering financial, material-technical, consultation, or other assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organization, or their representatives in activity aimed against the security of the Russian Federation constitutes signs of the commission of a crime provided for by Article 275 of the Russian Criminal Code (high treason).”

In 2012, on the wave of mass protests, the regime began tightening the screws and turning up the level of militaristic propaganda. That was when the amendments were made to Article 275 on which the General Prosecutor’s Office is now basing its threats. It was clarified that “assistance” can be “financial, material-technical, consultation, or any other,” which makes the provision quite vague and subjective. What does this threaten? Without precise criteria, the concept of “other assistance” will be shaped through law enforcement practice. Quite possibly, in a criminal case against you specifically.

At the time, they removed from the article of the Criminal Code the words “…hostile activities to the detriment of Russian Federation foreign security,” simplifying the formulation to “activities aimed against the security of the Russian Federation.” This is the so-called third form of high treason. True, in Russian law enforcement practice there has still not been a case opened based on this “third form.” But there’s a first time for everything.

What are the risks during the so-called “military operation” against Ukraine? Perhaps financial aid can really qualify as treason – if you donate to organisations that specifically collect money to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces. So if you are transferring money to an organisation Ukrainian or international – I would advise you to first find out for what specific purposes they are raising money. Supplying the Ukrainian army with weapons and military equipment, funding volunteers – all of this can most likely be considered assistance to “activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation.” However, humanitarian aid to civilians or medical assistance to wounded children is unlikely to qualify as such.

Transfers of funds to relatives or friends in Ukraine do not formally constitute high treason. However, in the current situation, one has to be very careful with foreign transfers: either carefully check the recipient or use anonymous methods of money transfer. For example, transfers in cryptocurrency are practically impossible to trace if done well! – are practically impossible to trace. However, given the sanctions and the ensuing problems with payment systems and bank cards, advice related to money transfers may no longer be relevant to Russians in the near future.

After the statement by the Prosecutor General’s Office, many people are afraid to participate in anti-war rallies and pickets, sign petitions or open letters, put a flag on their avatar, or in any other way manifest their civic position.

“One must remember that expressing one’s opinion does not constitute treason. But there are enough other repressive laws out there.” – Ivan Pavlov

A person who speaks out against the war can be accused of participating in an “unsanctioned” rally, the law can be easily used to lay charges of inciting hatred and hostility or of so-called “disrespecting the authorities.” Even without the Prosecutor General’s Office’s statement, these laws can be applied on an industrial scale, punishing hundreds of those who think differently from the government with fines and days in jail.

Of course, now many people remember the accusations of high treason made against housewives, salesgirls and hostesses for sending text messages to Georgia about military equipment seen passing through their towns. And that was in times when the authorities were relatively easy going – when our authorities, shall we say, had not tasted human flesh. Everyone understands that one can fall into the grip of the FSB even without being a nuclear physicist, a military serviceperson, or someone with access to state secrets. But given the limited capacity of the FSB investigation system (15-20 such complicated cases per year), the complete failure of the information campaign in support of the so-called “military operation” and other problems, I do not think the Chekists will search for and prosecute under Article 275 all those who sent donations to Ukraine. Although I do not rule out the possibility that a few demonstrative cases may be initiated to intimidate the general public.

Translated by Marian Schwartz and Simon Cosgrove

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