‘Political Prisoners. Memorial’: Mikhail Afanasiev, a journalist from Khakassia, is a political prisoner

24 June 2022

Mikhail Afanasiev was remanded in custody on charges of spreading ‘fake news’ about the Russian army for a publication about OMON riot police officers who refused to take part in the ‘special operation’ in Ukraine

Source: ‘Political Prisoners. Memorial’ project

The ‘Political Prisoners. Memorial’ project, in accordance with international standards, considers the Khakassian journalist Mikhail Afanasiev a political prisoner. His prosecution violates the right to freedom of expression and is intended to intimidate all Russian journalists who present an alternative point of view about events in Ukraine.

We demand the immediate release of Mikhail Afanasiev and that all criminal charges against him be dropped.

Who is Mikhail Afanasiev and what are the charges against him?

Mikhail Afanasiev [also transliterated as ‘Afanasyev’ in English] is a journalist and editor-in-chief of the Khakassian publication Novy Fokus [New Focus]. Afanasiev has twice been awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Journalism as a Deed and he was the first foreign recipient of the Swedish Publicists’ Association’s award for freedom of expression. 

As a journalist, Mikhail Afanasiev has been the author of a number of high-profile investigative reports. He has repeatedly been a victim of harassment by the security services on account of his work. 

The new charges against Afanasiev were brought under Article 207.3, Part 2, Paragraph a, of the Russian Criminal Code concerning dissemination of information ‘known to be false’ about the actions of the Russian army with respect to a publication of 4 April 2022 entitled ‘Refuseniks, or why 11 OMON riot police officers of the National Guard in Khakassia refused to participate in the “special operation” in Ukraine.’ The material has since been removed from the website but a copy is available in the web archive.

The article, citing a number of sources, claimed the riot police officers from Khakassia refused to take part in combat operations in Ukraine after learning that on 24 February, just a few hours after the military invasion began, one of the National Guard columns on the way to Kiev met with a serious defeat and suffered heavy losses. According to the article’s sources, officers in charge of the Khakassia OMON attempted to conceal this information. Members of the OMON riot police who refused to fight have been returned to the Republic and attempts are being made to dismiss them on various pretexts.

The order to open criminal proceedings against Afanasiev states that the Investigative Committee considered the information published about the number of National Guard officers killed, and the report that they were poorly supplied, to be unreliable.

On 13 April 2022, the homes of Mikhail Afanasiev and his mother were searched. On 15 April Abakan City Court remanded the journalist in custody.

Why do we consider the prosecution of Afanasiev politically motivated?

Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code on the dissemination of information known to be false about the actions of the Russian army contradicts the Russian Constitution, Russia’s international obligations and fundamental principles of law.

In particular, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states: ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.’ Restrictions on the exercise of these rights ‘shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.’ Such norms are also included in Article 29 of the Russian Constitution. The restrictions on freedom of expression introduced by Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code serve none of these purposes and are a form of censorship. 

Article 207.3 criminalises any statements about the use of the Russian armed forces and the activities of Russian state bodies abroad. In the course of an armed conflict, it is not possible to establish the accuracy of information disseminated by various sources. Still less is it possible to establish whether the person who disseminated the information knew it was false. Taken together, these deficiencies determine the unlawful nature of Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code.

The timing and context of the introduction of Article 207.3 into the Russian Criminal Code – after the beginning of large-scale Russian military aggression against Ukraine – allow us to assert that this article was created specifically as a means to prosecute critics of the Russian authorities and independent journalists. This fully applies to the prosecution of Mikhail Afanasiev.

Afanasiev has been criminally prosecuted several times in the past on account of other examples of his investigative journalism. Memorial has pointed out that these prosecutions were unlawful and politically motivated. This gives us every reason to believe that in Afanasiev’s latest prosecution an important role is played by the desire of the security services to silence the voices of critics and to close down the opposition publication New Focus.

More information about the case of Mikhail Afanasiev and the position of the human rights project are available on our Telegram channel.

Recognition of an individual as a political prisoner does not imply the ‘Political Prisoners. Memorial’ project agrees with, or approves of, their views, statements, or actions.

How can you help?

The address to write to Mikhail Afanasiev is:

In Russian: 655017, Республика Хакасия, г. Абакан, кв. Молодежный, 22Б, ФКУ СИЗО-1 УФСИН России по Республике Хакасия, Афанасьеву Михаилу Вячеславовичу, 1976 г.р.

In English: Mikhail Vyacheslavovich Afanasiev (born 1976), Remand Centre No. 1 of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service for the Republic of Khakassia, 22B Molodezhny Quarter, Abakan, Republic of Khakassia, Russia, 655017.You can support political prisoners by making a donation to the Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners via YooMoney.

Translated by Rights in Russia

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