More than 15,000 people have been detained in Russia in the past weeks for their anti-war stance and subjected to fines and arrests, writes the author.
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The rhetoric of some of Vladimir Putin’s spokespersons is hardly distinguishable from the rhetoric of Nazi Germany chieftains. Under such circumstances, most citizens adopt a position of passive acceptanc, writes Russian lawyer and human rights activist, Sergei Davidis.
Like hundreds of thousands of Russians, I fled the country immediately after President Vladimir Putin launched the war in Ukraine.
For ten years, I led a programme of support for political prisoners for the Memorial Human Rights Centre, one of the oldest and largest human rights organisations in Russia. In the months before the invasion, a Russian court liquidated our organisation. We were targeted because we publicly opposed politically motivated verdicts involving defendants who were accused of participation in organisations arbitrarily declared as terrorist.
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Few countries understand the plight of the political prisoner like South Africa. Your most dedicated activists in the fight against apartheid were tried and convicted for daring to stand for equality, freedom and dignity–values that are now entrenched in your democratic society. It provides us with a measure of hope that your most prominent political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, endured becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa.
Hundreds of political prisoners in Russia
The number of political prisoners in Russia—which includes those imprisoned for exercising freedoms of conscience, assembly, association, and expression in a non-violent manner—has been steadily increasing over the years. According to HRC Memorial’s conservative estimates, at least 442 people are now political prisoners in Russia. In reality, the number is significantly higher.
In its address to the court, the prosecutor’s office accused us of justifying terrorism, a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison. The last straw was the hours-long police raid on our premises in early March, which followed the arrest of an HRC Memorial member.
I found it too dangerous to continue my work inside Russia. I currently run an independent human rights project providing support to political prisoners outside the framework of HRC Memorial.
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Russian state propaganda has tried to convince the world that the war in Ukraine has nationwide support. This is a lie. While it is impossible to ascertain the exact ratio of opponents and supporters by any survey, it is safe to assume that a minority consciously supports the war, another minority consciously condemns it, and a conformist neutral majority accepts the state’s disinformation.
Russian citizens have long been indoctrinated to believe that everything is subservient to the state. The effort has borne fruit in the form of widespread views about Russia’s exceptionalism, the inferiority of other nations, the exclusive right of force, and the absence of norms and principles in international relations.
The rhetoric of some of Putin’s spokespersons is hardly distinguishable from the rhetoric of Nazi Germany chieftains. Under such circumstances, most citizens adopt a position of passive acceptance. In fact, they simply have no plausible alternative.
Hundreds detained for anti-war stance
The Russian state has long monopolised the federal media, especially television, and has legally restricted the ability of media outlets to express opinions that do not coincide with the official position. Since the beginning of the war, media outlets, websites, and social networks (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) have been shut down or blocked indefinitely. New laws were passed that prohibited not only any criticism of the war but even the dissemination of truthful information about it. The maximum penalty under these laws could be 15 years in prison.
More than 15,000 people have been detained in the past weeks for their anti-war stance and subjected to fines and arrests; more than 100 people have been the victims of criminal prosecution, many of them thrown in jail. Such a repressive crackdown distorts the picture of what is going on in Russian society. It discourages doubters from taking an anti-war stance and prevents opponents of the war from expressing their position more actively and visibly. Despite this, thousands of courageous Russians are protesting every day in a variety of forms.
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The Russian State of today is brutally authoritarian that suppresses the rights and freedoms of its citizens, seizes the territories of other countries, threatens the freedom and lives of other peoples by fire and sword, and destroys the fragile system of international relations. Whatever justified grievances one may have against the ‘collective West’, the cult of force, lawlessness, and unfreedom that Putin’s state offers as an alternative is far worse and more dangerous for the world.
It is important that supporters of freedom, democracy and human rights from all continents stand together in support of a heroically struggling Ukraine, against war, and against Putin’s aggressive dictatorship.
– Sergey Davidis is a Russian lawyer, sociologist and human rights activist.
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