Kremlin critic Yashin loses appeal in widening crackdown

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Russian opposition leader, former Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Yashin gestures in a defendants’ glass cage prior to a verdict hearing at the Meshchansky district court in Moscow, Russia on December 9, 2022.

Russian opposition leader, former Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Yashin gestures in a defendants’ glass cage prior to a verdict hearing at the Meshchansky district court in Moscow, Russia on December 9, 2022.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

Kremlin critic Ilya Yashin on April 19 lost an appeal against what his supporters say was a politically motivated decision to jail him for eight-and-a-half years for criticising Moscow’s assault on Ukraine.

The former Moscow councillor’s appeal was rejected as authorities take a crackdown on freedoms in Russia to an unprecedented new level, with independent media shut down and key Opposition figures behind bars or in exile.

Speaking in court, Mr. Yashin said he had been put behind bars for “speaking the truth” over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and Russia.

“The sentence delivered against me is amazing: eight and a half years for a 20-minute speech on the internet,” he said.

“In prison, I met murderers, rapists, and robbers who have received lesser sentences for their crimes.”

Last year, Mr. Yashin, 39, described the murder of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha as a “massacre”, referring to a town near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv where civilians were found killed after Russian forces pulled back.

In December 2022, Mr. Yashin was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison for spreading “false information” about Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.

He was tried under legislation that came into force after the start of Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine to penalise what the authorities deem to be damaging or false information about the Russian military.

He appealed the verdict, but on April 19 a judge at Moscow City Court said that “The verdict of the Moscow Meshchansky Court should be left unchanged”.

Mr. Yashin remained defiant, saying in court that sooner or later “thieves and murderers” will be ousted from power and he would be among those who will build a new Russia.

“I realise that, once free, I will become one of those who will have to clean up this bloody mess,” he said in court.

Since sending troops to Ukraine last February, Russia has intensified its crackdown on domestic critics, with almost all of the Kremlin’s major opponents in exile or behind bars and top rights groups shut down.

Oleg Orlov, the co-chair of the country’s top human rights organisation Memorial, said the Russian authorities’ campaign to cow opponents has been successful.

“Society is intimidated and prefers to remain silent,” he told AFP.

Russia shut down Memorial just months before President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine in February 2022.

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s top opposition politician, who used to mobilise massive protests against Mr. Putin’s rule, is behind bars in what his supporters say is Moscow’s punishment for challenging the Kremlin.

The 46-year-old is serving a nine-year prison sentence on embezzlement and other charges.

On April 18, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said authorities had opened a new criminal case against him, in a move that could see him face five more years in prison.

On April 17, a Russian court sentenced another Kremlin critic, Vladimir Kara-Murza, to 25 years in a high-security prison on treason and other charges for criticising the Ukraine assault.

In late March, Russia’s security service, the FSB, detained US citizen Evan Gershkovich, a 31-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter, and charged him with espionage.

The former AFP reporter became the first foreign journalist to be detained on suspicion of espionage since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He and his publication have rejected the claims.

On April 18, his request for release on bail was turned down.

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