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Russian artist sentenced to 7 years for antiwar protest at supermarket: "Is this really what people are being imprisoned for now?"

How Russia cracks down on anti-war protests
How Russia cracks down on anti-war protests 03:46

A Russian court on Thursday convicted an artist and musician for swapping supermarket price tags with antiwar messages, sentencing her to seven years in prison in one of the highest-profile cases involving the recent crackdown on free speech.

Sasha Skochilenko was arrested in her native St. Petersburg in April 2022 and charged with spreading false information about the military after replacing price tags with ones that decried Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"The Russian army bombed an arts schools in Mariupol. Some 400 people were hiding in it from the shelling," one read. Another said, "Russian conscripts are being sent to Ukraine. Lives of our children are the price of this war."

A customer at the supermarket who found the slogans reported them to authorities.

Skochilenko's arrest came about a month after authorities adopted a law effectively criminalizing any public expression about the war that deviates from the official Kremlin line. The legislation has been used in a widespread crackdown on opposition politicians, human rights activists and ordinary citizens critical of the Kremlin, with many receiving lengthy prison terms.

Russia Artist Crackdown
Sasha Skochilenko cries standing behind bars in the court room in in St. Petersburg, on Thursday. Dmitri Lovetsky / AP

Skochilenko, 33, has not denied replacing the price tags but rejected the accusation of spreading knowingly false information.

She did not intend to disparage the military, but rather wanted to stop the fighting, her lawyer Yana Nepovinnova told The Associated Press last week.

"She is a very empathetic, peace-loving person. To her, in general, the word 'war' is the most terrible thing imaginable, as is the suffering of people," Nepovinnova said.

Russian independent news site Mediazona quoted Skochilenko as saying in her final statement in court Thursday that the case against her was "weird and ridiculous" — so much so that officials in the facility where she is detained "open their eyes widely and exclaim: 'Is this really what people are being imprisoned for now?'"

She also alleged that an investigator working on her case even quit his job, telling one of her lawyers that he "didn't join the Investigative Committee to work on cases like (the one) against Sasha Skochilenko."

Addressing the judge in a courtroom full of supporters, Skochilenko said: "Everyone sees and knows that it's not a terrorist you're trying. You're not trying an extremist. You're not trying a political activist, either. You're trying a pacifist."

Her supporters applauded, Mediazona reported, adding that after the verdict was announced and Skochilenko was led away, they gathered in a hallway, chanting her name.

Russia Artist Crackdown
Sasha Skochilenko shows a victory sign in the court room. Dmitri Lovetsky / AP

Skochilenko has been held for nearly 19 months before her trial, meaning that her overall term will be reduced by more than two years, since every day served in a pre-trial detention center counts as 1.5 days of time served in a regular penal colony.

But she has struggled while in custody due to health problems, including a congenital heart defect, bipolar disorder and celiac disease, requiring a gluten-free diet, her lawyers and her partner have said.

While she was held in St. Petersburg, it was possible for her to get visits from outside doctors, but what will happen if Skochilenko is transferred to a more remote penal colony remains uncertain, said her partner, Sofya Subbotina.

"There's a huge fear that Sasha will end up without medical help," she added.

Russia's most prominent human rights group and 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Memorial, has declared Skochilenko a political prisoner. Amnesty International declared Skochilenko "a prisoner of conscience," which the group defines as "someone who has not used or advocated violence or hatred and is imprisoned solely because of who they are."

Hundreds charged  for antiwar stances

According to OVD-Info, another prominent rights group that monitors political arrests and provides legal aid, a total of 19,834 Russians have been arrested between Feb. 24, when the war began, and late October 2023 for speaking out or demonstrating against the war.

Nearly 750 people have faced criminal charges for their antiwar stances, and over 8,100 faced petty charges of discrediting the army, punishable by a fine or a short stint in jail.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich still detained in Russia 6 months after arrest 03:56

Long terms have been handed out in the highest-profile cases. Prominent opposition figure Ilya Yashin received 8 1/2 years in prison on similar charges, as has Moscow student activist Dmitry Ivanov. Yashin's colleague on a Moscow municipal council, Alexei Gorinov, got seven years.

Similar sentences were handed to Russians convicted in absentia, like cookbook author Veronika Belotserkovskaya or TV journalist and former lawmaker Alexander Nevzorov and several others.

Also Thursday, opposition politician Vladimir Milov was convicted in absentia of spreading false information about the army and sentenced to eight years. Milov, who once was Russia's deputy energy minister and is now an ally of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, has left Russia.

The prosecution in Skochilenko's case had asked for eight years in prison. In an interview with St. Petersburg news outlet Bumaga, the pensioner who reported her to authorities had seemed surprised by that, saying: "For bits of paper, it should have been, of course, less."

Russia Crackdown
Sasha Skochilenko, a 33-year-old artist and musician, walks escorted by officers to the court room for a hearing in the Vasileostrovsky district court in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Oct. 19, 2023. Dmitri Lovetsky / AP

Skochilenko's  7-year sentence comes a month after a court in Moscow handed a former state TV journalist an 8 1/2-year prison term in absentia for protesting the war in Ukraine. Marina Ovsyannikova, who was charged with spreading false information about the Russian army, was detained and placed under house arrest, but managed to escape to France with her daughter. Russian authorities put her on a wanted list and prosecuted and tried her in absentia.

Last month, Paris prosecutors opened an investigation into the suspected poisoning of Ovsyannikova after she reportedly told police that she felt unwell when she opened the door to her Paris apartment and noticed a powder substance. Forensic police were sent to examine her home.

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