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Russian lawyers ask court to ease crackdown on dissent

A group of leading Russian lawyers asked the country’s top court on Tuesday to declare a law banning criticism of the armed forces unconstitutional, a rare objection to the harsh censorship imposed by the Kremlin after its invasion of Ukraine.

The complaint, filed by three lawyers and backed by 10 others, most of whom are still in Russia, asks the constitutional court to strike down the measure, which has become the Kremlin’s most effective tool for cracking down on dissent in the country.

“The law was passed with one goal — to suppress antiwar activism,” said Violetta Fitsner, a lawyer for the Russian rights group OVD-Info and one of the authors of the complaint. “Such restrictions cannot exist in a democratic society.”

The censorship law effectively bans anything that doesn’t match the Kremlin’s description of the war, which the Kremlin continues to refer to as “special military operations.” They have practically quelled the Russian argument.

Thousands of activists, journalists and other professionals have left the country since the invasion. Many others were arrested, including lawyers, but some remained to continue their work despite the risks.

Other measures broaden the definition of treason, giving authorities more leeway to use such charges more or less arbitrarily. Last week, Russia’s parliament also approved a law imposing life sentences for treason.

Russian lawmakers also criminalized the loosely defined offense of “confidential cooperation” with representatives of foreign countries or organizations that undermine national security.

More than 6,500 Russians have been punished for “defaming” the Russian military since the Russian parliament passed the law in February 2022, eight days after the start of its all-out invasion of Ukraine, lawyers said. Those found in breach of the law will be fined for the first offence, but a subsequent offense within a year can lead to up to five years in prison.

The petition to the high court came as UN officials in Geneva urged fighters in the Ukraine conflict to treat prisoners of war humanely. Their statement came after audio clips aimed at encouraging soldiers to carry out summary executions emerged on social media.

The U.N. has not verified the authenticity of the statements, but the posts could still “provoke or encourage summary executions of prisoners of war or those hors de combat,” said Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights chief. Ravina Shamdasani) said.

Such an order, if issued or enforced, would constitute a war crime, she said, as would any statement that troops would not take prisoners.

When it comes to Russian censorship laws, authorities draw a blurry line between what is acceptable and what could lead to administrative or criminal charges.

For example, more than 19,500 Russians have been detained at antiwar rallies since the invasion began, according to OVD, which tracks such arrests.

But others have been fined or faced criminal charges for more private actions, such as challenging official accounts of the war in private phone conversations, or discussions with friends on messaging apps or in cafes, the rights group said.

A Moscow court on Monday sentenced a former police officer, Semiel Vedel, to seven years in prison for questioning official views on the war in a private phone call with colleagues, Russian news site Zona Media reported. Authorities said they had been tapping his cell phone for information on another criminal case.

Earlier this month, another court in Moscow sentenced Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent critic of President Vladimir V. Putin, to 25 years in prison , who had previously been convicted of treason for criticizing the invasion.

In December, opposition politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for “spreading false information” about atrocities committed by Russian troops in the Ukrainian city of Buča in February and March.

Last month, authorities detained Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, in what some saw as a signal of a tougher crackdown on suspicion of espionage. The Wall Street Journal said the accusation was groundless and that the United States had determined that Gershkovich had been wrongly detained.

The complaint, filed Tuesday, is on behalf of more than 20 Russians who were fined for criticizing the invasion. One of them, Maksim Filippov, was fined $650 for holding up a “Give Peace a Chance” poster in central Moscow.

Lawyers have exhausted all other legal means to put the legislation on hold and hope the filing will at least draw attention to the issue. In their complaint, they argue that the law violates constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and that it also discriminates against those who criticize the war.

The court must respond to the application. Such rulings typically take several months.

The lawyers said they also planned to file similar complaints about other steps the Kremlin took after the invasion, including criminalizing the dissemination of what the law considers “false information” about the conflict.

“I want those who have been prosecuted in Russia for their anti-war stance to know that they are not alone and that we are prepared to fight for their rights despite all the repression and intimidation from the state,” said Ms. Fitzner, OVD – Information Lawyer .

Grigory Vaypan, a Russian lawyer who also took part in the complaint to the Constitutional Court, said laws passed by the Russian government since the invasion “criminalized dissent itself”.

“It’s the worst recreation of Soviet law that we’ve ever read in history books and law school,” Mr Vaipan said. “I can’t imagine that in just ten years, they’ll be a reality again.”

Reported by Farnaz Fasihi, Gulshin Harman and Nick Cumming-Bruce.

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