Prison Time for Two Tweets: The Case of Pavel Zelensky
Who is Pavel Zelensky?
Pavel Zelensky was born on January 10, 1981. He was a camera operator for Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which specializes in publishing high-impact investigations into what it says is official graft. Zelensky is married, with three minor children.
Case Background: Self-immolation of Journalist Irina Slavina’s
On October 2, 2020 “Koza.Press” editor-in-chief Irina Slavina self-immolated in front of the Interior Ministry’s regional offices in Nizhny Novgorod. Before she committed suicide, she posted on her Facebook page: “Please blame the Russian Federation for my death.” She was 47 years old.
The day before this tragedy, a law enforcement squad searched her home in connection with a criminal investigation into the activities of an “undesirable organization.” In 2019 and 2020, Slavina received several administrative sentences for her political position and journalistic activity.
Case Background: Pavel Zelensky
On the day of Slavina’s death, Pavel Zelensky, a cameraman who worked for the Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK, an organization the Russian authorities have unlawfully declared a foreign agent), published two posts on Twitter about the journalist’s self-immolation.
“Irina, forgive all of us, forgive that we have let this happen. It’s very hard for me to write this, it’s hard to think about it and feel, thank you for your life and deeds. With these words, I ask all of us to get up, wake up, stop tweeting and electronically worry. Let’s f*** with this unworthy government”.
These emotional tweets, expressing grief and rage toward Russian authorities (who he held responsible for the tragedy), were the reason for his criminal prosecution.
Zelensky was arrested on January 15, 2021. At the time of his arrest, he was beaten and forced to unlock his smartphone.
The state prosecution had reportedly requested a 2.5-year sentence for him.
Zelensky has pleaded guilty to the extremism charges in February 2021 and declined a lawyer offered by the human rights group Agora. FBK director Ivan Zhdanov suggested that Zelensky was subjected to intense pressure in pretrial detention. Zelensky’s wife has told the Russian outlet Mediazona that he had pleaded guilty in hopes of shortening his sentence after he learned his mother was sick with coronavirus.
On April 16, 2021 Moscow’s Tushinsky District Court found Zelensky guilty and sentenced him to two years in a penal colony. The activist was charged with the offence of inciting extremist activity (Article 280, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code).
On September 28, 2021, he was also accused under Part 2 of Article 282.1 of the Russian Criminal Code (“Participation in an extremist community”, up to 6 years in prison) in connection with participation in an allegedly extremist community created by Alexey Navalny.
The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the Russian Journalists and Media Worker’s Union (JMWU) have demanded Zelensky’s release.
“The Journalists’ Union is outraged by Zelenski’s arrest and by the allegations against him. We understand his shock, dismay, and indignation after the death of Irina Slavina. We are confident that there is no incitement to extremist actions in what Zelenski has written, but rather only emotion. No one should be put behind bars for their words.”
“Pavel Zelenski’s arrest is a totally disproportionate measure which is in fact intended to intimidate journalists covering Navalny’s news,” said EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez. “It is clearly an intimidation tactic.”
Why does the Memorial Center recognize Pavel Zelensky as a political prisoner?
Memorial, an international historical and civil rights society, does not believe Zelensky’s actions constitute a crime. Moreover, even if the content of his tweets would formally fall within the purview of the article of the Criminal Code concerning incitement of extremism, investigators should nonetheless not have initiated criminal proceedings given the evident lack of importance of his actions.
Zelensky’s expressive statements were a spontaneous reaction to the unlawful actions of the security forces that led to the death of Irina Slavina. They contain no calls for specific extremist actions and one of the two posts contains no call of any kind but is merely an emotional expression of an attitude towards individual public officials.
Zelensky is a supporter of the Russian democratic opposition and one of Aleksei Navalny’s associates who have consistently demonstrated their commitment to exclusively peaceful methods of protest.
The self-evidently unlawful imposition of pre-trial custody in relation to a charge for a minor offence on someone with no criminal record, who has several children and who did not seek to hide from the investigators and has a permanent job and place of residence should be noted. Remanding Zelensky in custody was disproportionate with regard to the actions with which he has been charged and the degree of danger to the public they represent.
It is clear to us that Pavel Zelensky has been subject to criminal prosecution solely on account of his political views and his work for the Anti-Corruption Foundation. His prosecution is part of an ongoing crackdown against Aleksei Navalny and his supporters. It is significant that the criminal case against Zelensky was opened on January 12, 2021, the day the Federal Penitentiary Service threatened to replace Navalny’s suspended sentence in the trumped-up ‘Postal Case’ with a real term in prison. Zelensky was arrested on January 15, two days after Navalny announced his return to Moscow and two days before his arrival in Russia and wrongful arrest.