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Five to Ten Years in Prison for Anti-War Price Tags: The Surreal Case of Aleksandra Skochilenko

Jun 30 2022

This is the story of a St. Petersburg-based artist Aleksandra “Sasha” Skochilenko, who tried to help Russians cope with depression and is now arrested for “war fakes.”

Who is Aleksandra Skochilenko?

Sasha Skochilenko was born on September 13, 1990. She is a resident of St. Petersburg, a journalist, feminist, artist, and musician. When Sasha was diagnosed with cyclothymia, a form of bipolar affective disorder, she created The Book of Depression to support people with similar health problems. The book has been translated into English and Ukrainian.She was active socially and politically and has repeatedly participated in protests against the war in Ukraine.

She was charged under paragraph “e” of Part 2 of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code:”Public dissemination under the guise of reliable reports of knowingly false information containing data about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, committed on grounds of political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred or enmity or on grounds of hatred or enmity toward a social group,” up to 10 years in prison.” She was charged for replacing price tags in a grocery store with anti-war placards. She has been in custody since April 11, 2022.

Case Background

On the evening of March 31, 2022, anti-war flyers appeared in a Perekrestok supermarket on the first floor of Shkiperskii Mall on Vasilyevsky Island of St. Petersburg. Attention was drawn to these flyers by a customer — a 75-year-old retiree. The woman filed a police report.

As the Bumaga newspaper discovered, supposedly for more than 10 days the law enforcement officers questioned the employees of Perekrestok, and reviewed video surveillance cameras. Eventually, they established who had put the flyer in the price tag and where this person went.

The Arrest and the Criminal Case

On the morning of Monday, April 11, law enforcement officers conducted a special operation. They went to the apartment of the alleged suspect — his house was 900 meters away from Perekrestok. What exactly occurred in the apartment is unknown. The man living there turned out to be a friend of 31-year-old Sasha Skochilenko.

That morning, the Skochilenko received a message from the friend saying they were “looking for a body” in his apartment, asking her to come over. When she was on her way, the young man texted her that “everything was fine.” Skochilenko’s friends believe that the law enforcers could have texted Sasha from her friend’s phone.

When Skochilenko arrived at the apartment, she was detained. It was around 11 am. There was no news from Skochilenko for more than four hours, and law enforcement agencies did not comment on the situation.

During the search, the computer and the clothes on which Skochilenko allegedly replaced price tags with flyers were seized.

After the search, Skochilenko was taken for questioning to the Vasileostrovsky District Investigative Department of the Main Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation for St. Petersburg, where her detention as a suspect was formalized.

According to the media outlet Setevye Svobodi, the interrogation continued until 3 a.m. During this time the charges against Skochilenko became more serious, with an added motive of political hatred or enmity: “d” part 2, article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, providing for 5 to 10 years in prison. How the information on the anti-war leaflets could be “knowingly false” and where the “motive of political hatred” came from is not mentioned in the documents provided by the investigation.

On April 12, 2022, Mr. Proskuryakov, an investigator from the investigative department of the Vasileostrovsky district of St. Petersburg petitioned for the court to apply a measure of restraint in the form of detention to Skochilenko.

The following day, April 13, 2022, the judge of the Vasileostrovsky District Court of St. Petersburg E.V. Leonovagranted the petition for restraint, issuing an order for the detention of Aleksandra Skochilenko until May 31.

According to Dmitry Gerasimov, Skochilenko’s lawyer confirms that she posted anti-war leaflets with information about the Russian Federation’s use of military force in Ukraine and its consequences. However, she does not believe that the information in them was false, as follows from the article of the Criminal Code imputed to her.

The Judge Sent Skochilenko to the Detention Center. She Has a Critical Health Condition: Gluten Intolerance and Celiac Disease 

Sasha Skochilenko spent the night of April 12, 2022 in jail. As she said later in court, she slept there, but was not given any of the water or food that her friends had brought to her. The first hearing on Skochilenko’s case was postponed to the next day — and shespent another day in the temporary detention center.

The hearing on Skochilenko’s restraint began at 9 a.m. on 13 April in the Vasileostrovsky District Court. More than 40 people gathered in the hall — friends, journalists, as well as human rights activists. Skochilenko was taken to the court hall in handcuffs and put in a caged cell. She looked exhausted and begged for water — but there was no water in court and visitors were screened for food or drink. Despite her depressed state, she thanked the crowd.

Judge Elena Leonova did not consider the fact that Skochilenkowas diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder and celiac disease — a genetic intolerance to gluten, which requires a strict diet — to be a legitimate reason to refuse to send her to the detention center.

The judge specifically noted that Skochilenko “has no serious illnesses diagnosed” and that “there is no data that [the girl] needs emergency medical care.” In response to the fact that Skochilenko’s lawyer gave her a medical report, the judge said that the document “is not taken into account, because the source of information is not mentioned.”

Later it became known that Skochilenko faced psychological pressure and bullying in the detention center by her cellmates. The inmates forced Sasha to wash all her clothes every day, including bulky sweaters and a robe. It took her half of the day, wastingtime she could have spent writing letters to friends and statements about her case.

On April 20, after her meeting with Skochilenko in jail, herlawyer Yana Nepovinnova said that she felt “very sick” and vomited because of the poor diet. By April 25 (by that time the artist was still transferred to the pre-trial detention center), according to Nepovinnova, Skochilenko’s health had further deteriorated.

Public Reaction

Affidavit of guarantee for Skochilenko were signed by deputies of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg, Boris Vishnevsky and Mikhail Amosov; politician Lev Shlosberg; and municipal deputy Sergei Troshin. The court also received a positive reference from Kirill Artemenko, the general director of Bumaga media outlet. Hundreds of posts appeared in social networks about her case, calling it absurd. The case has been covered by the independent media. An action in support of Skochilenko was held in London.

Amnesty International and the American PEN Center issued statements in Skochilenko’s defense. Costume designer Ksenia Sorokina, who won this year’s Golden Mask Award for her work on the play Finist the Clear Falcon, decided to give Skochilenkoher award “in gratitude for all that she does.”

What’s more infuriating in its injustice is not only the prosecution for anti-war stance (that too), but rather the possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison, and the fact that she was sent to adetention center despite her illness.

“I remind you that none of the men who threatened to ‘cut off their heads’ ever got anything,” wrote Legislative Assembly deputy Boris Vishnevsky. “And nothing for the two attempts to kill my friend Vladimir Kara-Murza. But for the anti-war speeches — jail and then prison for 10 years. Notice the difference.”

At the same time, many of those in favor of Skochilenko’sfreedom are pessimistic. For example, Vishnevsky himself tells the Bumaga media outlet that he “would be glad to be wrong” if the outcome of the case is still positive. Journalist Arseniy Vesninrecalled how he knew they would send Skochilenko to jail, even though he didn’t believe it.

A petition demanding the artist’s release also appeared on Change.org. At the time of writing, it has already been signed by over 130 thousand people.

A separate petition in support of Skochilenko was created by mental health activists and journalists. “Aleksandra is a person who has made a tremendous contribution to the fight against prejudice about mental disorders. In her Book of Depression, she explained and showed in simple language where the disease, which affects millions of Russians, comes from and how it is treated. It was one of the first Russian-language works to draw attention to an illness that affects more than 300 million people worldwide,” they stated.

Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Aleksandra Skochilenko as a Political Prisoner?

Having reviewed documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial has concluded that Aleksandra Skochilenko is a victim of political persecution.

The center asserts that the article about spreading knowingly false information about the actions of the Russian army (Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code) contradicts the Constitution of Russia, Russia’s international obligations, and the basic principles of law.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression,” and restrictions on the exercise of these rights “shall be provided by law and shall be necessary: for respect of the rights and reputations of others; for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.” The restrictions on freedom of expression established by Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code do not serve any of the above purposes and are a manifestation of censorship.

This article criminalizes any statements about the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its government agencies abroad. During an armed conflict, it is impossible to establish the truthfulness of information disseminated by various sources. It is also impossible to establish whether or not the information is known to be false. These defects determine the unlawful nature of Art. 207.3 of the RF Criminal Code.

The timing and context of the appearance of Art. 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code — after the beginning of large-scale Russian military aggression against Ukraine — allow Memorial to argue that this article was specifically created as a tool for persecuting critics of the Russian authorities, of which Aleksandra Skochilenko is an example.

Finally, it is important to note the particularly cynical nature of the court’s decision to place Skochilenko in pretrial detention despite her vulnerable state of health. As a result, her friends and relatives are now trying to secure a special diet for her in the pretrial detention center. The denial of a gluten-free options directly threatens Skochilenko’s health, which could lead to serious complications for her, including cancer.

The independent human rights project Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial, which continues the work of the thematic Program of the liquidated by the state HRC Memorial, finds that the criminal case against Aleksandra Skochilenko is politically motivated, aimed at involuntary termination or change of character and intimidation of society as a whole. The government’s punitive efforts were carried out solely because of her non-violent exercise of freedom of expression and information, by which she intended to protect human rights and her beliefs.

Based on the above, Memorial considers Aleksandra Skochilenkoto be a political prisoner and calls for her release and for a review of her sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.

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