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Six years in prison for a Facebook post: The Case of Darya Polyudova

Jul 22 2021

Everyone is guaranteed freedom of thought and speech; the right to freely seek, receive, produce and disseminate information in any legal way; freedom of the media is guaranteed; censorship is prohibited.
Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation

Case Background

Darya Polyudova is a civic activist and a leader in the Left Resistance public movement.

Born in Uzbekistan, Darya moved with her family to Bashkiriya, Russia as a teenager.

Thinking back on their adjustment to Bashkiriya, Darya’s mother Tatyana recalls the city’s horrendous weather. “There were snowstorms in Bashkiriya in winter,” Tatyana remembers. “She [Darya] would come to the bus stop to go to her music classes, and I would say ‘Maybe you shouldn’t go, it’s freezing.’ She would say ‘No, I must go no matter what.’

She has been remarkably stubborn ever since she was a child. She always speaks her mind. Sometimes it is safer to remain silent, but she would spill everything out with no hesitation. She will fight for her truth until the end.”

After graduating from high school, Darya moved to the Krasnodar Krai in the south of Russia to attend the Ministry of Internal Affairs University. She wanted to become an investigator. During college, she joined the Communist Party of the Russian Federation during her third year of college, but soon realized how broken the system was, and that the party, in fact, did not care about the people, as it claimed.

Her strong sense of justice and urge to support those in need, especially in times of blatant injustice, brought Darya to the streets where she staged solitary pickets, holding home-made posters and voicing her criticism of Putin’s regime. These actions have resulted in numerous administrative arrests and even threats to expel her from the university.

Darya came out to the streets to support the Russian opposition during mass protests against falsified elections in 2011. In 2012, she came out to show solidarity with Pussy Riot activists imprisoned for their non-violent musical performance against Putin’s regime. Darya was vocal about her opposition to Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, most notably his illegal invasion of Crimea, and in her support for Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian political prisoners. Her criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and her public fight for human rights have made Darya a target of political persecution by government authorities.

In 2014, the police raided Darya’s house and arrested her on charges of inciting separatism and extremism. The official evidence cited for her arrest was her plan to organize a “March for the Federalization of Kuban” (a southern Russian region) and carrying of a poster at a protest shortly after Putin’s annexation of Crimea with words “Not a War in Ukraine but a Revolution in Russia!” Darya was sentenced to two years in prison. The Memorial Human Rights Center declared her a political prisoner in 2014. Tragically, six years later, she again was jailed by the Kremlin for her dissent, leading the Memorial Center to have to declare her a political prisoner again.

The Case of 2020

After her release from prison in 2017, Darya continued her peaceful civic activism, refusing to be bullied into silence by the Kremlin’s immoral and illegal repressions. In January 2019, Darya staged a one-person picket in Moscow holding a poster that read: ‘Hey, Kuril Islanders! Stop feeding Moscow! Long live the Far Eastern Republic!’ Her protests advanced the position that the residents of these islands should hold a legal referendum on withdrawing from the Russian Federation. On her page on the Vkontakte social network, she wrote that it could benefit Russia to be divided into several sovereign countries.

Based on her solitary pickets and online activity, the Russian government claimed that Polyudova was calling for armed separatism.  However, the incident the government used as pretext for her arrest  was a February 2017 repost of someone else’s’ publication on a Russian social media platform VKontakte. The content she reposted included a photo of the militant Shamil Basayev and the inscription ‘when we demanded a referendum, the Russians came and killed everyone who did not have time to hide.’ Darya did not accompany this repost with her own commentary, yet the authorities deemed this post enough to accuse Polyudova of publicly defending terrorism.

In January 2020, the FSB once again raided Darya’s house and initiated criminal proceedings against her under Part 1 of Article 280.1 of the Russian Criminal Code for “public incitement of separatism,” and Part 2 of Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code for “public justification of terrorism.” In mid-January, Darya was arrested, brought to a detention center, and denied her right to see her mother. After already having spent a year and a half in detention, Darya was sentenced to six years of increased security prison on May 31, 2021.

Why does Memorial consider Polyudova a political prisoner?

1.         Polyudova’s imprisonment violates her constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech.

The Memorial Center believes that Article 280.1 of the Russian Criminal Code must be repealed. The Center asserts that the state only has the right to criminalize manifestations of separatism that are violent in nature or promote violent actions. It certainly does not have the right to arrest those who engage theoretical deliberations about the possibility of separation. Darya Polyudova did not in any way urge the residents of Kuril Islands to take part in an armed struggle for independence. In advocating a peaceful legal referendum, she merely expressed her point of view, which she has a lawful right to do according to the Russian Constitution—a document that guarantees freedom of speech. Additionally, the criminalization of calls for a public referendum, even one on a controversial question l, contradicts the basic principles of popular sovereignty, and Russian statehood enshrined in the Constitution.

2.         Facebook repost is not adequate grounds for imprisonment

 The charges that Darya faces under Part 2 of Article 205.2 (accusing her of justifying terrorism by reposting someone else’s publication) are far-fetched and unreasonable. Addendum 1 to Article 205.2 defines a public justification of terrorism as a ‘public statement recognizing the ideology and practice of terrorism as correct, and in need of support and emulation. Darya’s repost did not endorse terrorist practices or affirm the need to support terrorism. Indeed, to claim that it does necessitates an excessively broad misreading of the repost that is intentionally unfavorable to Darya. Polyudova’s defense lawyers stated: “These accusations are very convenient [for the government]. The investigation finds a linguist who will determine the hidden meaning of the message. That’s it. Now you can include the linguist’s conclusion in the case and cite their words. This is how the police artificially increases the statistics of the cases related to terrorism to prove their success to their bosses.”

Moreover, Darya’s actions pose no real danger to the public. In March 2020, her repost had 60 views, including views by the staff of Memorial Center and the FSB. Not a single like or comment was made on the post. The Center believes that despite the obvious ambiguity and controversy of the repost made by Polyudova, her actions are certainly not sufficient to accuse her of defending and promoting terrorism.

The Memorial Center concludes that Darya’s detention is politically motivated and directly connected to her social and political activities. Darya is a consistent critic of the Russian political leadership and actively opposes the war with Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and political repression. Thus, the Center believes that these opposition beliefs and activities are the real reasons Darya is now serving her second sentence in prison. The Center demands that all charges against Polyudova are dropped immediately and she is released from prison without delay.

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