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The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: the “Sanitary” Case Background

May 21 2021

In March 2020, under the pretense of battling the coronavirus epidemic, federal and regional authorities of Russia adopted repressive legal norms and vague, potentially dangerous criminal articles that attack constitutional rights and freedoms. Unsurprisingly, in January 2021, the adoption of these repressive norms led to a political case. 

Case overview 

On January 23, 2021, mass protests supporting Alexey Navalny, fueled by horrendous police brutality, were held in 198 Russian cities and 95 cities abroad. The next day, the Investigative Committee of Russia opened a criminal case against ten opposition activists and politicians for calling people to a peaceful protest on January 23. The criminal charge is based on Article 236 of Part 1 of the Criminal Code of Russia (envisaging a prison sentence of up to 2 years), indicatingthe incitement to violate sanitary and epidemiological rules which, by negligence, entailed a mass illness or poisoning of people, or created a threat of the onset of such consequences.” 

According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, this criminal case is politically motivated and is related to the defendants’ political beliefs violating their right to freedom of expression and the right to protest. The persecution is carried out in violation of the right to a fair trial and aims to forcibly end opposition activities and intimidate Alexey Navalny’s supporters.

Illegally prosecuted case defendants 

While awaiting trial, the case defendants are either banned from performing specific actions or are held under house arrest. House arrest implies the inability to leave the house, communicate with certain people (often, the communication is limited to the relatives living in the same house), send and receive letters, and use the phone and the Internet. 

Maria Alyokhina – activist and member of a feminist music band “Pussy Riot”. She was previously recognized by the Memorial Human Rights Center as a political prisoner and already spent two years in prison. Alyokhina is once again a victim of the repressive system and has been under strict house arrest since January 29, 2021, as part of the “Sanitary” case. 

Nikolai Lyaskin – an oppositionist who was also recognized as a political prisoner by the Memorial Human Rights Center before. Just like Maria Alyokhina, he is once again a victim of the repressive system and has been under house arrest since January 29, 2021, as part of the “Sanitary” case. On April 26, the court allowed him to leave the house for 12 hours instead of the 2 hours permitted initially. 

Oleg Navalny – Alexey Navalny’s brother, another previously recognized political prisoner who already served a sentence of almost 4 years. On April 7, 2021, as part of the “Sanitary” case, he was released from house arrest but is still banned from leaving the house at night, communicating with other case defendants, and using mail and the Internet. 

Lyubov Sobol – opposition politician and the Anti-corruption Foundation’s lawyer who was put under house arrest on January 29, 2021. She was not allowed to go to church on Sundays or take her daughter to school. 40 NGOs appealed to the United Nations to release Lyubov Sobol, stating in a joint appeal that “Sobol has been condemned to total isolation under house arrest awaiting trial on two fake criminal charges. Her only crime was peacefully calling for a more fair, free, and democratic Russia. The arbitrary arrest and detention of Sobol are a blatant violation of human rights. She must be released immediately.” On April 7, 2021, she was released from house arrest but just like Oleg Navalny Sobol is still not allowed to leave the house after 8 PM, communicate with other defendants, write letters and use the Internet. 

Konstantinas Yankauskas – municipal deputy of the Zyuzino district in Moscow. He has now been recognized by the Memorial Human Rights Center as a political prisoner twice. He has been under house arrest for two months and was released on April 7, 2021, with a ban on performing specific actions along with Lyubov Sobol. 

Dmitriy Baranovskiy – municipal deputy of the Northern Izmailovo district in Moscow, was arrested on February 1, 2021, and has been under house arrest ever since.

Anastasiya Vasilyeva – an ophthalmologist, leader of the independent labor union “Alliance of Doctors,” has spent a month under house arrest and was released on April 7, 2021, but is still banned from leaving the house at night. 

Lyudmila (Lyusya) Shtein – municipal deputy of the Basmanny district in Moscow. She has been under house arrest for two months and was released on April 7, 2021, but along with other case defendants, she is also not allowed to perform specific actions. 

Oleg Stepanov – the former coordinator of Alexey Navalny’s Headquarters in Moscow, was arrested on January 29, 2021, and has been under house arrest ever since. 

Kira Yarmysh – Alexey Navalny’s press secretary, has been under strict house arrest since January 29, 2021. As mentioned above, on April 7, 2021, the court released a few case defendants from house arrest but refused to release Kira Yarmysh. 

Six reasons why the Memorial Human Rights Center considers 10 case defendants political prisoners 

1. The restrictive measures taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus are not sufficient grounds to unconditionally ban public events and grossly violate the right to freedom of assembly, enshrined in Art. 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. 

2. Almost all restrictions on cultural and entertainment events in Moscow were lifted before the protests. 

3. The case defendants did not know and could not know if people who were on self-isolation would respond to their calls to protest on social media. 

4. The defendants’ actions do not constitute corpus delicti as they should not be held responsible for the irresponsible behavior of others. 

5. There is no conclusive evidence that public events, carried out with the necessary precautions in the open air, can seriously increase the spread of coronavirus infection compared to attending cultural and recreational events or using public transport. 

6. Prosecuting thousands of peaceful protesters based on the violation of sanitary and epidemiological restrictions is especially cynical given that the protesters were being transported in cramped police vans, held in police departments and special detention centers in conditions that are much more conducive to the further spread of the disease.

Activatica.org (Estonia)Activatica.org (Estonia) Article 20 (Russia)Article 20 (Russia) Euromaidan SOS (Ukraine)Euromaidan SOS (Ukraine) Free Russia Foundation (U.S., Russia, Ukraine, Georgia)Free Russia Foundation (U.S., Russia, Ukraine, Georgia) Human Rights Foundation (United States)Human Rights Foundation (United States) Action for Post-Soviet Jewry (United States)Action for Post-Soviet Jewry (United States) Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice (United States)Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice (United States) Center for Civil Liberties (Ukraine)Center for Civil Liberties (Ukraine) McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University (United States)McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University (United States) Solidarus (Germany)Solidarus (Germany) Union of Council for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (United States)Union of Council for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (United States) Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (Canada)Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (Canada) NEP Prague (Czech Republic)NEP Prague (Czech Republic)