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Up to 10 Years in Prison for Comments on Social Media on War Crimes in Bucha and Irpen. The Case of Gregory Vinter

Oct 31 2022

A Russian campaigner and human rights activist is facing charges of spreading “knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” on social networks, for which he could be imprisoned for up to 10 years. Here is the story of Gregory Vinter.

Who is Gregory Vinter?

Gregory Marcus Severin Vinter (Grigoriy Electronovich Vinter before the name change) was born on February 14, 1969.  He is a resident of the city of Cherepovets in Russia’s Vologda Region, an activist and human rights advocate. He is a former chief of the radiation control laboratory. He also used to serve as coordinator of the Vologda branch of the movement For Human Rights. For years, Gregory was involved in protecting forests from logging and the defense of prisoners’ rights. Between 2019-2022, he was convicted under Art. 319 (“Insulting a representative of the authorities”), Art. 207.1 (“Public dissemination of knowingly false information about circumstances that endanger the life and safety of citizens”), parts 1 and 2 of Art. 297 (“Insulting the court”) of the Criminal Code.

Case Background

Gregory has previously been subjected to numerous administrative and criminal as well as extrajudicial prosecutions in connection with his human rights and advocacy work. In 2018, he was severely injured in an attack by an unknown perpetrator, presumably in connection with his active participation in the defense of the Pulowa Forest. In 2019, he was found guilty of insulting former Cherepovets mayor Elena Avdeeva and current city head Margarita Guseva in a post on his personal VK page condemning deforestation. He was sentenced to 280 hours of mandatory labor under Article 319 of the Criminal Code (“Insulting a representative of authority”) when the case was retried. The original conviction was overturned due to numerous violations.

Another criminal prosecution involved charges of “spreading knowingly false information” about coronavirus. At the peak of the epidemic, in a social media group he administered, Vinter reported that prisoners were being transported to the Cherepovets SIZO in violation of sanitary and epidemiological regulations (some prisoners had obvious symptoms of the coronavirus). On March 31, 2021, he was sentenced under Article 207.1 of the Criminal Code (“Public distribution of deliberately false information about circumstances endangering life and safety of citizens”) and Article 319 (“Insulting a government official”), added during the investigation for his alleged use of obscene language against an officer during a raid, to six months (the appellate court reduced the original sentence to two years) of corrective labor with a 5% monthly deduction of earnings to the state.

The Arrest and the Criminal Case

On August 24, 2022, the prosecutor of the Vologda region Investigative Committee, Senior Lieutenant of Justice A.A. Nesterov initiated a criminal case against Mr. Vinter under the “e” part 2 of article 207.3 of the Criminal Code (“Public distribution of deliberately false information about the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, the execution of their powers by state agencies of the Russian Federation on grounds of political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred or enmity or on grounds of hate or hostility toward any social groups.”)

On the same day Vinter was detained. He had remained in custody from the moment of his arrest on August 24, 2022, and on October 19, 2022, he was transferred from the pre-trial detention center to house arrest.

According to the indictment, Mr. Vinter, “in order to form a negative attitude towards the actions of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Ukraine during a special military operation, having a persistent dislike for the state authorities of the Russian Federation, including the head of state, … acting on grounds of political and ideological hatred and hostility, … conducted a dissemination [on the Vkontakte public page] under the guise of reliable messages deliberately false information containing data that the soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation raped women and children, killed civilians and tried to burn their corpses in the cities of Bucha and Irpen of Ukraine”.

The “falsity” of the information in the indictment is substantiated by the phrase: “The information disseminated by G. M. S. Vinter according to the official position of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, is false.”

At the time of this writing, the post cited in the charge, made on April 4, 2022, in a group of social network Vkontakte, was still available in the public domain. Mr. Vinter’s imputed text was a comment on another user’s post. The full text of Mr. Vinter’s comment is as follows:

“It breaks my heart to see photos and videos from Bucha and Irpen. Occupiers from Russia raped children, and raped women were killed and abandoned right on the road, corpses were burnt. Everything that we knew about Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria — everything is repeated in Ukraine — a wild herd of scum without family or tribe has carried out a monstrous massacre — GENOCIDE — of the peaceful Ukrainian population. This is the end of “Russian civilization” — no one will fall for Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky now — everyone will know that this is just a screen for Aleppo, Grozny and Bucha. Lord, take to heaven the tortured from Bucha and other Ukrainian places — may they be angels! Sorrowful tears.”

The defendant faces up to 10 years in prison.

Why the Memorial Center Recognizes Gregory Vinter as a Political Prisoner

Having examined the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial concludes that Gregory Vinter is a victim of political persecution.

A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, on March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma adopted emergency laws (not as separate bills, but by amending others that had already passed first reading) to amend the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code. These laws dealt with calls for sanctions, “spreading fakes” about the Russian armed forces, “discrediting” them, as well as calls to obstruct their use. The same day, the Federation Council approved the laws, and in the evening, they were signed by President Putin. The amendments took effect on March 5, 2022, the date of their official publication. The Memorial’s attorneys assert that this article contradicts both the Russian Constitution and Russia’s international obligations, as well as the basic principles of law.

According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference … shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Similar guarantees are contained in Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought and speech.

The restrictions of freedom of expression established by Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code clearly do not serve the purpose for which such restrictions might be established, the Memorial emphasizes.

It is important to note, that legitimate restrictions on freedom of expression cannot be justified by military censorship, as stipulated by par. 15 of Article 7 of the Federal Constitutional Law “On Martial Law.”  Even under martial law, therefore, the law does not impose special restrictions on freedom of speech and opinion. Moreover, there are no grounds for them in a situation where martial law is not imposed.

De facto, the norms of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code allow prosecution for expressing any opinions on the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its government agencies abroad.

The aforementioned innate defects of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation determine its unlawful nature, which does not even allow its application in good faith. However, the fact of urgent introduction of this article into the Criminal Code immediately after the beginning of the armed aggression against Ukraine, and the rhetoric of officials that accompanied its consideration and adoption, and, most importantly, the context of its application — the ongoing military actions and accompanying state military propaganda exclude such good faith. In a situation where the only truthful information and assessments are those of official Russian sources, which not only justify the war of aggression and deny numerous accounts of civilian deaths as a result of Russian strikes and war crimes committed by Russian forces, but also prohibit calling events that from any perspective constitute war the word “war”, the application of this article of the Criminal Code, which is by its nature illegal, is also extremely unconscientious and unlawful.

Based on the above, the Independent Human Rights Project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” asserts that Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code is unconstitutional, was created to conduct political repressions against critics of the authorities, and must be abolished. Any prosecutions under this article are unlawful and must be stopped.

Memorial’s lawyers further assert that Mr. Vinter’s statement is an emotional reaction to the crimes committed by the Russian military in the course of its armed aggression against Ukraine. The facts of shelling of cities, looting, killing of civilians and refugees, violence against women in the occupied territories have been documented and established, in particular, the facts of killing of civilians in Bucha and Irpen. As for the violence against children, this information was voiced by a representative of the official Ukrainian authorities at the time, which may well have been credible. The fact that these data were subsequently questioned by the Ukrainian authorities cannot impose responsibility on Mr. Vinter “retrospectively”. As for the the numerous violations of the rights of the population in Chechnya or Syria during military operations in those territories, these facts have been repeatedly confirmed by international human rights organizations and, in particular, by Memorial.

Human rights activists have not found either calls for violence or direct insults against specific individuals in Mr. Vinter’s statements, which could lead to the application of the exclusionary rule under the Guidelines on the recognition of political prisoners.

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, according to the international guidance on the definition of “political prisoner”, finds that the criminal case against Gregory Vinter is politically motivated, aimed at involuntary termination or change of the nature of public activities of critics of the authorities, as well as intimidation of society at large, that is, consolidation and retention of power by subjects of authority, while his incarceration was applied to him in violation of the right to freedom of expression. Moreover, the human rights organization believes that the persecution of people for their anti-war stance is related exclusively to their political views and the exercise of their freedom of expression.

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

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