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Up to 10 Years in Prison for Having a Personal Opinion: The Case of Journalist Sergei Mikhailov

Jul 21 2022

In Altai, the Gorno-Altaisk City Court put columnist and founder of the weekly newspaper Listok, Sergei Mikhailov in pre-trial detention. A criminal case was opened against Mikhailov for spreading fake news about the Russian military after investigators received a complaint about his articles about the “special military operation” of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine. These articles had been published in Listok and on the mirror site of the newspaper’s website. 

Who is Sergei Mikhailov?

Sergey Mikhailov was born on August 1, 1976. He has a young child and currently resides in the city of Gorno-Altaisk in the Altai Republic of Russia. Mikhailov is the founder and a columnist of the opposition weekly newspaper Listok and is a member of the federal political council of the democratic party Parnas. He is charged under Article 207.3(2)(e) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Public spreading of deliberately false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces and containing data about the exercise of their authority by Russian government agencies outside the Russian Federation for reasons of political hatred” — up to 10 years in prison). He has been in custody since April 13, 2022. 

Case Background

Russian authorities have accused Sergei Mikhailov of publishing false information on the destruction of a maternity hospital and drama theater in Mariupol by Russian troops, which resulted in the death of civilians, in Listok’s Telegram channel from March 9 to April 4, 2022. 

In addition, between March 20 and April 8, 2022, according to the case investigator, Mikhailov published false information on the killing of civilians by the Russian Army in the town of Bucha, Kyiv region, on the Telegram channel and newspaper website and in print issue No. 13(14)/1183 on April 6, 2022.

“By his actions, Sergei Mikhailov committed a crime under Article 207.3(e) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation — public dissemination under the guise of reliable reports of knowingly false information that contains data on the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation in order to protect the interests of Russia and its citizens, maintaining international peace and security, as well as containing data on the performance of their powers by state agencies of Russia outside the territory of Russia for such purposes, committed on grounds of political hatred and hostility,” concluded the above decision dated April 14, 2022 by V. Ageyev, the prosecutor for high-profile cases of the Department of Investigation,

The Arrest and the Criminal Case

On April 13, 2022, Sergei Mikhailov was detained in the town of Lyubertsy near Moscow where he had recently been living (hiding, according to prosecutors). 

“On April 13, 22 at 6:00 a.m. I wake up to a sharp knock on the door of a room in a dormitory near Moscow. There is a shout from the door — open up, police! Immediately the flimsy plywood door flew open with a good kick. A crowd of people rushes into the room. A little later I counted 15 people, led by two SWAT officers in bulletproof vests, with assault rifles and faces covered with balaclavas. There was a cry of ‘Face down!’ I lay face down, handcuffs snapped on my hands. ‘Stand up, face the wall!’” Sergei Mikhailov describes his detention.

On the same day, law enforcement officers searched the Listokoffice in Gorno-Altaisk and confiscated documentation and office equipment. Searches were also conducted in the apartments of the news outlet’s employees. 

On April 14, 2022, Mikhailov was taken under convoy to Gorno-Altaisk and placed in the temporary detention facility of the Department of Internal Affairs. Judge Elena Kuznetsova of the Gorno-Altaisk City Court placed him in the pre-trial detention center until June 7, 2022, on the recommendation of the investigation.

It should be noted that the criminal prosecution of Sergei Mikhailov was preceded by actions against him and his media outlet. At the end of March 2022, hackers tried to infiltrate Mikhailov’s Telegram channel, and in early April, VKontaktesocial media blocked Listok’s community group. On April 6, 2022, Olga Komarova, director of Publishing House Listok LLC, was summoned to the prosecutor’s office for drawing up a protocol under the administrative article on appeals to sanctions against Russia (Article 20.3.4 of the Administrative Code). In April 2022, the Gorno-Altaisk City Court fined Listok founder Mikhailov, director Komarova, and the media legal entity several times for publishing several articles allegedly discrediting the army, totaling over a million rubles.

On April 25, 2022, two criminal cases were opened against Mikhailov under the article on spreading “knowingly false information” about the Russian army (Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code). The first case was initiated due to reposts of entries about the war with Ukraine in the newspaper’s Telegram channel, and the second due to the publication of a summary of an article about the atrocities in Bucha from Wikipedia. 

“S. Figulin, the head of the Republican Center “E” and his subordinates talked to me without any lawyer. They said — the investigator allowed it… The Telegram channel of Listok was insistently demanded to be eliminated. After hinting at some mitigation, Mr. Figulin demanded that I record a video of me apologizing… I refused … Figulin voiced aloud his desire to consider the criminal case “in a special order” …Figulin: “You are ruining Listok with your own hands.” 

Sergei Mikhailov categorically refuses to admit to the charges and considers the criminal prosecution as obstruction of his professional journalistic activities.

Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Sergei Mikhailov as a Political Prisoner?

After studying the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial came to the conclusion that Sergei Mikhailov is a victim of political persecution.

A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma adopted emergency laws (not as separate bills but by amending others that had already passed the first reading) to amend the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code. These laws deal with calls for sanctions, “spreading fakes” about the Russian armed forces, and “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 the president. The amendments took effect on March 5, 2022, the date of their official publication. Memorial attorneys strongly believe that these articles contradict both the Russian Constitution and Russia’s international obligations, as well as 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 included in Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought and speech. 

The restrictions on 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, Memorial emphasizes.

It is important to note that legitimate restrictions on freedom of expression cannot be justified by military censorship, as stipulated by paragraph 15 of Article 7 of the Federal Constitutional Law “On Martial Law.”  Even under martial law, 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. 

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 defects of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation determine its unlawful nature, which does not allow its application in good faith. The immediate introduction of this article into the Criminal Code after the beginning of the armed aggression against Ukraine, the rhetoric of officials that accompanied its consideration and adoption, and the context of its application — the ongoing military actions and accompanying state military propaganda — exclude such good faith. In a situation where the only accepted information and assessments are those of official Russian sources, which justify the war of aggression, deny Russian war crimes and accounts of civilian deaths, and prohibit the labeling of the events as “war,” the application of this article of the Criminal Code is extremely unconscientious and unlawful.

Based on the above, the Independent Human Rights Project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” believes that Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code is anti-legal—that it 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. 

When considering the prosecution of Sergei Mikhailov, it should be noted that he has been an opposition politician and journalist for many years, was elected deputy in Altai, and criticized the work of the authorities and law enforcement agencies both at the republic and federal levels. Thus, there is reason to believe that an additional motive for the unlawful criminal prosecution was the desire on the part of the Altai law enforcement to stop his outspoken criticism.

Memorial considers Sergei Mikhailov 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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