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Russian man sentenced to five years labor for criticizing war in Ukraine

By Mary Ilyushina Washington Post

A Moscow court on Monday sentenced a man to five years of compulsory labor for giving an antiwar comment to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) two years ago - a criminal prosecution that showed the Russian government intensifying its crackdown on dissent and that could have a chilling effect on international media still operating in the country.

The man, Yuri Kokhovets, 38, made a brief comment critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, in July 2022 when reporters from RFE/RL were conducting “vox pops” - quick interviews surveying public opinion - outside of a subway station in the Russian capital.

The reporters for RFE/RL, which is financed by the U.S. government, asked passersby if they felt there was a need for “détente between Russia and NATO countries.”

Kokhovets, in reply, said he found justifications for the war given by President Vladimir Putin and other officials to be baseless, and he said that hostilities should cease immediately.

“Our government unleashed this: Putin and his gang of thugs. Russia created all these problems for itself,” Kokhovets said. “For 20 years, they’ve been saying that NATO is a big problem. I don’t see any problems in NATO at all; they will not capture anyone.”

“Our government says that it wants to fight nationalists but bombs shopping centers; in Bucha, our soldiers from Buryatia and Dagestan shot civilians for no reason at all,” he added. “We need to finish all these actions, and that’s it.”

Nearly a year later, reports surfaced that the authorities had initiated a criminal case against Kokhovets on charges of spreading “false information” about the Russian army - under new laws adopted after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Law enforcement officials have focused particularly on remarks about Bucha, a city near Kyiv, where Russian soldiers were accused of committing atrocities, including murdering civilians, during the early weeks of the invasion.

Multiple cases were prosecuted retrospectively, sometimes months after critical remarks had been made as Putin and other Russian officials insisted that the alleged atrocities in Bucha were provocation staged by the West and denied the Russian military’s involvement.

Kokhovets was detained for several days but then released on bail with a travel restriction imposed on him.

During the proceedings, prosecutors presented a linguistic analysis of his interview that added gravity to the charge - “spreading false information motivated by political hatred” - because Kokhovets had described Putin’s allies as “a gang of thugs.” That small adjustment to the charge meant Kokhovets was facing up to 10 years in prison.

Prosecutors demanded a prison sentence of five and a half years but the court on Monday delivered a markedly lenient verdict in today’s Russia by sentencing Kokhovets to five years of mandatory labor, and deducting 10 percent from his salary to be paid to the government.

“My whole life has been a mishap, but I had to get lucky at least once in my life; here I walked along the razor’s edge,” Kokhovets told reporters following the verdict. “I am going to unpack my prison bag finally … I’m happy this stage of my life is over.”

Defense lawyers, who maintained Kokhovets did not commit any crime, said they were happy with the verdict and would not file an appeal because “they are aware of the judicial practice” in Russia, in which appeals in such cases rarely result in acquittal.

Two similar probes under harsh “discrediting of the army” laws were initiated last year after Muscovites queried by Deutsche Welle, the German public broadcaster, which has expressed support for Western supplies of weapons to Ukraine.

Both Deutsche Welle and RFE/RL have been declared “foreign agents” by the Russian government, a label widely applied to media organizations and individual journalists critical of the Kremlin who are deemed to be under foreign influence.

Moscow’s hunt for war critics has extended far beyond Russia’s borders. European authorities last week arrested a group of people suspected of attacking a Russian political opposition figure Leonid Volkov outside his home in Vilnius, Lithuania. Volkov, a close aide to the late Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, was beaten with a hammer.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced on Friday that three men were arrested in the case, including two Polish citizens allegedly linked to radical football hooliganism groups. Tusk said they were suspected of carrying out the attack at the direction of a Belarusian citizen.

At the time Volkov was attacked. Lithuanian intelligence officials said the incident was linked to the Russian security services. The Kremlin declined to comment on that accusation.

Lithuanian prosecutor, Justas Laucius, said at a news conference following the arrests that Volkov was attacked “because of his political activities and opinions.”

The attack occurred about a month after Navalny died unexpectedly in a remote Arctic prison. Russian authorities claimed he died of natural causes, while Navalny’s family said he was murdered on orders of the Kremlin.