Russia hands down first prison term for anti-war remarks

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A court in Moscow sentenced a municipal council member to seven years in prison Friday for his remarks opposing the war in Ukraine.

The unprecedented sentence raises the stakes for Kremlin critics in Russia who speak out against Moscow's invasion of its ex-Soviet neighbor.

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Alexei Gorinov was found guilty of spreading “knowingly false information” about the Russian military, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison under a law the Russian parliament rubber-stamped a week after the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine.

The 60-year-old member of Moscow's Krasnoselsky municipal council is the first person sentenced to serve time behind bars for a conviction on that charge, according to Net Freedoms, a legal aid group focused on free speech cases.

The two other convictions so far led to a fine and a suspended sentence, the group said. Gorinov, who was arrested in April, is the first elected representative to face charges under the wartime law.

Gorinov criticized Russia’s military actions in Ukraine at a municipal council meeting in March. A video available on YouTube shows him voicing skepticism about holding a planned children’s art competition in his constituency while “every day children are dying” in Ukraine.

Photographs published by Russian media of a Friday court hearing showed Gorinov behind inside a glass-walled defendant’s dock and holding up a sign that read, “Do you still need this war?” A bailiff tried to cover the sign with his hands.

When President Vladimir Putin ordered the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, a massive wave of outrage and antiwar sentiment swept Russia. Thousands of people protested on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg daily, and hundreds of thousands signed online petitions opposing the attack.

The Kremlin insisted that what it called a “special military operation” in Ukraine had overwhelming public support, and moved swiftly to suppress any criticism.

Thousands of protesters were arrested, and dozens of critical media outlets were shut down.

Individuals who spoke out publicly against the invasion or accused Russian troops of committing atrocities in Ukraine have been targeted under the new legislation, which outlawed the spread of “false information” about the invasion and disparaging the military.

As of Friday, Net Freedoms had counted 68 criminal cases involving false information charges and at least 2,000 misdemeanor cases for the alleged disparagement of the Russian military.

Gorinov refused to plead guilty, and he denounced the invasion again while giving his closing statement in court Thursday.

“For five months, Russia has been carrying out hostilities, coyly calling them a special operation. We're being promised a victory and glory. Why, then, are a large part of my compatriots feeling shame and guilt?” Gorinov said. “I am convinced that a war is the fastest way to dehumanization, when the line between good and evil fades. It is always death, I don't accept it and reject it.”

Bruce Millar, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia deputy director, called the sentence handed to Gorinov “shocking.”

“It is an unlawful reprisal for expressing his views, and not the administration of justice,” Millar said in a statement. The council member “did not commit any internationally recognized crime by calling the war unleashed by Vladimir Putin on Ukraine what it is, a criminal war.”

Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, the founder of Moscow think tank R.Politik, said Gorinov's 7-year sentence took a “special political decision” and that his case stood out because he aired antiwar views while speaking as an public official at a council meeting.

“The sentence is a defiantly and emphatically cruel warning to all: 'Dissent, you will all land behind bars for a long time if you combine antiwar rhetoric with political activity,” Stanovaya wrote on Telegram.

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