Young activists accused of being connected to the democratic youth movement Vesna were arrested in Russia on 6 June. Until sentence they are all held in terrifying pre-detention centers in Moscow. All of them face several criminal charges which could lead to sentences of up to 15 years in jail, if they survive the detention centers.
On June 6, Russian law enforcement authorities in different regions in Russian, detained Valentin Khoroshenin, Evgeny Zateev, Yan Ksenzhepolsky, and three other people accused of being activists of Vesna. Some of those arrested have no connection to Vesna at all but are still accused of supporting Vesna.
Last year Global Bar Magazine interviewed Evgeny Zateev after he had been arrested in May 2022 for participating in a protest against the war, one of 14 protests Vesna has organized since February 24, 2022.
“When the war came, I could no longer remain silent, so I joined Vesna. It is my duty as a citizen of Russia”, said Evgeny last year.
Evgeny was one of hundreds people who dared to join the protest against Putin’s war on Ukraine. After he was arrested the first time the court had restricted his movements and his ability to communicate but he could still communicate with the outside. He has not been a member in Vesna for more than a year.
Since he was arrested on June 6 he has not been able to communicate with anyone but his lawyers.
Wake up, they are searching the house!
“We woke up that day from a phone call from Russia. ‘Get up now! The police are searching the houses of Evgeny and Valentin!´”, says one of Vesna’s leaders, whose identity is kept anonymous because of the increased risk all Vesna members face.
“On a personal level it is much harder this time because they (those arrested) are our personal friends, and that affects us a lot.”
“Yes, the first sentences were harsh and put them in danger. Now the risk is extremely high. The scale of the sentences they face is something we didn’t expect. We are all in shock”, the Vesna leader continues:
“This time it is not only about scaring them. It is something different. I am angry. Lots of things can happen to them in custody. We don’t know how they are treated in prison. We can only get information from them through letters those are heavily censored.”
Family members and friends of those arrested have formed support groups where they crowdfund to pay for the costs at jail. To survive in a pre-detention center or a jail it is estimated each person would need €500 a month. That is not covering the legal costs. All those arrested now are represented by lawyers who do the work pro bono.
“Evgeny is now facing six criminal charges. Added to the charge of being members of extremist community he is now also accused of spreading false information about the Russian army and rehabilitating Nazism. The charge of rehabilitating Nazism is most likely because of the protests we organized on May 9”, says a Vesna activist whose name is withheld for safety reasons.
Every year on May 9 Russia celebrates victory over Nazi Germany. Protests on that day could be the justification the Russian government have for the strange criminal charge against peace activists. At the same time there are quite a few Nazi sympathizers fighting for Russia in their brutal war against Ukraine.
The pre-trial hearings were held behind closed doors. According to sources, the prosecutor argued that Evgeny and the others pose a danger to society and could commit extremist actions if not held in detention until the court has decided. The judge agreed. (Read more about Russia’s legal system used to shut down the opposition).
Most likely Evgeny will have to stay in a pre-detention center for a year. These are notorious jails and dangerous and deemed even worse than the actual prisons. According to sources people held there risk torture and severe punishments by the prison administration. The anti-war activists will share rooms with hardened criminals.
– One common practice is to punish a person and put them in a very small cell together with very aggressive people. People are put there often as a punishment and sometimes used by the system to torture. There is always dangers, lots of reports of torture in arrest jails, says a Vesna organizer, whose name have been withheld because of safety.
On the same day as the Vesna activists, Vasily Neustroev, who has never been a member of Vesna, was arrested and charged to stay in a detention center waiting for a severe judgement. Vasily Neustroev is a member of an election commission and has never had any connection with Vesna.
The Vesna movement made this comment after the court’s decision to put the six people in detention centers until they are sentenced to up to 15 years in jail:
“It is clear to us that the regime is punishing Vesna for our activities. They have been persecuting our former members and everyone who has something to do with Vesna. The criminal case is an obvious and demonstrative repression which has only one function: to startle and force people to be silent about the war, political prosecutions and the numerous crimes of the authorities.
Yet, we will never give up our beliefs and will continue our fight towards a peaceful, democratic, prosperous country where the rights of citizens are respected. We refuse to comply with the court’s decisions that were initially made by the criminal Putin’s regime. The true enemies of the Russian people stay in Kremlin, not in Ukraine. And we will proceed with doing our work no matter what.”
Vesna is a democratic youth movement founded in Saint Petersburg in 2013. Their work is based on the values of freedom, equality, and non-violence. Since February 24, 2022, the movement has been organizing the nationwide anti-war campaign. After the quite successful protests the Russian government began prosecuting Vesna activists and enforce legal constraints on the movement. They are now deemed an extremist organization.
Russian authorities have banned Vesna and declared it an ”extremist organisation” that ”threatens Russian authorities and authorities”. Although the organisation is banned, many young people continue to fight the regime through their social media channels. There are still activists left in Russia. All those who are featured in our publications are aware of the risk of visibility, but still want to share what happened to them.
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