A Russian court on Thursday sentenced a protest artist to seven years in prison for switching grocery store price tags for anti-war stickers, the latest assault on dissent in the country as it faces strong international backlash for its continued invasion of Ukraine.
In April 2022, more than a month after the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, Sasha Skochilenko was taken into police custody in St. Petersburg, charged with spreading false information for her protest art.
“The Russian army bombed an arts school in Mariupol. Some 400 people were hiding in it from the shelling,” one tiny placard read in Russian. “Russian conscripts are being sent to Ukraine. Lives of our children are the price of this war,” said another.
A shopper at the supermarket alerted local authorities, who promptly arrested Skochilenko.
Her arrest came about a month after a law was signed into effect banning public displays against the war.
Skochilenko, 33, is not the only pacifist to have been punished by authorities. The legislation has been deployed against a wide array of dissenters, from opposition politicians and human rights activists to everyday Russians.
Some 19,834 Russians were arrested for their political beliefs from February 24, 2022, when the Kremlin invaded Ukraine, to October 2023, according to OVD-Info, a human rights group monitoring political arrests.
Skochilenko does not deny swapping the price tags for anti-war signage but rebukes the charge that she knowingly tried to mislead the public.
Her aim was not to denounce the military, Yana Nepovinnova, her lawyer, told The Associated Press last week, but instead to appeal for an end to the fighting.
“She is a very empathetic, peace-loving person,” Nepovinnova said. “To her, in general, the word ‘war’ is the most terrible thing imaginable, as is the suffering of people.”
Mediazona, the independent Russian news outlet, reported that Skochilenko denounced the case against her as “weird and ridiculous” in her closing statement in court on Thursday.
Her own jailers, she said, are so bewildered by the charge against her that they “open their eyes widely and exclaim: ‘Is this really what people are being imprisoned for now?’”
An investigator working with the prosecution stepped down, she said, apparently telling one of Skochilenko’s lawyers that he “didn’t join the Investigative Committee to work on cases like [the one] against Sasha Skochilenko.”
“Everyone sees and knows that it’s not a terrorist you’re trying,” Skochilenko told the judge on Thursday. “You’re not trying an extremist. You’re not trying a political activist, either. You’re trying a pacifist.”
The courtroom was reportedly packed with supporters of Skochilenko, who applauded her as she spoke and chanted her name in the hallway after the verdict was handed down, according to Mediazona.
For more than a year and a half, Skochilenko had been in pretrial detention, grappling with various health conditions, including heart problems, bipolar disorder and celiac disease, her lawyers said.
“There’s a huge fear that Sasha will end up without medical help,” Sofya Subbotina, her partner, said, reflecting on the possibility that Skochilenko could serve her sentence in a remote penal colony far away from doctors.
Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press.