To the shouts of “Shame!” in the courtroom, a judge in Russia last week sentenced a lesbian artist who criticized the country’s military actions in Ukraine in a supermarket protest last year to seven years in a penal colony.
Alexandra Skochilenko, 33, was convicted last Wednesday of spreading knowingly false information about the use of the armed forces and the government’s use of its authority. On March 31, 2022, Skochilenko, also known as Sasha, had switched out the price tags at a Perekrestok supermarket with stickers that looked like price tags but contained a series of antiwar messages. A witness alerted authorities, and Skochilenko was arrested April 11 under Article 207.3 of Russia’s Criminal Code, which in effect outlaws criticism of the Russian government and military.
Skochilenko admitted to leaving the messages but denied she committed a crime because, she said, she only told the truth. The court also heard that Skochilenko suffers from bipolar disorder, heart disease, PTSD, and celiac disease, and has a cyst in her right ovary.
On Wednesday, Judge Oksana Demyasheva sentenced her to seven years in prison.
Before the verdict was read, however, Skochilenko remained defiant.
“The state prosecutor said repeatedly that these five tiny pieces of paper were exceptionally dangerous to our state and society,” Skochilenko said in court Wednesday. “What weak faith our prosecutor has in our national society if he thinks that our state and our common security might collapse because of these tiny papers! What harm did I do? Who suffered because of my act? The prosecutor didn’t say a word about that.”
After the verdict was read, supporters of Skochilenko shouted “Shame!” and “We’re with you, Sasha!” according to the Kyiv Post.
“This manifestly unjust verdict concludes a case in which the only crimes committed are those that have gone unpunished. One is against Aleksandra Skochilenko herself, who, having been arbitrarily deprived of her freedom and held in torturous conditions for 19 months, now faces the prospect of seven years in a penal colony,” Marie Struthers, director of Eastern Europe and Central Asia for Amnesty International, said in a statement after the verdict was read. “The other is Russian aggression against the people of Ukraine, which Aleksandra was simply trying to expose. Her persecution has become synonymous with the absurdly cruel oppression faced by Russians openly opposing their country’s criminal war. The immediate and unconditional release of Aleksandra Skochilenko and all activists jailed solely for engaging in peaceful anti-war dissent is imperative.”
In a series of five tags available on a Save Sasha website, Skochilenko accused the armed forces of committing genocide, called Putin a liar, and described Russia as a fascist state.
“My great-grandfather did not take part in the Great Patriotic War [World War II] for four years in order for Russia to become a fascist state and attack Ukraine,” one of the stickers read.
Another sticker asked why state media was not covering the civilian death toll in Ukraine.
Skochilenko has remained steadfast in saying that her protests were strictly antiwar in nature and that she was concerned about the harm suffered by innocent victims in the Ukraine conflict. She also said her statements about the government and military were truthful.
Prosecutors presented expert witnesses who declared there was no fascism in Russia and that the government was truthful and just in its statements and actions regarding the armed forces and Ukraine.
“Skochilenko compares the Russian Federation with a fascist state; they [prosecution expert witnesses] explained that in the Russian Federation now there are no elements of a fascist state,” prosecutor Alexander Gladyshev declared in court. “The words that Russia attacked Ukraine are false; the purpose of the SVO [special military operation] was to protect the citizens of Donbas from aggression.”
The conviction and sentencing come against the backdrop of heightened hostility to the LGBTQ+ community in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. On Friday, the country’s Ministry of Justice announced it had petitioned its country’s Supreme Court to declare the “international public LGBT movement” an extremist element and ban its activities within the country.
“The Russian Ministry of Justice has lodged an administrative legal claim with the Supreme Court to recognize the International LGBT public movement as extremist and ban its activity in Russia,” the ministry said in a statementannouncing the move.
The ministry also accused the “movement” of exhibiting “various signs and manifestations of extremism, including incitement to social and religious hatred.”
In July, Putin directed sexologists to help gay people overcome what he called the “mental disorder” of same-sex sexual attraction. A month earlier he ordered the Ministry of Health to create an institute to study queer people at the Serbsky Center for Psychiatry and Narcology.
In June, Russia passed a bill that banned gender-affirming surgery and treatment and outlawed changing official documents to align with a person’s true gender.
Last December, Putin signed a law strengthening a ban on LGBTQ “propaganda” in Russia and making it illegal to promote same-sex sexual relations or suggest non-heterosexual attractions are “normal.” Individuals can be fined up to 400,000 rubles ($6,370) for “LGBT propaganda” and up to 200,000 rubles ($3,185) for “demonstrations of LGBT and information that encourages a change of gender among teenagers.” The fines increase to 5 million rubles ($80,000) and 4 million rubles ($64,000) respectively for legal entities.
Olympian and WNBA star Britney Griner was held under harsh conditions in a Russian prison for nine months last year. She was held after empty vape cartridges containing remnants of THC were discovered in her luggage upon arrival in Moscow to play professionally in a local league. She was released in a prisoner exchange in December. Shortly after her release, Griner said she would never play overseas again unless it was in the Olympics.
Lawyers representing Skochilenko said they intend to appeal the conviction and sentencing.