January 23 marks two years of house arrest for Russian activist Anastasiya Shevchenko. Police raided her apartment in Rostov-on-Don on January 21, 2019, before a court placed her under house arrest two days later. Shevchenko’s daughter has become her mouthpiece on social media.
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After a year, Shevchenko was permitted to call her mother on the phone and go for short walks. In January 2020, she discovered the police had violated her privacy by installing a hidden camera in her bedroom and had been secretly filming her for several months. Her trial began in June 2020 and is ongoing.
You may think a person locked up for such a long time stands accused of a grave crime. But Shevchenko’s only “crime” is participating in a public debate and reposting information about peaceful protests. The prosecution argues that her activities were linked to a banned foreign organization, Open Russia Civic Movement (ORCM). Under a highly controversial law, once designated “undesirable,” a foreign or international organization must cease all activities in Russia and anyone deemed to maintain liaisons with it can be held criminally liable.
ORCM was an unregistered pro-democracy movement which Russian authorities view as part of an organization registered in the United Kingdom under the same name and designated “undesirable” by Russia in 2017, apparently due to its affiliation with ousted tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. ORCM activists insisted they had no affiliation with the UK-based organization or Khodorkovsky. In 2019, ORCM announced it would cease activities, but that did not prevent the authorities from opening new criminal cases against its supporters.
Shevchenko was the first but not the only person accused of involvement with ORCM. Over the past two years, authorities opened criminal cases against at least five other activists. Two of them were sentenced to several hundred hours of mandatory labor; the other cases are pending. Like Shevchenko, the alleged offending behavior of these activists ranges from reposting social media posts critical of the authorities, to taking part in peaceful protests or, in one case, providing premises for a supposed ORCM event. In each case, police, sometimes brutally, raided the apartments of the suspects and others considered associated with them.
Russian authorities’ targeting of civic activists like Shevchenko is indefensible and needs to stop.