The case against protester Sasha Skochilenko shows how the Russian criminal justice system is broken
In the Petersburg courtroom, a woman in a green sweater stands behind bars. She holds a special tool for measuring heart activity in one hand: a Holter monitor. Her name is Sasha Skochilenko, and she has a heart defect. A cardiologist who examined the 33-year-old several times in prison has noted a sharp deterioration in her condition since she was detained in April 2022.
It’s evening and the court is officially closed, but the trial in Skochilenko’s case is ongoing. After 7pm, the defendant asks to end the hearing early – she needs to change the battery in her heart monitor. If she doesn’t, Skochilenko says, the medical examination that she has been waiting for for a very long time will be disrupted.
But the judge claims that Skochilenko, an artist, could have ensured her heart monitor was charged in advance, and refuses.
Upset, Skochilenko asks for at least a 40-minute break to eat.
At the last few hearings she has complained about hunger. “I don’t understand why you are torturing me with hunger,” she tells the judge at the start of the hearing. She is woken up at 6am to be transported to court, so she doesn’t have a chance to eat breakfast. The court hearings often drag on and when Skochilenko returns from court, dinner at the pre-trial detention centre is over. But Skochilenko cannot eat the dry rations that are provided for prisoners in such cases: she has a gluten intolerance. During previous hearings, Skochilenko has not been able to eat for two days in a row.
This time she took her food with her in advance. But the judge denies this request as well. Then the desperate Skochilenko asks for a 15-minute break to go to the toilet. But the judge coldly refuses this too.
Skochilenko begins to cry in the cell in the courtroom for the first time in the entire trial, which began in December 2022.
She is accused of replacing price tags in a St Petersburg supermarket with anti-war stickers. For this, she faces up to 10 years in prison.
Apparently, her actions amount to spreading “fake news” about the Russian army – a new crime that the Russian authorities have introduced since their full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Recently, at an event with several other Russian journalists, I was asked to name an article I am especially proud of.
In general, it is always difficult to answer this kind of question. All our coverage at Mediazona, where I am chief editor, seems important and necessary. Our team, which focuses on Russia’s law and justice system, has published well-read and well-cited stories, as well as several data studies on the number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine – which we have done together with our colleagues from Meduza, another independent outlet, and the BBC Russian service.
But after thinking a little, I realised that our most important work is the live reporting on Sasha Skochilenko’s trial.
Our coverage from the Sasha Skochilenko case shows how repression really works in Russia, how officials are trying to justify it and what kind of people are helping to imprison innocent Russian citizens.
An artist and musician, Skochilenko has been involved in many volunteer initiatives in her hometown of St Petersburg, including helping people with mental problems and authoring a comic book about depression.
The fact that the judge is clearly turning a blind eye to both the contradictions in the prosecution’s evidence and Skochilenko’s health means the trial looks more and more like open mockery.
Skochilenko was detained back in April 2022, a few weeks after the invasion began.
After the start of the war, the Russian authorities adopted a whole package of repressive laws, including a new crime on “fake news” (Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code).
This new charge became key for the authorities: spreading any information about the war that contradicts the official position of the Russian Ministry of Defense can be a prosecutable offence. It was deployed actively in the first months of the invasion when the Russian authorities feared anti-war protests. And Sasha Skochilenko was one of the first arrested on “fake news” charges.
Skochilenko is accused of replacing five price tags on items in a city supermarket with anti-war stickers. They bore messages about the Russian bombing of a school in Mariupol, Russian conscripts who were sent to fight in the war, the deaths of thousands of soldiers and the corresponding silence on Russian state television, and the lies Vladimir Putin has told in his 20-year rule.
One sticker reads: “My great-grandfather fought in the Great Patriotic War [against Nazi Germany] for four years not to see Russia become a fascist state and attack Ukraine.”
During the Soviet era, dissidents had a fairly simple demand for the communist government: “Observe the Soviet Constitution.” Sasha Skochilenko’s trial comes down to approximately the same thing. Despite the fact the Russian authorities themselves formulated this repressive law on fake news, they themselves cannot even follow it.
Skochilenko was arrested back in April, and the trial in her case began only in December. The defence believes that the investigation and the court took their time because they wanted to wait for trials and verdicts on other fake news cases elsewhere in Russia. This is often the case with new crimes, as Russian investigators and judges learn from one another.
Russia’s Ministry of Justice even issued special instructions for investigators, judges and linguistic experts, explaining the difference between criminal prosecution for “fake news” and an administrative prosecution for “discrediting the Russian army”. For a criminal case, the defendant has to have presented a statement in public while being aware it goes against a list of supposed facts about the war from the Russian state. To “discredit” the Russian army, it’s enough for a defendant to have a personal opinion about the war.
The justice ministry released this guide in August 2022. By this time, Sasha Skochilenko had been in prison for almost four months and her investigators had already prepared a “forensic study” confirming she had distributed so-called fake news.
But Russia’s justice system reacts painfully to change. Investigators alter or reverse decisions only in exceptional cases. If a case is initiated on a certain offence, that is the offence that must be brought to court. And judges operate with a similar logic: if investigators have looked into a specific offence and the prosecutor’s office has argued it, then a verdict should be passed on it. In any case, any changes must be reported to their superiors – whether you’re an investigator, prosecutor or judge. And this is fraught with career difficulties: their bosses have to report to even higher authorities. This is why in Russian courts the percentage of acquittals is around 0.3%. A suspended sentence or a fine is thus often perceived as an acquittal.
Trust the experts
Sasha Skochilenko, unfortunately, can hardly expect a suspended sentence or a fine. So far, Russian prosecutors have consistently asked for nine-year sentences in fake news cases, giving the judge a chance to slightly reduce the final sentence, based on mitigating circumstances or their personal attitude towards the defendants. Never mind the fact that, according to the justice ministry manual, it is hard to find “false information” in Skochilenko’s stickers. (Even the defence ministry and Putin had recognised that Russian conscripts were fighting in Ukraine, for instance.)
This is where the experts come in. In fake news cases, Russian investigators often commission the same linguistic experts to examine an individual’s statement online or in public. They always side with the prosecution, and they are a crucial cog in the repressive machine. Investigators, prosecutors and judges rely on them for their decisions.
Yet the requirements for these experts are usually low. For example, one of the prosecution experts in the Skochilenko case is a political scientist by training. In court, they categorically could not explain either the methodology or the essence of the examination of the stickers they carried out. And they showed such low knowledge of linguistics that they could not explain the rules of the Russian language from the school curriculum.
Those who openly take the side of the defence may pay a price for it. For example, one linguist, Svetlana Drugoveiko-Dolzhanskaya, was fired from her university job after testifying in court as a witness for the defence. She pointed out in court clear linguistic mistakes by the prosecution’s so-called experts who studied Skochilenko’s stickers and found signs of “political hatred” in them.
During the same hearing, the prosecution’s expert admitted they believed Skochilenko had not thought the information to be false when she placed it. Which means, in theory, that Skochilenko cannot be held criminally liable.
After this admission, the prosecutor started shouting, and the judge immediately interrupted the hearing.
Today, Sasha Skochilenko is waiting in the pre-trial detention centre for her next hearing, which is due tomorrow. Her girlfriend, Sonya Subbotina, was allowed to visit her for the first time a year after she was arrested. They do not hide their relationship, and perhaps this is an additional reason for the Russian state to persecute Skochilenko. The current Russian government does not hide its hostility towards LGBT people and tries to demonstrate it at every opportunity.