Russian artist Alexandra Skochilenko has been sentenced to jail for seven years after being found guilty of spreading “false information” about the Russian military by replacing a handful of supermarket price tags with messages criticising the war in Ukraine.
The 33-year-old, known as Sasha, is one of thousands of Russians to be detained, fined or jailed for speaking out against Moscow’s invasion of its neighbour amid an escalating crackdown on free speech and opposition to President Vladimir Putin.
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Skochilenko was arrested in her native St Petersburg in April 2022, after an elderly customer at the supermarket found the slogans on the price tags and notified the police.
“The Russian army bombed an arts school in Mariupol. Some 400 people were hiding in it from the shelling,” one read, in reference to Russia’s brutal siege of the southern Ukrainian city. Another said, “Russian conscripts are being sent to Ukraine. Lives of our children are the price of this war.”
Judge Oksana Demiasheva delivered the verdict on Thursday hours after Skochilenko, who has a congenital heart defect and coeliac disease, had made a final statement to the court, asking for compassion and to be set free.
As well as the prison term, the artist was banned from using the internet for three years.
Skochilenko, wearing a colourful T-shirt decorated with a large red heart, reacted with shock to the sentence, covering her face and wiping away tears.
Supporters shouted “shame” and “we’re with you Sasha”, the AFP news agency reported.
Skochilenko’s lawyers left without giving any comment.
Skochilenko’s arrest came about a month after authorities adopted a law effectively criminalising any public expression about the war that deviated from the Kremlin’s official line.
Human rights group Memorial – now banned in Russia – said police spent 10 days interrogating supermarket staff and inspecting security camera footage before arresting the artist.
“They sometimes give less for murder than for five price tags in a supermarket,” Boris Vishnevsky, a politician linked to the opposition Yabloko party, told AFP.
“Hopefully, someday, the pendulum will turn the other way.”
Skochilenko was accused of committing what the state prosecutor described as a serious crime out of “political hatred” towards Russia. He had asked for her to be jailed for eight years.
Skochilenko admitted to swapping the tags but denied that the text written on them was false. She said she was a pacifist who valued human life above all else.
“How weak is our prosecutor’s faith in our state and society if he thinks our statehood and public safety can be ruined by five little pieces of paper?” she said in court.
“Everyone sees and knows that you are not judging a terrorist. You’re not trying an extremist. You’re not even trying a political activist. You’re judging a pacifist,” she said.
Amnesty International condemned the verdict.
“Her persecution has become synonymous with the absurdly cruel oppression faced by Russians openly opposing their country’s criminal war,” it said in a statement.
Memorial has designated Skochilenko a political prisoner and has launched a campaign calling for her release.
She has already been in detention for nearly 19 months, meaning that her overall term will be reduced by more than two years, since every day served in a pre-trial detention centre counts as 1.5 days of time served in a regular penal colony.
But she has struggled in custody due to pre-existing health conditions, and her need for a gluten-free diet, according to her lawyers and her partner.
According to OVD-Info, a prominent rights group that monitors political arrests and provides legal aid, a total of 19,834 Russians have been arrested between February 24 2022, when Russia began its invasion, and late October 2023 for speaking out or demonstrating against the war.
Also on Thursday, opposition politician Vladimir Milov was convicted in absentia of spreading false information about the army and sentenced to eight years. Milov, who was once Russia’s deputy energy minister and is now an ally of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, has left the country.