Since its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Russia has used a statute criminalizing public calls for separatism to jail at least a half dozen people for criticizing that land grab. It appears presidential hopeful Ksenia Sobchak, who has voiced similar dissent, won’t be added to that list.
Sobchak, a journalist and TV personality whose father was President Vladimir Putin’s political mentor, has stirred controversy by saying Crimea is legally part of Ukraine and calling the referendum staged to justify its annexation “a sham.”
But while prosecutors looked into complaints about Sobchak, whose candidacy is seen by many as Kremlin-sanctioned window dressing for a March 2018 election Putin is all but assured of winning, few Russian political watchers believe she will face any legal repercussions.
That skepticism appears to be well-founded.
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has concluded that Sobchak’s statement that "Crimea is Ukrainian" did not constitute a call for separatism, the BBC’s Russian Service cited a source familiar with the matter as saying this week.
The RBK news agency later confirmed that determination with Communist lawmaker Valery Rashkin, who had submitted a request for an inquiry into Sobchak’s comments on Crimea to the FSB and federal prosecutors.
Others who have publicly rejected Russia’s claim to Crimea and criticized its backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine have been less fortunate.
Since 2014, Russian authorities have convicted at least 10 people for public statements that authorities interpreted as calls for "actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity," according to data from Russia’s Supreme Court and a review of news reports. At least six of these convictions are related to public statements about Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists.
Other criminal probes and formal investigations have been launched on the same charge, including that of Suleiman Kadyrov, who went on trial this week in Crimea for allegedly reposting a pro-Ukrainian video on social media and writing: “Crimea is Ukraine -- always was, always will be.” He denies the charge.
Here’s a look at how Russia has cracked down on critics of its expansionism in Ukraine using the law on separatism that came into force in May 2014.
Polyudova in August 2014 became the first person in Russia to be charged under the separatism law. She was prosecuted for social-media posts calling for the "federalization" of Russia’s southern Kuban Krai. She says she was merely “trolling” the Kremlin over its calls to federalize regions in eastern Ukraine partially controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
She was convicted in 2015 on the separatism charge and of propagating extremism, receiving a two-year prison sentence.
Declared a prisoner of conscience by the Russian rights group Memorial, Polyudova was released from prison in October.
Bubeyev, an engineer from the western city of Tver, was sentenced to two years and three months in prison in May 2016 after being convicted of separatism and extremism for reposting material about Crimea on social media. The material in question was an article by publicist Boris Stomakhin that had earlier been deemed "extremist" and a threat to Russia's "territorial integrity."
The piece -- titled Crimea Is Ukraine! -- argued that Russia had illegally annexed the peninsula and that it should be returned to Ukraine. He was also charged for reposting an image of a hand squeezing a tube of toothpaste with the caption: “Squeeze Russia out of yourself.” Bubeyev had previously been convicted of posting hate speech online and illegal possession of ammunition.
He was released in August and reportedly left the country along with his wife.
Umerov, a deputy chairman of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatars’ elected representative body, was convicted by a court in Russian-controlled Crimea in September and sentenced to two years in prison. The basis for the separatism charge was a 2016 interview with the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR in which he said: “Russia must be forced to leave Crimea and the Donbas.”
Umerov, whose conviction was denounced by rights groups and Western governments, said the translation of the interview into Russian from Tatar was poorly done and distorted his remarks. Umerov and fellow Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz were unexpectedly released from custody in late October and traveled to Turkey.
A court in Crimea in September convicted RFE/RL contributor Mykola Semena on a separatism charge and handed him a 2 1/2-year suspended sentence in a case condemned by rights groups and Western governments as part of a broader crackdown on dissent. The charge stemmed from an article Semena wrote for RFE/RL's Krym.Realii (Crimea Realities) website in 2015 that criticized Russia’s seizure of Crimea and expressed support for a blockade of the territory initiated by Ukrainian activists.
The Kremlin-installed authorities in Crimea alleged that the article called for violating Russia’s territorial integrity. Semena rejected the charge, noting that the status of the peninsula "is in dispute."
Moroshkin, an activist from the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, was found guilty of separatism in November 2015 based on social-media posts in which he called for the creation of a Urals People's Republic, echoing Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine who call the areas they control "people's republics." His lawyer and mother said he, like Polyudova, was merely trolling Russia’s backing of the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Moroshkin says he fought alongside those separatist forces but later became disillusioned and began supporting Kyiv in the conflict.
His conviction was later cleared after he was deemed mentally unstable, and he was forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital. He was released in June after a court ruled that he poses no threat to society.
Kashapov, the head of a nongovernmental organization in Russia’s oil-rich region of Tatarstan, was convicted of separatism and hate speech in September 2015 and given a three-year prison sentence. The charges were based on several articles posted on social media in 2014 that criticized Russia’s seizure of Crimea and treatment of Crimean Tatars, as well as its involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The articles included titles such as Crimea And Ukraine Will Be Liberated From The Occupiers and Defend Ukraine And The Entire Turkic World.
The respected Moscow-based SOVA Center, which tracks extremism cases and is not shy about calling out alleged hate speech when it sees it, said it found nothing illegal in the articles. Kashapov, who says the case against him was politically motivated, filed a complaint against the verdict with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.