How bad is the crackdown on dissent in Russia?

18,000 protestors have been detained since Russia waged war against Ukraine

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How much good can a human rights lawyer can do in today's Russia? Pavel Chikov is keeping up the fight against massive odds.  A less terrible outcome, he says, is better than a more terrible one – and he is dedicated to doing whatever he can for his clients. 

"Look, we're not talking about justice in terms of a free democratic judiciary. We're not talking about justice like it is in the United States or in any other places.," Chikov tells Fox News.  

"But still we've managed to win cases, we managed to decrease punishments and consequences." And sometimes, he says they even get cases dropped.     

Chikov's been at the job a while and says the crackdown on freedom of speech and press is nothing new. What is new is a state of "military censorship" with the new Draconian laws that prescribe up to fifteen years in jail for sharing what the government would consider "fake news" about the military. But in terms of sheer numbers and severity of punishment for anti-war sentiment, it is not – so far – as bad as one might think. Though 18,000 protestors have been detained since the war began, only 300 people have been fined. A mere 21 criminal cases have been opened.

"We are not talking about a massive wave of criminal prosecution right now. But the problem is that even a few cases lead to a chilling effect on everyone else, especially when we are talking about journalists," Chikov says.  

A woman passes by a mural depicting the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, March 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

A woman passes by a mural depicting the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, March 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic) (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

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He points out that Alexander Nevzorov, a veteran journalist and TV personality, is facing ten years for reporting about the attack on the Mariupol maternity hospital. Fox News interviewed Nevzorov last month. He was out of the country when the case against him was opened. 

On the other hand, the fact that Marina Ovsyannikova, the state TV employee who jumped on set during a live broadcast with an anti-war placard has not been given a stiffer reprimand is somewhat surprising. Chikov remarks, "I would say the such a huge public resonance that immediately started somehow saved her from worse consequences. So the government decided just to, you know, give her a minimal fine. Plus she has underage kids."

"But they decided not to post criminal charges against her, which is surprising. But she stayed in Russia. So that's also something, you know, a brave move, I would say," Chikov notes.

 You hear stories about people getting arrested before police even have time to read the signs they are holding or hear what they are saying, so jumpy is the situation. I asked Chikov which recent arrest strikes him as the most outrageous.  

"One well-known story is about an English teacher in one of the Russian cities, Penza. Her students asked her why they can't go to sports competition abroad anymore, and she explained why. And this discussion was recorded by one of the students, and then they passed it to police, and a criminal investigation against the teacher started," Chikov says.

A man reacts standing near his house ruined after Russian shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, March 21, 2022. At least eight people were killed in the attack. (AP Photo/ (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

A man reacts standing near his house ruined after Russian shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, March 21, 2022. At least eight people were killed in the attack. (AP Photo/ (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky) (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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The school is for athletes. The student who squealed is fifteen years old, according to Chikov. There have been numerous cases of neighbors turning in neighbors. Chikov adds, though, that this is also not a new phenomenon and does not happen by chance. He has come across it in cases he's worked on before. 

"We see how these criminal cases started, because someone reported on someone," he says. He claims that often stool pigeons, including plants within offices, are funded and supported by the government.             

There are cases of vigilantism being reported too.  Dmitry Muratov, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and editor of Novaya Gazeta which has put its publishing on hold due to threats from the state censor was attacked with an acidic red paint on a train Thursday. The unknown attacker, according to Muratov said, "here's one for our boys."

Finally, what have been the effects of President Putin's recent threat to cleanse society of "scumbags and traitors"? Chikin says this too is not something altogether new, but "the rhetoric is changing. Yes, it's getting more military. You know, it's getting more frightening,  threatening. It's it's it's getting worse. Definitely. But this is not something absolutely new for us, civil society in Russia."