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Russian supermarket protestor sentenced to 7 years in prison

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, human rights activists say some 20,000 Russians have been arrested over their opposition to the war. Today we're looking at one. Last week, a Russian court convicted a young woman who replaced supermarket stickers with slogans condemning the Kremlin's war. She was sentenced to seven years in prison. NPR's Charles Maynes reports from Moscow.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Sofya Subbotina says she never believed in love at first sight, at least not until she laid her eyes on Aleksandra Skochilenko.

SOFYA SUBBOTINA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: One photograph, says Subbotina, when reached at their home in St. Petersburg, was all it took. Only later did she realize the depths of talent in the person she's now been with for the past six years.

SUBBOTINA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: It turned out Skochilenko, or Sasha, as she's known to her friends, was a skilled artist who'd published graphic novels and a dedicated musician and writer. She was also a devoted pacifist, horrified by Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February of last year.

SUBBOTINA: (Through interpreter) For Sasha, the war was especially painful because she has lots of friends in Kyiv and in Ukraine. And we were all shocked that something like this could happen, that Russian rockets could fall on Kyiv.

MAYNES: With the government cracking down on street demonstrations, Skochilenko was among thousands of Russians who looked for safer ways to protest the invasion. She found it in a widespread underground campaign that replaced supermarket price tags with stickers containing anti-war slogans and news reports of civilian deaths in Ukraine from Russian bombs. Only Skochilenko got caught. An elderly pensioner had informed the police.

SUBBOTINA: (Through interpreter) That they caught Sasha was completely random. Lots of other people across Russia had also taken part in the same thing, and most weren't arrested. Or if they were, the worst that happened was they received a fine.

MAYNES: Skochilenko was charged with knowingly spreading false information about Russia's army, a new criminal offense amid the war in Ukraine that carries a possible 10-year sentence. As the judge issued a ruling...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Russian).

MAYNES: ...Shouts of shame rang out from supporters in the St. Petersburg courtroom.

BORIS VISHNEVSKY: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Boris Vishnevsky, a local opposition lawmaker who attended the verdict, says in persecuting Skochilenko and other anti-war activists, authorities have one simple objective.

VISHNEVSKY: (Through interpreter) It's done to scare everyone else. And to do that, you don't have to imprison hundreds of thousands of people. You just have to cruelly and unjustly imprison one person who's not guilty of anything at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEKSANDRA SKOCHILENKO: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In her final appeal to the court, Skochilenko again refused to repent her pacifist views despite poor health - she suffers from celiac disease and ill treatment she says she received in pretrial detention. Skochilenko also says the government inadvertently spread her pacifist views far wider than a few stickers ever could.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SKOCHILENKO: (Through interpreter) Thanks to my investigators and prosecutors, the information I spread reached thousands in Russia and all over the world. Had I not been arrested, it would have been known only to one granny, a cashier and the supermarket security guard.

MAYNES: Meanwhile, Subbotina says despite the sentence, she and Skochilenko are still dreaming of better times down the road.

SUBBOTINA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Sasha's books and drawings, she says, are now being printed and exhibited in the West.

SUBBOTINA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: When Skochilenko is free, they plan to leave Russia, she adds, and start a new life where their values are more welcome and Sasha's talents already in demand. Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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