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Russia is persecuting dissenters by taking away their children

The sentence handed down to Alexei Moskalyov on March 28th was outrageous: two years in a prison colony for posting a few anti-war comments on social media, which were investigated only after his daughter, Masha, made a pro-Ukrainian drawing in class. But prosecutors had signalled this was the sentence they required, and in Russia’s judicial system they were not going to be disappointed. The surprise was that the defendant was not actually in the room when the sentence was read out. After the verdict, the court press officer loudly explained why: he had fled house arrest overnight.

The prosecution and conviction herald a new type of Kremlin clampdown: separating families as a punishment for anti-war activism. Outside the courtroom, Mr Moskalyov’s lawyer, Vladimir Biliyenko, expressed shock. “Never have I seen a verdict delivered without a defendant,” he said. “All I can say is I hope he is safe. Where is a secondary concern to me.” A day later, Mr Moskalyov was detained in a safehouse in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. He had apparently been in the process of being smuggled to the West.

The Moskalyovs’ story began just under a year ago when Masha, 12 at the time, was asked to produce a drawing in support of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. For most of the students at her school in Yefremov, a fossilised town five hours’ drive south of Moscow, it was a straightforward task. But Masha produced a drawing showing her understanding of the truths: a young family, missiles flying, with the captions “No to war” and “Glory to Ukraine.” Her horrified teacher reported the matter to the headmistress, who apparently passed it on to the police. A day later, both Masha and her father were frogmarched out of the school by men in uniform. “The other students looked out from the windows, as if we were terrorists,” Mr Moskalyov later told local media.

A case against Mr Moskalyov was opened when prosecutors discovered his own anti-war posts on social media. He was fined 32,000 roubles ($415) for expressing his anger over reports of Russian soldiers who had raped Ukrainian women. He tried to put a line under the incident by taking his daughter out of school and moving to another town. But just before the new year, security services again raided his home. Mr Moskalyov says they confiscated his family savings (worth about $4,750), beat him, smashed his head against the wall and played the Russian national anthem at high volume. Prosecutors opened a case against him for “repeated discrediting” of the Russian army, which could mean up to three years in jail and separation from his daughter.

On March 1st Mr Moskalyov was arrested on his way home from work. The same day, Masha was taken away and placed in a children’s home. A parallel process to strip Mr Moskalyov of parental rights, amounting to a complete separation between parent and child, is due to be heard on April 6th.

Mr Biliyenko said the legal process was being used to punish father and daughter for their anti-war positions. The two are very close, he said, and separation would hurt both of them: “They support each other. They are happy in each other’s company. Everything else is irrelevant for them.” A letter written by Masha from the shelter, later released by activists, emphasised the close bond. “Hi Dad,” the letter reads. “I love you a lot and want you to know that what you are doing is right…You are my hero.”

When your correspondent tried to visit the children’s shelter, a spartan building behind a tall green fence, a security guard shouted him away. Mr Biliyenko says he fears for Masha’s well-being, and that there are rumours she has attempted suicide.

Mr Moskalyov’s case is the most egregious of its kind, but similar ones have been reported elsewhere in Russia. In February police prosecuted a family in Moscow after their daughter posted a St Javelin avatar, a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, on social media. In Dagestan, a region in southern Russia, a schoolgirl was forced to apologise on camera after saying “Glory to Ukraine, Putin is a bastard” at assembly on the last day of school.

And in Buryatia, in Siberia, authorities placed a 16-year-old disabled boy in care after his foster mother, Natalya Filonova, an anti-war activist, was arrested. His foster father was hospitalised after a heart attack. The boy was not allowed to attend his mother’s court case. A leaked recording of a conversation with an orphanage worker suggested Ms Filonovaya should have “known better…than to piss against the wind”.

According to OVD-Info, a human-rights watchdog, over 500 minors have been arrested and seven criminally prosecuted since the start of the war. With the authorities encouraging loyalists to snitch on their anti-war neighbours, the practice of hitting dissenters where it hurts—their families—is set to continue. “They will go after others, imprison more people, and take more children away from their parents,” says Mr Biliyenko. “Children of enemies of the state. That’s the example they are creating for anyone who might think about opening their mouth.”

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