A Russian man prosecuted for giving a spontaneous street comment criticising the Kremlin’s Ukraine offensive to foreign media said he stood by his words during his trial Wednesday, despite facing up to 10 years in prison.
Russia has waged an unprecedented crackdown on dissent since the military campaign in Ukraine began in February 2022.
But in a first, it has charged a man who expressed critical opinion in an on-the-street interview to the media with “spreading fakes” on the Russian army.
“I do not regret anything. Life is like a swing, there are highs and lows,” 37-year-old Yuri Kokhovets told reporters.
In July 2022 Kokhovets was approached by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) outside a central Moscow metro station and asked to give his views on the conflict.
He blamed Moscow and criticised President Vladimir Putin.
Wearing a turquoise fleece, Kokhovets smiled in court, Russia’s double-headed eagle emblem behind him.
“Everyone has the right to express themselves,” the 37-year-old said after his hearing was adjourned.
“Fate brought me into contact with reporters from the free press outside the metro, and I told them everything I thought,” he said.
“I stand by my opinion. Nothing has changed.”
Russia has blocked access to most Western media and forced the independent Russian press into exile since its offensive, which it portrays in an exclusively positive light.
Kokhovets is being prosecuted under a law adopted in the wake of the military campaign and used to punish thousands of Russians who have openly criticised the assault.
The disinfection specialist, who deals with the extermination of rodents and cockroaches, says his clients usually tell him “it’s better to stay quiet”.
“People are scared,” Kokhovets said.
– ‘One person can stop this’ –
The Muscovite was one of several passers-by stopped by RFE/RL last year for a comment on the conflict, in a video that was then published on social media.
“Our government is telling us that it wants to fight nationalists but it is bombing shopping malls,” he told the US-funded media.
He also said the Russian army had killed “peaceful people” for “no reason” in Bucha outside Kyiv, where civilian corpses were discovered after Russian forces retreated from the area at the start of their offensive.
“Only one person can stop this,” he added, in a reference to the Russian leader.
During his court hearing Wednesday, his lawyer Yelena Sheremetyeva questioned the legitimacy of the evidence.
“The testimony of the witness appeared in this case in some very strange way,” she told reporters.
At the hearing, a witness named Radik Gabitov told the judge that he had seen the RFE/RL video report on social media.
“I did not like it so I contacted the Investigative Committee,” he told the court.
As authorities brand those critical of the Ukraine offensive as traitors, the practice of turning people in to the authorities — widespread during the Soviet era — appears to be on the rise in Russia.
– ‘No good future in sight’ –
According to the monitor OVD-Info, police detained Kokhovets in March, eight months after the interview.
They held him for 48 hours before releasing him with a 500-ruble (around $5) fine for “hooliganism”.
But the following month, charges against him were requalified into “spreading fakes against the army” under a law adopted shortly after the Kremlin launched the offensive.
The case against Kokhovets comes as thousands of Russians have been detained while troops battle in Ukraine.
According to OVD-Info, some 20,000 people across the country have been detained since February 2022 for protesting the offensive.
Almost all Russian opposition figures have fled the country since the start of the offensive. Most of those who stayed are in prison.
This week alone, Russian courts are examining 59 political cases, the monitor said.
Outside Moscow’s Ostankino district court, Kokhovets said he hoped for a “good future”.
“But at the moment, it is not visible in the distance… But I hope there will be one.”
Originally published as ‘I stand by my opinion’: Russian on trial for critical Ukraine interview