Supporters of the jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny face the prospect of indefinite house arrest, in what campaigners say is an attempt by the Kremlin to “shut down” anti-government protests.
Ten prominent activists have been under house arrest for the past two months, including two members of Pussy Riot, Masha Alekhina and Lucy Shtein, as well as Navalny’s brother Oleg, and Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer with the opposition leader’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.
They are accused of violating coronavirus restrictions by calling on Russians to take to the streets. More than 10,000 people were arrested in January, during pro-Navalny rallies that took place in 180 towns and cities across Russia. The protests were the biggest for a decade.
Alekhina’s case is due to be heard on Thursday in Moscow’s Basmanny district court. She has been unable to leave her flat, meet other people, visit the doctor or use the internet. Police have confiscated her passport. Her house arrest is due to be extended until 23 June and she faces up to two years in prison.
“I’m a little bit stuck. My arrest will be go on until the middle of summer,” Alekhina told the Guardian by phone. “I think the Kremlin is extremely scared. The plan is to close down everyone who is active in the opposition. There has been an extreme level of violence and brutality against protesters.”
Alekhina said her “crime” was a single Instagram post in which she announced she would take part in a rally. House arrest meant she was unable to leave the country or earn a living by performing, she said. She was writing her second book about her anti-Putin activities, she added.
On Wednesday artists, directors, musicians and producers wrote an open letter to the Russian authorities calling for Alekhina and Shtein’s release and an immediate end to their criminal prosecution.
Signatories include the actors Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Sheen, James Norton, Gillian Anderson and Mia Farrow, as well as the musicians Peter Gabriel and Roger Waters and the artist Marina Abramović. The film-makers Spike Jonze and Pedro Almodóvar also gave their backing.
Alekhina, 32, has already spent two years in prison after performing an anti-Putin protest song in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, the letter noted. She was jailed in 2012 with former Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova and convicted of hooliganism.
“These baseless charges are part of the Russian governments campaign to silence activists and to discourage people from further protests stirred by corruption and the unfair and politically motivated imprisonment of Alexei Navalny,” the letter said.
“Ms Alekhina’s imprisonment and continued persecution directly violate international human rights laws and standards that protect freedom of thought, speech and expression.”
There seems little prospect the criminal case will be dropped. The Basmanny court where Alekhina is due to appear – with Shtein following on Friday – is notorious for sentencing that accords with the Kremlin’s wishes. It has inspired an ironic phrase: “Basmanny justice”.
Other defendants in what has been labelled the “sanitary” case are directly linked to Navalny’s campaign organisation or are well known in opposition politics. Shtein, 24, has been a Moscow municipal deputy for three years. Two fellow independent deputies are also under house arrest.
On Wednesday, the Basmanny court refused to lift restrictions on Sobol, who has been officially labelled a “foreign agent” under controversial legislation. The court turned down a request for her to be allowed to leave her apartment in order to take her daughter to school and to attend church on Sundays.
Sobol’s lawyer, Vladimir Voronov, said that unlike Sobol, who is permanently confined to her flat, people held in pre-trial detention centres were taken out for an hour’s walk each day. She intends to stand as an opposition candidate in September’s elections for the state Duma, he added.
Other people under house arrest include Anastasia Vasilyeva, a close ally of Navalny and the head of the Doctors Alliance trade union. She treated Navalny in 2017 when a so-called “patriotic” attacker threw green paint in his face, blinding him in one eye.
In a remarkable show of defiance, Vasiliyeva carried on playing Beethoven on the piano in her flat when police turned up in January. Others accused in the same case are Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, the head of his Moscow headquarters, Oleg Stepanov, and Nikolai Lyaskin, a leader in Navalny’s unregistered Future Russia party.