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A Russian court has convicted a single father over social media posts critical of the war in Ukraine and sentenced him to two years in prison — a case brought against him after his daughter’s drawings at school opposed the invasion, according to his lawyer and activists.

But Alexei Moskalyov fled house arrest before his verdict was delivered in his Russian hometown of Yefremov and is at large, court officials said.

His 13-year-old daughter Maria, who has been taken from him by the authorities, wrote him a supportive letter for his trial from the orphanage where she is living, according to his lawyer, telling him, “Daddy, you’re my hero.”

Alexei Moskalyov is on the run after he was convicted over anti-war sentiments in Russia. (AP)

Moskalyov’s case has drawn international attention and was a grim reminder that the Kremlin is intensifying its crackdown on dissent, targeting more people and handing out harsher punishments for any criticism of the war. The broad government campaign of repression has been unseen since the Soviet era.

Moskalyov, 54, was accused of repeatedly discrediting the Russian army, a criminal offense in accordance to a law Russian authorities adopted shortly after sending troops into Ukraine.

He was indicted for a series of social media posts about Russian atrocities in Ukraine and referencing the “terrorist” regime in Moscow that he insists he didn’t make.

Maria Moskalyova’s drawings were shown in court. (AP)
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But, according to his lawyer and activists who supported him throughout the case and trial, his troubles started last spring after his 13-year-old daughter, Maria, drew an antiwar picture at Yefremov School Number Nine that depicted missiles flying over a Russian flag at a woman and child and said, “Glory to Ukraine.”

In April 2022, Moskalyov was fined for critical comments on social media. His apartment was raided in December and a criminal case was opened against him this month. He was placed under house arrest and his daughter was placed into the orphanage.

At the trial, which concluded in one day on Monday, three teachers and the director of Maria’s school testified that they found Moskalyov’s “discrediting” social media posts at random and that Maria’s drawing had nothing to do with the case — contradicting the accounts of his lawyer and other supporters. Men in military uniforms and medals showed up at the courthouse Monday, apparently in support of the authorities.

Moskalyov rejected the accusations and insisted he had nothing to do with the social media posts in question.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 24, 2023.
Vladimir Putin is cracking down ever-harder on opposition at home. (Alexei Babushkin via AP)

In a short closing statement, Moskalyov said he was “against” what the Kremlin insists on calling a “special military operation.”

“How can one feel about death, about people who are dying? Adults are dying, children. … Only negatively — how else can one feel about a war?” he was quoted as saying by Russia’s independent news site Mediazona.

Court officials said Moskalyov fled house arrest overnight from his apartment in Yefremov, about 300km south of Moscow and a similar distance north of the Ukrainian border. He had been wearing a bracelet that tracked his movements but apparently had taken it off.

When an official announced in court Tuesday that Moskalyov had fled, some in attendance shouted, “Bravo!”

The war in Ukraine has continued for over a year. (AP)

Moskalyov’s lawyer Vladimir Biliyenko said he learned of his client’s disappearance at the hearing. Moskalyov was scheduled to appear in court again next week on a petition to restrict his parental rights.

Biliyenko told The Associated Press the authorities’ petition to restrict Moskalyov’s parental rights was based almost solely on his political views and his prosecution for discrediting the army, which they said posed a threat to his daughter.

The officials have also accused Moskalyov of being a negligent parent because Maria stopped attending school after her drawing was reported to the police and she was questioned. According to Biliyenko and Moskalyov’s supporters, she was scared to go back after that and studied at home.

The lawyer described the prosecution of Moskalyov as “bullying of the family.”

The lawyer visited Maria in the orphanage Tuesday and told reporters that while he wasn’t able to see her, local administrators allowed him to photograph a letter she wrote to her father, which ended with, “Daddy, you’re my hero.” Biliyenko also was given two drawings Maria made, depicting a dog and rabbits.

Olga Podolskaya, a member of Yefremov’s municipal council who has been helping Moskalyov, told AP that father and the daughter clearly love each other, and the decision to take Maria away was politically motivated. Maria’s mother left when the girl was three and has another family in a different city, Podolskaya told AP by phone.

Podolskaya said the news that Moskalyov escaped house arrest shocked her.

“We’re all really worried, including Alexei’s lawyer,” she said, adding that the hope now was for other relatives to seek custody of Maria.

Never-before-seen images from the Ukraine war

Biliyenko said after the hearing that he tried calling Moskalyov after his visit to the orphanage, but he wasn’t answering his phone. “I thought that he was being brought here (to the courthouse), because they usually arrive in advance,” he said.

Russian human rights activists say the Kremlin has ramped up pressure on those who disagree with the war. The OVD-Info rights group that tracks political cases and provides legal aid this month has registered an increase in prison sentences for people prosecuted for their anti-war stance, said Daria Korolenko, the group’s lawyer and analyst.

“Repressions are picking up speed,” Korolenko told AP in a phone interview, adding that the numbers are expected to continue growing.

Also on Tuesday, a court in St Petersburg continued a hearing in the case against Irina Tsibaneva, 60, who is charged with desecrating a grave. In October she left a note on the grave of President Vladimir Putin’s parents that said, among other things: “You raised a monster and a killer.” She faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

Earlier this month, a court in the nearby region of Tver sentenced a married couple to six and a half and seven years in prison on charges of vandalism and spreading false information about the army. According to OVD-Info, Alexander Martynov and Lyudmila Razumova were charged after critical social media posts and anti-war and anti-government slogans they allegedly wrote on buildings.

In Moscow last week, police raided two bars suspected of raising funds for Ukraine’s military. According to media reports, police played patriotic songs and forced the guests to sing along during the raid. At least 40 people were briefly detained.

Another recent raid in the capital targeted an event dedicated to the jailed artist Sasha Skochilenko, who is on trial for spreading false information about the army. The event’s participants reported being beaten by police or threatened with rape.

In Yefremov, Yelena Agafonova, an activist who has been helping the Moskalyov family, told AP after the trial that anyone can run afoul of authorities these days with their comments.

“Perhaps your children will express their opinion somewhere. Perhaps your children will laugh at something somewhere, and they will be in exactly the same situation in which this family is now,” she said.

“Perhaps a neighbour, who thinks they saw something (untoward), will report on you. So while you are lying on the couch, this will all happen more, and more, and more.”

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