Russian court sentences activist under law on 'undesirables'

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Anastasia Shevchenko, wearing a face mask to protect prevent the spread of coronavirus, attends a court hearing in a courtroom in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. Shevchenko, a member of the Open Russia opposition movement, is the first political activist in Russia prosecuted for participating in an "undesirable organization," a criminal charge punishable by up to six years in prison. (AP Photo)

MOSCOW – A Russian court on Thursday handed a suspended sentence to an activist accused of membership of an “undesirable” organization, part of the authorities’ effort to tighten control over the nation's political scene.

Anastasia Shevchenko, 41, was accused of engaging in political activities under the aegis of Open Russia, a group funded by self-exiled Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky moved to London after spending 10 years in prison in Russia on charges widely seen as political revenge for challenging Putin’s rule.

Prosecutors had asked the court in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia to sentence Shevchenko to five years in prison, but the court handed her a four-year suspended term.

Shevchenko, a mother of two who has been under house arrest for two years, has denied the accusations as political punishment for her opposition views. When she was put under house arrest in January 2019, the authorities waited for several days before letting Shevchenko visit her elder teenage daughter who was in critical condition at a hospital and died a day after she finally was allowed to see her.

Shevchenko’s case has attracted broad nationwide attention, marking the first attempt by authorities to prosecute under a 2015 law introducing criminal punishment for membership in “undesirable” organizations. The government has used the law to ban about 30 groups, including Open Russia, as “undesirable.”

It followed another law that obliged non-government organizations that receive foreign funding and engage in activities loosely described as political to register as “foreign agents."

The laws have been widely criticized as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to stifle dissent, but the Russian authorities have described them as a due response to the alleged Western efforts to undermine the country.

Amnesty International, which has declared Shevchenko a prisoner of conscience, denounced the court's verdict, emphasizing that she has committed no crime.

“This decision is a travesty of justice," Natalya Zviagina, the head of the group's Moscow office, said in a statement. "She should have never been deprived of liberty in the first place, as she was criminally persecuted solely for peacefully exercising her human rights. Her conviction must be quashed.”

Zviagina called for the abolition of laws on “undesirable organizations” and “foreign agents,” saying that they “have been wantonly abused to crush peaceful dissent.”

“The Russian authorities’ politically motivated persecution of peaceful activists must stop immediately," she said.