Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who faces 10 years in prison for denouncing President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, will stand trial in Moscow on Wednesday.
The 39-year-old Moscow city councilor is in the dock as part of an unprecedented crackdown on dissent in Russia that has left most opposition activists in prison or in exile.
Yashin refused to leave after Putin sent troops into Ukraine on February 24 and regularly took to his YouTube channel, which has 1.3 million subscribers, to condemn the Kremlin’s offensive.
He is an ally of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny and was close to Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician who was killed near the Kremlin in 2015.
Yashin tried to put on a brave face for the opening of the trial by smiling, giving a thumbs up and stretching into the defendant’s glass coffin, an TUSEN correspondent said.
He wore a dark green hoody and jeans and also smiled at his parents in the front row.
He insisted in court that he would not leave the country after the prosecutor asked the judge to extend his pretrial detention for another six months.
“I love my country and to live here I am willing to pay with my freedom,” he said.
“I am a Russian patriot,” he said.
– ‘Shut up’ –
Yashin was detained this summer while walking through a park in Moscow.
He faces up to 10 years behind bars, charged with spreading “false” information about the Russian military under legislation introduced after Putin launched the operation in Ukraine.
In an April YouTube stream, Yashin spoke of the “murder of civilians” in the Kiev suburb of Bucha, where the Russian military is accused of war crimes.
He called it a “bloodbath”.
His supporters at the court said authorities used the draconian legislation to silence critics of Ukraine’s military campaign.
“This law is absolutely anti-legal,” says 48-year-old Anastasia Leonova.
“It’s just there to shut people up.”
Her 20-year-old daughter, Olga, said their family liked Yashin’s YouTube streams.
“We would gather in the kitchen every Thursday to watch,” she said. “Me, mom and my 87-year-old grandma.”
Since Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine began, independent media outlets in Russia have been shut down or suspended. Tens of thousands of Russians – many of them independent journalists – have left the country.
– ‘Clean toilets’ –
Yashin did not mince words during his detention.
During a court hearing earlier this month, Yashin questioned why authorities tolerate criticism of the Russian military leadership from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the notorious Wagner mercenary group.
Both have knocked down generals after a series of battlefield defeats.
“You put me in jail because I questioned the truth behind the defense ministry’s statements about the war in Ukraine,” Yashin told the court, according to a transcript of his speech published on Telegram by his team .
“But for some reason you have no complaints about Prigozhin and Kadyrov, who so far only force the generals to clean toilets with toothbrushes.”
Another Moscow councillor, Alexei Gorinov, was sentenced to seven years in prison in July for denouncing the Ukraine offensive.
The 61-year-old questioned plans for a children’s art competition in his constituency, while “children are dying every day” in Ukraine.
Almost all of Putin’s known political opponents have fled the country or are in prison.
Navalny, 46, is serving a nine-year prison sentence for embezzlement charges widely regarded as political. His political organizations are banned.
A Russian court also banned the country’s most prominent rights organization, Memorial, ahead of its military campaign in Ukraine.