MOSCOW – It’s after 9PM when Sergei Klokov is finally perp-walked into the Presnensky District court, flanked by two police officers. The 38-year-old former driver for Moscow’s police headquarters is put into a glass cage before his handcuffs are removed. He looks tired and dishevelled from two months of detention.
Klokov was one of the first people to be arrested in Russia under a new law that bans spreading “deliberately false information about Russia’s armed forces.” It’s forbidden to refer to the Kremlin’s so-called “special military operation” as a war.
A Russian-Ukrainian, Klokov is originally from Bucha in the suburbs of Kyiv. He was arrested after his phone was tapped by the authorities. They allege that he broke the law by telling co-workers what he was hearing from Ukrainian friends and family about the Russian invasion – that innocent civilians were being killed, and contrary to state propaganda, Ukraine isn’t overrun by Nazis. If convicted, Klokov faces up to 10 years in prison.
In practice, this new law – passed on day 9 of the invasion – is being used to silence all criticism of the war in Russia. So far at least 1,500 people have been fined, and around 70 more are facing prison time.
The court hearing is to decide whether Klokov can be moved from a detention facility to house arrest ahead of his actual trial. His mother, Dr Lyudmila Klokova, looks on, having waited over 6 hours to catch a glimpse of her son. Klokov has been detained away from his family and his two young children.
Dr Lyudmila Klokova breaks down as her son Sergei Klokov is denied serving his pre-trail detention under house arrest. Photo: Mikhail Galustov
“I saw him today for the first time in two months. But he’s on my mind every day” Klokova says, as her voice breaks.“I don’t think my son is guilty of anything. I’d like to believe our justice system is fair. That they’ll see he’s not a traitor. I’m hoping for the best, a milder sentence, house arrest.”
But the judge doesn’t agree, citing “the high public danger of Klokov’s actions, and his character” as she extends his pre-trial detention. This lack of leniency isn’t surprising in Russia, where the conviction rate is reportedly around 99 percent.
When Klokov is led out of the court Lyudmila urges her son to “be strong” as tears fill her eyes. His case is due to begin this week.
Sergei Klokov stands detained in a glass cage as he awaits the judge's verdict. Photo: Andy Hayward
According to the Human rights organisation OVD-info, around 16,500 people have been detained since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, under various laws for alleged anti-war activity. And increasingly, Russians themselves are snitching to the police about friends, neighbours and even relatives for expressing opposition to the Kremlin’s war.
In July, a school teacher received a 5 year suspended sentence after a pupil filmed her talking about the invasion. A mother reported her son for evading military service, and a Muscovite informed on his own wife.
This atmosphere of suspicion is being encouraged from the very top.
Back in March, President Vladimir Putin claimed the West was trying to undermine Russia with the help of traitors inside the country, asserting: “I am convinced that a natural and necessary self-detoxification of society … would strengthen our nation.”
Elmira Khalitova, a student and blogger from Moscow who was denounced to the police by her own father because she opposes the war, says, “It's disgusting that all this is encouraged. That the government encourages people to do this.”
Elmira Khalitova, a student and blogger from Moscow plays back the recording of her father's phonecall with the police. Photo: Mikhail Galustov
Khalitova plays us the recording she has of her father’s phone call with the police. In it he falsely claims she has been calling for Russians to be killed online and insists that they “break in” to her apartment.
Despite Khalitova’s father being drunk on the call, the police still brought her in for questioning. Officers took her phone and tried to find incriminating statements on her Instagram, but because the app is now blocked in Russia, they couldn’t open it. They eventually let her go because of lack of evidence.
“He thought it was his duty to go to the police and file a report. He’d found another enemy of the people and was bringing them to justice” Khalitova tells VICE World News.
Khalitova says her experience is reminiscent of the denunciations of the Soviet era, where hundreds of thousands of people were sent to the Gulag, often because of information supplied by people they knew. But it’s not quite as bad – yet.
“I think a few years have to pass, a few years marinating in this, for it to reach to the same scale it did during the Soviet Union,“ she says.
A bust of President Vladimir Putin with a Hitler moustache. Photo: Mikhail Galustov
Not many informants want to talk about their motivations for selling out their friends and colleagues, but Sergei Chmykhun is prepared to answer our questions in a telegram call.
Chmykhun turned his acquaintance Oleg Belousov into law enforcement for speaking out against Putin and the war in a group chat. As a consequence, Belousov – who lives with his disabled son – was subjected to a heavy handed and humiliating police raid.
After his front door was ripped from its hinges, the police pressured him into apologising on-camera, cuffed and half-naked.
“For several years, Oleg was freely criticising Russia and Putin, and nobody really paid any attention,” Chmykhun tells VICE World News “But after the military operation began… I asked him, and warned him several times, that if he doesn't stop doing this, I will make him stop one way or another.”
When asked if holding a different political opinion justifies a criminal sentence, Chmykhun is defiant. “When we have an external enemy,” he says, “there aren't any politics. And Oleg was speaking in support of our enemies.”
Belousov now faces 10 years behind bars, but Chmykhun has no regrets.
“At the very least he's a traitor to his motherland,” he says.