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A woman in St. Petersburg, Russia, has been jailed on allegations that she replaced price tags at a local supermarket with messages opposing the war in Ukraine.
Artist and musician Aleksandra, or Sasha, Skochilenko could potentially face up to 10 years in prison. A district court ruled this week to detain her until the end of May, pending a trial on charges of spreading “knowingly false information” about the Russian armed forces.
A new Russian law, passed in March, criminalizes messages and information perceived as “discrediting” Russian troops. Russian authorities have similarly banned the use of terms “war” or “invasion” to describe what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The law has enabled a crackdown on most Russian independent media outlets, social media discussion of Russian casualties and street protests. This has included arrests of people over more obscure violations of the law, such as silent actions featuring a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace or a poster saying “*** *****” as a non-verbal nod at the banned “нет войне” or “no to war.”
Some activists and artists have turned to stealthier protests. Photos from grocery stores in Kazan, St. Petersburg and other cities showed price tags for glue sticks, coffee and candy bars switched for reports about Ukraine, such as the number of humanitarian convoys unable to reach cities under fire. Several artists have been fined or detained for adding anti-war signs to merchandise in stores.
Skochilenko, known for her anti-war music and hand-drawn cards, had reportedly placed a price tag that said 400 people were sheltering in the basement during the bombing of a Mariupol art school. Ukrainian officials said Russian troops shelled the building on March 20; the Kremlin blamed the incident on Ukraine. Skochilenko’s lawyer has said that a shopper reported the protester’s tag swap to police.
Russian prosecutors are accusing Skochilenko of “political hostility.” The court, in deciding to detain her for weeks until her trial, ruled that the activist was a flight risk. Amnesty International has called for her release.
“The purpose of this is to scare and to ensure silence. It’s important to create the appearance that everyone supports this and everyone agrees,” said Boris Vishnevsky, a St. Petersburg lawmaker with the liberal Yabloko party who’s advocating for Skochilenko’s release.
“It’s a clear signal for people to be afraid and stay silent, to be afraid of contradicting the official account about Ukraine,” he said.
This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.