Maria Ponomarenko during a hearing at the Oktyabrsky District Court in 2022. Photo: Andrei Bok / TASS
The prosecution in the Siberian city of Barnaul has requested a nine-year prison sentence for activist and journalist Maria Ponomarenko. She is currently under arrest for a post regarding the shelling of the Mariupol drama theater and has been accused of spreading “fake news” about the Russian Armed Forces. Maria is a mother of two who withstood nine months of psychiatric hospitals, prison transfers, and detention centers without access to sunlight—and has not given up.
In the early weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Criminal Code was amended with an article stipulating harsh punishments for spreading “fake news” about the army. Security forces quickly began enforcing the new legislation. By April 7, human rights activists had counted 21 criminal cases; overall, in 2022, 187 cases were registered.
The essense of the charges is usually quite similar: a person is on trial for saying online that the Russian army has commited some kind of a crime, most often concerning the murders in Bucha and the bombings of civilian buildings in Mariupol.
It was the bombing of the Mariupol theater on March 16, 2022, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, that prompted Maria Ponomarenko’s post. A Barnaul resident, she was working at RusNews, an online publication specialising in covering protest rallies.
Maria Ponomarenko, a 44-year-old mother of two, has a long history of activism in the area. Last year, she was fined for donning a mask bearing the inscription “Sack Putin,” which authorities deemed a picket.
On March 1, 2022, RusNews reported that the journalist was facing four separate court proceedings in a single day. Then on April 24, security forces arrested her based on accusations of posting “fake news” at a “No Censorship” Telegram channel (the post has since been removed).
To make matters worse, Ponomarenko was transferred from St. Petersburg to the Barnaul, Altai Krai, where local security forces are investigating the case while she is being held at a pre-trial detention centre.
Dmitry Shitov, the defence attorney, stresses that the journalist never intentionally spread false information. “We posit that Maria believed the information to be true at the time she published it—there was no knowledge of it being untruthful. On the evening of March 16, information about the incident appeared in Ukrainian publications, and by the morning of March 17, Ponomarenko had written about it. There was no other information available to verify the accuracy of the reports, and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense published their own information later that day. We’re proceeding from the standpoint that for Maria in that given situation this information appeared to be accurate and she had no reason to discredit the Armed Forces.”
Although the Ponomarenko case was not the most high-profile in the long line of “fake news” cases, it still sparked protests. Activist Sergei Kurkov held a picket in St. Petersburg in her support; Kurkov was arrested, and the next time he was out protesting was in Helsinki, Finland. A poster with Ponomarenko’s name was brought to St. Petersburg's memorial to Raymonde Dien, a French pacifist activist. Siberian activist Yana Drobnokhod and Moscow politician Yulia Galiamina, founder of the “Soft Power” movement the arrested journalist was a member of, actively spoke out in her support.
During a transfer through Kirov, as Ponomenko reported, the staff broke all her cigarettes, used as currency in the detention centre. My, a local outlet, claimed that there was a hacking attempt against their website after they reported on Ponomenko’s case.
Ten people squeezing onto three square metres of cramped space with heat, stuffiness, and smoke wafting through the air; it was almost unbearably unclean. Six places to sleep were available, but all that could be found in those areas were cold floors, no mattresses or other amenities in sight. And to top off this unfortunate arrangement, two screaming babies crying and flailing around added to the overwhelming chaos.
“Stolypyn,” ten people squeezing onto three square metres. Heat, stuffiness, cigarette smoke, almost unbearably dirty, six places to sleep... No mattresses or other amenities in sight. And on top of that, these ten people have two large bags with their belongings, on average,” Ponomenko said.
At the start of summer, the already hard situation deteriorated further.
According to the attorney, Ponomarenko was moved between various cells in Barnaul’s SIZO-1 detention centre and at one point she found herself in a cell with sealed windows, which exacerbated her claustrophobia. After two months in such a cell, in September, Ponomenko slashed her veins. The attorney also notes that she was twice transferred to solitary confinement.
Activists attempting to support the journalist during proceedings were sometimes ousted from the court room. A video was published by the activist showing footage from the court corridor, in which a woman, believed to be Ponomarenko, is heard crying out “They’re pressing me, pressing me, pressing me!” According to Drobnokhod, Ponomarenko was responding to the questioning of her underage daughters. “The only thing Masha managed to ask was for everyone in her family and social circle to invoke Article 51 [of the Russian Constitution protecting a citizen’s right to remain silent in a case concerning himself or herself, or relatives]. Because this is not a real trial, it’s a farce,” said the activist.
In July, a court fined Ponomarenko 15,000 rubles under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences for inciting hatred, due to a comment she made on TikTok about police officers. The journalist’s attorney explained that she had posted the comment back in September 2021.
She spent about a week in a psychiatric clinic undergoing mental health evaluation. “I was forcibly injected with an unknown substance that was supposed to calm me down, but instead, I was stripped of my personal clothing, dishes, soap and sanitary products. About three days, I can’t remember a thing,” she said upon her return to the detention centre.
Ponomarenko stated her detention conditions were “torturous” and asked the court to grant her house arrest, which was approved in November. However, she was only allowed to reside in her former husband’s apartment.
The difficult relationship between Ponomarenko and her ex-husband led to an altercation and soon she requested to be placed back into the detention centre as a form of protest. The court declined this request and on January 27, Ponomarenko violated house arrest and went to turn herself over to police, who then took her before a judge who re-arrested her.
Ponomarenko’s attorney Shitov claims that her mental state appear to be improving in detention, away from spousal disagreements. Her two daughters are living with their father and his parents. The lawyer also mentioned an alleged attack by the ex-husband against Ponomarenko.
Reflecting on the trial, the attorney notes that he had no illusions about the outcome given the statistics of acquittals in Russia. “But overall,” he explains, “we are permitted to do our job on the defence side.”
At the hearing on February 7, the prosecution requested nine years’ imprisonment for Ponomarenko, a longer sentence than any yet given to someone facing a similar charge.
Human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov noted that, as of late January, only seven of the 23 known verdicts resulted in actual imprisonment, with the majority of these coming in December. “Courts have taken a tougher stance in cases of spreading ‘fake news’ about the military,” Chikov stated.
Despite these grim circumstances, Maria Ponamarenko tried to remain upbeat in court: she almost always smiles in photos and makes heart symbols with her fingers, even when she is shackled to a convoy, sending warm letters to colleagues and writing poetry.
Standing in the dock, clad in heels and a suit jacket, she addressed her supporters: “This regime will crumble before I’m eligible for release.”
Editor: Egor Skovoroda
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