Art by Maria Tolstova / Mediazona
“I do not support the war in Ukraine!” posted artist and musician Sasha Skochilenko on Instagram on February 24, 2022. The same day, she joined an anti-war protest in St. Petersburg. A mere month and a half later, she became one of the first people charged under the newly passed criminal article outlawing “fake news” about the Russian army. Skochilenko was arrested for replacing price tags at a supermarket with anti-war stickers and spent more than a year and a half in pre-trial detention. Her trial became one of the most high-profile cases in the country, partially because of the unprecedented pressure Sasha faced from the jail administration, the judge, and the prosecution. The 33-year-old artist was sentenced to seven years in prison. Mediazona reviews some of the most egregious violations during this trial.
During the first few weeks in pre-trial detention, Sasha Skochilenko shared the cell with 18 more inmates. She and her lawyer filed complaints about the conditions of her detention, which irked her cellmates, who started bullying Sasha almost right away. The senior inmate in the cell started being hypercritical towards Sasha. Other cellmates soon followed in instructing Skochilenko on how many layers to fold the cleaning cloth, which side to hold the broom, and where exactly she should start sweeping the room.
While inmates were generally allowed to eat at any time during the day, Sasha’s cellmates didn’t let her eat whatever her family and friends would bring her outside of designated breakfast, lunch, and dinner times. Soon they started creating new “rules” just for Sasha. For example, she was not allowed to use the fridge and had to store her food under the bed of the senior cellmate. Skochilenko was forced to throw away some of her food when she was told that “there was not enough room in the cell.” Sasha was also told that “she smelled bad” and was then forced to wash her clothes everyday, including thick sweaters and a warm bathrobe.
Skochilenko spent a month enduring this kind of harassment. When her health rapidly deteriorated, the administration moved her to the prison infirmary where she has been staying since.
Skochilenko has been diagnosed with celiac disease, a congenital heart defect, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and cysts in both ovaries. The doctors, who testified in trial, were able to examine Sasha in jail, despite resistance from the administration. All the doctors agreed that the detention conditions and the schedule of court hearings were harmful to her health.
Cardiologist Daria Kharshevskaya concluded that Skochilenko may require a cardiac pacemaker within six months. The length of Sasha’s cardiac arrests increased to three seconds at a time in the last few months. The main contributors were the lack of proper medical care in the detention center and the fact that Skochilenko was denied water and prescribed medications for hours during her court hearings. The slowing heart rate would lead to fainting spells. Normally, patients like her require constant monitoring and regular medical examinations, which are not permitted in jail.
Gastroenterologist Maria Alekhina noted jail administration’s disregard for the doctors’ recommendations. She confirmed that Skochilenko has celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune digestive tract disorder that prevents her body from processing gluten. Immediately after the arrest, the jail administration outright refused to provide Sasha with a special diet. However, after Sasha’s health rapidly deteriorated, almost a month after her arrest, they finally agreed to prepare hot gluten-free meals for her. Skochilenko testified in court that even now the food she is served still often contains gluten which causes symptoms of severe poisoning after each meal: nausea, sharp abdominal pain, and dizziness.
Sasha’s hormonal problems also worsened over time; a few months ago, Skochilenko was diagnosed with a cyst only on the right ovary, while the newly published medical report from November 2nd mentions cysts already on both ovaries. The lack of proper medications in the detention center and the fact that she is not allowed breaks during the court hearings means that Skochilenko cannot take hormonal medications regularly.
After examining Skochilenko, psychiatrist Kondurov confirmed that Sasha suffers from bipolar disorder and PTSD. He also noted that her mental health is declining because she is not always allowed to take medications, and often denied sessions with a therapist and a psychiatrist. According to him, interruptions in taking prescribed medications can trigger a psychotic breakdown.
Over the last year, the prosecution and Judge Oksana Demyasheva kept questioning the testimonies of the doctors, who confirmed under oath that Skochilenko has serious illnesses exacerbated by her time in jail.
At the hearing on September 14, prosecutor Alexander Gladyshov requested the jail administration to provide information about Skochilenko’s health. Since then, at each hearing, a small piece of paper with the words “the prisoner is found sufficiently healthy to be transported” has been provided from the jail. It is often not indicated who conducted the medical examination because, according to Skochilenko, no one ever examines her for these documents.
After objections from the defense, the detention center eventually provided a document signed by a paramedic who had allegedly examined Sasha in jail. Skochilenko, however, stated that she had never seen this person, and in fact was being escorted to a court hearing at the time of the examination stated in the document.
At the next hearing, the document from the jail was again unsigned and missing the time of the examination. To make matters worse, Sasha’s last name was now misspelled and her birth year was incorrect.
Four prosecutors replaced each other over the last year, with Irina Nikandrova and Alexander Gladyshev staying the longest. Both of them sarcastically dismissed the diagnosed illnesses of the defendant.
For example, during one of the hearings, when the defense reminded the court of Skochilenko's serious health conditions, Nikandrova burst into laughter. Gladyshev also considered Skochilenko’s illnesses a joking matter; during the hearing on June 22, he thought it would be funny to suggest that everyone in the room who supported Sasha should leave so that Skochilenko could “breathe more freely.”
During the hearing on September 15, after listing numerous positive characteristics of Skochilenko's personality, Gladyshev asked her, “Were you a well-behaved child in kindergarten? Did you eat your wheat porridge?” Sasha considered this question inappropriate and offensive, stating, “There is information in the case materials that I did not attend kindergarten due to health-related reasons. Moreover, because of my celiac disease, I cannot eat wheat porridge. Maybe I wanted to go to kindergarten like all other children, but I couldn’t. I consider your question absolutely inappropriate.”
Judge Demyasheva, in turn, consistently denied Skochilenko even short breaks, effectively not letting Sasha go to the bathroom, take medications, eat, or drink for hours—she was not allowed to bring water into the courtroom.
During the hearing on September 29, Sasha felt unwell, and an ambulance was called for her. Doctors concluded that Skochilenko’s condition was worsened by the fact that she had not eaten for two consecutive days prior. Early in the mornings, she was taken from the detention center to court before breakfast, then held there for several hours in a holding cell without food (no gluten-free food was included in the rations). She was then released from the hearings late in the evening, after dinner had already been served at the jail.
Demyasheva refused to release Skochilenko early even on October 11, despite the fact that Sasha was brought to court with a pulse monitor that day. Sasha requested to postpone the hearing because she urgently needed to change the battery in the device to avoid having to cancel the carefully pre-planned medical exam. The judge replied that Skochilenko “was informed about the hearing in advance and could have prepared accordingly.” That day, Sasha cried in the courtroom for the first time in a year and a half.
Neither of the two prosecution witnesses who testified in court were able to repeat their statements against Sasha that they previously made to police. One of them, Sasha's friend Alexey Nikolaev, stated that he ended up in an interrogation room after police searched his apartment under the pretext of looking for a missing five-year-old boy. Nikolaev realized that they had fabricated the story about the missing child when the law enforcement officers showed him a photograph of Skochilenko during the search. The police inspected Alexey’s apartment, read his correspondence with Skochilenko, and found nothing. On March 22 in court, Nikolaev retracted his statements given during the initial interrogation, stating that he was nervous, or that “the investigator did not record the statement correctly.”
Another prosecution witness was the serviceman Stanislav Ozhenkov. During the initial interrogation, he stated that the information on Skochilenko’s anti-war price tags was false. According to him, the division under his control did not sustain big losses in Ukraine, contrary to what was written on the price tags. However, he couldn't provide any additional information about Skochilenko’s protest.
“Do you know anything about how the price tags were placed by Skochilenko?” asked the prosecutor.
“I have no idea what you're talking about,” he replied.
After that, the prosecution did not summon any more witnesses and only read out the written protocols of initial interrogations. These included the testimony of a senior citizen who, according to the investigation, was the one who noticed the anti-war price tags in a store. Additionally, the prosecutor, for some reason, devoted almost an entire session to reading out the job descriptions of the store employees: a cashier, a baker, a consultant’s assistant, and a manager.
The defense dedicated a significant portion of its court time to the deconstruction of the linguistic analysis of the prosecution. Linguistic experts, Anastasia Grishanina and Olga Safonova, concluded that Sasha Skochilenko, “motivated by political hatred,” spread “fake information” about the Russian army. Despite both experts ignoring court summonses for several weeks, the defense eventually managed to question them.
In court, Safonova admitted that it cannot be asserted that Skochilenko intentionally included false information in the price tags. Upon hearing this response, the prosecutor demanded an immediate end to the questioning and requested the hearing to be postponed.
Anastasia Grishanina identified “motives of political hatred" in the price tags. In her opinion, the hatred is reflected in the use of words such as “zinc coffins” and “stop the war.” “A person who uses such words shows hatred,” explained Grishanina. While referring to the information on the price tags as “fake,” she acknowledged that she personally did not assess its accuracy, but merely compared the information with official data from the Ministry of Defense. “If it is official—it is true,” she concluded.
During the hearing on October 27th, it turned out that the experts did not evaluate all of Sasha’s price tags; one of them was simply lost by investigator Proskuryakov.
The investigation looked into the following anti-war price tags:
During the hearings it turned out that the investigator lost one of the price tags, which said “Russia now uses mobile crematoriums in Ukraine. This time there will be no zinc coffins with the bodies of our sons.”
Towards the end of the trial, prosecutor Alexander Gladyshev stopped hiding his belief that simply because Skochilenko did not support the war and the current Russian government, her political views were a crime in itself. During the hearing on September 28, he stated that Sasha got her news about the war from the “NATO lackeys.”
On July 6, he requested to deny Sasha’s release from the jail to house arrest, explaining that posting anti-war price tags was a “cruel crime”: “Jail is not a cruel measure, but a tough one... Skochilenko’s crimes, on the other hand, are cruel because they undermine the foundations of the government.” Responding to the defense's objections, he said, “Here I represent the state, and the truth is on my side.”
During the hearing on September 28 tough, Gladyshev stated that Skochilenko’s rights are protected not only by her qualified defenders, but also by him, the prosecutor. The same day, Sasha’s therapist tried to explain in court that being a sensitive person, Sasha decided to carry out an artistic performance, affected by the news of the war. Gladyshev drew an unexpected conclusion from this: “So, if I understand correctly, if she had read different kinds of news, she would have gone and killed somebody?”
Political scientist Alexander Sungurov testified on October 27 and explained that Skochilenko’s actions and words do not reveal a hint of “political hatred,” indicating that there was nothing extremist or radical in her price tags.
“Could there still be hatred in people who are not ready to commit crimes?” Gladyshev inquired.
“You’re talking about a thoughtcrime. Orwell described in 1984, that it doesn't matter what you did; what matters is what you thought. If a person thinks and dreams about something but doesn’t act upon it, it’s not a matter for legal investigation anymore.”
“But sooner or later everything happens for the first time,” Prosecutor Gladyshev responded with a smirk.
In an interview with Mediazona from the detention center, Sasha emphasized how important everyone’s support is for her. “Despite the fact that I see them for only 3 to 15 minutes throughout an entire hearing, it is a tremendous emotional boost for me. I feel warmth and euphoria from the fact that I am not alone. It's the best moment of an entire day in court!” Skochilenko said. Dozens of people have attended the hearings from the moment of her arrest. Most of them were not allowed to enter the courtroom and stood in the corridor for hours, waiting for Sasha to be transferred from the holding cell to the courtroom to shout their words of support.
The court often tried to discourage people from coming to the hearings. For instance, on February 15, Judge Demyasheva started deliberately loudly reading out the passport details of all Sasha’s supporters who were in the courtroom, even though they all had already been checked in at the entrance to the court.
Another time, bailiffs of the Vasilieostrovsky Court were instructed to push the support group away from the corridor when Sasha was being escorted by the guards, ensuring that Skochilenko could not see those who came to support her behind the bailiffs’ backs. After the hearing on September 15, one of the guards even used tear gas against Sasha’s supporters to get them to leave. Following this incident, Skochilenko’s girlfriend, Sonya Subbotina, was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
Another time, on October 20th, the guards refused to take Sasha out of the courtroom for the approved 15-minute break to have some water. She spent the short break in the holding cell. The prison staff explained this by saying that the support group was “interfering with escorting.” In reality, all supporters had already been pushed out of the room—there was a chain of bailiffs between the corridor and the support group, preventing anyone from approaching the courtroom. Skochilenko asked the court to permit another short break, but Judge Demyasheva denied her request. Then Sasha burst into tears. Looking at her, the guards smirked, and the court secretary barely held back laughter.
During the hearing on November 13, Judge Demyasheva lost all her remaining patience and refused to continue the hearing in the presence of the audience, despite the fact that the case was being tried publicly. After the lawyer Yana Nepovinnova’s speech, applause broke out in the courtroom. “This is not a circus!” Demyasheva angrily remarked and demanded that the audience leave the room. She then adjourned the hearing until the next day and left the courtroom.
On November 16, when Sasha delivered her closing statement, most people had to listen to her speech through unofficial broadcasts as they couldn’t enter the courtroom. “Your Honor! With the verdict you are about to give you can set an example for everyone—an example of how a conflict can be resolved through words, love, mercy, compassion, rather than through coercion to accept the so-called truth through a criminal sentence. This would be a significant step towards reducing anger in society, and promoting healing and reconciliation,” Skochilenko addressed the court.
However, Judge Demyasheva did not heed Skochilenko’s plea. It took her only two hours to come back with the verdict, summing up everything that had been said over the course of thirty hearings—more than in all other anti-war cases combined. The announcement of the verdict only took a few minutes. The judge sentenced Sasha Skochilenko to seven years in prison.
Editor: Maria Klimova
Translator: Andrey Obukhovich
Support Mediazona now!
Your donations directly help us continue our work