Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who risks being jailed 10 years for denouncing President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine, went on trial in Moscow on Wednesday.
The 39-year-old Moscow city councillor is in the dock as part of an unprecedented crackdown on dissent in Russia, with most opposition activists either in jail or in exile.
Yashin refused to leave after Putin sent troops to 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 jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and was close to Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician assassinated near the Kremlin in 2015.
Yashin sought to put on a brave face for the opening of the trial, laughing, giving a thumbs up and stretching in the defendant’s glass box, an AFP correspondent said.
Wearing a dark green hoody and jeans, he also smiled to 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 detention by six months.
“I love my country and in order to live here I am ready to pay with my freedom,” he said.
“I am a Russian patriot,” he said.
– ‘Shut people up’ –
Yashin was detained over the summer while walking through a Moscow park.
He faces up to 10 years behind bars, accused of spreading “fake” information about the Russian army under legislation introduced after Putin launched the operation in Ukraine.
In an April YouTube stream Yashin spoke about the “murder of civilians” in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha where the Russian army has been accused of war crimes.
He called it a “massacre”.
His supporters at court said authorities were using the draconian legislation to muzzle critics of the military campaign in Ukraine.
“This law is absolutely anti-legal,” said Anastasia Leonova, 48.
“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, mum and my 87-year-old grandmother.”
Since Moscow’s intervention began in Ukraine, independent media outlets have been shut down or their operations suspended in Russia. Tens of thousands of Russians — including many independent journalists — have left the country.
– ‘Clean toilets’ –
Yashin has not minced his words while in detention.
At a court hearing earlier this month, Yashin questioned why authorities tolerate criticism of Russia’s military leadership from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the notorious mercenary outfit Wagner.
Both have slammed generals after a series of defeats on the battlefield.
“You put me in jail for questioning the truth behind the ministry of defence statements about the war in Ukraine,” Yashin told the court, according to a transcript of his speech published by his team on Telegram.
“But for some reason, you have no complaints about Prigozhin and Kadyrov, who so far only stop short of forcing the generals to clean toilets with toothbrushes.”
Another Moscow councillor, Alexei Gorinov, was in July sentenced to seven years in prison for denouncing the Ukraine offensive.
The 61-year-old had questioned plans for an art competition for children in his constituency while “every day children are dying” in Ukraine.
Almost all of Putin’s well-known political opponents have either fled the country or are in jail.
Navalny, 46, is serving a nine-year sentence for embezzlement charges widely seen as political. His political organisations have been outlawed.
A Russian court also banned the country’s most prominent rights group, Memorial, ahead of the military campaign in Ukraine,