Mikhail Afanasyev knew the police might come for him.
The veteran investigative journalist had just published a bombshell report: 11 members of the Russian National Guard from his home region of Khakassia had refused to fight in Ukraine, he said, and the military was hiding information about the victims of their unit.
The report matched others on the Refusenik soldiers and reinforced a narrative that the Russian government desperately wanted to suppress: that the invasion is stalling and that Russian troops were ill-prepared for battle.
In an effort to stop the bad press, the hunt for haters like Afanasyev intensified. “They are trying to find the sources,” Afanasyev wrote in a text message days before his arrest. “While I write, I wait to be arrested.”
He had already seen an order from the prosecutor requiring a legal review of his article and he expected much worse. “They have already fired the [soldiers] and there is a real hunt for us too,” he wrote.
Arrests across Russia
On April 13, police made arrests in three cities across the country under a new law criminalizing “forgery” about the Russian military.
Afanasyev was detained in Siberia, a deputy mayor who allegedly ran a Telegram account was detained in Elista in the North Caucasus, and in the Moscow region Sergei Mikhailov, the founder of the weekly LISTok, was arrested.
The synchronized arrests suggested a new coordinated campaign targeting regional journalists, especially those who had reported on Russian casualties during the war.
A total of 28 cases have been reported under the “false” law, which was signed by Vladimir Putin last month, according to OVD-Info, which monitors Russia’s legal system. Afanasyev faces up to 10 years in prison.
“Mikhail wrote an article about the national guards and now he is being punished for it,” said his lawyer, Vladimir Vasin. “His stance is ‘I did my job! I couldn’t do anything else,” he told me.
The crackdown has made it even harder for Russian soldiers who refused to fight in the “special operation” – Russia’s term for its war – to go public. Some reports suggest that there is nearly 1,000 such cases.
Pavel Chikov, president of human rights group Agora, said this month that the group was handle cases from 17 cities and “everyone complains about the pressures, the threats of criminal proceedings”.
“They are more afraid than me,” said a lawyer from another region in contact with soldiers who had refused to fight in Ukraine. “For them, it’s scarier than participating in the special operation.”
“They want to make me suffer”
On the evening of his arrest, Afanasyev and his wife, Elena, had hoped to celebrate their anniversary, but he had been held up at work. When Elena said there was a knock on the door, an officer with a warrant came in, followed by masked and camouflaged men, then her handcuffed husband.
“They said to hide the kids in another room so they don’t get in our way because it’s unpleasant,” Elena said. “I hugged my husband; the children could not stay in the room, her son ran away crying and called his father. Misha took him in his arms.
“I asked him, ‘Misha, they’re just going to detain you for 48 hours and then they’ll release you, right?’ He reassured me: ‘My cat, everything will be fine, don’t worry… I will be home soon.’
Afanasyev is one of Siberia’s best-known journalists, a driven and aggressive journalist who travels long cross-country ski trails in his spare time. He independently runs Novy Fokus, a committee to protect journalists, and has defied court summons, beatings and death threats to report corruption and human rights abuses.
“He is a hero journalist for Khakassia,” said Stanislav Ugdyzhekov, a friend who has known him for more than 20 years. “He got involved in very complex issues. He fought with bandits. And I know they were bandits because they were imprisoned for banditry. He fought with state organs. He exposed some bad people in the government.
Afanasyev had paid off that deal through years of trouble, including defamation charges in 2009 over his criticism of the Russian government‘s response to an explosion at the country’s largest hydroelectric plant that year.
“I thought those 10 years of criminal persecution were behind him,” Elena said. “He is a respected person all over the world and in Khakassia. I couldn’t imagine we could have raids and all that. It was a normal evening. »
Quit or shut up
Afanasiev has been taken into custody for the next two months as investigators build their case against him.
The lawyer, Vasin, said he met Afanasiev on Wednesday at a remand center. Afanasyev had his head shaved, he said, and had undergone three interrogations, three house searches and one arrest in the past seven days.
“Mikhail feels a little better than in the first days,” Vasin said. “At first he was overpowered, lost. He didn’t really believe he could be imprisoned for his words. Not just for words, but for journalism.
There has not yet been a successful defense against the “false” law. And at least four investigators had been assigned to the case, suggesting it will go to trial.
“There is only one way for journalists to defend themselves against these charges and these laws and that is to quit journalism,” Vasin said. “Or to shut up.”