THE BELL WEEKLY: Russia wants to seize assets from anti-war activists

The Bell

Hello! This week we cover a new proposed law that would allow Russian authorities to confiscate property and assets from those who oppose the war. We also look at Russian anti-Kremlin performers having their concerts canceled abroad and a record long prison sentence for a woman charged with killing a pro-war blogger.

Russian lawmakers move to confiscate property of anti-war campaigners

Russia’s parliament last week backed measures that would allow the confiscation of property and assets from political activists, independent journalists and opponents of the war. The potential new penalties do not go as far as the Soviet practice of stripping convicted dissidents of all their items and property. However, it remains unclear how the courts might implement the new rules in practice, should they become law.

  • Confiscation of property is already part of Russia's legal system. A court can order the seizure of assets that were directly used in the commission of a crime, as well as the proceeds of criminal activity or funds used to finance certain crimes, such as terrorism. At the moment there are almost 100 separate offenses that could lead to the confiscation of property, ranging from murder and drug dealing to terrorism and treason. Unlike in the Soviet era, today's authorities cannot strip a person of all their worldly possessions after they have been convicted — only items connected with the crime or obtained during the crime, lawyers from Network Freedoms emphasized. But there is flexibility. For instance, if it proves impossible to seize a specific item, others of an equivalent value can be taken, lawyers from “First Department” noted.
  • Russian lawmakers want to extend the list of convictions that would allow property to be confiscated. First and foremost, they backed measures to allow the seizure of assets from those convicted of spreading “fake news” about, or “discrediting”, the Russian army, as well as activity that endangers “state security.” That list includes about 30 separate offenses such as desertion, refusal to follow orders and crossing the border illegally. It also includes cooperating with “undesirable” organizations. Political activists and independent journalists could easily fall under that category, as both independent Russian media and foreign NGOs have been labeled “undesirable.”
  • Under the proposed new law — which the State Duma has passed in the first of three readings — property can be seized from people who committed these crimes either “for hire,” or if a judge deems they were motivated by political, ideological, racial, national, or religious hatred. The idea of working “for hire” is already outlined in the “fake news” law as a specific aggravating factor, allowing for different punishment. But in practice few of the cases that have been prosecuted so far have exploited that part of the criminal code, lawyer Maxim Olenichev said.
  • The first kind of property that can be seized — the fruit of criminal activity — is more or less clear. If the court rules that a crime was motivated by profit, or hatred, then the penalty can include the confiscation of proceeds from the offense, such as any payment received for creating content that the court holds to be “fake.”
  • The second — allowing the seizure of assets used in the commission or financing of a crime — is more complicated. According to the criminal code, it is not only items that were used in a crime that can be seized, but also anything that was “intended” to be used to fund criminal activity. Some lawyers believe this wording could allow authorities to effectively confiscate all property belonging to a convicted individual.
  • The interpretation of this part of the new law will only become clear once it starts being enforced, Olenichev said. “Property which is used to fund crime could be any sum of money transferred to an ‘extremist organization.’ At the same time, an apartment, vehicle or any other item is a source of income. In a state with the rule of law and where the law is correctly applied, this kind of property should not be subject to confiscation.”
  • State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has made it clear who he wants to target with the new law. He said such measures are needed to “punish scoundrels, including cultural figures, who support Nazis and pour dirt on our country, its soldiers and officers taking part in the special military operation [the official wording for Russia's war in Ukraine — The Bell].” The bill has a special list of measures designed to target cultural figures: those convicted of 11 specific anti-war crimes, including the spreading of “fake news” and “discrediting” Russia's military, rehabilitating Nazism and calling for sanctions against Russia, can be stripped of honorary state titles and awards. As it stands, honors can only be stripped from people convicted of particularly serious crimes.

Why the world should care:

It's not at all clear how these changes to the criminal code would be used in practice, should the law be adopted. The current wording gives no indication as to the limits of what can be confiscated. In all likelihood there will be no return to the Soviet practice of seizing anything and everything. But one thing is clear: in Russia, the security of your personal property is often dependent on your relationship to, and opinion of, the state.

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Russian anti-war performers under pressure abroad

Many Russian musicians and performers have left the country since the start of the invasion. While openly criticizing the war, some have managed to continue earning a living by playing venues in the United States, Europe and Asia. However, since the start of this year, some have seen travel bans and had their concerts canceled. Artists who are listed as “foreign agents” (a label human rights activists say is discriminatory) fear that the Russian authorities are using diplomatic channels to put pressure on local authorities in friendly countries to keep them off the stage.

  • At least four instances in three different countries of Russian performers being targeted have come to light in January. First, comedian Ruslan Bely had his concerts canceled in Thailand. He claims that the Russian consulate ordered the local authorities to ban him. Representatives of the venue in Pattaya, a popular destination for Russians in exile, demanded a written pledge that Bely’s act would not criticize the Russian government.
  • Also in Thailand, renowned Russian rock group Bi-2 ran into trouble. Members of the band were arrested for playing a concert without the correct work permits. They were fined and sent to a migrant holding center, awaiting a transfer to the capital Bangkok. They now face deportation to the countries where the passports on which they entered Thailand were issued. Five members could be sent to Russia, with two others to Australia and Israel, Russian state media reported. The band’s frontmen do not have Russian citizenship.
  • Bi-2's members believe that “external pressure played a significant role in their arrest,” and said all of their concerts were scheduled in accordance with local legislation. A representative of the Russian foreign ministry said that “Russian diplomats are fully communicating their position on the Special Military Operation” and said that anti-war cultural figures who left Russia are sponsoring terrorism abroad.
  • Thailand also canceled gigs by comedian Maxim Galkin, husband of the legendary pop-diva Alla Pugacheva. A source in the Thai entertainment industry told TASS that the performances were canceled due to Galkin’s political views. Galkin also had problems in Indonesia, where he was denied entry to the country. He claims border guards told him the Russian government had written a letter asking Indonesia not to let him enter.
  • The problems are not limited to south-east Asia. Rapper and showman Morgenshtern said he was recently denied entry to the United Arab Emirates and had previously been barred from performing in the country. Dubai has become a key hub for wealthy Russians who fled the country, including Morgenshtern. He suggested that he had been targeted “by evil people” who had seen an interview in which the musician spoke of how he ”rose to his feet” in Dubai.

Why the world should care:

Despite the widely held belief that Russia finds itself isolated internationally, the country still has a decent number of diplomatic allies who are willing to help it complicate the lives of Russians who try to criticize the war from abroad.

Record sentence for woman who killed pro-Russian blogger

A Russian court found Darya Trepova, 26, guilty of terrorism over the murder of pro-Russian military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky. He was killed in a bomb blast in a St. Petersburg cafe last April. Trepova was sentenced to an unprecedented 27 years in prison — the longest jail sentence for a woman since the fall of the Soviet Union. The court also found her guilty of trafficking explosives and forging documents, allowing them to reach the unprecedentedly long sentence. Trepova claimed that she was working on orders from an unknown handler in Ukraine and Russian journalist Roman Popkov, who is based outside of the country. The court dismissed this, despite de facto confessions from Popkov himself and the Investigative Committee previously naming him as the organizer of the attack.

  • Tatarsky was killed when Trepova handed him a small figurine stuffed with explosives while he was giving a talk at a St. Petersburg cafe. Trepova claimed that she knew nothing of any plan to murder Tatarsky and had no idea that the ornament had been rigged with a bomb. “If it were possible to fix this, I would simply throw the figurine into the Neva river and go about my business,” she said in her final statement to the court.
  • Trepova claimed she was acting on instructions from journalist Roman Popkov, who she got to know via Twitter. He later asked her to bring the figurine to the event with Tatarsky and told her it contained a GPS tracker, Trepova said. She said she believed she was helping Popkov's journalistic work, and that he wanted to keep his finger on the pulse of what was going on inside Russia’s influential pro-war community. 
  • In the 1990s, Popkov was a member of the neo-nazi Russian National Unity movement, then became an activist in the banned National Bolshevik Party. He also worked for independent Russian media, including MBKh, an outlet financed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In 2021 he left Russia and settled in Kyiv. He was later placed on Russia’s wanted list.
  • Last year Popkov claimed that he had never recruited Trepova or given her any orders. However, at the start of this year he reversed his story — following demands by Trepova's husband that he admit to recruiting her and offering to help her move to Kyiv. In an emotional statement, Popkov wrote that everything Trepova had said was true. Addressing the media, he said that the public would “learn the truth about resistance operations when the time was right.” On the day of the verdict, Popkov promised that “he would fight” for Trepova’s freedom.

Why the world should care:

In modern Russia, no woman has ever been handed a longer sentence than Trepova’s 27 years. Her punishment is more severe than a number of high profile serial murder cases, such as the Amazon gang who killed more than 20 people in the south of Russia (sentenced to 24-25 years), and a woman in the Urals who murdered 17 pensioners (20 years). In Trepova's case, the court did not bother to concern itself with whether she had any intention of killing Tatarsky, but tried her on terrorism charges with aggravating circumstances in order to justify the unprecedentedly long prison spell.


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