Russian Authorities Add Prominent Activist To Wanted List

Last Monday, Russian authorities added a prominent member of the Pussy Riot protest group, Pyotr Verzilov, to the government’s wanted list. Verzilov is allegedly wanted for failing to report his Canadian citizenship to authorities. He is the latest in a long list of opposition figures to be put on the wanted list.

Verzilov appears not to be deterred by his new status, telling Reuters, “I am definitely going to come back.” The charge against him did not carry a prison sentence, he notes. “[I]t is clear that the ingenuity of the security establishment is high at the moment and they can invent anything out of the blue.”

“Verzilov had never hidden his Canadian citizenship,” his lawyer, Leonid Solovyov, said, “a fact that had been known in public circles for years.” Despite that, Verzilov could face a fine of 200,000 rubles (around $2,700) or up to 400 hours of community service.

This is not Verzilov’s first run-in with the Russian authorities. He is a member of the music protest group Pussy Riot, which gained worldwide attention in 2018. “[H]e and three other Pussy Riot activists ran out onto the soccer pitch during the World Cup final in Moscow to protest police brutality,” the Washington Post writes. All members involved in this protest served 15 days in jail. Verzilov subsequently came down with a mysterious illness that September. After being flown to Germany, his doctors reported that it was “highly plausible” that he was poisoned, Al Jazeera says.

In addition to being a human rights activist, Verzilov is also a publisher of Mediazona, an independent media site. The site focuses on news related to “human rights, civil society, and the crackdown on dissent in Russia,” according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. As such, Verzilov, the media outlet, and chief editor Sergei Smirnov were labeled foreign agents in September, along with several other entities.

Human rights groups are facing similar pressure in Russia. In recent months, several have disbanded themselves to avoid further crackdowns. The Kremlin, however, denies that it is “stifling media freedoms,” according to the Associated Press.

Russian authorities have had strong control over media in the country for a long time. Earlier this year, a wave of laws were passed that require large social media sites to take down any content deemed illegal under Russian law. Authorities say that this “illegal content” includes “calls for youth to participate in unsanctioned protests, exaggerating the number of protesters, and spreading false information about police violence at these gatherings,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Russia cannot continue to restrict its citizens’ freedoms. Russian authorities must stop stifling their critics, imprisoning activists, and suppressing peaceful protests. The best way to address criticism of the government is to engage in constructive dialogues with citizens, rather than completely silencing them. The international community needs to encourage Russia to relax its policies of censorship of independent media outlets, and intervene should Russia continue to unfairly arrest and imprison people who speak out against policy or dissent against their leaders.