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In Russia, children opposing the Ukraine war are being targeted

Last April, 12-year-old Masha Moskalyova was asked to draw a drawing for an art class showcasing support for Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine.

Instead, she drew a mother and child standing in the path of missiles with the captions “no to war” and “glory to Ukraine.”

The next day, her father Alexey Moskalyev, who raised her alone in the town of Yefremov, Tula region, about 200 km south of Moscow, was called to her school.

Both father and daughter were taken away in police cars.

Alexey was questioned by local officers, who discovered disparaging remarks he made online about the Russian military and compared them to rapists.

In court, Alexey was fined 32,000 rubles ($420) for discrediting the armed forces.

The next day, Federal Security Service (FSB) agents visited Masha’s school, accused her father of bad parenting and told Masha to be taken away. After that, Masha was too scared to go to class.

Alexey was eventually arrested and Masha placed under surveillance – a sign of how far Russian authorities are going to suppress criticism of the war in Ukraine.

On December 30, 2022, five police cars and a fire truck had parked in front of their home.

Alexey told the Russian human rights organization OVD-Info that he didn’t want to let them in without a warrant, but he opened the door when they started storming in.

The police and FSB searched the apartment and allegedly took the family’s savings, mobile phones, laptops and Masha’s anti-war drawing.

At the time of writing, Russian authorities – including the Commission of Inquiry for the Tula Region – had not yet responded to a request for comment.

Alexey claimed his head had been smashed against a wall and he was locked in a room with the national anthem on full blast. He was subsequently charged again with discrediting the military; he now faces up to three years in prison.

Last week, Alexey was held in a pre-trial detention center for two days, while Masha, now 13, was taken to a children’s home.

According to his lawyer Vladimir Biliyenko, Alexey has since been released and is under house arrest.

“Alexey is under house arrest, he can only have contact with me and the detectives,” Biliyenko told Al Jazeera by phone.

“Masha is in an asylum. We are working to get her back and release the house arrest. We have filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General and Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation. If the father receives a prison sentence, the daughter is sent to a children’s home.

“The charge carries a maximum of three years, so it is not that serious, and an actual prison sentence is relatively rare. But this is a political matter, so it could go either way.”

Biliyenko did not comment on Alexey’s alleged mistreatment while in custody.

Svetlana Davydova, head of Yefremov’s youth affairs committee, told Russian state media RBC that the Moskalyevs had been placed on a list of “families in socially dangerous situations” and that she had filed a lawsuit to rob Alexey and Masha’s mother. who lives in another city of their rights as parents.

Masha is currently detained at the children’s center, which local media has told she will not be released.

“It is common for the whole family to be dragged into persecution, even if only one member is ‘guilty’ in the eyes of the regime – especially if that person is a minor,” Dan Storyev, editor-in-chief of OVD-Info English, told Al Jazeera.

Last October, a 10-year-old Moscow schoolgirl was arrested when her classmates’ parents complained that her profile picture in a class group chat was “Saint Javelin,” a meme that has become a wartime symbol of Ukrainian resistance — the Virgin Mary wrapped in yellow and blue, with a big gun in her hand.

Later, the girl and her mother were questioned and their home was searched, but ultimately no charges were brought.

In another case in eastern Siberia, the 16-year-old son of anti-war protester Natalia Filonova was sent to a remote orphanage 300 km from home while detained for taking part in a rally and allegedly assaulting two police officers. with a ballpoint pen.

“We are currently seeing a worrying trend of persecution of minors by the regime along with their families,” Storyev continued. “The aim of the regime is to instill fear, so they threaten families with divorce, claiming that parents are not raising the children properly – as was the case with Alexey (Moskalyev).”

Storyev listed other cases where under-18s have come into contact with authorities after expressing anti-war views.

He said police in Moscow stopped at a boy’s house and turned off the electricity after he stated his position on Ukraine. Two high school students were harassed by the crowd for refusing to stand during the Russian national anthem and playing the Ukrainian national anthem instead. In Yekaterinburg, another child was publicly berated for writing a letter to a soldier urging him not to kill and to come home. And a 16-year-old was fined for saying if he was conscripted he would fight for Ukraine, Storyev said.

“According to our records, at least 544 minors have been detained during anti-war protests in the past year, and seven minors are currently facing criminal charges for their anti-war positions,” he said. “In particular, minors are targeted for sharing posts or comments on anti-war rallies, distributing pamphlets against mobilization and war, holding solo demonstrations, expressing anti-war views at school events, demonstrating (an) anti war garment, and make anti-war inscriptions.”

Storyev also mentioned that there have been cases where young teens have been arrested for more direct actions, such as sabotaging railroads and burning down conscription offices.

Meanwhile, the authorities are trying to win over the younger generation to their way of thinking, with lessons to instil patriotism and an extracurricular “Important Conversations” program, which looks at recent events from the Kremlin’s perspective.

“The regime is trying to force children into a heavily militarized culture,” Storyev said. “Efforts to do so have been going on long before the war – the state sponsors cadet schools and cadet classes within regular schools. (Masha) went to such a school with cadet classes, ”he said.

“Through its attacks on schools, children and parents, the Kremlin aims to destroy and terrify Russian civil society, but despite everything, Russian activists – including children and parents – continue to rise up against the war, even at a terrible cost.”