The “Memorial” organization counted at least 420 political prisoners in Russia, including the most prominent Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny, who survived an attempted nerve agent poisoning last year.
In a meeting with journalists and activists in Moscow, the organization said that this number rose from 362 prisoners, following a year that witnessed an unprecedented crackdown on dissenting voices, including Navalny, who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and whose political organizations were banned on an old embezzlement charge.
“Unfortunately, the numbers are constantly increasing every year,” said Sergey Davids, head of the Memorial’s Political Prisoners Support Program. “This is a sad and troubling reality.”
He pointed out that Memorial’s tally is based “on the guidelines of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe” to identify political prisoners, but the real figure is believed to be “two or even three times higher” in Russia.
“This is quite comparable to the Soviet-era numbers,” Davids said.
Soviet-era defectors estimated there were more than 700 political prisoners in the Soviet Union in 1987.
Dozens of dissidents fled Russia after Navalny’s imprisonment, as authorities increasingly use harsh means to silence them, including labeling journalists and independent media as “foreign agents”.
“We are going back to the methods that were practiced in the Soviet era,” said Alexander Podrabinek, a dissident and journalist during the Soviet era, referring to the use of the judiciary to punish opponents and what is said about ill-treatment and torture in prisons.
And “Memorial” included detainees from religious minorities in Russia among political prisoners, as 68 prisoners were added this year from the banned “Jehovah’s Witnesses” group since 2017.
Members of this American Christian community have recently been sentenced to long prison terms, and this week three of them were sentenced to eight years in prison.
Lev Ponomariov, one of Russia’s most respected human rights activists, said Jehovah’s Witnesses had become the target of “mass repression” in Russia, adding that they were “accused of praying the wrong way”.