Prison 'catastrophe' for jailed Russian artist, warns mother

AFP , Thursday 2 Nov 2023

The mother of a Russian artist, who faces a decade in jail for protesting Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, said her health has significantly deteriorated during one-and-a-half years behind bars and warned a prison sentence would be a "catastrophe".

Alexandra Skochilenko
Alexandra Skochilenko, a 33-year-old artist and musician from Saint Petersburg, has been held in detention since April last year for replacing supermarket price labels with messages protesting against Moscow s assault in Ukraine. (Photo: AFP)


Alexandra Skochilenko, a 33-year-old artist and musician from Saint Petersburg, has been held in detention since April last year for replacing supermarket price labels with messages protesting against Moscow's assault on Ukraine.

Skochilenko, who went on trial last December, has been behind bars despite a number of health conditions including celiac disease and a congenital heart defect.

Her mother Nadezhda Skochilenko said Alexandra could be sentenced before the New Year, and she shuddered at the thought of what comes next.

"I am trying not to think about it, I am hoping for a miracle," 60-year-old Nadezhda told AFP in an interview in Paris.

"A real prison term would just be a catastrophe for Sasha," she said, using her daughter's diminutive name.

Nadezhda said Alexandra was sickly as a child and spent a lot of time in hospitals. She did not work for the first 14 years of her daughter's life in an effort to stabilise her health and give her a chance to "live a normal life".

Alexandra's arrest last year has undone all her efforts, Nadezhda said, adding that her health has quickly deteriorated.

- 'Torture' -

Alexandra cannot eat gluten like pasta or cereal but it is hard to keep a strict diet in jail, and her heart problems have worsened, her supporters say. She now suffers from arrhythmia and chest pain and should occasionally wear a heart rate monitor.

"I don't know how much time it will take for her to recover," she said.

All requests to place Alexandra under house arrest have been rejected because her elder sister lives in France and Alexandra is considered a flight risk, said Nadezhda, who left Russia last spring.

Alexandra's treatment during court hearings amounts to "torture," the mother said.

She cannot eat properly during hearings. Sometimes, she is not allowed to go to the bathroom.

"Sasha is not allowed to take water with her into the courtroom, and a hearing can sometimes last six to eight hours," Nadezhda said.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, all public criticism of the invasion has been outlawed.

Despite the crackdown, in March, 2022 the Saint Petersburg artist replaced supermarket stickers with short phrases about the war against Ukraine, in particular focusing on the bloody battle for the Black Sea port city of Mariupol.

"Putin has been lying to us from television screens for 20 years," said one such label. "The end result of these lies is our readiness to justify war and senseless deaths."

She has been charged with spreading "fake information" about Russian armed forces and being motivated by "political hatred".

- 'They are ill' -

Despite her ordeal, Skochilenko has been defiant, often smiling inside the cage for defendants in the courtroom. Her mother said her daughter never expressed regret for what she has done.

In a letter from jail, Skochilenko said in September that her protest was not in vain because thanks to the "absurdity of my criminal case" the world had learnt about Russians protesting against the war.

She described the harsh conditions she and her cellmates were subjected to, saying they did not have access to drinking water and what they were given to eat was more suitable "for stray animals."

"The most disgusting thing about the Russian prison is that the most elementary and basic human needs are being flouted," she wrote.

Lev Ponomarev, a 82-year-old rights defender who left Russia after the start of the war, urged a prisoner swap with foreign governments saying Skochilenko and several other high-profile figures needed to be released from prison urgently.

"They are ill," Ponomarev said in the Paris offices of Amnesty International on Monday, also singling out Moscow municipal lawmaker Aleksei Gorinov and opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza. Both have been imprisoned for speaking out against the war.

Nadezhda said the Russian authorities would not be able to break her daughter.

"She will survive, she's a very strong person," she said.

"But at what cost?"

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