Maria Ponomarenko, a Russian journalist who was jailed back in April 2022 on charges of disseminating “knowingly false information” on social media about the war in Ukraine, has been sentenced to six years in a penal colony, according to a new report from Amnesty International.
Ponomarenko, who works for the online news outlet RusNews, wrote about the Russian military’s attack on Mariupol on Telegram, a social media platform that’s incredibly popular in Russia. Western observers and the Ukrainian government say war crimes were committed in Mariupol, including the killing of civilians. But Russia says the civilians seen lying in the streets were only staged for news cameras.
Ponomarenko is from Barnaul in Western Siberia and posted her so-called “fake news” to a Telegram channel named “Tsenzury net” (No Censorship). Specifically, Ponomarenko wrote about civilians in Mariupol who had died while hiding in a theater in March 2022. Roughly 600 people are believed to have died in that strike, according to the Associated Press.
The 44-year-old Ponomarenko wore a Star of David around her neck with the words “Opposition activist, patriot, pacifist,” inscribed on it while in court, according to Amnesty International. And Ponomarenko made a point in court to say the word “war” about the invasion of Ukraine, something that’s also illegal.
“I have the right to say the word ‘war’ because I am being judged under the laws of military censorship,” Ponomarenko said, according to Amnesty International.
Ponomarenko was found guilty at the Leninsky District Court of Barnaul by Judge Altay Kray under the newly enacted Article 207.3, which makes it a crime to distribute false information about the war in Ukraine.
Prosecutors had sought 9 years but Ponomarkenko was sentenced to 6, despite the fact that she has two young children and has suffered mental health issues while in jail, according to the BBC. Others have also been jailed for merely speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“Maria Ponomarenko’s sentence shows that in Russia telling the truth, denouncing a war crime and demanding justice for the killing of civilians, has itself become a grave offence punishable by many years in prison,” Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement published online.
“Her sentence is yet another example of injustice and the cynicism of the authorities in Russia, which are disturbingly routine. The authorities are trying to lock up all those who disagree with them and intimidate others to stay silent and look the other way rather than risk years behind bars,” Struthers continued.
Russia first invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, and the one-year anniversary of the illegal war is coming up. While it’s difficult to get accurate figures, western military estimates put Russia’s dead and wounded at roughly 180,000, while Ukraine has roughly 100,000 killed or wounded, and 30,000 civilian deaths, according to the New York Times.
But those figures are only expected to grow as 10,000 Russian troops have reportedly been rallied at the Ukraine border, and both sides prepare for a fresh spring offensive.