A group of leading Russian lawyers on Tuesday asked the country’s highest court to declare unconstitutional a law banning criticism of the armed forces, in a rare display of opposition to the draconian censorship imposed by the Kremlin in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
The complaint, filed by three lawyers and supported by 10 more, most of whom are still in Russia, asked the Constitutional Court to strike down the measure, which has emerged as the Kremlin’s most effective tool for stifling dissent in the country.
“This law was passed with only one goal — to suppress antiwar activism,” said Violetta Fitsner, a lawyer with OVD-Info, a Russian rights group, and one of the authors of the complaint. “Such restrictions cannot exist in a democratic society.”
The censorship laws effectively ban anything that does not correspond to the Kremlin’s depiction of the war, which it continues to call a “special military operation.” They have virtually silenced debate in Russia.
Since the invasion, thousands of activists, journalists and other professionals have left the country. Many others have been arrested, including lawyers, but despite the risks, some have stayed and continued their work.
Other measures have broadened the definition of treason, giving authorities more leeway to use such charges more or less arbitrarily. Last week, the Russian Parliament also approved a law that introduced life sentences for treason.
Russian lawmakers have also criminalized the loosely defined offense of “confidential cooperation” with a representative of a foreign state or organization that undermines national security.
More than 6,500 Russians have been penalized for “discrediting” the Russian Army since the law was passed by the Russian Parliament eight days after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, the lawyers said. People found to have broken the law are fined for a first offense, but conviction of another offense within a year can result in up to five years in prison.
The petition to the high court came as United Nations officials in Geneva urged combatants in the Ukraine conflict to treat prisoners of war humanely. Their statement was issued after audio clips purporting to encourage the soldiers to engage in summary executions emerged on social media.
The United Nations has not verified the authenticity of the statements, but the posts could still “provoke or encourage summary executions of prisoners of war or those hors de combat,” said Ravina Shamdasani, the spokeswoman for the United Nations human rights chief.
Such orders, if issued or carried out, would amount to a war crime, she said, as would any declaration that troops would take no prisoners.
When it comes to the Russian censorship laws, the authorities have drawn a fuzzy line between what is acceptable and what can lead to administrative or criminal charges.
For instance, more than 19,500 Russians have been detained at antiwar rallies since the start of the invasion, according to OVD Info, which tracks such arrests.
But others were fined or faced criminal charges for more private acts, such as questioning official accounts of the war in a private phone conversation or discussing it in messaging apps or with friends in a cafe, the rights group said.
On Monday, a court in Moscow sentenced a former police officer, Semiel Vedel, to seven years in a penal colony for questioning the official version of the war in a private phone call with his colleagues, according to Zona Media, a Russian news website. The authorities said they had been tapping his phones looking for information on another criminal case.
Earlier this month, another court in Moscow sentenced Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent critic of President Vladimir V. Putin, to 25 years in a high-security penal colony after convicting him of treason over his criticism of the invasion.
In December, an opposition politician, Ilya Yashin, was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison after being found guilty on charges of “spreading false information” about atrocities committed by Russian troops in the Ukrainian city of Bucha in February and March.
And last month, in what some took to be a signal of an even more severe crackdown, the authorities detained a Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich, on what they said was suspicion of espionage. The Journal says the accusation is baseless, and the United States has designated Mr. Gershkovich as wrongfully detained.
The complaint filed Tuesday was made on behalf of more than 20 Russians who were fined for criticizing the invasion. One of them, Maksim Filippov, was fined $650 for holding a poster in central Moscow that said “Give peace a chance.”
The lawyers have already exhausted all other legal means to have the legislation set aside, and hope that the filing will at least draw attention to the issue. In their complaint, they argue that the law violates constitutional rights of freedom of speech and assembly and that it also discriminates against critics of the war.
The court must respond to the filing. Such rulings typically take several months.
The lawyers say they also plan to file similar complaints over other measures imposed by the Kremlin after the invasion, including the criminalization of spreading what the law deems “false information” about the conflict.
“I want people who have been prosecuted for their antiwar position in Russia to know that they are not alone, and we are ready to fight for their rights, despite all the repression and intimidation from the state,” said Ms. Fitsner, the OVD-Info lawyer.
Grigory Vaypan, a Russian lawyer who also worked on the complaint to the Constitutional Court, said the laws passed by the Russian government since the invasion have “criminalized dissent as such.”
“This was a reincarnation of the worst Soviet laws that we studied in history books and at law schools,” said Mr. Vaypan. “I couldn’t have imagined that in just a decade they would become reality again.”
Reporting was contributed by Farnaz Fassihi, Gulsin Harman and Nick Cumming-Bruce.