Ukrainian Social Media Users Get Five Years in Prison For ‘Supporting Separatism’

Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

A court in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine sentenced two men to five years in prison for “supporting separatism” on the social media website VKontakte on February 6. The Donetsk regional prosecutor's office said in a press release that the two men were convicted by a Sloviansk city court under Part 2 of Article 110 of Ukraine's penal code, “Infringement of the territorial integrity and inviolability of Ukraine,” which carries with it a penalty of three to five years in prison.

The men, both residents of Sloviansk, were arrested by Ukraine's Security Services in April 2015, effectively stopping their online activity. Public data does not indicate whether they were detained or released pending trial.

This week, they were both found guilty of organizing groups that supported separatist activity on VKontakte in February 2014—after the EuroMaidan Revolution that toppled former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych but before Russian-backed separatists began to seize large portions of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, including Sloviansk.

The prosecutor's office said the men endeavored to change Ukraine's borders and had provided “informational support” to the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, the two Russian-backed separatist statelets in eastern Ukraine, in furtherance of this goal. The information they distributed over social media was “of an anti-Ukrainian character,” the prosecutor's office said.

The prosecutor's office also said the two men, who did not admit to being guilty in court proceedings, subscribed to the “Russian world” ideology, which seeks to create a “greater Russia” beyond the country's current borders.

They are not the only Ukrainians to face prosecution for online speech that “supports separatism.” In November 2016, a Lviv court convicted a man under penal code Articles 109 and 110 and sentenced him to three years in prison after he allegedly called for seizing power in Kyiv and altering the country’s borders, also on VKontakte. In a separate case in February 2016, a man was found guilty of “activity aimed at changing the constitutional order and the seizure of power, using media,” in violation of Article 109 of Ukraine's penal code. He pled guilty and was made to pay a fine.

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