Jailed 'For Clicking A Mouse': Russian Activist Recounts Three Years Behind Bars

Liking an Internet post with some text and a picture of a Molotov cocktail was enough to get Sergei Panarin jailed for three years on charges of "justifying terrorism" in Russia in 2015.

He served his full sentence at a prison in Siberia, where convicts and staff alike were awestruck that he had been imprisoned for, as he puts it, "clicking a computer mouse." Panarin says prison staff treated him "gently," giving him a job in the prison library, where he was once tasked with setting up a counterterrorism display. He also rubbed shoulders with prisoners who he says did openly admit to using the Internet to distribute materials in support of terrorism.

In one of his first interviews since being released, Panarin, a political activist, says that his case left him convinced literally anyone "can land behind bars" in Russia today.

"I was working in a peaceful profession -- architecture. But one day they [the Russian authorities] came to me because of one click of the mouse, which was viewed at best by a dozen people, plus security officials," Panarin told the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Panarin was among the first of hundreds to be charged for using the Internet to spread or incite "hatred." As criticism and a backlog of cases mounted, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently made a rare climbdown, softening the punishment for some Internet hate crimes.

In Panarin’s case, however, the charges were ultimately ratcheted up to an even tougher charge: "supporting or justifying" terrorism, under Article 205 of the Russian Criminal Code.

Panarin, who recently walked free from a prison in Biysk in southern Siberia's Altai Krai, says his troubles began on August 14, 2014, when he got a visit from authorities interested in one of his postings on the Russian social media network VKontakte.

'Bad Post'

"As it turned out, a 'bad' post had been discovered that dated from two years earlier, from 2012. I can only image how much time was wasted to search through my account and all the postings to find something criminal," Panarin explained to RFE/RL.

Panarin's arrest in his hometown of Barnaul on the banks of the Ob River was the first of many similar cases in Altai Krai, in what activists described as a crackdown. 

Panarin is a member of the unregistered Other Russia party, formed by firebrand Russian writer and politician Eduard Limonov in 2010 after his National Bolshevik Party was outlawed.

Panarin was convicted on May 29, 2015, by the Moscow District Military Court for "justifying terrorism" and sentenced to three years in prison. The judge gave him a stiffer sentence than requested by prosecutors, who were seeking two years.

It was one of the harshest sentences meted out to anyone for an Internet-related offense, but not the only one.

In another high-profile case, Yevgenia Chudnovets was sentenced in 2016 to five months in jail for reposting on social media a child-abuse video that eventually led police to catch and convict two people.

That same year, Andrei Bubeyev was sentenced to two years and three months in prison for reposting material about Crimea on a social-media network.

Member Of Other Russia

Panarin admits the incriminating article was provocative and "popular with both left and right radicals."

"The text contained strong criticism of the current government, and, by the way, also included, let’s say, representatives of the peoples of the Caucasus. There was an image of a Molotov cocktail -- an incendiary bottle. That accompanied the text. I was rather attracted to the style of the essay -- combative, offensive. I myself am a gentle man," Panarin said.

Panarin and supporters are convinced he was targeted for his activities with the Other Russia political party.

"During one interrogation, the officer let slip that they were looking for anything that they could pin on activists of the 'Other Russia.' But, apparently, he realized he had blurted out too much, and didn’t talk about it anymore," Panarin said.

For prisoners and prison staff, Panarin was an oddity.

"A lot of them laughed. Both the prisons and the staff. They couldn’t believe they had put me away for just a repost, clicking a computer mouse. They though I must have done something else as well. In general, [violating] the 205 criminal code is respected among prisoners."

Panarin said he was treated "gently" in prison, possibly, he suspected, due to his schooling and NGO connections.

"They also need people for 'smart' work when they need bosses to lead the work brigades. And that's why they went soft on me. I also knew a few human rights defenders, and that also helped; I was never leaned on. The staff of the prison generally don’t want any problems with human rights defenders. Any complaints could cost someone a promotion," Panarin said.

He eventually landed a job at the prison library, where, he "systematized books by topics," and organized a peculiar display.

"Once one of the displays was countering terrorism. They ordered it to be prepared by me, someone who had been sentenced for justifying terrorism."

Panarin said he did encounter inmates who openly admitted to admiring the Islamic State extremist group.

"There was one man -- a Tatar from Irkutsk. He had been distributing IS videos for a year. And he did it quite openly. One day, he deleted his VKontakte page, and the next day the security forces came for him. They told him they knew he had plans to go join the ranks of the militants," Panarin recounted. "Another Tatar, from Kazan, also supported IS in various ways, including via the Internet."

Panarin is convinced his case proves anyone in Russia "can end up behind bars," regardless of what they do or don't do -- a reality that only fuels his desire to continue his political activism.

"What happens to me will not depend on whether or not I engage in civil activism or not," he said. "Here, anyone can fall afoul of the authorities."