Protesters in Russia Accuse Government of Entrapping Young Critics

Demonstrators in Moscow on Wednesday protested against the growing number of arrests of young Russians on extremism charges for material shared or stored on social media sites.

MOSCOW — Hundreds of demonstrators walked through downtown Moscow on Wednesday to protest against a growing number of arrests of young Russians on extremism charges for material shared or stored on social media sites.

Braving a torrential summer downpour, the demonstrators joined what was called the March of the Mothers. They expressed concern that they could not protect their teenage children against what many consider to be an extensive online entrapment campaign by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, and other security agencies.

“Freedom!” protesters chanted repeatedly when they reached the front of the Supreme Court after marching, mostly silently, down the middle of the Boulevard Ring in central Moscow.

Aleksei A. Makarov, a bearded, 33-year-old schoolteacher, said entrapping teenagers was reminiscent of the Soviet tactics of the early 1950s, when his own grandmother was arrested at age 17 on accusations of participating in an illegal political group.

“There is an overall course to increase repression, to repress any civic and political activity in the country,” said Mr. Makarov, who was carrying a small stuffed rhinoceros. Many demonstrators carried stuffed animals, especially unicorns, to symbolize that their march was about protecting children.

In what has become an increasingly popular tactic given the Moscow city government’s refusal to issue demonstration permits, the event was a “protest stroll.”

Participants walked in scattered ranks and avoided banners and mostly refrained from chanting to thwart attempts by the police to accuse them of participating in an illegal demonstration. In this case, the police hovered in the background and did not attempt to disrupt the protest.

The immediate cause of the demonstration was the arrest in March of two Moscow girls, Anna Pavlikova, 18, and Maria Dubovik, 19, on extremism charges in what has become known as the “New Greatness” case. Some people are incensed that they are being held without bail while in poor health.

According to prosecutors, the girls were part of a small cell that was plotting to overthrow the government. Eight men were also arrested.

Their parents and defense lawyers accuse the government of fabricating a case so the girls would run afoul of the anti-extremism law. The girls, both animal lovers, had gone on the Telegram messaging service to meet friends, especially boyfriends, the parents and defense lawyers said in an extensive record of the case compiled by Mediazona, an online news service.

Last fall, they let an older man join their chat room, and he gradually steered the group into politics, renting an office, buying a printer and drafting an anti-government manifesto. The older man then gave 10 pages of testimony against members of the “New Greatness” group, but he has never been thoroughly identified in court documents.

Defense lawyers and the families think the mysterious witness was an agent of the FSB, the successor agency of the K.G.B.

In the hours before the march, officials appealed to the court to move the girls to house arrest, according to Russian news reports, but many marchers dismissed the move as a ploy to get them to stay at home.

“It is an unconscionable case against children, and that is why people are reacting,” Yulia Pavlikova, Anna’s mother, told reporters at the march. “I really hope that they heard us, they saw us and some kind of action has begun. Children should not be in prison, especially when they are not guilty.”

Ms. Pavlikova and Ms. Dubovik’s mother had earlier made a tape appealing to President Vladimir V. Putin to intercede in the case, wondering aloud if the security services really had nothing better to do than to arrest adolescents.

Asked Tuesday about the spread of extremism cases, Dmitri S. Peskov, the spokesman for Mr. Putin, said that some such cases fell “beyond the bonds of reason.”

Those caught up in such cases tend to be dismissive of such remarks from the Kremlin. They noted that both the human rights ombudswoman appointed by Parliament, Tatyana Moskalkova, and the chairman of the Presidential Human Rights Commission, Mikhail Fedotov, had called for the two girls to be let out of jail while awaiting trial and nothing happened.

Hundreds of cases based on social media posts have popped up around the country. The number of extremism cases rose to 1,521 last year from 656 in 2010, according to statistics from the prosecutor general’s office.

The Russian government first promulgated an anti-extremism law in 2003, as it was fighting a violent Islamist insurgency, especially in the North Caucasus region of the country. Criminalizing online content was added in 2014.

The move against teenagers started in earnest in 2017 after young people turned out in significant numbers for the anti-government protests organized by the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, according to lawyers, human rights activists and others.

“The government is fighting dissent — criticism of the state or of the church is impossible,” said Aleksei Bushmakov, a defense lawyer involved in several provincial cases. “Since young people are concerned about the future of the country, about their own future, they are expressing their displeasure on the internet.”

Once anyone is arrested on such charges, their names are added to a national register of extremists and terrorists, effectively ruining their lives. They often cannot hold jobs, get loans or access bank accounts freely. There is no set punishment; in several high-profile cases the prosecutors are asking for sentences of six years in prison.

In one case being defended by Mr. Bushmakov in the Altai Republic in southern Siberia, for example, a student was arrested in connection with pictures on her page on Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, some of which were not even shared. One picture showed participants in a religious procession walking along a road full of potholes and puddles with a caption that said, “Two of Russia’s biggest problems.”

Another teenager was arrested on charges of insulting the feelings of Russian Orthodox believers, which comes under the extremism law, for a meme from the HBO program “Game of Thrones” that echoed language commonly used about Jesus.

“They want to frighten the young, that’s it,” said Yulia N. Nesterova, 54, a mother of two children at the Moscow march.

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