Family separation: the Kremlin’s latest anti-protest strategy

Russian authorities presented trumped up child endangerment charges against two families it claimed were involved in the protests

@DFRLab
@DFRLab
Sep 23 · 9 min read
(Source: @GGigitashvili/DFRLab via Telegram/archive, left; VKontakte/archive, right)

Amid the ongoing Moscow protests, Russian authorities seized custody of protesters’ children.

In August, the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office accused Dmitry and Olga Prokazov and Pyotr and Yelena Khomski of reckless child endangerment, claiming they deliberately brought their children to the protests to avoid arrest, and stripped the two couples of parental custody after they brought their children to the protests. Human right defenders objected to the accusations and argued that the Russian authorities’ underlying objective was not to protect the children but rather to intimidate protesters. According to the Russian Family Code, authorities cannot revoke parental rights of these couples for taking their children to a demonstration.

In both cases, the Prosecutor’s Office filed lawsuits against the parents on the basis of open-source information, primarily videos aired by pro-Kremlin TV channels Rossiya 1 and REN TV. The DFRLab found numerous inconsistences and unsupported claims in both the prosecutor’s official statements and pro-Kremlin outlets’ coverage of the cases.

Dimitry and Olga Prokazov

On July 31, 2019, pro-Kremlin activist and journalist Ilias Mercuri posted a doctored video to Twitter, which Rossiya 1 would use as a basis to support its claims about the organizers of the Moscow protests later that same day. Rossiya 1’s video claimed to show one of the orchestrators of the protests, an unidentified man who was accompanied by a young couple and a child. The video further claimed that the child allegedly served as a decoy to trick police, a tactic it compared to the use of “human shields” by terrorists. , According to independent media outlet Meduza, after Mercuri’s doctored video went viral, independent TV station Dozd undertook an investigation and found that portions of the video had been recorded by Russia’s Center for Combatting Extremism under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

In a follow-up program on August 3, Rossiya 1 revealed the identity of the anonymous protester to be Sergey Fomin, a staff member in Russian opposition leader Lyubov Sobol’s office, where he was in charge of collecting signatures for Sobol’s nomination as an opposition candidate in the Moscow City Duma elections. Fomin’s parents would later clarify that their son became a political activist in Summer 2019.

Merkouri’s tweet reads: “The unrest in Moscow had specific coordinators, who regulated movement of the crowd and organized breakouts from the cordons. One of them was hiding from police with the help of a stranger’s child.” (Source: @imerkouri/archive)

The video subtitles emphasized that the young couple had agreed to use their child to help Fomin pass through the area cordoned off by police without being detained.

On August 5, Moscow’s Investigative Committee charged Fomin in absentia for participating in a “massive riot” on July 27. Relying on open-source video footage, the Investigative Committee claimed that, “while leaving the rally, Sergey Fomin picked up a stranger’s [emphasis added] small child to pass safely through the police cordon.” The following day, the Moscow City Prosecutor’s Office released a statement noting that it had asked the Perovsky District Court of Moscow to revoke the parental custody of the couple in the video, without providing any details about their identity.

The text of the statement read: “The father of the boy does not have the right to vote in the elections scheduled for September 2019 in Moscow, inasmuch as he has only temporary residency in Moscow. During the rally, the parents transferred the young child, who was helpless due to his age, to a third party endangering the health and life of the boy. Having exploited the child, the couple abused their parental rights to the detriment of their son’s interests. These violations served as the basis for the court to deprive of parental rights of spouses.” The Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal case against Dmitry and Olga Prokazov under two separate articles of Russia’s Criminal Code: Article 125, which regards putting a minor in danger and carries a punishment of up to one year in prison, and Article 156, which regards the inappropriate performance of parental duties and carries a punishment of up to three years in prison.

The Prokazovs confirmed that they walked in the city center together with Fomin on July 27, but when they ran into the unauthorized rally, they did not join it, as they were accompanied by their young son. Instead, they split with Fomin and went in a different direction. The couple further explained that Fomin is Olga Prokazov’s cousin and the godfather of their first child. After some time, they reportedly met Fomin again, handed the boy to him, and left the protest together to head to the Prokazovs’ home.

Lawyers and human rights defenders denounced the charges, arguing that there was no legal basis to revoke the Prozakovs’ parental custody. Anna Kuznetsova, the Children’s Rights Commissioner for the President of the Russian Federation, pointed out that deprivation of parental rights is an extreme measure that is an option of last resort. Kuznetsova also noted that in the vast majority of cases, these measures do not apply to an isolated instance of parental negligence but, rather, to repeated or reckless child endangerment. In the case of the Prokazov family, the Prosecutor’s Office provided no evidence that the Prozakovs had endangered their son.

Russian authorities’ claims in the Prokazov case

There were several indications that Russian authorities’ allegations against the Prokazovs were not made in good faith.

First, the Prosecutor’s Office substantively revised its initial press release on the charges against the Prokazovs. The initial version of the statement alleged that, by transferring the child to a “third person,” — in this case, Fomin — the parents “endangered their son’s life, as well as caused physical and moral harm to him” [emphasis added]. The latter half of the sentence was struck from a revised version — issued the same day as the original — of the press release. The revision also suggested that the Prosecutor had initially intended to present tough charges against the couple but removed the reference “to physical or moral harm” after finding little evidence to support the charges.

An older version of Prosecutorial Office’s press release contained a reference to “physical and moral harm” to the Prokasovs’ son. (Source: Moscow Prosecutor’s Office/archive, left; Moscow Prosecutor’s Office/archive, right)

Second, the statement also mentioned that Dmitry Prokazov does not have the right to vote in the Moscow elections, without explaining how Prokazov’s voting status related to the charges against him and his wife. By including this detail, Russian authorities may have sought to substantiate the allegations that the majority of protesters were bussed in from outside of Moscow and, as such, had no stake in the protests, which originally grew out of ballot restrictions on opposition candidates registering for the Moscow municipal elections. Prokazov presented his passport, which includes his Moscow voter registration, to Radio Liberty and Novaya Gazeta, suggesting that the prosecutor’s claims were false.

Furthermore, while Russia’s Investigative Committee has claimed that Fomin used the child to ensure his safe passage through the police cordon, there is no evidence showing that he actually went through a police cordon, as Mercuri’s doctored video did not show any interaction with the police. In addition, the video was edited in a way that makes it unclear where and when Dmitry Prokazov handed his son off to Fomin. The Prokazov family claimed that, on their way home with Fomin, they did not encounter any law enforcement officials, let alone a police cordon.

Pyotr and Yelena Khomsky

Shortly after the prosecutor’s request regarding the Prokazovs, another couple, Pyotr and Yelena Khomsky, became the target of a separate disinformation campaign. In a video aired by Rossiya 1 on August 1, a journalist falsely claimed that some people deliberately went to the protests with kids in order to avoid police scrutiny. On August 3, REN TV aired the same video footage, claiming that the Prokazovs — who are not identified by name in the coverage — are so passionate about the protest that they nearly forgot about their children and almost turned over their strollers.

Pro-Kremlin activists further amplified the disinformation campaign against the couple by adding new false claims to the story.

On August 4, Alexander Zorin, a Russian attorney infamous for his criticism of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, wrote a blog post in which he claimed that the man from the video is Navalny’s bodyguard. In the post, Zorin also included a video showing a squabble between Zorin and Pyotr Khomsky, which allegedly supported the claim that Pyotr Khomsky had served as Navalny’s security detail during a recent trip to Kostroma region and, therefore, that the man in the video was thus not an innocent protester but a provocateur.

Following this allegation, Rossiya 1 identified Khomsky as “the bodyguard of a well-known oppositionist” and claimed he had attempted to incite chaos during the protests. REN TV followed suit, publishing an article that claimed the “father with a stroller” was Navalny’s bodyguard. Neither of these channels, however, provided any evidence to corroborate Zorin’s claims.

Headlines from various pro-Kremlin outlets claiming that Pyotr Khomsky was Alexey Navalny’s bodyguard. (Source, left to right, top to bottom: Ruposters/archive; Yandex Zen/archive; Ekonomika Segodnya/archive; Federal News Agency/archive; Breaking News Seichas/archive; RussiaPost/archive; Oko-planet/archive; Politikus.ru/archive; Gazeta.ru/archive; Ren.tv/archive; Vzgiad/archive.)

To determine the narrative’s spread, the DFRLab ran a Sysomos search of the keywords “Oхранник” (“bodyguard”) and “Навального” (“Navalny’s”) for August 3–25, which yielded 1,928 mentions, indicating that this false narrative was widely circulated online. The majority of these mentions were registered on August 4–5, when pro-Kremlin outlets pushed this narrative. Pyotr Khomsky responded publicly to this claim only on August 26, explaining that he has never been Navalny’s bodyguard, after which references to his work history were less one-sided (and incorrect) and thus provided the high bound of the Sysomos search.

Mentions of the keyword “Oхранник” (“bodyguard”) together with “Навального” (“Navalny’s”) during the period from August 3 to August 25, 2019. (Source: @GGigitashvili/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Based on the video footage aired by pro-Kremlin TV channels, the Nikulinsky District Prosecutor of Moscow filed a lawsuit against the Khomskys, demanding that the court strip them of parental custody. According to the allegations, the parents deliberately endangered their daughters by bringing them so close to the protests.

Video footage shows Pyotr and Yelena Khomsky walking with strollers in front of the police cordon during protests in Moscow on August 3. The tweet reads, translated from Russian: “What a hell. Riot police squeezes people (and children in strollers) from Pushkin Square (children are holding on very bravely!)” (Source: @IfSoAnn/archive)

Pyotr Khomsky responds to the false claims

In an August 28 interview, Pyotr Khomsky responded to the allegations, saying that, on August 3, he went for a walk with his family in an area within the vicinity of the protests but tried to stay away from the crowd. At one point, the family ended up stuck between a human chain formed by the police and a crowd of protesters. Seeing a family with small children and a stroller, the police dispersed and allowed the Khomsky family to move away from the scene. Pyotr Khomsky claimed, however, that the policemen refused to disperse to let people with children in tow pass, in a possible attempt to discourage families from showing up to the demonstrations.

Khomsky also clarified that, despite the allegations made by Rossiya 1, he has never served as Navalny’s bodyguard. Although he did volunteer to help Navalny’s organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, on a couple of occasions, he has never been employed by them. In response to Zorin’s video, Khomsky explained that he had served as a sound engineer in the Kostroma region during Russian opposition Party Parnas’s (People’s Freedom Party) campaign in 2015. Navalny showed up to the event, and Khomsky and Navalny were publicly spotted together. Navalny recorded a video to respond to the allegations against Khomsky and confirmed that he indeed worked as a volunteer in Kostroma during the 2015 campaign, assisting with logistics. Furthermore, during one of the campaign events, Khomsky had a minor dispute with Zorin (documented with video footage), suggesting Zorin’s false claims against Khomsky may have been motivated in part by a personal grudge.

Just as in the case of the Prokazovs, human right defenders criticized law enforcement officials for pursuing harsh charges against the Khomskys. Moscow’s children’s ombudsman, Yevgeny Bunimovich, argued that depriving the parents of their parental rights would contradict government policy, which tends to afford deference to the parents. Bunimovich added that the case resembled political blackmail. Kuznetsova, the children’s rights commissioner, asked the Prosecutor’s Office to withdraw the lawsuit.

Moscow courts dismiss lawsuits against both families

On September 2, the Nikulinsky District Court of Moscow dismissed the lawsuit against Piotr and Yelena Khomsky. The couple, however, received a warning advising them against taking their children to future protests. On the same day, the Lefortovo District Court of Moscow rejected the lawsuit against Dmitry and Olga Prokazov.

Both cases demonstrated that Russian authorities see the ongoing protests in the country as threats and are prepared to go to great lengths to intimidate activists. The scant evidence on which both lawsuits relied suggested that they were politically motivated, rather than good faith efforts to protect children. On the other hand, the dismissal of both suits indicated that the authorities — for now — may have feared backlash for punishing the two couples harshly.


Givi Gigitashvili is Research Assistant, Caucasus with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Georgia.

Follow along on Twitter for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

Written by

@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

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