Kremlin critic Yashin loses 'foreign agent' appeal

FILE PHOTO: Court verdict hearing for Russian opposition leader Yashin in Moscow

By Lucy Papachristou

LONDON (Reuters) - Russian opposition activist Ilya Yashin, imprisoned for criticising the war in Ukraine, lost a court appeal on Wednesday against being designated as a "foreign agent", Russian news outlets reported.

Yashin, 40, was jailed in December 2022 for 8-1/2 years on charges of spreading "false information" about the Russian army, under sweeping wartime censorship laws passed shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February that year.

A longtime friend and ally of the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Yashin was convicted over statements he made on his YouTube channel about alleged war crimes by Russian forces in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha in the first weeks of the war.

Bodies of Ukrainian civilians lay scattered in Bucha's streets after Russian troops withdrew, Reuters and other news organisations reported in April 2022. The Kremlin denied its soldiers had executed people and complained of a "monstrous forgery" it said was aimed at denigrating the Russian army.

Yashin has stood by his video, saying he told the truth and that his conscience was clear.

In a speech to the court, Yashin said ironically that many would consider it an honour to be on a "foreign agent" list alongside some of Russia's most famous opposition figures and artists.

"But personally, I see no honour in the fact that the authorities brand their public opponents like cattle," Yashin said, according to a text of the speech published by a Telegram channel run by his supporters.

'OFFENSIVE'

"For me, the status of a foreign agent is offensive because I have devoted my life to defending Russia's interests as I understand them."

"Don't you dare call me a foreign agent," said Yashin, who appeared via video link from prison.

Having risen to prominence during a wave of anti-Kremlin protests in 2011-12, Yashin was elected head of a Moscow district council in 2017, but has been repeatedly blocked from standing for higher office.

Like Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza, another opposition figure serving a 25-year treason sentece, Yashin was branded a "foreign agent" by the Russian government, a term that carries negative Soviet-era connotations of spying.

No one in Russia is believed to have ever successfully appealed the designation, which subjects those bearing the label to onerous bureaucracy and financial disclosures.

Held in a prison in Smolensk, west of Moscow, Yashin has been placed in solitary confinement numerous times for minor infractions including changing his T-shirt after showering - a violation of the prison's dress code policy - and rising from his bed three minutes late, according to his lawyer.

Yashin wrote on his Telegram channel last month that prison authorities had denied his parents the right to visit him after they had travelled some 200 miles (320 km) from Moscow to Smolensk.

(Reporting by Lucy Papachristou; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Gareth Jones)