A Russian court has sentenced a single father to two years in prison for criticizing the Russian offensive in Ukraine after he had been provisionally stripped of custody because of a corresponding drawing by his daughter. However, the verdict was read on Tuesday in the absence of the accused Alexey Moskalyov, who, according to the court, had escaped from house arrest.

Moskalyov was found guilty of “discrediting” the Russian army in the online networks, his lawyer Vladimir Bilenko told the AFP news agency. A short time later, the twist in the affair became known: the 54-year-old did not appear at the hearing in the court of the small town of Yefremov, court spokeswoman Elena Michailowskaya told AFP. “He disappeared.”

In a video released by several Russian media outlets, another court official said Moskalyov fled the night before. His lawyer Biljenko told AFP he last saw his client on Monday. On the same day, the public prosecutor’s office had demanded two years in prison for the single father.

The case has been stirring tempers in Yefremov, 300 kilometers south of Moscow, and beyond for some time. The trigger was a drawing Moskalyov’s 13-year-old daughter Maria made at school: it shows rockets aimed at a woman and a child with a Ukrainian flag.

The principal immediately called the police. Officials checked the father’s Internet accounts and discovered comments criticizing the offensive. Alexey Moskalyov has been under house arrest since March 1. Maria was placed in a home, all contact with her father was forbidden.

In another trial on April 6, Moskalyov’s custody should be finally revoked, his lawyer Biljenko reported. According to him, Maria has now been placed under guardianship and could now be taken “to an orphanage within a month”.

The actions of the authorities in Yefremov shocked people across Russia. Opposition media reports that an online petition is calling for Maria to be allowed to return to her father. Even Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose paramilitary Wagner squad is fighting on the front line in Ukraine, criticizes the separation of father and daughter.

The case shows the extent of the suppression of critical voices since the Russian offensive began on February 24, 2022. Since then, Russia has introduced a series of criminal sanctions to suppress any form of criticism of the military. Prominent opposition figures and ordinary citizens have been arrested, and some have already been tried and convicted.

At the height of the Stalin-era purges in the late 1930s, thousands of children were taken from their parents. In modern-day Russia, prosecutors first attempted to strip custody of political activists in Moscow in 2019 for taking their children to protests. The attempts were unsuccessful.