A Russian father who went on the run to avoid being sent to a penal colony after his daughter drew an anti-war picture at school was criticized by the Kremlin on Wednesday, but defended by the powerful head of the Wagner mercenary group.
The case of Alexei Moskalyov, who came under police investigation last year over the anti-war picture drawn by his daughter Masha, has resonated widely across Russia and abroad since the father was placed under house arrest this month and the teenager was taken to a children's home.
It took a new twist on Tuesday when Moskalyov vanished from his home during the night, hours before being sentenced to two years for discrediting the Russian armed forces.
A letter from Alexei's daughter
Further fueling the emotions surrounding the case, a letter from 13-year-old Masha to her father - who has been raising her on his own - was made public on Wednesday. In it, she told him not to give up and urged him to "believe, love and hope."
Responding to a reporter's question, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov implied Moskalyov was a bad father, lamenting what he called the "very deplorable situation with regard to the performance of parental duties."
He declined to comment on a surprise intervention by Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner private army that is fighting for Russia in Ukraine, who called the verdict on Moskalyov "unfair, especially in view of the fact that his daughter Masha will be forced to grow up in an orphanage."
Prigozhin asked the prosecutor to review the verdict and also requested that lawyers associated with Wagner be allowed to work with Moskalyov's defense.
Moskalyov's lawyer Vladimir Biliyenko told Reuters he was in favor of both requests, even if he was unsure of Prigozhin's motives. "I'm ready to accept any help that will help my client," he said.
The prosecutor's office in Tula, south of Moscow, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Prigozhin's request and on the investigation into Moskalyov's escape.
Later on Wednesday, in a short audio message laced with expletives, Prigozhin angrily rejected the idea he was motivated by "political ambitions."
Moskalyov, 54, came to the attention of the authorities last April after Masha, then 12, drew a picture at school showing Russian missiles raining down on a Ukrainian mother and child.
The head of the school called the police, who began examining Moskalyov's online activity and fined him for comments critical of the Russian army. He was then investigated for a second time last December on suspicion of discrediting the armed forces, a crime under laws passed shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last year.
Moskalyov's current whereabouts are unknown. A human rights lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov, said on Wednesday that Moskalyov had been in touch with him and sent him a copy of a letter that Masha had written him from the children's home where she has been living since early March.
"Hi Dad, I really ask you not to get sick and not to worry. Everything is fine with me, I love you very much and know that you're not guilty of anything. I am always on your side, and everything you do is right," she wrote.
Written neatly on lined paper, the letter ended with "I love you" in English, and the words "you are a hero" inside a crudely drawn heart.