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German states outlaw displays of the letter 'Z,' a symbol of Russia's war in Ukraine

A screen on the roof of a building in central St. Petersburg, Russia, displays the symbol "Z" and a slogan reading: "We don't give up on our people" on Friday.
Olga Maltseva
AFP via Getty Images
A screen on the roof of a building in central St. Petersburg, Russia, displays the symbol "Z" and a slogan reading: "We don't give up on our people" on Friday.

Two German states have outlawed public displays of the letter "Z," which has become synonymous with support for Russia's war in Ukraine.

Authorities in Bavaria and Lower Saxony said over the weekend that anyone who displays the symbol at public demonstrations or paints it on cars or buildings could face a fine or up to three years in jail, the English-language site The Local reports. And an Interior Ministry spokesperson told reporters on Monday that people throughout Germany who display the letter to endorse Russia's aggression could be liable to prosecution.

"The Russian war of aggression on the Ukraine is a criminal act, and whoever publicly approves of this war of aggression can also make himself liable to prosecution," the spokesperson said at a news conference, according to Reuters.

The letter "Z" — which is part of the Latin alphabet but not the Cyrillic one used in Russian — first appeared on tanks and other military vehicles massing near Russia's border with Ukraine, possibly as a way to distinguish them from Ukrainian forces.

Once the invasion began, "Z" was hard to miss. The letter was featured across social media and was plastered on billboards and stickers throughout Russia. Even outside of the country, the symbol has appeared on clothing.

Its origins may be mysterious, as NPR has reported, but its symbolism is clear: It represents support for Russia's war in Ukraine, both at home and abroad.

Chapter 140 of Germany's criminal code recognizes "incitement to crime of aggression" as an offense, according to Ukrainian state news agency Ukrinform. The Local reports that there have been displays of "Z" in both Lower Saxony and Bavaria.

In announcing the decision, Bavarian Justice Minister Georg Eisenreich said that freedom of thought "ends where criminal law begins."

"The Bavarian Public Prosecutor's Office is taking consistent action against persons, who publicly approve the war of aggression that violates international law," he said, according to Ukrinform. "Russian President [Vladimir] Putin has launched a criminal war of aggression that is inflicting terrible suffering on the Ukrainian people, so the Bavarian judicial system is watching closely."

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.