News of the Day: 3 March 2021

The Moscow Times: Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny quipped that “everything is fine” and made jokes about prison life Wednesday as he sent his first message from a detention center outside Moscow. In the message posted on Instagram, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic said he was being held in the Kolchugino detention center in the Vladimir region northeast of Moscow. “But everything is fine with me, there’s even a chin-up bar in the exercise yard here,” he said. Navalny was sentenced last month to two and a half years in a penal colony for breaching parole terms while in Germany recovering from a poisoning attack. His message was posted after his defence team visited him in the Kolchugino jail, where he is under quarantine.

RFE/RL: A court in Russia’s Volga city of Kostroma has sentenced a man to 18 months of forced labor on a criminal charge for attacking a police officer during January 23 rallies against the arrest of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny. The Sverdlov district court said on March 2 that a 26-year-old Kostroma resident pleaded guilty to pushing a hat off of a police officer’s head and kicking the officer from behind as police moved in to detain demonstrators. The court ruled that the man will be placed in a specialized correctional center, where he will work at an industrial facility for 18 months. Ten percent of his salary will be given to the state. The news website Mediazona identified the man as Aleksei Vinogradov.

The Moscow Times: Russia has declared an independent doctors’ union linked to opposition leader Alexei Navalny a “foreign agent,” Interfax reported Wednesday. The Doctors’ Alliance headed by Navalny’s ophthalmologist Anastasia Vasilyeva rose to prominence last year for criticizing the government’s coronavirus response and distributing aid to underfunded regional doctors. Vasilyeva is currently under house arrest for calling on supporters to protest Navalny’s arrest in January. Russia’s Justice Ministry said the Doctors’ Alliance “repeatedly received foreign funding and engaged in political activities,” according to Interfax. The union with its 42 regional branches is the 76th non-governmental organization to be added to Russia’s “foreign agent” roster. 

The Moscow Times: Russia has fined the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty media outlet more than half a million dollars so far for violating the country’s controversial “foreign agent” law, Interfax reported Wednesday. RFE/RL has accused the Russian authorities of trying to squeeze it out of the country with “disastrous” foreign agent labeling requirements and fines of up to $5 million. 

RFE/RL: A district court judge in Moscow has rejected five separate appeals by RFE/RL against lower-court rulings that imposed fines against the company for violating Russia’s controversial “foreign agent” law. Judge Aleksei Krivoruchko of the Tverskaya District Court issued the rulings on March 3, confirming fines imposed on RFE/RL for failing to mark written and broadcast materials in accordance with regulations set by the state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor. The lower court imposed the fines on February 10. “RFE/RL rejects the imposition of these fines and does not accept the Russian court’s decision to strike down our appeal of them,” RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in response to the rulings. “We consider Russian Internet regulator Roskomnadzor’s self-labeling regulations — in fact, orders to deface our content platforms and intimidate our audiences — to be a state-sponsored assault on media freedom that violates the Russian Constitution and Russia’s media law,” he said, adding that “RFE/RL will continue to object, protest, and appeal these requirements.”

Human Rights in Ukraine: Moscow has finally achieved its end and brought about the dissolution of one of the country’s most renowned human rights NGOs: ‘For Human Rights’, which consistently speaks out in defence of the ever-mounting number of political prisoners in Russia and occupied Crimea.  Its founder, the veteran rights defender Lev Ponomaryov announced the move a day after a new law came into force, imposing further repressive measures against those the regime wants to stigmatize as ‘foreign agents’.  79-year-old Ponomaryov stresses that he is not giving up, but says that he cannot place those experts and others who have worked with ‘For Human Rights’ in danger. It is likely, as Ponomaryov believes, that his and other major rights organizations were targeted in the new legislation.  It is not, after all, the first attempt to get rid of the NGO ‘For Human Rights’ [«За права человека»].  In November 2019, Russia’s Supreme Court allowed a Justice Ministry application and ordered the NGO’s  dissolution (details here).  Ponomaryov has been an active defender of human rights since the 1980s, and has been extremely critical of the dismantling of fundamental rights under President Vladimir Putin.  His was one of the many prominent NGOs targeted in the move to force all NGOs that received any foreign funding to register as so-called ‘foreign agents’.

RFE/RL: Russian feminist performance artist Darya Apakhonchich has filed a legal appeal against the government’s inclusion of her on its list of “media organizations fulfilling the functions of foreign agents.” Lawyer Pavel Chikov of the Agora legal-defense organization made the announcement on Telegram on March 1. Denis Kamalyagin, editor in chief of the online newspaper Pskovskaya Guberniya, has also appealed his inclusion on the “foreign agent” list, the website reported on March 3. According to Chikov, Apakhonchich’s appeal states that she “never received money or any property from foreign sources for the creation or dissemination of statements or materials that were distributed by foreign media listed under the foreign agents law.” Apakhonchich added that she regards the restrictions on her rights to be politically motivated, and her complaint includes 12 pages of examples of alleged violations of her rights to expression and privacy.

RFE/RL: A Russian court has given the leader of an ethnic Circassian civic organization a three-year suspended sentence on narcotics charges, in a case human rights groups consider politically motivated. Martin Kochesoko, the leader of the Khabze nongovernmental organization in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, was also given one year of probation, the Memorial human rights center said on March 2. Kochesoko was detained in June 2019 while traveling with a friend on a fishing trip in Russia’s North Caucasus region. Police and hooded soldiers stopped their car and allegedly found 268 grams of marijuana. Kochesoko claims the drugs were planted on him and he was forced to confess under duress. At the trail, he pleaded not guilty.

RFE/RL: A Russian court has sentenced a pro-Ukrainian activist from Moscow-annexed Crimea, Oleh Prykhodko, to five years in prison on terrorism charges that he and his supporters have dismissed as politically motivated. Ukrainian Ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova said on Telegram that the Southern District Military Court in the city of Rostov-on-Don on March 3 ordered Prykhodko to pay a 110,000 ruble (around $1,500) fine.

RFE/RL: Top officials at two penitentiaries in the Russian city of Irkutsk have been detained after probes were launched into the alleged torture and rape of two inmates. Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service’s (FSIN) branch in the Siberian region of Irkutsk said on March 3 that the warden of Correctional Colony No. 6 and the chief of the operations department of Detention Center No. 1 in Irkutsk had been taken into custody. According to the statement, the warden was detained over “unlawful actions by inmates against inmate Bakiev,” while the officer from the detention center was arrested over “unlawful actions by inmates against inmate Ondar.” The FSIN launched probes in February against an unspecified number of guards and 10 inmates who allegedly tortured and raped an inmate with Central Asian roots, Tahirjon Bakiev, at the Correctional Colony No 6. The rights group reported in December 2020 that another inmate, an ethnic Tuvinian, Kezhik Ondar, was tortured and raped in Detention Center No 1.

The Moscow Times: Facebook on Wednesday said it derailed a deceptive campaign to use hundreds of bogus Instagram accounts to mislead people in Russia protesting the arrest of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. The network of Instagram accounts used hashtag and location “poisoning” typically associated with spam or financial scams to drown out posts by protesters, according to Facebook global threat disruption lead David Agranovich. The tactic involves coopting hashtags being used as social media markers for hot topics, in this case protests, by unleashing torrents of posts bearing the labels.

The Guardian: MI5 has quietly stepped up the security protection offered to potential Kremlin targets living in the UK in the aftermath of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. The security agency warned that the Russian state continues to take “quite an active interest” in a handful of individuals in the UK, prompting the need to take more active measures involving the police and other agencies.

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