News of the Day: 8 December 2020

EU-Russia Civil Society Forum: The Board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum finds the new package of bills submitted to the Russian State Duma in November 2020 alarming. There is no doubt that these initiatives represent yet another coordinated attack on Russian civil society. Now the state is targeting not only non-governmental organisations as such but also individuals, representation offices of international organisations, educators and, potentially, commercial companies. Many proposals are connected with the so-called ”foreign agents” legislation. On 8 December 2020, the bill No. 1057914-7 has passed the first reading at the Russian Parliament. The bill introduces the notion of a “natural person – foreign agent“ and makes possible the persecution of Russian citizens, also those who have been working or connected with an NGO – “foreign agent“. Inclusion of commercial companies in the list has been postponed ’for the future’, as a Deputy Minister of Justice mentioned.

The Moscow Times: President Vladimir Putin has signed bills into law elevating a low-profile advisory body known as the State Council, criminalizing secession and prioritizing the Russian Constitution over international law. Putin approved the set of laws on Tuesday, 160 days after Russian voters overwhelmingly approved constitutional reforms that pave the way for him to extend his 20-year rule until 2036. The new law defines the State Council as a constitutional state body formed by the head of state to ensure the coordinated work of government, determine key domestic and foreign policy areas, as well as social and economic development priorities. The State Council is composed of regional governors and top federal officials. 

The Moscow Times: Russian lawmakers on Tuesday passed in its first reading controversial draft legislation including an expansion of who can be labeled a “foreign agent” amid an unrelenting clampdown on dissent. Lawmakers in Russia’s lower-house State Duma last month tabled legislation that would give authorities sweeping powers to designate individuals as foreign agents and further limit public gatherings and content posted online.

The Moscow Times: The United States has added Russia to its special watchlist of countries that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations” of religious freedom, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Monday. Russia appears on the U.S. watchlist alongside Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua.  It’s not the first time the U.S. has raised concerns over religious freedom in Russia. In a 2019 report, the State Department accused Russia of persecuting members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb ut-Tahrir, two religious organizations that are officially banned in Russia. 

Human Rights in Ukraine: A court in Moscow has sentenced Vasyl Vasylenko to 12 years’ imprisonment in a harsh regime prison colony.  The total secrecy around his trial for supposed ‘spying’ is of particular concern since his arrest was originally on different charges and was concealed by Russia’s FSB for nine months. 53-year-old Vasylenko  was a professional footballer from 1992 to 2001, playing for three different Ukrainian football clubs.  It is not clear what he was doing from 2001 until October 2019 when he was arrested in Russia and accused on smuggling dangerous substances, weapons and cultural artefacts.  Those charges were then changed to ‘spying’. 

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