News of the Day: 16 December 2020

The Moscow Times: Russian activist Konstantin Kotov was released from prison Wednesday after serving 18 months for “multiple breaches” of Russia’s protest law. Kotov, who was arrested during the summer 2019 Moscow election protests, was the second person ever to be prosecuted under the controversial law criminalizing “repeated” participation in unauthorized rallies. A Moscow court cut the 35-year-old computer programmer’s four-year jail sentence to 18 months this spring.

RFE/RL: A Siberian member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been sentenced to six years for organizing activities of the religious group that Russia has labeled as extremist and banned in 2017. Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for the headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States, told RFE/RL that the Lenin district court in the city of Novosibirsk sentenced 66-year-old Yury Savelyev on December 16 after finding him guilty of involvement in organizing of “activities of a banned group” in the city. “[Savelyev’s sentencing] defies international human rights norms, which is why the European Union, Britain, the United States, and the United Nations have repeatedly called on Russia to stop its systematic persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Lopes said in an e-mailed statement to RFE/RL.

RAPSI: An alleged warden of a banned Jehovah’s Witnesses cell in the town of Chekhov near Moscow, faces trial, RAPSI has learnt in the press service of the Moscow Region’s directorate of the Investigative Committee. Investigation into the cell is completed. According to investigators, the alleged warden and other group members knew that the organization had been banned as extremist but held and took part in the gatherings and propaganda of its activities. Extremism charges are brought against them.

Meduza: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has dismissed a recent investigative report connecting the August 2020 poisoning of opposition figure Alexey Navalny to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Lavrov commented on the investigation during a press conference in Zagreb on Wednesday, December 16, which was reported on by Interfax.

Meduza: Three deputies from St. Petersburg’s legislative assembly have sent an appeal to Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov, demanding that his office look into the information outlined in a recent journalistic investigation about the August 2020 poisoning of opposition figure Alexey Navalny.

RAPSI: The Second Cassation Court of General Jurisdiction has dismissed a defense appeal against a 10-year prison sentence of Yukos oil company’s former lawyer Pavel Ivlev convicted of embezzlement and money laundering in absentia. In late May 2019, the Khamovnichesky District Court of Moscow found Ivlev guilty. Additionally, the lawyer residing in the United States was prohibited from practicing law for 3 years. In December of the same year, the Moscow City Court upheld the sentence and it came into force.

RFE/RL: Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, sentenced in June in Russia to 16 years on espionage charges that he rejects, has complained to his family members about the conditions at the prison where he is incarcerated. The 50-year-old Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and sentenced on June 15 after prosecutors claimed that a flash memory stick found in Whelan’s possession contained classified information. He is serving his sentence at Correctional Colony No. 17 in the region of Mordovia, some 350 kilometers east of Moscow, in a region historically known as the location of some of Russia’s toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners. In an interview with Interfax published on December 16, David Whelan said his brother had complained during a phone call that the detention facility was “practically unheated” and that the temperature in the barracks was 5 degrees Celsius.

HRW: In Russia, working to prevent and combat domestic violence can be considered a “political activity.” And that means risking state harassment and intimidation. The authorities are now targeting center, an awareness-raising group that assists domestic violence survivors. The group’s director, Anna Rivina, told me that earlier this month the Justice Ministry notified of an unscheduled inspection, prompted by an anonymous tip from a “concerned citizen.” Two days ago, the ministry clarified that the reason for the inspection was the center’s alleged failure to register as a “foreign agent.” In the context of Russian authorities’ ongoing battle against civil society groups, such news can only be viewed as menacing. Russian authorities have long used the restrictive “foreign agents” law against independent groups that accept foreign funding and engage in public advocacy, to discredit civil society organizations as “traitors” acting in foreign interests. The current “foreign agents” registry includes 76 groups. Many of them work on human rights, the environment, LGBT issues, health issues, and domestic violence.

The Moscow Times: Residents of Russia’s heavily polluted industrial city of Chelyabinsk are calling on U.S. President-elect Joe Biden to help them avoid “ecological genocide.” In a video appeal, residents said Russian authorities routinely ignore their complaints that industrial emissions are getting worse every year, causing rising cases of cancer and suffocating the city in smoke. “They’re taking away our natural right — the right to breathe clean air,” Chelyabinsk environmental activist Valentina Volkova said.

RAPSI: The upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, on Wednesday approved a bill on immunity guarantees for former Presidents of Russia. Earlier, it was adopted by the State Duma. The document envisages adjustment of certain provisions of the Federal Law on Guarantees for Outgoing President of the Russian Federation and Members of his Family in accordance with the Constitution.

The Guardian: In early 2019, the journalist Andrei Zakharov managed to buy his own phone and banking records in a groundbreaking investigation into Russia’s thriving markets in stolen personal data, in which law enforcement and telecoms employees can be contracted anonymously to dip into their systems and pull out sensitive details on anyone. A year and a half later, investigators from Bellingcat and the Insider used some of the same tools and clever analysis to out a secret FSB team that had been tasked with killing Alexei Navalny using a novichok nerve agent. The recent investigations into Russia’s security services have shown that beyond being a boon for scammers and private detectives, the trade in data is an urgent issue of national security for the Kremlin.

RFE/RL: A Russian couple that is on trial for high treason for photographs taken at their wedding five years ago which revealed the identity of a security operative when published online could face lengthy prison terms. Prosecutors in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad have asked the court to sentence Konstantin Antonets to 13 years in prison and his wife, Antonina Zimina, to 14 years, according to media reports. A verdict in the trial is expected on December 24, reports said. Antonets and Zimina were detained in July 2018 in Kaliningrad and went on trial behind closed doors in May. The couple maintains they are innocent. In July, there were additionally charged with passing classified information to Latvia, which the couple also rejected. Zimina’s parents told RFE/RL in February that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) suspected their daughter and her husband of providing the intelligence agency in the Baltic state of Latvia with information about a Kaliningrad FSB officer.

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