News of the Day: 22 December 2020

The Guardian: Vladimir Putin has signed legislation that will grant former presidents of Russia lifetime immunity once they leave office. The bill, which was published online on Tuesday, gives former presidents and their families immunity from prosecution for crimes committed during their lifetime. They will also be exempt from questioning by police or investigators, as well as searches or arrests. The legislation was part of constitutional amendments approved this summer in a nationwide vote that allow Putin, 68, to remain president until 2036. Before the bill became law, former presidents were immune to prosecution only for crimes committed while in office.

RFE/RL: Moscow police briefly detained Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, after she tried to meet an agent who appears to have implicated the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning of the 44-year-old Kremlin critic. Navalny wrote on Twitter that Sobol was detained late on December 21 when she arrived at the Moscow apartment of Konstantin Kudryavtsev, the agent who was apparently duped by Navalny into revealing details of the FSB’s operation to poison him with a nerve agent earlier in August. Kudryavtsev refused to open the door and talk about the poisoning incident with Sobol, and then called police, Navalny said.

RFE/RL: A Russian documentary filmmaker was detained briefly by police after publicly expressing support for opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who says the release of a phone conversation with a Russian agent shows how the country’s Federal Security Service (FSB) poisoned the Kremlin critic with a Novichok nerve agent. Vitaly Mansky was picked up by police after he neared the FSB building in Moscow on December 22 while holding a blue pair of men’s underwear, a nod to the phone conversation where FSB agent Konstantin Kudryavtsev admitted Navalny’s underwear had been laced with poison in an apparent assassination attempt on the 44-year-old opposition leader.

Human Rights in Ukraine: Yet another ‘trial’ of Crimean Tatar political prisoners has begun, with this one dangerously likely to cause the death of one of the ‘defendants’ well before the predetermined verdict.   Amet Suleymanov’s heart condition is so grave that even the Russian FSB settled for house arrest, rather than placing him in detention following the wave of arrests on 11 March 2020.  They have, however, prevented him from having urgently needed heart surgery and are now taking him in a prison van on the gruelling 12-hour journey, through the night, from Bakhchysarai to the court in Rostov-on-Don (Russia).  Suleymanov’s wife, Lilya Lyumanova, travelled to Rostov separately, in the hope that she would at least be able to pass him medication if needed, but the hearing was behind closed doors and she was only able to speak with her husband’s lawyer who reports that Suleymanov was exhausted from having to sit in a vehicle for so many hours, and without the food and medication regime that is so important given his condition.  His blood pressure rose as a consequence and he was simply not in a state to take a proper part in the court hearing.  His very ‘trial’ under such circumstances is akin to torture and in serious violation of his right to a fair trial.

RFE/RL: A court in Russia has sentenced a Chechen man to 12 years in prison for his role in a deadly hostage-taking in in the southern city of Budyonnovsk in 1995, a turning point in the first of the two post-Soviet separatist wars in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya. The Southern Military District Court in the city of Rostov-on-Don on December 22 found Aslan Daudov guilty of banditry, kidnapping, terrorism, and premeditated murder. He was sentenced immediately. It is not clear whether Daudov pleaded guilty.

Committee to Protect Journalists: Russian authorities have advanced measures to punish online libel, police the internet, and protect officials’ personal data since December 14, when international news websites published reports investigating the poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, according to human rights news website Mediazonaand a media lawyer interviewed by CPJ. The joint investigation by Bellingcat and Russian news outlet The Insider, in cooperation with CNN and Germany’s Der Spiegel, alleged that Russian security services attempted to kill Navalny in August 2020. Russian officials dismissed the findings and denied involvement in Navalny’s poisoning, according to The Associated Press.

RFE/RL: A former U.S. Marine convicted earlier this year by Russia as a spy has told the BBC of his “very, very grim existence” as he prepares to spend Christmas alongside murderers and thieves in a labor camp. “I get up in the morning and try to be as positive as I can,” Paul Whelan told the BBC from Correctional Colony No. 17 in the region of Mordovia, some 350 kilometers east of Moscow. The 50-year-old Whelan, giving his first detailed interview since his arrest in December 2018, said he was spending his days sewing prison uniforms in the camp “workhouse” and is taking “one day at a time” — not focusing on his 16-year sentence on espionage charges that he has always rejected. Prison guards are waking him at night every two hours to take his photograph, he said.

The Moscow Times: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law Tuesday that allows former presidents to become senators for life when they leave office. The law is the latest legislative change regarding Russia’s ex-presidents amid continuing questions over Putin’s future after his current term limit expires in 2024. The law is also part of sweeping constitutional reforms allowing Putin to ignore current limits and run for two more six-year presidential terms. 

Meduza: Over the past two months, a team of reporters and researchers from multiple countries managed to identify several of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents who tracked and possibly tried on several occasions to murder opposition figure Alexey Navalny. The investigation was a success because the officers committed a series of basic errors when using their cell phones and mobile Internet connections while in the field. The apparent bumbling at the heart of the story has raised questions about the professionalism of Russia’s top intelligence agency. For insights into this matter and for answers to other burning questions about the FSB, Meduza turns to journalist Andrei Soldatov, who together with Irina Borogan has written several books about the Russian intelligence community’s operations at home and abroad, including “The New Nobility,” “The Red Web,” and “The Compatriots.”

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