28 November 2021
Simon is chair of Rights in Russia but writes these comments in a personal capacity and they may not necessarily represent the views of the organisation
As the court cases against Memorial continued this week, an observer might conclude that the Russian authorities have resolved to eradicate all forms of independent activity from civil society. Their targets include independent lawyers, journalists, civil society groups, informal civic initiatives and the actions of individual citizens.
This week has shown up the divide within the Russian justice system between those professions controlled by the state – prosecutors and judges – and the lawyers who still retain some degree of independence. Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders both spoke out in support of two prominent lawyers, Ivan Pavlov and Evgeny Smirnov, who have been forced out of the country.
Similarly, the authorities continue to act against independent journalists, using the ‘foreign agent’ legislation as their preferred method of choice.
Meanwhile, the most simple and effective means for the authorities to act against civil society organisations seems to be to ban them as ‘extremist,’ as has been done to Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. This means not only the criminalisation of lawful, peaceful activities, but also that individuals can be prosecuted for their past association with the banned organisation.
The prosecution of informal civic initiatives is exemplified by the trial of eight political activists in Ingushetia for leading peaceful protests in 2018 and 2019.
Meanwhile, the authorities ruthless determination to act against selected individuals is seen in the involuntary incarceration in a psychiatric hospital of the Yakut shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev who had wanted to walk to the Kremlin to ‘drive out Vladimir Putin.’
Anyone who wishes to see in detail how the Russian justice system day by day reduces the realm for civic freedom and tolerates and indeed supports violations even of its own laws could hardly do better than read the case law of the European Court of Human Rights concerning Russia. This week the Court handed down five judgments in relation to Russia, finding violations of a swathe of Convention articles. Some see the fact that Russia is still a member of the Council of Europe and continues (in most cases) to pay the fines handed down by the Court as a sign of consistent progress towards achieving the rule of law in Russia. For others, these rulings and Russia’s at least partial compliance with them do no more than make a mockery of the purposes of the Council of Europe they are intended to serve.