Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 24 December 2021]

26 December 2021

By Simon Cosgrove

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

Freedom of expression is under ever greater pressure in Russia. This week Human Rights Watch focused on the increasing restrictions imposed on the Internet. In a statement, Human Rights Watch said that, in the course of 2021, the Russian authorities had ‘redoubled their efforts to repress internet freedoms’ and, in particular, had ‘blocked popular censorship circumvention tools, experimented with novel censorship technologies, expanded oppressive internet legislation, and pressured tech companies to comply with the increasingly stifling regulations.’

It seems the dream of freedom of association may also be fading in Russia as the authorities continue to use the ‘foreign agent’ law in a punitive manner against civil society organisations. This week saw court proceedings to close down the International Memorial Society and the Memorial Human Rights Centre for alleged violations of the ‘foreign agent’ law,  the branding of Mayak, an LGBT group in Russia’s Far East, as a ‘foreign agent’ and the fining of the Prague-based Medium-Orient news agency 500,000 roubles also for alleged violations of the ‘foreign agent’ law. Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of Novaya gazeta and co-laureate of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, denounced the ‘foreign agent’ law as ‘a filthy stigma that the authorities try to hang on all of their opponents.’ Meanwhile Ivan Pavlov (currently living in exile) and his colleagues, who were formerly associated in the unregistered Team 29 civil society group, have set up a new grouping called  First Department, to provide legal defence to persons accused of treason or espionage. Is this an innovation that promises a new dawn for civil society groups? Certainly the fact that the creation of First Department was announced on Chekist’s Day (20 December) indicates the group’s initiators are not lacking in either personal courage or self-confidence.

As the Russian authorities intensify repression within the country, the likelihood of conflict with international legal jurisidictions also continues to grow. In addition to the regular announcement of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights (though there was unusually only one of these this week, probably because of the impending Christmas break), matters closely affecting Russia were under discussion at the District Court of The Hague, which is hearing the case of the shooting down of Flight MH17 that brought about the deaths of 298 people. On 19 June 2019, following a joint investigation by The Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine, the Dutch Prosecution Service decided to prosecute four suspects, and this week Dutch prosecutors requested life sentences for the three Russians – Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov, and Igor Girkin – and one Ukrainian – Leonid Kharchenko – who are on trial in absentia on charges of launching the Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile that brought down the plane.

Instances of personal courage are not rare in Russia. Yet the protest action of Oleg Kashintsev, a former police officer, was nonetheless striking this week. Kashintsev conducted a single-person protest on Red Square against the imprisonment and attempted murder of prisoner of conscience Aleksei Navalny, holding up a placard that read ‘Free Navalny. Putin is a killer.’ Kashintsev was arrested, charged with violating the regulations governing pickets and illegally wearing a police uniform and released. It is notable that Kashintsev was apparently not held overlong at a police station, nor was he remanded in custody. The severity of his treatment, however, is yet to be determined.

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