Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 11 February 2022]

13 February 2022

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

This past week has seen growing tensions over the threat of Russia military intervention in Ukraine along with increasing repression of fundamental rights domestically. High profile domestic victims of repressive measures this week have included the International Memorial Society, the Sphere Foundation (an LGBT rights organisation), Aleksei Navalny, his associates and supporters, the family of Zarema Musaeva, including human rights lawyer Abubakar Yangulbaev, Nikita Uvarov, a minor from Krasnoyarsk region, and individuals associated with, or claimed to be associated with, Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic organisation, and Crimean Tatar activists in Crimea.

Military conflict Reports said Russia has amassed on Ukraine’s borders 70% of the firepower it would need for a full invasion of that country. US officials warned of the ‘very distinct possibility’ of a Russian invasion in coming days. Satellite images appeared to show a continuing Russian military buildup. Russia issued warnings that it would close off Ukraine’s coastline for upcoming missile drills as several of its warships arrived in the Black Sea. A series of Russian military manoeuvres began on 10 February scheduled to last ten days. A team of hackers Ukraine claims is controlled by Russia targeted a number of organizations in the country. US intelligence reportedly named Wednesday 16 February as the planned date for a Russian invasion. However, some reports also said the exact nature of Russian intentions remained unclear. President Macron of France visited Moscow in the hope of building ‘build elements of confidence, stability, and visibility for everyone’. After meeting President Putin, Macron told reporters he had ‘secured an assurance there would be no deterioration or escalation.’ Russian sources meanwhile said any suggestion of a guarantee was ‘not right.’ Western leaders promised ‘swift and deep sanctions’ against Moscow should Russia invade Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukraine triggered the risk reduction mechanism in accordance with OSCE regulations and requested Russia to provide detailed explanations on its military activities adjacent to, or on the occupied territory of, Ukraine. Within Russia itself, retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, known for his nationalist views, authored an ‘Appeal to the President and citizens of the Russian Federation’ entitled ‘The Eve of War.’ It called on Vladimir Putin to end his ‘criminal policy of provoking a war’ and resign.

Right of association The Investigative Committee this week launched an investigation into International Memorial Society for the nonsensical accusation of ‘rehabilitation of Nazism.’ Yan Rachinsky, chair of the board of Memorial, was called in for questioning on 5 February. Human Rights Watch called attention to the Justice Ministry’s attempt to shut down Sphere Foundation, a prominent LGBT rights group in St Petersburg that is the legal entity under which the Russian LGBT Network operates, describing the move as ‘an act of political and homophobic censorship that blatantly violates Russia’s human rights obligations.’ The Supreme Court of Tatarstan dismissed an appeal by Gabdrakhman Naumov, a prominent Islamic scholar sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison last November for organising a branch of the Nurcular movement, a religious organisation banned in Russia.

Aleksei Navalny Democracy campaigner and prisoner of conscience Aleksei Navalny is to be put on trial inside the penal colony where he is serving his current sentence on politically motivated charges of embezzlement of funds of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an organisation banned as ‘extremist’ by the authorities. He could face a sentence of up to 15 years if convicted. Meanwhile the Russian state media agency Roskomnadzor threatened to block websites that contained reference to corruption investigations carried out by Navalny’s team. Roskomnadzor sent out dozens of warnings to media organizations ordering them to remove such articles or risk their websites being blocked. Georgy Sukhobsky, a former press secretary of the Melekes Orthodox eparchy in Ulyanovsk region, fired by the local bishop after expressing his support for Navalny, said he had left Russia.

Chechnya Chechen human rights lawyer Abubakar Yangulbaev, the son of Zarema Musaeva forcibly abducted by Chechen police in Nizhny Novgorod and taken to Chechnya, said he has left Georgia for fear of his safety. Along with other members of his family, he has been the object of death threats by Chechen leaders. In reaction to these threats by Ramzan Kadyrov to kill Abubakar Yangulbayev and members of his family, a petition in Russia calling for Kadyrov’s dismissal gathered over 100,000 signatures two days after its launch. Dozhd TV and Novaya gazeta asked the Investigative Committee to investigate Kadyrov’s publicly made death threats and his labelling of Novaya gazeta journalist Elena Milashina as an ‘accomplice of terrorists.’ The Committee to Protect journalists called on the Russian authorities to ‘ensure the safety of journalist Elena Milashina and promptly investigate threats made by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov against Milashina and the independent media.’ In Kazan, activist Ildar Nurmukhametov held a single-person picket demanding Kadyrov be removed from office.

Freedom of expression Serafima Saprykina, a schoolteacher of Russian, said she was forced to quit her job in a school in St. Petersburg for reading poems by authors persecuted under Josef Stalin in class. A court in Novgorod fined a pensioner for an ‘insulting’ social media post on grounds the person pictured ‘resembled’ President Putin. A court in St. Petersburg suspended the ‘foreign agent’ designation of Andrei Zakharov, a BBC journalist who left Russia in December 2021 after being added to the register of ‘foreign agents’ in October, pending his appeal. The BBC reported that to date 75 individuals have been designated as ‘media foreign agents,’ nearly half of whom have left or intend to leave the country. In Krasnoyarsk a court sentenced a 16-year-old Nikita Uvarov to five years in prison for planning to add the FSB headquarters to the Minecraft video game as an object players would be able to blow up. Two other minors, were given suspended sentences for putting up political leaflets on a local FSB office with anti-FSB slogans. All three minors were 14 at the time of their arrest. The developers of The Sims online game said that an extension of the game depicting same sex marriages will not be released in Russia.

Treason trials Primorye regional court sentenced pensioner Viktor Korolyov to 12 years in prison on charges of treason he denies. A court in Moscow dismissed an appeal by Ivan Safronov, a former journalist accused of treason, against the extension of his pre-trial detention.

Crimea Civil rights defenders issed a statement calling for ten civic journalists currently imprisoned in Crimea to be released. The statement pointed out that Crimean Tatars, a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula, are often targeted as many openly oppose Russia’s occupation. A court in Russia sentenced two Crimean Tatars, Zekirya Muratov and Vadim Bektemirov, to 11 1/2 and 11 years in prison respectively, on charges of being members of a Hizb ut-Tahrir, a peaceful religious movement banned in Russia as ‘terrorist’ but operating legally in Ukraine. Human Rights in Ukraine reports that Muratov, aged 64, for whom this is essentially a death sentence, was prosecuted because he refused to collaborate with the FSB. In his final speech to the court, Muratov said: ‘I don’t want my children, my people to live in a country of threats, intimidation and torture, of abductions and illegal arrests; aggression and persecution.’ In another trial, Russian prosecutors called for 19 and 16-year sentences for Timur Yalkabov and Lenur Seidametov for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Crimean Solidarity said activists Ansar Osmanov, Ernest Seytosmanov, Marlen Mustafayev, and Ametkhan Abdulvapov were detained by FSB officers. The Ukrainian Ombudswoman Liudmyla Denisova condemned the arrests of the four Crimean Tatar activists as ‘illegal.’  Human Rights in Ukraine reported on the alleged use of torture against detainees in Crimea, in particular to obtain evidence against the imprisoned Crimean Tatar leader Nariman Dzhelyal.

Environmental rights Authorities in eight cities issued warnings for air pollution exceeding permissible levels, making it one of the largest areas to ever to be under an air pollution emergency at a single time, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Legislation Human Rights Watch reported that on 17 February 2022 the Russian State Duma will begin consideration of new legislation aimed at punishing state officials who commit torture. The organisation notes that ‘significant concerns remain over the potential impact of the legislation,’ warning, ‘If the Duma fails to ensure that the legal framework and its enforcement can deliver accountability for these crimes, the appalling abuse of prisoners and others detained by state agents will persist.’

GULAG A court for the first time sided with a descendant of a Stalin-era Gulag prisoner in a long-running battle for housing. “It’s a small but important victory,” Grigory Vaypan, a lawyer with the Memorial rights group, said in a Facebook post.

Some commentators point out that the Putin regime’s concern with Ukraine stems not so much from its fear of NATO expansion as from a fear of having a democratic, Westernised (or Westernising) Ukraine on its borders. This may explain why the ‘solution’ currently adopted by the regime with regard to Ukraine (to threaten – and possibly conduct – military intervention in that country) goes hand in hand with intensifying domestic repression of political and civil rights.

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