20 February 2022
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
The week was characterised by threats of aggression abroad and repressive measures at home. If the Russian authorities continued to show a desire to camouflage their real intentions with regard to Ukraine, there was no such intention with regard to Aleksei Navalny, designated by Amnesty International a prisoner of conscience, who has been put on trial in the prison where he is being held on trumped up charges that threaten to extend his imprisonment by up to 15 more years. Meanwhile Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, suffers an especially high level of repression.
This week Russian forces continued to mass around Ukraine’s borders. Civil Rights Defenders said a further armed conflict in Ukraine would be ‘devastating for human rights in both countries’ and FIDH and its member organisations issued a statement calling on the Russian Federation to pull back its armed forces.
The US increased its estimate of the number of Russian troops in the area from 100,000 to 130,000. Ukraine said it was seeking urgent talks with Russia and the OSCE to discuss the build-up. At the same time, Russia seemed to indicate a willingness to pull back some of its forces. President Putin himself said he was ‘ready’ to work with the West on de-escalating tensions. Initially, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg expressed some optimism over the Russian announcement, however, he soon began contradicting Russian claims of troop withdrawals, saying there was no sign of de-escalation by Russian forces, a point confirmed by the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Stoltenberg argued Russia was evidently prepared to ‘contest the fundamental principles that have underpinned our security for decades.’
Western leaders’ scepticism was no doubt reinforced by the State Duma – which has no independence from the executive – voting in favour of a resolution asking President Putin to recognize the two territories in eastern Ukraine held by separatists as independent states. The EU condemned the move as a violation of the Minsk agreements. Meanwhile a raft of Russian cyberattacks hit the websites of the Ukrainian armed forces and several Ukrainian ministries and banks – the largest denial-of-service attack in Ukraine’s history – an indication Russia was not de-escalating. President Biden said a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent and he believed a false-flag operation was under way that Moscow would use to justify an invasion. Russia in turn said it would be ‘forced to respond’ with what it called ‘military-technical measures’ if the US did not agree to its security demands. Meanwhile, in Europe the Munich Security Conference opened with world leaders, top officials, policymakers, and security experts focused on the Russian threat to Ukraine. UN chief Antonio Guterres said it would be ‘catastrophic’ if the Russia-Ukraine crisis escalated into war. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Germany was ready to ‘pay a high economic price’ to stop Russian aggression and ‘all options’ would be on the table if Russia attacked Ukraine, including cutting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal. However, Russian preparations for conflict proceeded. According to reports, field hospitals including blood banks were set up near the border. Russian circulated a dossier alleging war crimes by Ukraine at the UN security council and various materials made their appearance alleging Ukrainian attacks in the Donbas region, including of a car bomb in Donetsk. The two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine carried out a ‘mass evacuation’ of civilians into Russia, accusing Kyiv of planning to invade the breakaway territory.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front in Russia, repressive measures have continued. Aleksei Navalny, prisoner of conscience and democracy campaigner, was put on trial on fresh trumped up charges inside the prison where he is currently held. Amnesty International called the trial a ‘sham […] attended by prison guards rather than the media’ and in breach of human rights law and one that ‘clearly deprives Navalny of his right to a fair trial’ while intending to ensure Navalny remains in prison for a long time. Yulia Navalnya, wife of Aleksei Navalny demanded to be allowed to be present at what she called her husband’s ‘illegal and shameful’ trial. If convicted, Navalny’s sentence could be extended by up to fifteen years. Navalny’s supporters are concerned the trial has been overshadowed by the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Despite everything, at his trial Navalny showed that his spirit has not been broken. He said: ‘I am not afraid of this trial, or of the penal colony, or of the FSB, or of chemical weapons, or of Putin… What we should fear is that we will spend our lives in poverty and degradation, and that we will leave our children with the same expectation of a better life which will never be fulfilled as long as the gang of thieves is in power.’
In a related development, the father of Ivan Zhdanov, a close Navalny associate, was imprisoned for three years for alleged violation of restrictions imposed under the suspended sentence he was given in December in a corruption case that was likely politically motivated. A Moscow court ruled the one-year suspended sentence given to Aleksei Navalny’s brother, Oleg Navalny, would now be changed to one year in prison. Oleg Navalny, who was not at the court hearing, is reported to have left Russia for Cyprus.
In other events in Russia, a meeting of an anti-corruption project backed by Yulia Galyamina in Kazan was postponed because the premises where it was to be held were blocked by an alleged emergency situation. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum issued a statement expressing concern about the arrest in Moscow of Daria Serenko, a poet, feminist and civic activist. The authorities cancelled the residence permit of Ukrainian citizen Oleksandra Sveshnikova, wife of the civic activist Ildar Dadin. Law enforcement officers raided the home in Moscow of the former MGIMO professor and outspoken political analyst Valery Solovey (Solovei and his son Pavel were both detained and questioned as part of an investigation into alleged incitement of hatred before being released). There were reports that foreign workers in St. Petersburg were being forced to undergo invasive gynecological and genitourinary tests. Human Rights Watch called on the Russian authorities to publicly uphold the right of North Koreans to seek asylum in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Russia has ratified, and to ‘protect asylum seekers from enforced disappearance and prevent their forced return’ (the organisation in particular called on Russia to provide Choe Kum Choi and other North Koreans in Russia safe passage to a third country).
Repression in Crimea against Crimean Tatars continues to be particularly harsh. The Crimean Tatar religious scholar Vadim Bektemirov was sentenced to 11 years for terrorism on grounds of alleged involvement in the Muslim organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, a religious group that rejects violence. A closed-door court in Crimea sentenced RFE/RL freelance correspondent Vladyslav Yesypenko to six years in prison and fined him 110,000 roubles (1,200 euros) for the alleged possession and transport of explosives. Yesypenko, who denies the charges, alleged he was tortured during the investigation. Reporters Without Borders condemned what it called a ‘travesty of justice’ in Yesypenko’s trial. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Russian authorities in Crimea to immediately release Yesypenko and not to contest the appeal against the sentence when it is made. A court gave Jehovah’s Witness Artem Shabliy a two-year suspended sentence with three years on probation for so-called ‘participation in an extremist organization’ for practising his faith as a Jehovah’s Witness. Crimean Tatar activist Edem Dudakov was detained after his home was searched by Russian FSB officers and charged with inciting interethnic hatred. According to his lawyer, the charge was based on an online post Dudakov made in 2017. Dudakov was detained after he had reported on damage caused to the Khan’s Palace, or Hansaray, in Bakhchysarai, that has especial importance for the Crimean Tatar heritage. He was sentenced to ten days in jail. The trial in absentia of veteran Crimean Tatar leader and Ukrainian MP Mustafa Dzhemilev for trying to enter his native Crimea continued.
The week’s events indicate Russia is not a country where human rights are well protected. One might hypothesise that, as may be the norm in authoritarian states, this is because of a lack of trust and mutual confidence between civil society and the state. The Russian authorities’ intentions to acquire control over even more territory and people by means of military aggression would seem to be directly related to their need to maintain – by means of heightened tension and repression – power in Russia itself. Aside from the horrors and suffering that any war will bring, military action abroad by the Russian authorities promises only further violations of human rights on all territories where they exercise control.