Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 25 March 2022]

27 March 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 week UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged an end to what he called Russia’s ‘absurd war’ against Ukraine, saying it was ‘morally unacceptable, politically indefensible, and militarily nonsensical’ and putting people through ‘a living hell.’ Ten million people were reported to have fled their homes in Ukraine because of the Russian invasion, with over three million people leaving the country. Up to 18 March, OHCHR had recorded 2,246 civilian casualties with 847 killed, including 64 children and 1,399 injured, including 78 children. The OHCHR later confirmed at least 1,081 civilians had died and 1,707 had been injured. While the Russian defence ministry admitted 1,351 Russian soldiers dead other estimates put the figures several times higher. US intelligence officials said at least 7,000 Russian soldiers had been killed. For a matter of minutes before the report was taken down, the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported 9,861 Russian servicemen had been killed and 16,153 wounded. The US announced plans to provide more than $1bn in new funding for humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that following Russia’s exit from the Council of Europe the country will cease to be a party to the European Convention on Human Rights from 16 September 2022, meaning Russia can be held to account at the European Court of Human Rights for all violations of human rights committed before that date.

Amnesty International said the scale and impact of this war in Europe is unprecedented since the Second World War and set out the organisation’s main concerns and recommendations. Amnesty International said it had ‘documented an escalating pattern of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, with catastrophic consequences for the Ukrainian people and the entire civilian population.’ Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both investigated the possible unlawful use of weaponry in the conflict. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both pointed to the crackdown on journalists, human rights defenders and activists in Russia itself. The latter said ‘In recent weeks, various high-level officials, including President Vladimir Putin, labeled people critical of the war “national traitors”.’ Reporters Without Borders highlighted how the Russian armed forces have been ‘bullying and threatening journalists and local media in the conquered territories to prevent them reporting the facts and get them to spread Kremlin propaganda.’

President Volodymyr Zelensky described the treatment meted out to the city of Mariupol and its residents by the Russian military as ‘a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come.’ The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called Russia’s attack on Mariupol ‘a massive war crime,’  German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken both said they believed Russian forces had committed war crimes. In Mariupol as many as 350,000 people remained trapped with little food and without water and electricity, with numerous housing and shopping centres completely destroyed. Ukrainian authorities accused Russian forces of bombing a school where some 400 people, including women and children had been sheltering, and of conducting an airstrike on a theatre used as a bomb shelter in which about 300 civilians died. There were reports of forced civilian deportations from Mariupol by Russian forces. Human Rights Watch documented how thirty-two civilians managed to escape the city. Those who escaped described ‘men, women, and children sheltering in basements with little to no access to running water, power, heating, medical care, or mobile phone service since the siege began on 2 March.’ Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, insisted that cities such as Kyiv, Mariupol and Kharkiv would not accept Russian occupation.

Dozens of Ukrainian officials, journalists and activists have been detained or forcibly disappeared by invading Russian forces, according to the UN. Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, said the population of Chernihiv had been turned into hostages by Russian forces. Staff on duty at Chernobyl’s radioactive waste facilities have not been rotated in four days, the UN nuclear watchdog has said. On 21 March, Russian soldiers attacked residents of Kherson who were protesting in the streets. Russian invaders seized Viktor Maruniak, the Head of the Stara Zburivka Council in the Kherson oblast, amid concerns he may be subjected to torture. Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, Lyudmila Denisova, accused Russian forces of shooting dozens of elderly people in Luhansk region. The Ukrainian authorities said as many as 2,389 Ukrainian children had been ‘illegally removed’ from the Russian-controlled territories of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts and taken to Russia. Residents of the northern town of Novoselytsya sought shelter after an ammonia leak at a nearby chemical factory caused by intense fighting with Russian forces in the area. Boris Romanchenko, a 96-year-old man who survived a string of Nazi concentration camps including Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen, was killed by an explosion during in Kharkiv.

Journalists have been among the targets of violence. Russian journalist Oksana Baulina was killed in Kyiv by Russian shelling. The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed the release of Ukrainian journalist Oleh Baturyn who had been missing for eight days and called for information about the whereabouts of reporter Viktoria Roshchina. A Radio France fixer was held for nine days and tortured with an iron bar and electricity and subjected to a mock execution, Reporters Without Borders reported.  

The State Duma approved a new law expanding the criminalizing of the distribution of ‘deliberately false information’ (punishable by up to 15 years in prison) beyond information about the Russian military, that is already a criminal offence, to include other state entities, including embassies abroad, prosecutors, the National Guard, the Emergency Ministry, and other government bodies. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists called for the new law to be dropped and allow free reporting about the war in Ukraine. In Russia, without a VPN, Instagram Facebook and Twitter are all now blocked. A court in Moscow ruled to label Meta Platforms an ‘extremist organization,’ thereby outlawing the company’s social media platforms. Google began evacuating staff from Russia. Russia’s media regulator restricted access to Google News service on grounds it was providing ‘false’ information about Russia’s offensive in Ukraine and blocked access to the Lithuanian news website, Delfi. The music streaming platform Spotify suspended services in Russia.

In Russia, anti-war protests and their repression have continued. OVD-Info reports that a total of over 15,000 Russians have been detained for protesting against the invasion of Ukraine. Many detainees reported being abused and brutally treated by the police. Prominent figures in Russia’s opposition and liberal circles have been subject vandalism of their homes, including Aleksei Venediktov, formerly chief editor of Ekho Moskvy. The car of Maksim Uchvatov , an activist and anti-corruption campaigner in Kemerovo, was destroyed in an arson attack. Olga Nedvetskaya was taken by police to a psychiatric hospital after dancing and singing Ukrainian folksongs in Kaliningrad. Kamran Manafly, a 28-year-old schoolteacher in Moscow, lost his job after refusing to follow state guidelines on how to discuss Russia’s ‘special military operation in Ukraine’ with students. The editor in chief of Novaya gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, announced he is putting his Noble Prize medal up for auction to raise funds for Ukrainian refugees. 12 National guards who were dismissed for refusing to go to war in Ukraine are appealing the decision in the courts in an attempt to get reinstated.

Thousands of Russians have fled the country, many via Turkey as well as Finland, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A report said up to 170,000 Russian IT specialists could flee the country by the end of April. The Kremlin’s current climate envoy and reformer in the 1990s, Anatoly Chubais, resigned his position and left the country. Prominent actress Chulpan Khamatova said she had gone into exile in Latvia. Russian journalists Svetlana Prokopyeva and Denis Kamalyagin have left Russia. Abroad, some of Russia’s leading opposition figures, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Lyubov Sobol and Garry Kasparov, launched an anti-war committee to oppose Russia’s war against Ukraine from exile. 

In Siberia a court imposed pretrial restrictions on journalist Andrei Novashov and charged him with distributing ‘false information’ about Russia’s armed forces by reposting another journalist’s article online. A criminal case was launched against journalist Alexander Nevzorov for alleging Russian forces deliberately shelled a maternity hospital in Mariupol. At least seven journalists with Sota.Vision have been detained, with two sentenced to short terms in prison, and the organisation’s employees have also been fined and harassed.

A small number of journalists resigned from Russian state TV networks, including Dmitry Likin who had worked as Channel One’s art director for over 20 years. Zhanna Agalakova resigned as Paris correspondent of Channel One. Meanwhile Marina Ovsyannikova, who staged a one-person antiwar protest on a live Channel One news broadcast, said she had acted in protest against government propaganda. She has now been charged with ‘discrediting’ the armed forces. Yulia Paramonova , a freelance journalist in Kaliningrad, was questioned by officers in relation to an extremism case.

Repressive measures continued in Crimea. A Russian court handed down sentences of 14 and 15 years against five Crimean Tatars, activists of the Crimean Solidarity human rights group, for involvement in Hizb-ut Tahrir, an Islamic group that operates legally in Ukraine but is banned in Russia. Another court sentenced two Crimean Tatar activists, Timur Yalkabov and Lenur Seydametov, to 17 years and 13 years in prison after convicting them of being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Crimean Tatar activist Abdureshit Dzhepparov was sentenced to 15 days in jail for ‘propaganda and public display of Nazi paraphernalia and symbols’ (he had in fact drawn a parallel between a Soviet military march known as ‘Aviators March’ and a similar Nazi military march). Zair Smedlyaev, head of the Central Election Commission of the Qurultay, or National Congress, of the Crimean Tatar people, was jailed for two days and fined 40,000 roubles for, among other things, a Facebook post about the Russian Armed Forces.

Aleksei Navalny was sentenced to nine years in a ‘strict regime penal colony’ in a fraud case rejected by supporters as fabricated. Amnesty International said: ‘Navalny faces nine years in prison for calling out the Russian elite for corruption and abuse of power. This sentence is predictable but nonetheless shocking. The world must not overlook this sentence and its significance amid the horrific human rights violations we have seen as a result of Russian aggression against Ukraine. Human Rights Watch said Navalny’s conviction on new trumped-up charges ‘reflects the Russian government’s intensified crackdown on dissent and free expression since the start of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine.’

The Supreme Court dismissed Memorial International’s appeal  against closure.

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