Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 1 April 2022]

1 April 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

As the sound of war drowns out so much else, it remains important for the voices of those in Russia who oppose the war to still be heard, as the board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum pointed out this week. In that same statement, the Forum urged the use of all possible diplomatic means to bring an end to Russian aggression against Ukraine and a start to dealing with the humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine. The undoubted influence of Russian government propaganda must not obscure the fact that this propaganda is a part of the repression exerted by the regime against Russia’s own citizens. The main events this week can usefully be perceived and to some extent summarised through reports issued by a range of human rights and civil society organisations based in Western countries. They focus both on the horrors of war in Ukraine and on the domestic repression inside Russia itself.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), citing figures provided by OVD-Info, the independent Russian human rights group, reported that as of 29 March 2022 over 15,108 peaceful anti-war protesters have been arbitrarily detained in 147 cities across Russia. The Board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum pointed out that these 15,000 people had taken part in anti-war protests despite the likelihood of detention and prosecution they face for so doing.

This week Amnesty International issued its annual report that provides a useful summary of current repression in Russia. The organisation highlighted the ‘routine violation’ of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, the damaging impact on civil society and human rights of the legislation on ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable organizations,’ the use of trumped up prosecutions to suppress dissent, the impunity enjoyed by those who threaten and attack journalists, human rights defenders and civil society activists, the intensification of the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the endemic nature of torture and other ill-treatment in places of detention, enforced disappearances in Chechnya, a failure to address the issue of domestic violence, discrimination against LGBT people, the arbitrary deportation of refugees and asylum seekers and the dire state of the country’s healthcare services.

In other statements Amnesty International focused on the domestic impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, stating that since the start of the war, the Russian authorities had conducted a ‘witch-hunt,’ ‘effectively weaponizing the country’s criminal justice system to prosecute anti-war protesters and influential [government] critics.’

Repression of free media in Russia was symbolised by the announcement by Novaya gazeta  on 28 March that it was suspending publication after receiving a warning from the country’s media regulator. The Committee to Protect Journalists described Novaya gazeta as ‘one of the last bastions of Russia’s free press’ and condemned the Russian authorities for attempting ‘to quash all independent coverage of the war in Ukraine,’ closing down or otherwise silencing independent media and forcing journalists to flee from prosecution. The Committee to Protect Journalists also highlighted the case of journalist Gleb Sokolov, a correspondent with the independent news website Sota.Vision detained in Moscow while reporting on a single-person protest. The organisation said the authorities should allow Sokolov and other journalists to work freely.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), reported on the fine imposed on human rights defender Oleg Orlov, a board member of the Memorial Human Rights Centre. Orlov had been fined 20,000 roubles on 28 March for ‘violating the established procedure for arranging or conducting a meeting, rally demonstration, procession or picket” (Article 20.2 of the Code of Administrative Offences) for an anti-war picket on 6 March at which he held up a placard reading ‘Peace for Ukraine, Freedom to Russia.’ The same day, the door of Oleg Orlov’s home was daubed with the pro-war symbol “Z” and a sign that read ‘Collaborator’ with a photo of him. Human Rights Defender Svetlana Gannushkina had earlier been fined 10,000 roubles on the same charge. The Observatory condemned the ‘sentencing, administrative harassment, targeting and stigmatisation of human rights defenders and independent journalists, including Oleg Orlov and Svetlana Gannushkina, as well as the increased crackdown on human rights defenders, independent media and civil society organisations in Russia.’

Amnesty International also said it is gathering evidence on the ground about possible human rights violations and war crimes in Ukraine. Human Rights Watch in a report said Russian forces fighting in Ukraine have used banned antipersonnel mines. Steve Goose, the arms director of Human Rights Watch, urged countries around the world to ‘forcefully condemn Russia’s use of banned antipersonnel landmines in Ukraine.’ Yulia Gorbunova, a senior researcher at the organisation, wrote one of the first accounts of the killings in Bucha, describing the devastation wrought on the city and among its residents amid the relentless shelling which ‘trapped people in their homes and shelters without electricity or gas.’

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Centre for Civil Liberties (CCL), its member organisation in Ukraine, reported on the plight of Mariupol where some 100,000 civilians remained trapped in the city without access to water or energy as Russian forces increased their shelling of the city and refused to allow civilians to leave through humanitarian corridors into unoccupied parts of Ukraine – even opening fire on civilians who tried to do so. According to the CCL as of 28 March about 15,000 residents of the city had been forcibly deported to Russia, a process that often involved separating families and confiscation of Ukrainian passports and phones.

Reporters Without Borders reported that two Ukrainian journalists and three foreign journalists had been killed in the course of their work since the start of the Russian invasion on 24 February. RSF pointed out that attacking journalists is a war crime and called on the Russian and Ukrainian authorities to guarantee the safety of media personnel in Ukraine.The Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted the injuring by Russian shelling of Andriy Tsaplienko a reporter with the Ukrainian TV broadcaster 1+1, and Oleksandr Navrotskyi, a camera operator for the Ukrainian broadcaster Channel 24.  The organisation said the Russian authorities should stop detaining Ukrainian journalists covering the war and ensure that they could report safely.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being accompanied by heightened repression on the domestic front. It is difficult to predict what impact losses and failures on the battlefield, together with mounting economic difficulties resulting from the sanctions, will have. Last week it was noted that as many as 250,000 Russians, a figure that probably includes a high proportion of educated professionals, had left Russia. These figures indicate little optimism about the future of the country. It may be that whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, Russia faces a long period of increased repression. As the lawyer Kirill Koroteev commented in this week’s podcast, “All we’ve seen in the last 10-12 years is deterioration. What hope for the future is there?”

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