Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 8 April 2022]

10 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

This week in yet another watershed moment in the history of post-Soviet Russia, the Russian authorities, on 8 April 2022, closed down the representative offices of 15 foreign organisations, including those of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The other organisations whose offices were closed are: Carnegie Foundation,  Heinrich Boell Foundation, Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Hanns Seidel Foundation, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the German Research Foundation, the Aga Khan Foundation and Wspólnota Polska.

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, said: “Amnesty’s closing down in Russia is only the latest in a long list of organizations that have been punished for defending human rights and speaking the truth to the Russian authorities. In a country where scores of activists and dissidents have been imprisoned, killed or exiled, where independent media has been smeared, blocked or forced to self-censor, and where civil society organizations have been outlawed or liquidated, you must be doing something right if the Kremlin tries to shut you up.

Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said: “The authorities are deeply mistaken if they believe that by closing down our office in Moscow they will stop our work documenting and exposing human rights violations. We continue undeterred to work to ensure that people in Russia are able to enjoy their human rights without discrimination. We will redouble our efforts to expose Russia’s egregious human rights violations both at home and abroad.”

Three days earlier, on 5 April 2022 Russian courts had confirmed on appeal the dissolution of Memorial Human Rights Centre. The Observatory (FIDH-OMCT) in a statement strongly condemned what it called a “political decision” which “only aims at silencing the last independent voices fighting for the respect and protection of human rights in Russia.” The International Memorial Society had been closed down on 28 February 2022.

Amnesty International said in a statement it is deeply concerned about the ongoing criminal prosecution under “high treason” charges of Ivan Safronov, a former journalist for the Russian newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti. The first hearing on the merits in the case took place on 4 April (the trial started in Moscow on 21 March). If found guilty, Safronov, who maintains his innocence, could face up to 20 years imprisonment and a large fine. Two lawyers who represented Ivan Safronov – Ivan Pavlov and Evgeny Smirnov – were forced to flee the country (this was before the war against Ukraine began).

On 6 April 2022 the Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Russian authorities to “immediately drop all charges against four former editors – Armen AramyanVladimir MetelkinAlla Gutnikova, and Natalia Tyshkevich – of the student-run magazine DOXA. Prosecutors have asked for them to be sentenced to do two years ‘correctional labour’ for allegedly involving minors in rallies.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also called on the Russian authorities to stop listing journalists from independent media outlets as foreign agents. On 1 April the Russian Ministry of Justice had designated five more Russian journalists as ‘media foreign agents’ [former Dozhd TV journalist Maria Borzunova, Mediazona journalist Alla Konstantinova, The Bell founder Elizaveta Osetinskaya, The Bell editor-in-chief Irina Malkova, and Murad Muradov, a journalist for Kavkazsky Uzel in Dagestan]. On 5 April journalists Evgeny Kiselev and Matvei Ganapolsky were the first journalists to be designated as ‘foreign agents’ for allegedly engaging in political activities funded by Ukraine. Kiselev had left Russia for Ukraine in 2008 and Ganapolsky did the same in 2014. A person designated a ‘media foreign agent’ is obliged to regularly submit detailed reports of their activities and expenses and publicise their status in any publications of their own or that refer to them.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also highlighted this week the attack on journalist Dmitry Muratov, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. An unidentified man splashed red paint over Muratov on 7 April as he was travelling by train from Moscow toe Samara. As he did so, the man shouted: “Muratov, here’s one for our boys.” The Committee to Protect Journalists said: “Russian authorities should conduct a swift and transparent investigation into today’s attack on Dmitry Muratov and bring charges against those responsible to show that authorities do not condone attacks on journalists.” According to reports Muratov’s eyes may be damaged. Novaya gazeta suspended publication in Russia because of restrictions on reporting the war. A number of its journalists have since founded a new newspaper outside Russia entitled Novaya gazeta Europe.

In Ukraine, Reporters Without Borders reported that seven journalists have now been killed while covering the war. Reporters Without Borders has also set up a Press Freedom Centre in Lviv so support journalists working in the war zone by providing helmets, bulletproof vests and safety manuals, online training, psychological support, financial aid and taking legal action.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both been investigating allegations of war crimes in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

In Ukraine, Amnesty International reported that Russian military forces have “extrajudicially executed civilians in apparent war crimes including deliberate killings, unlawful violence, and widespread intimidation by Russian forces against unarmed civilians across the Kyiv region.” The organisation said “Testimonies show that unarmed civilians in Ukraine are being killed in their homes and streets in acts of unspeakable cruelty and shocking brutality.” Amnesty International said it has “obtained evidence that civilians were killed in  indiscriminate attacks in Kharkiv and Sumy Oblast, documented an airstrike that killed civilians queueing for food in Chernihiv, and gathered evidence from civilians living under siege in Kharkiv, Izium and Mariupol.”

Human Rights Watch also documented several cases of Russian military forces committing laws-of-war violations against civilians. These occurred in occupied Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv regions. Human Rights Watch reported: “These include a case of repeated rape; two cases of summary execution, one of six men, the other of one man; and other cases of unlawful violence and threats against civilians between February 27 and March 14, 2022. Soldiers were also implicated in looting civilian property, including food, clothing, and firewood. Those who carried out these abuses are responsible for war crimes.”

One of these cases was in Bucha on 4 March: “Russian forces in Bucha, about 30 kilometers northwest of Kyiv, rounded up five men and summarily executed one of them. A witness told Human Rights Watch that soldiers forced the five men to kneel on the side of the road, pulled their T-shirts over their heads, and shot one of the men in the back of the head. “He fell [over],” the witness said, “and the women [present at the scene] screamed.”

Amnesty International points out that the deliberate killings of civilians, rape, torture, and inhumane treatment of prisoners of war are human rights violations and war crimes: “Those who directly commit war crimes should be held criminally responsible for them. Under the doctrine of command responsibility, hierarchal superiors – including commanders and civilian leaders, such as ministers and heads of state – who knew or had reason to know about war crimes committed by their forces, but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible, should also be held criminally responsible.” 

Human Rights Watch stresses: “All parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, and customary international law. Belligerent armed forces that have effective control of an area are subject to the international law of occupation. International human rights law, which is applicable at all times, also applies. Among acts prohibited by the laws of war are willful killing, rape and other sexual violence, torture, and inhumane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody, pillage and looting.” Anyone who orders or deliberately commits such acts, or aids and abets them, is responsible for war crimes. Commanders of forces who knew or had reason to know about such crimes but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible are criminally liable for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility.”

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