24 April 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
Repression within Russia and unprovoked military aggression, with apparent war crimes, against other states seem to be two sides of the same coin.
In the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, the country’s rulers broke with a number of paradigms of traditional Russian government. They moved away from the imperialist, isolationist and domestically repressive state towards a polity oriented more towards nation than empire, integrated in the world economy, less repressive and more liberal in domestic policies. The reverse trend under way since Putin became president in 2000 reached its apotheosis with the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Global integration and domestic freedoms have now been brutally abandoned in favour of empire, international isolation and domestic repression. Two stark examples this week are the treatment of the opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza within Russia and the on-going independent investigations that reveal apparent war crimes committed by Russian forces in Bucha.
Domestic repression This week, on 22 April 2022, the Russian authorities launched a new criminal investigation against the opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza for ‘discrediting the Russian armed forces.’ The charges were brought under the new Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code (adopted on 4 March 2022) and mean Kara-Murza could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. The charges were laid against Kara-Murza while he was serving a 15-day jail sentence on the trumped up administrative charge of ‘disobeying a police officer.’ He had been arrested in the street just outside his home.
Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the criminal investigation. Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said:
“As a consequence of Vladimir Kara-Murza’s brave criticism of the Russian authorities, he has twice suffered what appeared to be attempts to poison him. Now, he stands accused of committing a ‘crime’ that could see him jailed for over a decade simply for sharing information. This investigation is an act of political poison that seeks to terrify and silence all opponents of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. The Russian authorities must drop all charges against Vladimir Kara-Murza as they stem solely from his right to freedom of expression. He must be immediately and unconditionally released. The Kremlin’s repressive new law that criminalizes the sharing of ‘fake news’ about the actions of the Russian army must be abolished. The very existence of this law is an affront to human rights.”
As Amnesty International points out, Kara-Murza was hospitalized twice in 2015 and 2017 as a result of suspected poisoning while he was in Russia. The independent investigative group Bellingcat has reported that, like Aleksei Navalny, Kara-Murza had been under surveillance and followed by officers from the FSB before the suspected poisonings. The FSB also allegedly poisoned political activist Aleksey Navalny in August 2020.
Imperial military aggression Human Rights Watch, on 21 April 2022, published a report on suspected war crimes committed by Russian forces in Bucha, a town just north of Kyiv of about 36,000 inhabitants occupied by Russian forces between 4 and 31 March 2022. As the organisation points out:
‘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.’
Human Rights Watch says the Russian forces left behind them ‘extensive evidence of summary executions, other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, all of which would constitute war crimes and potential crimes against humanity.’ Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch, said:
‘Nearly every corner in Bucha is now a crime scene, and it felt like death was everywhere. The evidence indicates that Russian forces occupying Bucha showed contempt and disregard for civilian life and the most fundamental principles of the laws of war.” The cases documented by Human Rights Watch, which the organisation says represents ‘a fraction of Russian forces’ apparent war crimes in Bucha during their occupation of the town.’
The chief regional prosecutor in Bucha, Ruslan Kravchenko, told Human Rights Watch on April 15 that 278 bodies had been found in the town since the Russian withdrawal. Most of the victims were said to be men but included women and children. Most had apparently died from bullet wounds and some had had their hands tied behind their backs and bore marks of having been tortured. Kravchenko also told Human Rights Watch that over 600 bodies had been found across Bucha district, which is within the Kyiv region and has a population of about 362,000.
Human Rights Watch said that it has ‘documented the details of 16 apparently unlawful killings in Bucha, including nine summary executions and seven indiscriminate killings of civilians – 15 men and a woman. In two other documented cases, civilians were shot and wounded, including a man shot in the neck, as he was standing in his apartment on an enclosed balcony with his family, and a 9-year-old girl who was shot in the shoulder while trying to run away from Russian forces. […] Many residents said that Russian forces shot indiscriminately at civilians who had ventured outside. […] Russian forces damaged the homes and apartments where they had stayed and also took private property, including, residents said, valuables such as television sets and jewelry.’
Human Rights Watch said it has so far also documented other apparent war crimes in other towns occupied by Russian forces, such as Adriviika, Hostomel, and Motzyhn.
In both the cases given here – the arrest and prosecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza and the brutality and apparent war crimes committed in Bucha – we see the disregard by the Russian regime for the rule of law, whether that be the domestic justice system or international law. Paradoxically, for those who remember so far back, Putin came to power in 2000 claiming to represent a desire for the rule of law as opposed to the lawlessness of the 1990s. But his regime today is the very embodiment of lawlessness, at home and abroad.