Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 29 April 2022]

1 May 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 international human rights organisations have focused on the Russian authorities’ repressive measures against journalists, lawyers and civil society activists and organisations within Russia, as well as on violations being committed in the course of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Freedom of expression in particular, long subject to severe restrictions in Putin’s Russia, has felt the full weight of new repressive measures on the ‘internal front’ as the authorities seek to stamp out the least challenge to its propaganda. In those areas of Ukraine now occupied by Russia, the Russian authorities are showing a similar repressive, if yet more brutal, zeal in extinguishing freedom of expression among Ukrainian media outlets and citizens. Other violations in Russia highlighted this week concern the rights of lawyers (eg the case of Ivan Pavlov) and the right of association (eg the closing down of the Memorial organisations). In Ukraine, international human rights groups focused their attention on a number of issues, including the plight of the civilian population in Mariupol, the treatment of POWs, the impact of the war on Africa, the issue of extradition to Russia and the work, that is only just beginning, to bring those responsible for atrocities committed in Ukraine to justice.

Within Russia

Amnesty International reported on the case of the schoolteacher, Irina Gen, in the city of Penza south-east of Moscow, charged, under amendments enacted on 4 March 2022 to the Russian criminal code, with ‘disseminating false information’ about the Russian Armed Forces, a crime punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment, ‘after a pupil recorded comments she made about the war in Ukraine and reported her to the authorities.’ Amnesty International also issued a statement on the case of the artist Aleksandra Skochilenko, accused of replacing price tags with anti-war information and slogans in a supermarket in St Petersburg. She has been charged with ‘disseminating knowingly false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces’ and remanded in custody until 1 June. The organisation says Aleksandra Skochilenko has a serious health condition and ‘placing her in pre-trial detention, where she would not be getting the appropriate diet or medical care she needs, puts her health and wellbeing at risk.’ Like Irina Gen, she faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Russian authorities to immediately drop all charges against the journalists Maria Ponomarenko (a correspondent for the Siberian news website RusNews) and Ilya Krasilshchik (a former publisher of the independent Latvia-based news website Meduza). Ponomarenko is currently held on remand; Krasilshchik is not in Russia. The CPJ called on Russia to ‘stop persecuting members of the press for allegedly spreading so-called “fakes” about Russia’s war on Ukraine.’ As with the cases of Irina Gen and Aleksandra Skochilenko, the charges against Ponomarenko and Krasilshchik stem from the amendments enacted on 4 March 2022 to the Russian criminal code concerning the spreading of ‘fake’ information about the country’s military.

For its part, Front Line Defenders condemned the recent sentencing of four former editors of the DOXA student journal, Armen Aramyan, Vladimir Metelkin, Alla Gutnikova, and Natasha Tyshkevich,  to two years of correctional labour for the alleged involvement of minors in illegal protests in January 2021 (the district court also banned them from administering websites for three years). Front Line Defenders said ‘The criminalisation of independent journalists due to their reporting on human rights violations occurring in the context of the current protests in Russia is deeply disturbing, and shows that the authorities are going to great lengths to stifle human rights defenders.’

Front Line Defenders also issued a statement condemning the ongoing judicial persecution of human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov. Front Line Defenders noted that Pavlov’s disbarment by the St Petersburg Bar Association ‘is in the interests of the State prosecutor in the case of Ivan Safronov, whom Ivan Pavlov was representing.’ The organisation said it believes ‘the harrassment, the trial and the continued restrictive measures being issued against Ivan Pavlov is in reprisal for his legitimate human rights work’ and these measures ‘will have a chilling effect on the work of lawyers and human rights defenders and reiterates that these actions undermine access to effective an d independent legal assistance to protect human rights in Russia.’ Front Line Defenders also issued a statement condemning the dissolution of the Memorial Human Right Centre and called on the Russian authorities to repeal this decision.

In Ukraine

Reporters Without Borders reported on the repressive measures taken by Russian troops against journalists and civil society activists in occupied areas of Ukraine. The organisation reported Russian soldiers have been drawing up ‘lists of leading local figures to be kidnapped’ and searching for journalists ‘to make them collaborate or to silence them.’ Journalists have received ‘visits’ from Russian soldiers and been subjected to interrogations and searches, their equipment has been seized, and in some cases they have been taken hostage and abducted. News outlets have received threatening emails from Russian sources and have been subject to DDOS attacks. Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk said: “By waging this manhunt to track down Ukrainian journalists, the Russian troops aim to terrorise them and force them to remain silent if they refuse to disseminate Kremlin propaganda. We remind the Russian authorities that targeting journalists is a war crime.”

Human Rights Watch  called on Russian forces occupying most of the port city of Mariupol to ensure civilians remaining in the city can leave in safety to Ukraine-controlled territory if they choose, noting that older people, people with disabilities, and those sick or injured require special attention. The organisation also urged UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who visited Moscow and Kyiv this week, to prioritize the plight of civilians in Mariupol. Human Rights Watch stressed that  ‘senior Russian officials can be held accountable for unlawful civilian deaths and other serious violations of international humanitarian law’ and Russian forces ‘need to respect the fundamental obligation under international humanitarian law to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians.’

Human Rights Watch also called on the Russian authorities to stop broadcasting images of and interviews with captured Ukrainian soldiers that expose them to ‘public curiosity.’ The organisation said that such treatment of prisoners of war, or POWs, ‘violates protections under the Geneva Conventions intended to ensure dignified treatment of captured combatants on all sides’ and called on the media, including social media platforms, to refrain from ‘broadcasting or republishing material concerning or showing prisoners of war that violates the laws of war.’

Human Rights Watch also reported on a draft UN General Assembly resolution presented by South Africa that failed to mention Russia’s responsibility for the crisis. In the upshot, the General Assembly adopted a resolution drafted by France and Mexico that explicitly blamed Russia for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. However, Human Rights Watch argued that ‘Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reeks of neocolonialism’ – something that should be obvious to South Africa. The orgaisation urged African and Western governments to find a way ‘to bridge their differences to make clear to Russia that rampant violations of international law will have consequences. […] Anything less will encourage Russia and others to disregard international humanitarian and human rights law and kill civilians with impunity.’

In another report Human Rights Watch argued that the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was of particular importance to the countries of Africa because of its problematic impact on the ongoing food security crisis on the continent. Russia and Ukraine supply a ‘significant percentage’ of the wheat, fertilizer and vegetable oils imported into Africa. The organisation warned that, unless governments and donors acted to ensure affordable food access in Africa, ‘millions of people across the African continent may experience hunger.’

Amnesty International in a statement called on the Romanian judicial authorities not to extradite Amina Gerikhanova, a Chechen woman, to Russia. In 2016, Gerikhanova had left Chechnya for Ukraine with her very eight-year-old son to flee from political persecution. In early March 2022 they left Ukraine when they were forced to flee the Russian invasion. Gerikhanova was detained at the Romanian border based on Russia’s extradition request and separated from her son. On 18 April an appeal court ruled that Gerikhanova should be extradited to Russia. Her appeal is pending. If extradited, Amnesty International states, Amina Gerikhanova ‘will face a real risk of torture or other ill-treatment’ and the organisation calls on the Romanian authorities to reject Russia’s extradition request. The High Court of Cassation and Justice in Romania will make a final decision on Gerikhanova’s extradition on 4 May 2022.

Civil Rights Defenders in a statement said together with its partners was working to bring justice and accountablility for atrocities committed in Ukraine by documenting and collecting evidence of the crimes. The organisation highlighted the role to be played by civil society activists and organisations in this process. Civil Rights Defenders noted that, according to reports by one of its partner organisations in Ukraine, Almenda, thus far 217 children have been killed in the country and 393 children injured. 

‘The most terrible crimes are committed during armed conflicts. Making sure they will not go unpunished is a fundamentally important and difficult task. The main goal of our work is to protect children who have become victims of the Russian armed aggression in Ukraine and to promote the creation of special programmes and mechanisms to protect the rights of children affected by the military conflict.’

Valentyna Potapova from Almenda, a Ukrainian human rights group that works in partnership with Civil Rights Defenders

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