Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 6 May 2022]

8 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 organisatons in their reporting have focused on potential war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine and violations of the rights of journalists within Russia. OVD-Info, a Russian domestic rights group, for its part reports on how peace activists – or simply citizens who oppose the war – are coming under daily pressure in Russia, in particular in terms of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Human Rights Watch further reported on suspected war crimes by Russian forces. According to the organisation, ‘Russian forces have fired on civilian vehicles in three separate incidents in Ukraine’s Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, killing six civilians and wounding three […]. In one case, they pulled a man from a van and summarily executed him.’ Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, “The obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants is a constant as is the prohibition on targeting civilians, whether in their homes, on the streets, or in their cars.’ Human Rights Watch called on the Russian authorities to conduct ‘impartial, thorough, and transparent investigations into these killings’ and said Russia ‘should compensate victims of any unlawful attacks.’ Human Rights Watch also reported that forces in the Central African Republic, whom witnesses identified as Russian, appear to have summarily executed, tortured, and beaten civilians since 2019.

Civil Rights Defenders published an article by its Legal Director John Stauffer explaining how perpetrators of war crimes can be brought to justice. Stauffer notes: “When it comes to war crimes, it is individuals, not states, that can be brought to justice. That means that those responsible for the war in Ukraine can be held accountable. […] Evidence is crucial when it comes to these crimes. What is most important now is to collect information that later can be shared with others, for example the International Criminal Court or national courts. Civil society plays a key role when it comes to documenting violations of international law.’

The Committee to Protect Journalists and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture and FIDH) both reported on the apparent arbitrary arrest of Ms. Iryna Danilovich, a nurse and citizen journalist who has been a contributor to the local news websites InZhir Media and Crimean Process, who failed to return home from her work at a medical centre in Russian-occupied Crimea when allegedly abducted by Russian law enforcement officers. The two organisations in independent reports both called on the Russian authorities in Crimea to immediately disclose any information concerning Danilovich’s whereabouts. Six unidentified men who subsequently searched the home that Danilovich shares with her parents confiscated the family’s laptops and phones and told her parents that Danilovich had been placed under detention for 10 days for allegedly sending information to a foreign country.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also highlighted the case of journalist Ilya Ber, chief editor of the fact-checking website Provereno that was launched in 2020. According to reports, police in Moscow’s Preobrazhenskoye district launched a probe into Ber on 5 May 2022 based on an April 27 Facebook post Ber posted to his personal account ‘in which he disputed pro-Russian Telegram accounts’ commentary on reports about the deaths of Ukrainian civilians in the city of Bucha.’The Committee to Protect Journalists said the Russian authorities should drop their investigation into journalist Ilya Ber and let the press freely cover the war in Ukraine.

For its part, the Russian human rights group OVD-Info this week highlighted cases concerning the rights of association, expression and assembly. In terms of the right of association, OVD-Info reported on the opening of criminal cases against Vesna [Spring] and Mirnoe soprotivlenie [Peaceful Resistance].  The case against Vesna concerns rights of association, expression and assembly. The group had announced anti-war rallies on 9 May in Russian cities but is being formally prosecuted for the creation of an NGO that infringes on the persons and rights of citizens (Article 239 of the Criminal Code) – the law used to ban and close down Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. The case against Mirnoe soprotivlenie also concerns the rights of associaiton and expression. The organisation is facing prosecution for ‘fake news’ about the Russian army, the pretext being a post on the group’s VKontakte page. Violation of freedom of expression is also at the heart of the prosecution of Sasha Skochilenko, an artist remanded in custody for replacing price tags in a shop with anti-war appeals. According to Skolichenko, she has been subjected to harassment in the remand centre where she is held. OVD-Info also reported on bad conditions and treatment in the Sakharovo detention centre where migrants are held before deportation. Restrictions on freedom of expression, OVD-Info reports, have also resulted in pressure being put on teachers and university professors not to express opposition to the war. Meanwhile, in terms of freedom of assembly, the Mayor of Moscow refused permission for an anti-war rally on the grounds of the epidemic. As OVD-Info points out, however, such restrictions do not apply to pro-government public events.

There is no ‘war’ in official regime parlance in Russia. Yet Russian troops commit war crimes in the illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. There is no ‘war,’ yet domestically the regime is consistently violating the rights of its citzens to speak out, assemble or associate in the name of peace. This is the internal contradiction of an authoritarian regime that suppresses human and civil rights while claiming to be the embodiment and expression of the interests and the will of its citizens. It is surely an unstable mix, one outcome of which has been the tragic and criminal invasion of Ukraine.

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