Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 20 May 2022]

22 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 on the domestic front there are continuing reports of repressive measures against civic and political activists, anti-war protesters, members of non-traditional religious groups and civic journalists. New legislative initatives are being brought forward to increase extrajudicial administrative control of Russian media and to combat the influence of the European Court of Human Rights on domestic courts. Meanwhile, leading international human rights organsiations looked forward to a time when international law would be able to bring some measure of justice to those who have suffered as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, provided mounting evidence of possible war crimes in Ukraine, including the use of cluster munitions, summary executions, enforced disappearances and torture, and expressed concerns regarding the well-being and ultimate fate of Ukrainian troops who surrendered in the Azovstal industrial complex in Maiupol.

OVD-Info, possibly Russia’s best source for daily human rights news, focused attention in its weekly bulletin on a series of politically motivated actions by Russia’s courts, investigative authorities and police, while also noting that the State Duma has taken a further step towards bringing domestic courts effectively under domestic political control. These developments include the extraordinarily long sentence (20 years) handed down to Ismet Ibragimov, a Crimean Tatar, on charges of organising the activity of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a peaceful Muslim group designated in Russia as extremist; a series of politically motivated police raids on the homes of political activists in Novosibirsk; the remanding in custody in Vladivostok of a woman for an anti-war protest on charges of damaging a memorial to the Soviet spy Richard Sorge with red paint (thereby separating her from her children); and the passing in first reading by the State Duma of a bill to end the role of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights as grounds for reviewing rulings by Russia’s domestic courts.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the  Russian State Duma to “withdraw a draft law that would facilitate the arbitrary shutdown of media outlets and increase the number of journalists prosecuted for sharing information.” The organisation said the proposed legislation “would allow authorities to invalidate the registration and accreditation of media outlets without a court order and hold newsrooms accountable for information they republish.”

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), issued a statement condemning the arrest and continuing arbitrary detention of Ms. Iryna Danilovich, a nurse and citizen journalist, following her abduction on April 29, 2022. The Observatory urged the Russian authorities “to immediately and unconditionally release her and to put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the administrative and judicial levels, against her and all human rights defenders and journalists in Crimea.”

Human Rights Watch in a report urged Russia and Ukraine to immediately end their use of cluster munitions and said both countries should join the international ban treaty. Human Rights Watch reported that the Russian armed forces “have used at least six types of cluster munitions in attacks in Ukraine, and Ukrainian forces also appear to have used them at least once.” Human Rights Watch also published a detailed report on war crimes apparently committed by the Russian military, including summary executions, torture, and other grave abuses against civilians. “In 17 villages and small towns in Kyiv and Chernihiv regions visited in April,” the report said, “Human Rights Watch investigated 22 apparent summary executions, 9 other unlawful killings, 6 possible enforced disappearances, and 7 cases of torture. Twenty-one civilians described unlawful confinement in inhuman and degrading conditions.”

For its part, following an official country visit to Ukraine by a delegation led by Secertary General Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International issued a statement condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and containing a number of recommendations, primarily directed at achieving “meaningful and effective adherence to the principle that all who directly commit war crimes should be held criminally responsible for them.” The organisation stressed that “Victims have a right to be heard, to be recognized, to be protected, to be informed, to have procedural matters explained to them. They have a right to the truth. […] Ultimately, victims must be able to see ahead the journey to when and where they will fully realise their rights to truth, justice, and reparation.

In a separate statement, Amnesty International also called on the Russian authorities to “fully respect the rights of prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva conventions” in the wake of the reported surrender of Ukrainian soldiers who were besieged in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant for months.

Many observers were puzzled by the main events of 2021: the attempted assassination of Aleksei Navalny and the closure of the Memorial organisations. To a certain extent, the start of the war has now made plain the reasons for these brutal and unlawful actions by the Russian authorities. Evidently, the intention was to further intimidate and suppress civil society given the intention to launch a major war against Ukraine. These attacks on civil society have been followed by the ferocious suppression of civil rights and freedoms since the war against Ukraine began. Yet taken together they are only the latest developments in a long war of attrition the Russian state has waged against its own civil society since the very beginning of the Putin era. It would seem that the momentum and dynamic of domestic Russian politics since 2000 has inexorably led to the current catastrophic war. It is to be hoped that after the war there will be some form of justice for the many victims that survive – whether provided by international or domestic judicial institutions. And looking further ahead, if post-war Russia is to avoid returning to the disastrous path of authoritarianism, the country will surely need to see a rebirth of its civil society. This renewed civil society should be committed to the protection of human rights and itself protected from the state by an independent judiciary that can uphold these rights and the rule of law.

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