29 May 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
This week in its weekly report on events in Russia OVD-Info focused on prosecutions related to freedom of expression (Vladislav Nikitenko, Andrei Novashov, both related to alleged ‘discrediting’ the Russian army) and freedom of assembly (trade union leader Kirill Ukrainstev and activist Kirill Aleksin). The Committee for the Protection of Journalists reported on the prosecutions of the journalists Evgenia Albats, Ruslan Leviev and Michael Nacke and the Russian authorities’ continuing clampdown on the internet. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the jailing of activist Mikhail Iosilevich in Nizhny Novgorod on charges of collaborating with a so called ‘undesirable’ organization. Meanwhile, with regard to events in Ukraine, OVD-Info reported on infringements of the rights of lawyers in annexed Crimea (two lawyers prosecuted on trumped up charges, two others arrested and questioned). Reporters Without Borders reported that since the start of Russia’s invasion on 24 February 2022 it had registered more than 50 attacks against journalists and media in Ukraine. And the UN’s Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, Alexandra Xanthaki, deplored the violations of cultural rights in Ukraine and insisted on the Ukrainians’ right to self-determination.
OVD-Info in its weekly report highlighted a number of prosecutions that violate fundamental freedoms. Vladislav Nikitenko, a resident of Blagoveshchensk, was as charged with the criminal offence of discrediting the Russian army and placed under house arrest after he made a formal complaint to the local police against President Putin and members of the country’s security council for launching a war of aggression. Kirill Ukraintsev, head of the couriers’ trade union, has been charged with repeated violations of the laws on rallies in relation to protests by couriers of Delivery Club. In Kazan, activist Kirill Aleksin who had been jailed for 10 days for taking part in an anti-war rally in the city, left Russia after his home was searched and the FSB summoned hiim for questioning on suspicion of spreading ‘fake news’ about the Russian army. Andrei Novashov, a journalist from the Kemerevo region, is facing criminal charges regarding ‘fake news’ about the army. OVD-Info also reported on the introduction into the State Duma of a bill to criminalise (with sentences up to eight years’ imprisonment) incitement ‘to actions against the security of Russia,’ a vague and ill-defined offence which would include ‘confidential cooperation with special services of foreign states’ as well as with organisations acting in their interests, foreign private military companies and intelligence companies. OVD-Info describes the bill as ‘just another step towards expanding the possibilities for repression.’
The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Russian authorities to ‘immediately drop all charges against exiled Russian journalists Ruslan Leviev and Michael Nacke, remove them from the wanted list, and allow independent reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.’ The CPJ reported that Moscow’s Basmanny district court has ordered the arrest in absentia of both Leviev, founder of the Russian independent investigative project Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), and Nacke, who had reported on Leviev’s journalism on his YouTube Channel and referred to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a ‘war’, on charges of distributing ‘fake’ information about the military. Neither journalist is currently in Russia. The CPJ also reported that Roskomnadzor had charged both Evgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of the independent news outlet The New Times, and the company to which the site is registered, for disseminating ‘fake’ news about the Russian military. The charges relate to two articles about the Russian invasion of Ukraine published on 24 February that have since been removed from the website at the behest of Roskomnadzor, which also blocked The News Times website in Russia.
Those charges are part of doing honest journalism in today’s Russia. I know the risks involved. I intend to keep reporting the truth as long as I can.Evgenia Albats, journalist, chief editor of The New Times, as quoted by Committee to Support Journalists
Human Rights Watch reported that on 27 May 2022 a Russian court sentenced Iosilevich to 20 months of custodial sentence and ordered him to pay civil damages of 100,000 roubles for being affiliated with an ‘undesirable organization.’ Human Rights Watch called the law ‘abusive’ and said ‘the charges, the prosecution and sentencing, individually and together constitute a complete travesty of justice.’ Amnesty International also strongly condemned the jailing of activist Mikhail Iosilevich for collaborating with a so-called ‘undesirable’ organization.
The Russian authorities have added yet another name to the tally of activists they have persecuted for collaborating with so-called “undesirable organizations.” The repressive legislation underpinning Mikhail Iosilevich’ssentence has only ever been used to stifle dissenting voices. The law is a blatant pretext for repression and an assault on freedom of expression. […] Mikhail Iosilevich has committed no internationally recognized crime and is prisoner of conscience. He must be immediately and unconditionally released.Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
OVD-Info reported this week that, in annexed Crimea, the authorities had charged the lawyer Nazim Sheikhmambetov with violating the law on public assemblies (he was arrested after he came to court to defend his colleague Edem Semedlyaev on trial for the administrative offence of discrediting the army). Two other lawyers – Aider Azamatov and Emin Avamilev who were defending Sheikhmambetov – were also detained and questioned.
Reporters Without Borders reported that since 24 Feberuary 2022 it had registered more than 50 attacks against journalists and media, with more than 120 journalists victims in all. The organisation has just filed a fifth complaint over alleged war crimes with the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor and with Ukraine’s prosecutor general. The list of attacks includes seven journalists killed, nine journalists injured, 13 journalists abducted or arbitrarily detained – of whom 4 were tortured or mistreated – and 13 TV towers and media outlets destroyed or damaged by air strikes, missile attacks or artillery bombardments.
Three months after Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine, the pattern of its all-out war on information is clearly emerging. This is a war in which information itself is targeted, broadcasting equipment is bombed, and journalists are not just targeted as news providers but are also kidnapped, tortured, threatened and even executed. Russia is demonstrating a determination to control information and silence those who contradict the official propaganda, by resorting to the kind of violence that is characteristic of war crimes.Christophe Deloire, Secretary-General of Reporters without Borders
Alexandra Xanthaki, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, said the multi-layered violations of cultural rights in Ukraine will have devastating effects in the post-war era. She said the loss of cultural heritage and destruction of cultural artefacts was of concern both for the identity of Ukrainians and of minorities in Ukraine.
As in other conflicts, we currently witness the unfolding of suffering in Ukraine that does not seem to end and we cannot stop. The questioning and denial of the Ukrainian identity and history as a justification for war, is a violation of the Ukrainians’ right to self-determination and their cultural rights. Self-identification is the paramount expression of these rights and all discussions, by States and in social media, should respect this.Alexandra Xanthaki, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on cultural rights
Freedom of expression continues to be at the sharp end of repression in Russia. As OVD-Info comment in their weekly report, it is ‘clear that the issue of the war and criticism of the war are now probably the most sensitive topics of all for the Russian government.’ Repression – even for those who merely dare use the word ‘war’ – is one side of the coin; the other side is massive pro-war government propaganda. This past week fell the anniversary of the birth of Andrei Sakharov on 21 May 1921 for whom freedom of expression was an essential foundation for any good human society. In his 1968 essay Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom he wrote:
[…] intellectual freedom is essential to human society — freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate, and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such a trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economy, and culture.
His words are surely a touchstone for those in Russia who oppose this calamitous war and will continue to be so for those who seek to build a freer, more just and democratic Russia in the years to come.