5 June 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, against the background of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the focus of attention in human rights reporting has largely been on the fate of Aleksei Navalny, the suppression of freedom of expression, attacks on journalists and the judicial harassment of lawyers.
OVD-Info reported on a number of new charges brought against Aleksei Navalny, who is currently serving a nine-year prison sentence on charges of fraud in relation to donations made to his organisation that Amnesty International called ‘arbitrary’ and ‘politically motivated’ (Amnesty International said Navalny had been jailed ‘for his overt criticism of Vladimir Putin and peaceful political activism’). The new charges, under which Navalny, if convicted, could be sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, include creation of an extremist group, financing extremist activities, money laundering, creating an NGO in violation of the security and rights of citizens, and involving minors in criminal activities.
OVD-Info also reported on the expulsion from the Communist Party of two of the party’s deputies who serve in the legislative assembly in Primorye – Leonid Vasyukevich and Gennady Shulga. Their ‘offence’ was speaking out against the war. OVD-Info commented that many people in Russia are not speaking out against what is happening, not because of their ‘love of killing and destruction’, but because they ‘fear the consequences of a public anti-war stance.’ OVD-Info also reported on the case of Dmitry Domovetskikh, a design engineer at a company in Orenburg, who fled Russia for Lithuania after he posted anti-war sentiments on social media and his home was subjected to a search in connection with an alleged ‘publication of state secrets.’ Amnesty International highlighted the trial of Aleksei Gorinov, a Moscow municipal councilor charged with disseminating “knowingly false information’ after he criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said: “Councilor Aleksei Gorinov is being prosecuted because he dared to speak out against Russia’s crime of aggression at a municipal council session.’ The organisation called for ‘Aleksei Gorinov and all those deprived of their liberty for peaceful expression of anti-war views must be immediately and unconditionally released.’
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement in connection with the death in Ukraine of 32-year-old French reporter Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, a video reporter for the French TV news channel BFMTV and the eighth journalist to be killed in the field in Urkaine since 24 February 2022. The organisation called for a transparent investigation into the circumstances of his death. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the attack on the journalist Petr Ivanov near his home in St Petersburg, calling for a swift investigation into the case. Ivanov , a reporter with the independent news outlet SOTA, was hospitalized after the attack, which is believed to be connected with his journalistic activities. SOTA is one of the few independent media outlets that remain in Russia.
OVD-Info also reported on the apparent harassment of three lawyers acting on behalf of the movement Vesna (Spring) which is being prosecuted for organising anti-war protests. The three lawyers were stopped by police on various pretexts, although the real reason would seem to be the fact that they are representing Vesna. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture [OMCT] and FIDH) reported on the cases of four human rights lawyers in Crimea known for representing Crimean Tatar activists and Ukrainian political prisoners. Edem Semedliayev was charged with ‘public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the Russian Federation’s armed forces, accompanied by calls to carry out unauthorised public events’ and fined 75,000 roubles. Nazim Sheikhmambetov, Ayder Azamatov, and Emine Avamileva were jailed for eight, eight and five days, respectively, on charges of violating public assembly laws in relation to a public gathering that took place in October 2021 near the Simferopol police station to support arbitrarily detained Crimean Tatar activists, at which 21 Crimean Tatar activists were arrested. The Observatory called on the Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Nazim Sheikhmambetov, Ayder Azamatov, and Emine Avamileva.
Against the background of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the authorities continue to repress domestic expression of opposition to the war. In retrospect, the attempt to murder Aleksei Navalny in August 2020 could be seen as intended to remove the regime’s primary political opponent as planning proceeded for the invasion of Ukraine: putting him in jail now for nine, and probably for 15 years, may be seen by the authorities as ‘the next best thing.’ Meanwhile, civic expression of disagreement with the war can be subject to criminal prosecution for ‘discrediting’ the Russian military, independent journalists may in addition be subject to what is apparently non-state violence, and lawyers who represent victims of repression are themselves subject to varying forms of harassment, not least in annexed Crimea. However, It should be recalled that repressive measures in all these areas existed under the Putin regime before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine began. In a sense, none of this is new. Even the background of war and military aggression is not new (witness Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Crimea). What is new is the particular focus on the language of ‘discrediting the military’. But in general what we see is a mechanism of repression that has been consistently strengthened and tuned over the years now seeking out, and finding, new possiblities of intensive application.