12 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 has seen continued restrictions on freedom of expression in Russia, primarily related to the war; ongoing persecution of a religious minority; further news of violations from Russia’s assault on Ukraine; and developments in Russia’s relations with the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights.
This week saw continued pressure on the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a long awaited judgment of the European Court of Human Rights condemning Russia’s designation of Jehovah’s Witnesses as an ‘extremist organisation.’ Meanwhile, Journalists have been fined for ‘discrediting the Russian Armed Forces’ and forced to withdraw publications. A journalist in Ingushetia faces prosecution on two charges of ‘circulating fake information about the activities of Russian military in Ukraine.’ In St Petersburg a court extended the pre-trial detention for an artist on charges of ‘disseminating knowingly false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces.’
In Ukraine, journalists covering Russia’s invasion of that country continue to face enormous risks. Three soldiers fighting for Ukraine have been sentenced to death by a ‘court’ in Russian-controlled Donetsk following their capture. And evidence continues to emerge of Russian atrocities against civilians.
As Russia moves to cease implementing judgments of the European Court handed down after 15 March 2022, the country’s departure from the Council of Europe is prompting formulation of proposals about how civil society groups in Russia could maintain future contact with the European human rights architecture. One of no doubt many test cases to come on how Russia will react, or fail to react, to cases brought against it at the European Court of Human Rights is that of a Syrian national allegedly murdered by Wagner troops in Syria.
Russia – domestic
This week OVD-Info reported on the continuing prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, with cases currently being heard in courts of first instance in Primorye and Amur regions and on appeal in Birobidzhan. OVD-Info also noted the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that the 2017 designation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organisation and the subsequent prosecutions of believers were in violation of the European Convention on Rights and Freedoms. The ECtHR also declared the definition of ‘extremism’ in Russian law as too broad.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that a district court in Ekaterinburg had fined the independent Vecherniye Vedomosti newspaper 150,000 roubles for ‘discrediting the Russian Armed Forces’ in its reporting on Telegram and Svetlogorsk City Court in Kaliningrad region ruled that a list of soldiers killed in Ukraine, published by the Pskov-based news website 60.ru, constituted ‘classified information,’ prompting the website to take it down to avoid criminal charges. The organisation said ‘Russian authorities, after criminalizing the publication of so-called false information about the war in Ukraine, prosecuting journalists, and blocking dozens of news websites, are continuing their effort to silence outlets that report on military casualties and anti-war protests in Russia.’
Front Line Defenders in a statement condemned the continued persecution of woman human rights defender and journalist, Isabella Evloeva, for her ‘peaceful and legitimate human rights work’ and expressed ‘grave concerns’ about the State’s pressure on her close family members following a search of her apartment by officers from the Investigative Committee. Isabella Evloeva is currently being prosecuted on two charges of allegedly violating the so-called law on ‘circulating fake information about the activities of Russian military in Ukraine’ and if convicted faces up to 15 years in prison. Evloeva is editor-in-chief of Fortanga.org, a media outlet based in Ingushetia.
Amnesty International condemned the decision to extend the pretrial detention of artist Aleksandra Skochilenko until 1 July. The organisation noted that Skochilenko had been arrested charges of ‘disseminating knowingly false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces’ for replacing price tags with anti-war information in a supermarket in St Petersburg and if convicted faces up to 10 years in prison. Skochilenko has a serious health condition that requires a special diet and medical care.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement regarding an incident in which a driver was killed and two Reuters correspondents injured after a vehicle they were traveling in came under fire near Sievierodonetsk. The organisation said: ‘We […] call on all warring parties to ensure the safety of journalists and media workers who must be protected under the humanitarian law as civilians. Both Ukrainian and Russian authorities should conduct a swift investigation into the incident and hold those responsible to account.’ Reuters said they could not immediately establish the identity of the driver, the two Reuters correspondents were named as photographer Aleksandr Ermochenko and cameraman Pavel Klimov. According to CPJ, at least nine journalists have been killed since 24 February 2022 in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Amnesty International said that sentencing to death by a separatist ‘court’ in Russia-occupied Donetsk of two captured British nationals – Sean Pinner and Aiden Aslin – and a captured Moroccan national – Saadun Brahim – was ‘a blatant violation of international humanitarian law.’ The organisation said ‘The three were members of the Ukrainian regular forces and under the Geneva Conventions, as prisoners of war, they are protected from prosecution for taking part in hostilities’ and noted that ‘wilfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the right to a fair and regular trial constitutes a war crime.’
Human Rights Watch said Russian forces had killed and wounded numerous civilians in eight attacks in Chernihiv city in Ukraine in early March 2022. ‘Four of these attacks, from the air and ground, were in clear violation of the laws of war. They included the bombing of an apartment complex that killed 47 civilians, an attack that killed at least 17 people in a bread line outside a supermarket, and two separate attacks, including one using widely banned cluster munitions, that damaged two hospitals.’ The organisation also said that ‘Ukrainian forces may have placed civilians at risk in five of the Russian forces’ attacks, including one where Territorial Defense Forces had established a base at a school. One of these Russian strikes hit a hospital, which has enhanced protections under the laws of war, making the strike on the facility unlawful despite the possible presence of a military checkpoint near the hospital. The four other strikes may still have violated prohibitions against indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, despite the apparent nearby presence of Ukrainian troops.’ Human Rights Watch also condemned the use of cluster munitions in the conflict.
European Court of Human Rights / Council of Europe
As OVD-Info reported, this week on 7 June the State Duma adopted in its final third reading a law on the non-enforcement of ECtHR judgments from 15 March 2022. However, according to the European Court of Human Rights, the Russian authorities must implement judgments by the Court handed down before 16 September 2022.
The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum reported on what it called ‘the first civil society event of the CURE Campaign’ on 19 May in Turin that saw experts from human rights NGOs and academics discussing the effectiveness of the Council of Europe as ‘the chief defender of human rights, the rule of law and democracy in Europe.’ The Cure Camapaign called on the Council of Europe to ‘strengthen the measures of influence on governments that do not fulfil their obligations’ and for democratically-minded groups from Belarus and Russia, now outside the Council system, to be given ‘opportunities for meaningful engagement with the organisation.’
The FIDH in a statement said the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation had ‘failed to open a judicial investigation into the 2017 brutal murder of Mohammed Elismail, a Syrian national, by members of the private military company (PMC) Wagner (“Wagner group”) in Syria. Lawyers from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Memorial Human Rights Center (HRC), and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The statement also quoted Aleksandr Cherkasov, until recently chair of the now closed Memorial Human Rights Centre, as saying: ‘This case crystallises the urgent need to hold private military groups such as Wagner accountable for their actions and, more generally, to establish State responsibility in such cases. It also sheds light on the behavior of Wagner personnel, who are never held responsible for the crimes they commit in Syria, Ukraine, Mali, Central African Republic, and Libya, among other countries.’
The Russian regime’s use of the courts and law enforcement in its ongoing assault on human rights domestically (this week especially repression of freedom of expression, freedom of conscience) is in a sense mirrored by its use of its military machine in its brutal invasion of Ukraine and the mass violations of human rights it has perpetrated in that country, including probably war crimes. Against this background, Russia’s departure from the Council of Europe and from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights seems inevitable. For some it will seem appropriate, for others, already an irrelevance. Whateve one’s view, somehow it seems undeniable that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are bringing about a tectonic shift in fundamental questions of European identity. Russia has set itself outside the Council of Europe, an institution whose birth marked a determination to put the horrors of fascism and the Second World War firmly in the past. Vladimir Putin, it seems, along with the regime he leads, has his own answer to the question, ‘Is Russia part of Europe?’ That answer is a decided ‘No.’ And it may be that this time the rest of the continent is going to agree with him.