19 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 in Russia reports highlighted the raid on the Open Spaces project, the prosecution of the artist Yulia Tsvetkova, Aleksei Navalny’s transfer to a strict-regime penal colony, the designation of the Committee against Torture as a ‘foreign agent’ NGO, a ruling on the ‘foreign agent’ law by the European Court of Human Rights, the case of journalist Insa Lander, and the application of the law on ‘fake news’ about the Russian armed forces. In Ukraine itself, the focus has been on war crimes against civilians and the press. The outcome of the defamation suit against journalist Carole Cadwalladr in Britain has also attracted some attention.
OVD-Info and Front Line Defenders reported on the actions of law enforcement authorities against Open Spaces, a human rights project initiated in St Petersburg in 2012 that has also worked in Moscow since 2021.Open Spaces helps activists of various kinds and provides a space where a range of events are held and where activists can comfortably spend time. According to the reports, a group of vigilantes from the Russian Liberation Movement, SERB, attacked an art exhibition in the Moscow office of the human rights project Open Space. Law enforcement officers, act on the basis of the complaint by SERB, then shut down the exhibition, confiscating artworks, posters and stickers from the Open Space office. Front Line Defenders said this took place in the framework of a preliminary investigation for the ‘public discredit of the actions of the Russian Federation armed forces’ (Article 6.21 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offences. Law enforcement officers arrested and subsequently raided the apartments of Open Space volunteer Daria Soboleva and her human rights activist friend. OVD-Info said the searches took place within the framework of an investigatio
In the on-going prosecution of Yulia Tsvetkova, an artist and LGBT activist from Komsomolsk-on-Amur, prosecutors have now asked for her to be sentenced to three years and two months in prison on charges of distribution of pornography for drawings in the ‘vagina monologues’ forum, OVD-Info reported, noting that the prosecution has been continuing since 2019. Tsvetkova She spent four months under house arrest and has been forbidden to leave her home since March 2020. Human Rights Watch called the charges against Tsvetkova ‘absurd’. The organisation called for the charges to be dropped against Tsetkova and said: ‘The trial against Yulia Tsvetkova showcases the state’s crusade against nonconformity amid the escalating crackdown on any form of disagreement with official rhetoric.’
Aleksei Navalny has been transferred from Penal Colony No. 2 in the Vladimir region to Penal Colony No. 6 in the same region but a strict regime colony. OVD-Info pointed out that Navalny was initially imprisoned to a serve a sentence in the Yves Rocher money laundering case. Since then, as well asin addtiont o being investigated for creating and running an extremist organisation he has been sentenced to nine years imprisonment on charges of fraud. OVD-Info called the charges ‘politically-motivated and unjust, especially in the context of his attempted murder by the FSB’ and ‘obviously a consequence of a political decision by the regime that the politician should not be released.’
The Ministry of Justice included the Committee Against Torture, that provides assistance and seeks redress for victims of torture, in the register of unregistered associations performing the functions of a ‘foreign agent.’ The Committee Against Torture then announced its dissolution, considering it impossible to continue working with with the ‘foreign agent’ label. OVD-Info pointed out that the Committee Against Torture has been designated as a ‘foreign agent’ twice before, and each time it has disbanded in order to continue its work under a new format. 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), called on the Russian authorities to ‘immediately repeal the decision to designate CAT-Russia as a “foreign agent” and to put an end to any act of harassment, including at the judicial level, against CAT-Russia as well as against all human rights organisations in the country.’ The Observatory also noted that ‘Since its creation, the organisation has received 3178 complaints, won 78 cases in European Court of Human Rights and contributed to verdicts to 159 perpetrators of torture.’
The decision by the Ministry of Justice on the Committee Against Torture came the week that the European Court of Human Rights finally handed down a judgment on the ‘foreign agent’ law legislation. As the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre [EHRAC] reported, ‘Russia’s ‘foreign agents’ legislation has been deemed incompatible with the rights to freedom of assembly and association by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).’ The Court ruled that Russia had breached the rights of 73 Russian NGOs. In something of an understatement, the EHRAC called the judgment ‘long-awaited’ (applications against the legislation were first made by NGOs in 2013). The EHRAC also noted that the judgment came ‘just days after the Russian parliament voted to further tighten its ‘foreign agents’ laws.’ Also in the Duma pipeline is a bill that will say Russia no longer has to implement decisions of the European Court of Human Rights after 15 March (the European Court has itself said it will continue to deal with applications from Russia until 15 September 2022). On an optimistic note, the EHRAC says the judgment ‘sets an international precedent, laying the groundwork for civil society across the world to challenge current and proposed draconian legislation which could restrict their work, from Egypt to El Salvador.’ However, in the case of Russia the ruling is likely to have any immediate significance. It would probably have had a significant impact if it had been delvered at least a few years earlier, as Tatiana Glushkova, a former lawyer at the now liquidated Memorial Human Rights Centre, noted.
“I am deeply convinced that the earlier the judgment on the ‘foreign agents’ case would have been adopted, the more it could have influenced the human rights situation in Russia. Unfortunately, the ECtHR delayed resolving this case — to the point that even before the judgement is pronounced we already expect it to belong more to history than to the world of law.”Tatiana Glushkova, former lawyer at Memorial Human Rights Center (MHRC), quoted in a press release by European Human Rights Advocacy Centre.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported on the case of Russian journalist Insa Lander, currently stranded at the border with Georgia after fleeing house arrest. Lander (legal name Insa Oguz) has said she has been under house arrest in the Russian town of Baksan since December 2021 on charges of ‘assisting terrorist activities’ for allegedly attempting to recruit an acquaintance to join the Islamic State militant group. Lander claims the charges are retaliation for her journalistic investigation into alleged corruption by a local official. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Georgian authorities to allow Insa Lander to enter the country and work safely and freely, and to accept asylum applications of journalists seeking refuge.
OVD-Info also highlighted the fact that in the three months since the law on ‘fake news’ about the army, ‘at least 59 criminal cases have been opened in different regions of Russia and two sentences handed down.’ According to the organisation, reposts on social media, anti-war leaflets and even telephone conversations can be considered ‘fake news.’
In a major report, ‘“Anyone can die at any time”: Indiscriminate attacks by Russian forces in Kharkiv, Ukraine’, Amnesty International reported that from the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, ‘Russian forces launched a relentless campaign of indiscriminate bombardments against Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city.’ The organisation charged Russia with shelling residential neighbourhoods almost daily ‘killing and injuring hundreds of civilians and causing wholesale destruction, often using widely banned cluster munitions.’
Reporters Without Borders in a report highlighted the ‘documented attacks directly targeting journalists wearing a “Press” armband’. RSF called on the Russian and Ukrainian authorities to guarantee the safety of journalists in the war zone in accordance with international conventions. The organisation said it was ‘keeping an up-to-date record of attacks on journalists and media outlets since the invasion by the Russian army’ and has published an interactive map that ‘provides a record of press freedom violations that have taken place in Ukraine.’
Reporters Without Borders and Article 19 both welcomed the High Court ruling in the case of investigative British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, a laureate of RSF’s press freedom prize and many other prestigious awards, who faced what RSF called a ‘vexatious defamation case’ brought by British businessman and political donor Arron Banks. The court found Cadwalladr’s journalism had been in the public interest. RSF called the ruling ‘a victory for press freedom and the public interest defence.’ Cadwalladr had been sued on the basis of a TED talk ‘Facebook’s Role in Brexit – and the Threat to Democracy’ and a corresponding tweet sharing a link to the talk, in which she alleged that Banks had lied about his relationship with the Russian government. Cadwalladr had argued that Banks was not being transparent about his relationship with the Russian government. The judgment in the case concluded that as the claimant, Banks failed to prove that the publication of the TED talk caused harm to his reputation. ARTICLE 19 said ‘The decision of the High Court sends a strong message to those who use abusive litigation to silence investigative journalism, and to block public interest information from reaching the wider population. People have the right to know about how influential people and lobbyists are shaping policy and their lives and this judgement is a resounding endorsement of the hard work so many journalists undertake on our behalf.’
At the conclusion of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Soul‘s the author famously asks, ‘Russia, where are you flying to? Answer! She gives no answer.’ Today the signs are rather clear as to where Russia is heading. Domestically, there is continuing suppression of civil society and internationally Russia has engaged in an unprovoked war of aggression. The intensity of the domestic repression this week has been evidenced by the police measures against Open Spaces and by the Ministry of Justice’s designation of the Committee Against Torture as a ‘foreign agent’ NGO (and regrettably the nine-year wait for a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights on the ‘foreign agent’ law ended this week only after ties between Russia and the Council of Europe have been effectively broken). Reports of the application of the law on disseminating ‘fake news’ about the Russian military show this legislation opening up space for further arbitrary repressive measures against journalists and members of the public alike – although the case of Insa Lander is also evidence the authorities have a wide range of other means at their disposal to persecute journalists. If the case of the political activist Aleksei Navalny demonstrates the authorities’ politically motivated abuse of the justice system at its most vengeful, that of Yulia Tsvetkova illustrates how even artists can be victims of arbitrary and punitive treatment. To return to Gogol, that author writes how, as Russia’s troika ‘rushes on full of divine inspiration […] other nations and states draw aside and make way for her.’ Today, of course, on the international front, that is not the case: Ukraine, supported by her allies, has stood steadfastly in Russia’s path of expansion, and Russia’s horrendous path does not resound with the sound of bells that, Gogol imagined, ‘fill the air with their wonderful tinkling’ but is paved with the consequences of its many probable war crimes. Human rights organisations this week continued, as no doubt they will in the weeks to come, to play a vital role in maintaining the spotlight on those abuses and possible war crimes committed in Ukraine.
* Translation of the passage from Gogol’s Dead Souls is by David Magarshack in the Penguin Classic edition (1961).