26 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 there has been plenty of further evidence of the parlous state of human rights in Russia. Reports and commentators focused in particular on the statement by 47 countries at the UN denouncing Russia’s human rights record (Human Rights Watch), the prosecution and harassment of artists (OVD-Info, Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders), new draft legislation that would further restrict freedom of expression (Committee to Protect Journalists), continuing restrictions on freedom of assembly (OVD-Info), the widespread use of torture and arbitrary actions by law enforcement agencies (Civil Rights Defenders, OVD-Info) and the plight of media outlets (Civil Rights Defenders). Reports concerning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlight the killings of journalists (Reporters without Borders), the fate of Chernobyl during the invasion (OpenDemocracy) and international reaction to Russia’s gross violations in that country (Human Rights Watch).
This week Human Rights Watch reported on the statement by 47 UN countries who jointly ‘denounced Russia’s human rights record and called for greater UN scrutiny.’ Human Rights Watch noted that, since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, ‘human rights in Russia have not just been eroded, they’ve been obliterated’ and highlighted the call by International rights groups and Russian rights defenders for the creation of a dedicated special rapporteur to monitor and report on Russia’s attacks on rights. Human Rights Watch concluded: ‘The 47 nations have rightly called for greater international attention on Russia’s crackdown. They should now translate their resolve into the leadership needed to set up the rapporteur mandate called for by Russia’s human rights community.’
As other areas of expression have been reduced, artists have also been subjected to the clampdown. OVD-Info reported on the case of Sasha Skochilenko, an artist remanded in custody on charge of spreading fake news about the Russian Armed Forces (she had replaced price tags in a supermarket with flyers with anti-war appeals) and is now in a psychiatric hospital where her health is deteriorating. Hospital staff apparently confused her illness – gluten intolerance – with lactose intolerance. Amnesty International reported that the trial of Yulia Tsvetkova, an artist and activist from Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Russian Far East, is nearing its end, with prosecutors requesting a jail term of three and a half years on absurd charges of ‘production and dissemination of pornography’ for posting her body-positive drawings of women’s bodies online. Front Line Defenders expressed deep concern about the forced closure, reported here last week, of the art exhibition, Autonomous Zone’ at the behest of rightwing vigilantes on the premises of the human rights project Open Space and the raid of its volunteer’s apartment and what it called ‘the systematic targetting of human rights organisations for “discrediting of the Russian armed forces,” as it disproportionately targets human rights defenders and has a chilling effect on civic liberties in Russia and silences human rights voices in the country.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement urged Russian legislators not to enact newly proposed legislation that ‘threatens to further restrict the press.’ The organisation noted that on 14 June the State Duma passed a bill ‘amending the country’s criminal code to impose prison terms for vague actions against state security or for communications with foreign groups.’ The bill ‘imposes prison terms of up to eight years for Russian citizens found to be “secretly establishing and maintaining contact with a special service of a foreign state, international or foreign organization, or with their representatives in order to assist them in activities knowingly directed against the security of the Russian Federation” and penalties of up to seven years in prison for those who commit ‘public calls for activities against the security of the Russian Federation or for hindering the exercise of their powers by government agencies and their officials.’ The bill would also impose criminal punishment on individuals working abroad with organizations labelled ‘undesirable’ by the Russian government.
‘The proposed amendments to Russia’s criminal code would give authorities yet another tool to go after the few independent media outlets remaining in the country. Russian legislators should drop these amendments at once, and should instead let the media work freely and without fear of prosecution.’Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator
OVD-Info reported on continuing restrictions on freedom of assembly. In St. Petersburg police arrested Andrei Olivieri who held a single-person picket holding a placard that read: ‘If you’re president for seven years, you can go crazy.’ Olivieri has been charged with violating coronavirus regulations – regulations that these days seem to be used exclusively against critics of the authorities.
OVD-Info also reported on the case of Kase Kik, an activist from Cherkessk, who left Russia after being arrested, beaten and tortured by officers from the FSB and the Centre for Combatting Extremism. According to Kik, he was jailed for seven days after asking for a Ukrainian song to be played in a café.
Civil Rights Defenders focused on the continuing use of torture in Russia as one aspect of the dramatic increase in the Russian authorities’ pressure against their own citizens. The organisation noted: ‘Anyone who protests against the war risks being detained by the authorities and there have been reports of police brutality and abuse by those detained. Torture and ill-treatment are two of the methods used by the authorities to scare people from speaking up against the war.’ The organisation highlighted the work of The Crew Against Torture, the civil society group formerly known as the Commtitee Against Torture, that has been advocating against torture since its foundation in Nizhny Novgorod in 2000. Earlier this month, and not for the first time, after again being labelled a ‘foreign agent,’ the group closed down to resume its work in a different format.
Torture is an extreme form of violence and a method to silence dissent. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the world has witnessed the horrific acts of torture committed by the Russian army in Ukraine against civilians. Additionally, in Russia torture has been a tool used by the state to silence dissent for decades. Torture violates fundamental human rights and it can never be justified.Helen Rask, Eurasia department director at Civil Rights Defenders
OVD-Info also reported that the criminal case against Zarema Musaeva, mother of Chechen activists Ibragim and Abubakar Yangulbaev has gone to court, the indictment confirmed by the prosecutor’s office. Musaeva is facing fabricated charges of using violence against a public official (Article 318, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code). She was forcibly removed from her family home in Nizhny Novgorod by Kadyrov’s security officers who had also tried to remove her husband, former federal judge Saidi Yangulbaev, but had failed to do so thanks to intervention by the local authorities.
Civil Rights Defenders also highlighted the work of the independent Russian media platform, Mediazona, founded in 2014 by members of the Pussy Riot punk rock band, whose editorial team left the country shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Civil Rights Defenders spoke to Egor Skovoroda, Mediazona’s editor, about the team’s work in exile and the fate of the remaining Russian independent media in the time of war censorship.
We were preparing for some major changes ahead of time. Throughout 2021, the state was executing mass repressions against independent media, and was tightening the screws very hard. In a way, we were ready: we had internal instructions on how to be prepared if we were to leave the country on short notice.Egor Skovoroda, Mediazona’s editor
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
This week Reporters without Borders published its investigation into the death of Ukrainian photo-journalist Maks Levin, aged 40, an experienced freelance photo-journalist who often collaborated with LB.ua, a Ukrainian news site, and with Reuters. The report concluded that Levin and his friend and bodyguard, the soldier Oleksiy Chernyshov, were executed in cold blood by Russian soldiers in a forest near the village of Moshchun, 20 km north of Kyiv on 13 March, possibly after being interrogated and even tortured. According to RSF, ‘Maks Levin is one of eight journalists who have been killed in the course of their work since the start of the war in Ukraine. The latest media victim is Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, a French video reporter working for the French TV news channel BFM TV, who was killed by shrapnel from a shell fired by Russian forces on 30 May.’
Despite the risks, Maks went into this forest to try to recover his drone, to recover proof in the form of images. His execution by Russian soldiers was a crime against freedom of expression. This truth will not be hidden and RSF’s investigation will be put at the service of your values, Maks. I promise you thatPatrick Chauvel, photoreporter and co-author of the report
OpenDemocracy published an article on how Russia took over Chernobyl in the early days of the war, occupying the nuclear power plant for more than a month. Maksym Shevchuk, the deputy director of the management company, arrived two days after Ukrainian forces took back the plant: ‘He and the staff discovered that the Russians had been digging trenches, including in the “Red Forest”, one of the places used for the temporary storage of radioactive waste, kicking up radioactive dust.’
According to the rules of radiation safety, we should not walk on the grass or kick up dust. They not only dug trenches, they also set fires and breathed the air afterwards. Now it is with them forever.”Maksym Shevchuk, deputy director of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in an article on the attitudes of major powers to international human rights and humanitarian law that deals mostly with international reaction to violations of human rights by China, noted that this question is one ‘posed by Russian forces’ widespread summary executions and indiscriminate bombardment of civilians in Ukraine.’ He pointed out, however, that, ‘In the case of Ukraine, at least, many governments seem determined to reinforce international standards. Forty-three countries so far have requested an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation of the alleged perpetrators of these war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, which the ICC prosecutor has begun. The United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council have condemned the atrocities, and the council has opened a parallel inquiry.’
Russian atrocities in Ukraine are appalling, but given the world’s reaction to them, they do not pose a threat to global standards. Indeed, they may even end up consolidating support for those standards.Kenneth Roth, executive director, Human Rights Watch