Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 1 July 2022]

3 July 2022

By Simon Cosgrove

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 human rights developments highlighted by observers have included the arrest of the lawyer Dmitry Talantov, the jailing of opposition politician Ilya Yashin, the designation of journalist Maria Borzunova as a ‘foreign agent’ and the latest ‘foreign agent’ bill to be introduced to the State Duma. On developments in Ukraine, Amnesty International published a new report on the March 2022 Russian air strike on the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre in Mariupol, which the organisation described as a war crime.

Dmitry Talantov, who is a lawyer for the defence in the case of the journalist Ivan Safronov charged with treason and is head of the Bar Association in Udmurtia, was arrested in Izhevsk and taken from there to Moscow where he was remanded in custody until 21 August on charges of disseminating ‘fake news’ about the Russian army.  OVD-Info reported that investigators allege Talantov called the actions of the Russian army in Mariupol, Irpen and Bucha ‘Nazi practices’ on his Facebook page.

The politician Ilya Yashin was jailed for 15 days on charges of disobeying the lawful demands of a police officer. OVD-Info pointed to the ‘disturbing parallel’ with the case of opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza ‘who was initially suddenly arrested on the street, charged with insubordination and jailed for an administrative offence, and then criminal charges were laid against him.’

OVD-Info also reported that Maria Borzunova, a former journalist with Dozhd, has been declared a ‘foreign agent’ for receiving funding from her friends, money which she says was simply repayment for beer and coffee she had bought friends in a café. 

The case of Maria Borzunova was also reported on by the Committee to Protect Journalists. In the same statement the CPJ called on Russian legislators not to pass a new bill to ‘expand the country’s regulations concerning so-called “foreign agents”’ and to ‘let the press operate freely.’ Under the new bill, current lists of ‘foreign agents’ would be consolidated into one registry and the burden of proof would be removed from the ministry, making ‘anyone who “has received support and/or is otherwise under foreign influence” and whose work is widely disseminated or involves politics or the military’ liable to be labelled as a foreign agent.’ The bill also ‘proposes to create a single registry of people “affiliated” with foreign agents, including current or former employees of media outlets that are designated as foreign agents.’

“Russia’s foreign agent law is already one of the government’s favored tools to harass and restrict the press; instead of passing new bills that make it easier to label a journalist as a foreign agent, authorities should pare back the existing law to ensure that the media can work freely. Journalists cannot do their jobs if they are under a constant barrage of politically motivated and vague regulations.”

Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director, Committee to Project Journalists

OpenDemocracy also published an article on the Russian media by Farida Rustamova, Theo Tindall and Stephanie Diepeveen. The article points to the important role that independent journalism in the digital age continues to play for a Russian audience, even though ‘almost all Russian journalists have been forced into exile amid a state crackdown.’

While digital communications are easily shut down, they have proven that they can offer multiple, changing opportunities for independent journalists to operate remotely. Independent journalism based on alternative values or principles creates opportunities to undermine state media by breaking the totality of state narratives. This is not just a chance to combat the silencing of independent journalism but also to contribute, in a small way, to people’s ability to imagine different answers to questions about Russia’s future.

Farida Rustamova, Theo Tindall and Stephanie Diepeveen, writing in OpenDemocracy

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Amnesty International reported on the March 2022 Russian air strike that destroyed the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre in Mariupol, Ukraine, describing it as a war crime. The organisation said that ‘At the time of the attack, hundreds of civilians were in and around the theatre; many were killed. The theatre was clearly recognizable as a civilian object, perhaps more so than any other location in the city. The evidence Amnesty International has gathered demonstrates that the attack was a war crime.’ Amnesty International called on the Russian authorities inter alia to end all direct attacks on civilians, indiscriminate attacks, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law; to fully comply with the rules of international humanitarian law in the planning and execution of all attacks; and to conduct an independent, impartial, thorough, and transparent investigation into the attack on the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre.

The easily identifiable civilian activity at the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre, combined with the absence of any significant military presence, suggests that Russian forces most likely intentionally targeted the theatre knowing it was a civilian object, which is a war crime. The evidence also demonstrates that under any reasonable interpretation of the other three less likely scenarios – that the theatre was targeted believing it was a valid military objective, it was struck mistakenly during an attack on a different target, or it was struck as part of an indiscriminate attack – the attack would still amount to a war crime.

Amnesty International

This week has seen a lawyer (Dmitry Talantov), an opposition politician (Ilya Yashin) and an independent journalist (Maria Borzunova) all face judicial harassment for the work they do, no doubt showing three particular areas of national life over which the Putin regime wishes to exert ever stricter control. In December last year Amnesty International expressed ‘deep concern’ about the ‘unprecedented pressure placed by the Russian authorities on defence lawyers Ivan Pavlov and Evgeny Smirnov representing Russian journalist, Ivan Safronov, who has been charged with high treason.’ However, the remanding in custody of Dmitry Talantov shows how the FSB – which is in charge of the Safronov case – have continued to put pressure on Safronov’s legal representatives. This latest development also illustrates how convenient the law on ‘fake news’ about the Russian military is for the Russian authorities. In the case of Ilya Yashin, OVD-Info quite justifiably has expressed concern that the opposition politician may also be prosecuted for this offence now that he is already behind bars in the same way as happened to Vladimir Kara-Murza. The case of the third individual – journalist Maria Borzunova – shows how the ‘foreign agent’ law continues to be an essential element in the authorities’ repressive armoury. Yet, as the latest amendments to be put before the Duma seem to show, the authorities believe there is still more mileage to be got out of this particular form of legislation, making it a catch-all for any kind of dissent the authorities wish to penalise. When the 2022 invasion of Ukraine began, many commentators spoke of the Russian regime’s initial plan for a three-day war. However, at least domestically, it should be noted, the regime seems now to be ready for long term of repression of any opposition within Russia. Some obserers might even conclude that this state of affairs even suits the current regime better than the pre-war period when it had, willy-nilly, though with an increasing number of critical exceptions, felt obliged to abide by a ‘lighter touch’ form of social control.

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