Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 22 July 2022]

24 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 prosecutors lodged an appeal against the acquittal of the artist Yulia Tsvetkova on charges of ‘disseminating pornography,’ three organisers of a protest rally in Ossetia in 2020 were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, political activist Yulia Galyamina was warned her suspended sentence for repeated violations of regulations governing public assemblies could be changed to a real term of imprisonment and musicians are being made contractually liable for making anti-war statements at concerts. In addition, FIDH published a report on the closure of the Memorial orgnaisations earlier this year. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch published two reports on human rights violations resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In Russia

Amnesty International reported that Russian prosecutors have appealed a court’s decision in Komsomolsk-on-Amur to acquit Yulia Tsvetkova, an artist and LGBTI activist charged with ‘disseminating pornography’ for posting drawings of female bodies online. In the Russian legal system it is common practice for prosecutors to challenge acquitals, one of the factors that accounts for the low level of acquitals in Russia. It also imposes huge psychological pressure on defendants for whom an acquital may very likely prove to be only a staging post in a long and wearing criminal procedure in which prosecutors and law enforcement have the upper hand.

Last week, we described the acquittal of Yulia Tsvetkova as a rare triumph of justice over repression. But this triumph, and Yulia’s freedom from harassment, were painfully short-lived. Today Russian authorities have reiterated their fervent commitment to oppression and cruelty. Since her arrest in 2019, Yulia has endured house arrest, travel restrictions, and the constant threat of years in prison. She has also faced relentless reprisals for her defence of LGBTI rights, including being heavily fined under Russia’s deeply homophobic ‘gay propaganda’ legislation. If Yulia’s acquittal is overturned, she could face up to six years in prison. We are urging Russian authorities to drop this appeal immediately, and end the inane mockery of justice which has put a young woman’s life on hold for nearly three years.

Marie Struthers, Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia

OVD-Info reported on the convictions of three people on charges of organising riots in connection with a protest rally against coronavirus restrictions and other matters in Vladikavkaz, Ossetia, on 20 April 2020. Vadim Cheldiev, Arsen Besolov and Ramis Chirkinov – were sentenced to ten, eight and a half and eight years in prison respectively. Cheldiev had also been charged with violence against a police officer, distribution of ‘fake news’ about the epidemic and calls for extremist activities. The rally had ended in clashes between protesters and the police after police tried to disperse the rally. None of the accused was present at the rally.

OVD-Info also reported that the Moscow political activist Yulia Galyamina has been warned her two-year suspended sentence (for repeated violation of the regulations on public assemblies) may be changed to a real term of imprisonment. Galyamina has since her conviction served a 30-day sentence for announcing an upcoming anti-war rally.

The implication is simple and clear – if you want to live peacefully in Russia, you’d better shut up. Of course, real politicians cannot shut up.

OVD-Info on the case of Yuliya Galyamina

According to OVD-Info, concert orgnisers are introducing clauses into contracts for musicians that ban them from making political statements at concerts. OVD-Info point out that it is possible to make statements in support of the war at concerts. It is only anti-war sentiment that is banned.

The fight against politics on the stage is not a fight against politics, but against opposition opinion. By this logic, only criticism of the state is called politics. It is as if support for the state is not politics.

OVD-Info on new contractual obligations being imposed on musicians

This week FIDH published a report on the enforced closure earlier in the year of two of Russia’s most authoritative human rights organisations, International Memorial and Memorial Human Rights Centre. The organisation descrbed the closure as an egrgigious violation of international human rights law and noted, ‘The Kafkaesque proceedings reflected the absurdity of the charges.’

The real reasons behind the liquidation proceedings became clear during the course of the trials, erasing any remaining doubt. The state has become fed up with Memorials’ criticising human rights violations committed by the current regime, as well as those of its Soviet predecessor – particularly at a time when such criticism could undermine the war effort in Ukraine.

Ilya Nuzov, head of FIDH’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk

Despite the attempts of the Russian authorities to liquidate Memorials, the fight for the truth and against impunity — from Bolshevik terror to first and second Chechen wars, Syria and Ukraine, will continue.

Aleksandr Cherkasov, board member of Memorial Human Rights Centre

Russia’s war against Ukraine

This week Human Rights Watch published two reports on human rights violations related to Russia’s war against Ukraine.

In a first report, Human Rights Watch detailed how both Russian and Ukrainian forces ‘have put civilians in Ukraine at unnecessary risk by basing their forces in populated areas without removing residents to safer areas.’ The organisation said that international humanitarian law obliges parties to a conflict to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian structures under their control from the effect of attacks. In its report, HRW investigated four cases in which Russian forces established military bases in populated areas and three cases in which Ukrainian forces based forces among homes where people were living but took no apparent action to move residents to safer areas.

As the war in Ukraine rages on, civilians have been caught in the fighting unnecessarily. Russian and Ukrainian forces both need to avoid basing their troops among civilians, and to do all they can to remove civilians from the vicinity.

Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch

In a second report, Human Rights Watch published the results of its investigations into torture, unlawful detention and forcible disappearance of civilians by Russian authorities in the occupied areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. The report also said that in some cases Russian forces have tortured prisoners of war (POWs).

Russian forces have turned occupied areas of southern Ukraine into an abyss of fear and wild lawlessness. Torture, inhumane treatment, as well as arbitrary detention and unlawful confinement of civilians, are among the apparent war crimes we have documented, and Russian authorities need to end such abuses immediately and understand that they can, and will, be held accountable.

Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch

Anyone who orders or commits serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent, or aids and abets violations, is responsible for war crimes. Commanders of forces who knew or had reason to know about such crimes, but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible, are criminally liable for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility. Russia and Ukraine have obligations under the Geneva Conventions to investigate alleged war crimes committed by their forces, or on their territory, and appropriately prosecute those responsible. Victims of abuses and their families should receive prompt and adequate redress.

‘Ukraine: Torture, Disappearances in Occupied South,’ Human Rights Watch, 22 July 2022

The Russian justice system is well-known for its bias in favour of the prosecution and law enforcement and against defendants. This week this is shown, for example, in the egregious case of the prosecution of the artist and LGBTI activist Yulia Tsvetkova, as well as in the case of the opposition politician Yulia Galyamina. A court ‘verdict,’ if it is perceived by the authorities as in any sense favourable to the defendant, may always be subject to change. Once an individual is in the grip of the law enforcement system, it seems there is no escape for them. This applies also to civil society organisations such as International Memorial and Memorial Human Rights Centre. Not for nothing did FIDH this weekdescribe the legal proceedings against these groups as ‘Kafkaesque.’ As for the charges in these cases, it seems plain they are politically motivated. The authorities do not prosecute pro-government politicians or demonstrators – or artists for that matter. This is also shown by the moves of concert organisers to protect themselves by seeking to ensure musicians do not make ‘anti-war’ statements such as those Yury Shevchuk has recently made. The authorities, of course, have no concerns about pro-war or pro-government statements by musicians.

The Putin regime domestically uses the justice system to create fear and thereby deter citizens from behaviour the authorities consider undesirable. As Aleksandr Podrabinek has recently pointed out, when it comes to repression, for the courts laws are often no more than formalities that they can safely ignore. Court judgments, Podrabinek says, in political cases are essentially arbitrary. The report by Human Rights Watch this week on the behaviour of Russian forces in Ukraine also emphasises the use of fear and arbitrariness, albeit on a different level of scale and intensity: ‘Russian forces have turned occupied areas of southern Ukraine into an abyss of fear and wild lawlessness.’ The attention of the world is rightly on the horrendous human rights violations inflicted by Russia in Ukraine. Yet it serves to remember the ‘fear and lawlessness’ that pervade life in Russia domestically too, not least for those who express their opposition to the regime’s war against Ukraine.

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