31 July 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 the severe curtailment of freedom of expression in Russia has been highlighted by prosecutions of democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, the blogger Sergei Komandirov and the archaeologist Evgeny Kruglov. Human Rights Watch reported on the danger of government abuse of biometric databases and the Committee to Protect Journalists produced guidelines on Russian ‘fake news’ legislation. In respect of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Amnesty International expressed concern about Russia’s apparent intention of putting 92 Ukrainian POWs on trial for alleged war crimes and voiced outrage over the castration of a Ukrainian POW by Russian soldiers. Meanwhile, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders condemned the arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment of 33 humanitarian aid workers by Russian forces and OSCE member states activated the Moscow Mechanism to assess Russia’s legal and administrative practice in light of its OSCE commitments.
This week OVD-Info reported that political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, currently held in custody on charges of disseminating ‘fake news’ about the Russian army, faces new criminal charges for involvement with an ‘undesirable organisation.’ Earlier this year Kara-Murza was fined 15,000 roubles for an administrative offence of being involved in the activities of an ‘undesirable organisation.’ Two weeks ago, political activist and human rights defender, the ex-director of Open Russia, Andrei Pivarov was sentenced to four years in prison under the ‘ ‘undesirable organisations’ law. Amnesty International says the law under which Pivovarov was jailed – and Kara-Murza has now been charged – ‘contravenes Russia’s international human rights obligations.’
Andrei Pivovarov has committed no internationally recognized crime and has been jailed for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and association.Amnesty International
OVD-Info also reported on the jailing of Sergei Komandirov, a blogger from Smolensk, to six and a half years for justification of terrorism, rehabilitation of Naziism with incitement of hatred and insulting a representative of the authorities for posts he made on VKontakte that were critical of the Russian authorities.
A criminal investigation has begun, OVD-Info reported, against Evgeny Kruglov, an archaeologist from Omsk, for dissmeninating ‘fake news’ about the Russian armed forces. Kruglov had reposted a news report about military action in Bucha and Mariupol from a closed VKontakte group. After questioning, Krulov was released but was told he would be sent for a psychiatric examination.
Kruglov’s arrest and the case itself show how much speed the repressive system has gathered in the search for ‘fake news’ in statements by people who take an anti-war stance.OVD-Info
Human Rights Watch in a report commented on the adoption of a law obliging banks and state agencies from March 2021 to enter their clients’ biometrics, including facial images and voice samples, into a central biometrics database without necessarily obtaining clients consent. Human Rights Watch commented: ‘The expansion of biometrics collection by the government, through banks and state agencies, drastically increases the threat of surveillance for people living in Russia. Russian authorities have long used biometric data for artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition to surveil and prosecute peaceful protestors and other critics. With the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February this year, facial recognition technology became one of the government’s tools in its effort to stifle anti-war protests.’
In true Orwellian spirit, Russian authorities are building a “Big Brother Is Watching You” state, methodically sacrificing people’s rights to their warped quest for total control.Human Rights Watch
The Committee to Protect Journalists published a guide, jointly prepared by TrustLaw and the Committee to Protect Journalists, to provide ‘user-friendly, practical guidance for both journalists and newsrooms seeking to understand Russia’s “fake news” laws and how they’ve been applied thus far to both local and international press.’ The organisation commented that the latest amendments to the relevant laws in March 2022 ‘marked the beginning of a new and dangerous era, threatening fines and lengthy prison terms for those convicted of disseminating “fakes” or any information that Russian authorities deemed to be false.’
Many Russian journalists, as well as international journalists working in the country, felt they had no choice but to flee for their own safety. Many of the country’s independent outlets relocated outside Russia.The Committee to Protect Journalists
OVD-Info reported that the OSCE has launched a ‘Moscow mechanism’ with regard to Russia which will allow independent experts to assess the state of human rights and democratic institutions in Russia. The OSCE said in its official announcement: ‘Thirty-eight OSCE participating States invoked the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism on 28 July 2022 in order “to establish a mission of experts to look into and report on the ongoing concerns […] identified as particularly serious threats to the fulfilment of the provisions of the OSCE human dimension by the Russian Federation, to assess Russia’s legal and administrative practice in light of its OSCE commitments, to establish the facts, and to provide recommendations and advice”.’
The Moscow Mechanism was last invoked on 2 June 2022 to “consider, follow up and build upon the findings of the Moscow Mechanism report received by OSCE participating States on 12 April” addressing “the human rights and humanitarian impacts of the Russian Federation’s invasion and acts of war, supported by Belarus, on the people of Ukraine, within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders and territorial waters”. It provides the opportunity for participating States to send missions of experts to assist in the resolution of a particular question or problem relating to the human dimension.OSCE
Russia’s War against Ukraine
Amnesty International said of the news that 92 members of the Ukrainian armed forces have reportedly been charged with ‘crimes against humanity’ that putting POWs on trial on these charges would violate the Third Geneva Convention. The organisation said: ‘The Russian authorities must only prosecute prisoners of war if there is genuine, admissible evidence of war crimes or crimes against humanity, in which case they must be afforded their right to a fair trial in accordance with international standards.’
In charging these 92 members of the Ukrainian armed forces in proceedings that lack transparency and rely on, and seek to feed, misinformation, the Russian authorities have once again revealed their brazen disregard for international fair trial rights and international humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions clearly state that prisoners of war, including members of armed forces, are protected from prosecution for taking part in hostilities. If individuals are to be charged with alleged crimes against humanity, there must be sufficient evidence to support such a claim. The Russian authorities have shared no evidence to support these charges. Instead, they deployed disinformation blaming Ukrainian forces for acts such as the destruction of the Mariupol theatre, a civilian building shattered by a deliberate Russian attack.’Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Amnesty International also reacted to the shocking footage posted on a pro-Russian Telegram page that showed a man in a Russian uniform apparently castrating a man in a Ukrainian uniform.
This horrific assault is yet another apparent example of complete disregard for human life and dignity in Ukraine committed by Russian forces. All those suspected of criminal responsibility must be investigated and, if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecuted in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts and without recourse to death penalty. “Since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Amnesty International has documented crimes under international law, like summary killings of captives by Russia-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine and extrajudicial executions of Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces. International law is clear: prisoners of war must not be subjected to any form of torture or ill-treatment, and should be given immediate access to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The relevant authorities must fully respect the rights of prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.”Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), reported on acts of torture and ill-treatment of 33 volunteers who helped to deliver humanitarian aid from the city of Zaporizhzhia to the city of Mariupol, and evacuate residents from Mariupol to safer and unoccupied Ukrainian territories. Thevolunteers were kept for over four months in arbitrary detention in a penal colony in Donetsk region. Detainees were reportedly ‘held in overcrowded cells in decayed buildings with poor sanitation and without running and drinking water.’ Women were apparently denied access to hygiene products. Some detainees said they had been brutally beaten and tortured with electric shocks.
The Observatory condemns in the strongest terms the above-mentioned acts of torture and ill-treatment while in detention against individuals in the Russian forces’ custody, including the 33 humanitarian aid volunteers. The Observatory urges the Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Serhiy Tarasenko and to guarantee his physical integrity and psychological well-being.Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
The fate of democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, currently in Russian detention, deserves the widest possible publicity. Given Russia’s treatment of Aleksei Navalny, it may be a forlorn hope that Kara-Murza will be treated any better. Kara-Murza should of course be immediately released: as Amnesty International says, the ‘foreign undesirable organisations’ law on which the latest charges against him are based ‘contravenes Russia’s international human rights obligations.’ Of course the fates of Andrei Pivovarov, Sergei Komandirov and Evgeny Kruglov, individuals less publicly well known, deserve no less international attention.
An increasing number of Russians are now being persecuted under the law on ‘fake news’ about the Russian armed forces, and this week the Committee to Protect Journalists performed a valuable service by publishing an analysis of this law and its impact. Unfortunately, however, the essence of so much domestic repression is the vague drafting of laws and, its corollary, their arbitrary application. This means that even if you know the law and make every effort to avoid breaching it, you cannot be sure that you will not be prosecuted.
Today in Russia laws are in many ways little more than a kind of technology of repression, something no doubt the experts from the latest OSCE Moscow Mechanism, launched this week, will confirm. Human Rights Watch this week raised the important issue of another kind of technology – the potential for the abuse of biometrics and other forms of surveillance by the Russian authorities.
If law has become a means of domestic repression in Russia, in Ukraine we see the Russian regime’s exercise of arbitrary and unlawful violence. Reports this week have highlighted the issues of torture and brutality by Russian forces in their ill-treatment of Ukrainian POWs and humanitarian workers alike. Such matters as these have been the subject of previous invocations by OSCE members of the organisation’s Moscow Mechanism. Along with the work of national and international human rights organisations, these efforts contribute to creating a comprehensive record of the Putin regime’s egregious violations of human rights standards at home and abroad.