7 August 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 Ministry of Justice announced an expert involved in a number of high profi ile human rights-related prosecutions is ‘incompetent’; 10 persons were given long sentences for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, the term on remand for artist Aleksandr Skochilenko was extended; and Human Rights Watch published a report on the use of the law on ‘undesirable foreign organisations’ to close down the space for civil society in Russia. In relation to Ukraine, Amnesty International published a controversial report accusing the Ukrainian military of putting civilians at risk when operating in populated areas.
This week OVD-Info reported that the Ministry of Justice has declared Danil Mikheev, an expert who determined Navalny’s logo extremist, to be ‘incompetent.’ The Ministry noted that Mikheev ‘lacked philological education and other competences essential for linguistic expertise.’ However, Mikheev had provided opinions in a number of high profile and politically motivated cases, including those of Pussy Riot members Maria Alekhina and Lucy Shtein, the blogger Sergei Komandirov, and the blocking of OVD-Info’s website. There is no indication the convictions handed down on the basis of expertise provided by Mikheev will be reviewed.
OVD-Info also reported on the conviction of 10 individuals in two different trials of involvement in the Hizb ut-Tahrir organisation, banned as terrorist in Russia, who were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment ranging from 11 to 18 years. Some of the defendants alleged they had been tortured during the investigation. Memorial Human Rights Centre and other human rights groups have considered the banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir unjustified since the organisation does not advocate violence and the organisation’s members engage solely in peaceful actxivities.
Amnesty International reported on the extension of the pretrial detention of artist Aleksandra Skochilenko until 1 September. The court ruled that Skochilenko, who faces up to 10 years’ imprisonment on charges of replacing price tags with anti-war information in a supermarket, is part of a ‘radical protest feminist group’ without providing any evidence. Amnesty pointed out that Skochilenko, who has been in pre-trial detention since April, ‘has a serious health condition and placing her in pretrial detention, where she is not receiving the appropriate diet and necessary medical care, puts her health and wellbeing at risk.’ OVD-Info reported that Skochilenko, who has gluten intolerance, is ‘once again not receiving the food she needs in prison.’ On 1 August Skochilenko was transferred to a temporary detention centre to read the materials of her case, but there the necessary foods were unavailable. The Federal Penitentiary Service refuses to allow Skochilenko to be medically examined.
We have already seen how Moscow municipal councillor Aleksei Gorinov was sentenced to seven years in prison for discussing the war. Will such custodial sentences be applied even to people with serious health problems – those who simply cannot survive so long in the penitentiary system?OVD-Info
Human Rights Watch issued a report this week on the Russian authorities’ use of the 2015 law on ‘undesirable’ foreign organisations in a manner ‘contributing to the ongoing decimation of civil society space in Russia,’ a trend, Human Rights Watch says, that ‘is unlikely to change under a government that weaponises legislation to intimidate, silence and quash any dissent.’ The organisation notes that as of August 2022, the Russian government has banned a total of 60 ‘undesirable’ organisations. ‘For years, authorities have blacklisted organisations with no presence in Russia. But new amendments mean criminal proceedings can be launched even if the concerned individuals involved have not set foot in Russia.’ On 14 July 2022 Vladimir Putin further tightened the ledgislation when he ‘signed amendments expanding criminal liability for involvement with undesirable organisations beyond Russia’s borders, including for making donations to such organisations.’ The following day a court in the city of Krasnodar sentenced Andrei Pivovarov, formerly executive director of the now-defunct pro-democracy Open Russia Civic Movement, to four years in prison and banned him from taking part in political or public activities for eight years on charges of leading an ‘undesirable organisation.’ Pivovarov was the first person in Russia to be imprisoned on such charges. The same day, the authorities blacklisted as ‘undesirable’ thee more organisations under the 2015 law, namely the Central and Eastern European Law Initiative; Bellingcat; and The Insider.
The gravity of the human rights crisis in Russia merits a sustained response by the United Nations, which should come in the form of a dedicated international mechanism monitoring human rights in the country. A number of Russian and international human rights groups are urging UN member states to introduce a resolution to create such a mechanism at the September session of the UN Human Rights Council. Now it is up to the states to ensure that this proposal succeeds.Human Rights Watch
Russia’s War Against Ukraine
This week Amnesty International published a report entitled ‘Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians.’ The report said that Ukrainian military had set up bases in residential areas including schools and hospitals and launched attacks from populated civilian areas, while noting that ‘Such violations in no way justify Russia’s indiscriminate attacks, which have killed and injured countless civilians.’
We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas. Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General
The report proved controversial, being welcomed by the Russian authorities but widely criticised elsewhere, not least by the Amnesty international staff based permanently in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government and a number of other experts on human rights and Ukrainian affairs.
If you don’t live in a country which has been invaded by occupiers and ripped to shreds, you probably can’t understand what it means to condemn the army of defenders. And there are no words in any language which are capable of conveying that to those who have not felt this pain.”Oksana Pokalchuk, director of Amnesty International’s office in Ukraine
This week the report by Human Rights Watch highlighted the use – and abuse – of legislation in Russia to restrict the space for civil society, criminalising persons who do nothing more than exercise their basic rights to freedom of expression and association. Other key events in Russia reveal the arbitrariness and vicious cruelty of the operations of what is nominally a ‘justice’ system in cases where there is poltical motivation: the instance of the incompetent linguistics ‘expert’ Danil Mikheev that judges fail to call out; the sentencing of 10 individuals to appallingly long terms of imprisonment for involvement in the peaceful organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir; the extension of the custody of the artist Aleksandr Skochilenko and the refusal to provide her with an appropriate diet and medical care. Finally, in relation to Ukraine, the leadership of Amnesty International have put their reputation on the line in pursuit of what they no doubt see as a pure and necessary kind of ‘impartiality’ – an ‘impartiality’ that has been seized upon by the aggressor (the Russia authorities) as justification for its actions but has left many in the country whose people are the victims of this aggression (Ukraine), not least human rights defenders, astonished and profoundly disturbed by what they see as the ‘partiality’ of a report they perceive as a bitter and unjustifiable betrayal perpetrated in the name of human rights.