21 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 victims of particular repressive measures by the Russian authorities have included the politician Aleksei Navalny, journalists, lawyers and Crimean Tatars. With regard to Russia’s war against Ukraine, Human Rights Watch published two reports documenting unlawful Russian attacks on the city of Kharkiv and highlighting the tragic consequences of Russia’s war.
OVD-Info reported that Aleksei Navalny, currently serving a nine-year sentence in a strict regime penal colony in Vladimir region on trumped up politically motivated charges, has been placed in a punishment cell for three days after setting up a trade union, Promzona, which aims to defend the rights of prisoners working in Federal Penitentiary Service enterprises. OVD-Info comments: ‘Pressure on the opposition leader, who has already received several prison sentences, and who was poisoned, continues.’
Not long before this the politician had been issued a warning ‘about the inadmissibility of actions creating conditions for the commission of an administrative offence.’ Although Navalny was given a three-day sentence in a punishment cell, he has already been threatened: “If I don’t ‘reconsider my attitude then the isolation cell will become my permanent residence,” said the politician.OVD-Info
OVD-Info also reported on the jailing of Ekaterinburg journalist Elena Shukaev, jailed for 14 days for displaying ‘extremist symbols’ in online posts she made five years ago that linked to Aleksei Navalny’s YouTube channel and the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigation into the wealth of Dmitry Medvedev. Shukaeva has gone on hunger strike at the detention centre where she is held in protest.
In Kazan, OVD-Info reported, a large number of searches have been carried out by police of nine apartments of journalists (and their relatives) who have worked for Radio Liberty. Most of the journalists have worked with the media project Idel.Realii, the Tatar-Bashkir service of Radio Liberty.
In Russia, freedom of speech has become almost a phantom it is so often violated since the start of the war with Ukraine. Working for media outlets outside Russia – such as Radio Liberty – is a good reason for the authorities to view a journalist as an enemy. How Radio Liberty is connected with a video by a third-party channel and why the video, which was published by some writers at Obiektiv-TV became the reason for searching 9 private addresses in Kazan – which is 2,000 kilometres from Warsaw – remains unclear.OVD-Info
Russia’s War Against Ukraine
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 the stripping of professional licences from three human rights lawyers in occupied Crimea: Nazim Sheikhmambetov, Rustem Kyamilev and Ms. Lilya Gemeji. The Observatory notes that the lawyers ‘are known for representing Crimean Tatar activists and Ukrainian political prisoners in courts and providing legal assistance to Crimean Tatars.’ The Observatory expressed ‘grave concern’ over the disbarment of the three lawyers and has called on the Russian authorities ‘to immediately reinstate their lawyers’ licences and to put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the administrative and judicial levels, against them and all human rights defenders and lawyers in Crimea.’
The Observatory recalls that since the occupation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014, Crimean Tatars and those who defend their rights have been targeted by the Russian authorities, including through enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary detentions, judicial harassment, arbitrary searches and other discriminatory measures. The disbarment of the above-mentioned human rights lawyers is yet another step in the repression of human rights defenders in general and of Crimean-Tatars in particular in Russian-occupied Ukraine.Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
OVD-Info reported that prosecutors have asked for the three defendants, all Crimean Tatars, in the case concerning alleged sabotage of a gas pipeline in Crimea, be sentenced to 15 years in prison. The three defendants are the former deputy chair of the People’s Majlis Nariman Dzhelyal and brothers Asan and Aziz Akhtemov.
Acccording to information from the Ukrainian president’s representative office in Crimea, the real reason for Dzhelyal’s detention was not the disruption of gas supplies to a local village but his participation in the Crimean Platform summit, an initiative aimed at restoring Ukrainian control over Crimea.OVD-Info
In a report, Human Rights Watch documented Russian unlawful attacks in Kharkiv in which Russian forces used banned cluster munitions. The unlawful attacks ‘killed and wounded civilians and damaged healthcare facilities and homes.’ The report documented eight ‘unlawful incidents of attacks’ that killed 12 civilians, wounded 26 others and damaged at least five hospital buldings. The report stated: ‘All of the attacks that Human Rights Watch documented were carried out in populated areas indiscriminately including using explosive weapons with wide area effects and widely banned cluster munitions in apparent violation of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war.’ The organisation said that the attacks documented were ‘just a fraction of attacks reported in the Kharkiv region since Russia’s full-scale invasion began on February 24, 2022. As well as Human Rights Watch could determine, Russian forces did not take the precautions required by the laws of war to minimize civilian harm in any of the documented attacks, three of them with cluster munitions.’
Russian forces have pummeled Kharkiv and surrounding areas, attacking densely populated residential neighborhoods with indiscriminate weapons. In the cases we documented, Russian forces appeared to show little regard for civilian lives and the laws of war.Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch also published an article on the personal tragedies resulting from the Russian forces’ atttacks on Kharkiv on 26 May that, according to the Kharkiv prosecutor’s office, killed 10 civilians and wounded 16. The organisation notes that, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, from 24 February when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine until 7 August, at least 5,401 civilians in Ukraine were killed and 7,466 injured, figures which Human Rights Watch believes ‘are likely a significant undercount.’
Since late February, my colleagues and I have interviewed hundreds of people who have lost limbs and loved ones in Russian attacks on cities, towns and villages across Ukraine, and they represent only a fraction of the civilian victims of this war. Oleksandra’s story captures the horror many Ukrainian civilians have been experiencing.Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch
Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Aleksei Navalny remains a considerable thorn in the side of the Russian regime and continues to be subject to vindictive punitive measures in the prison where he is held. The jailing of a journalist for 14 days for posting ‘extremist symbols’ which are nothing more than videos produced by Navalny’s team at a time when his organisation was not designated extremist is a further example of this vindictive arbitrary abuse of the legal system by the authorities. The searches of the homes of journalists in Kazan illustrates how any association with Radio Liberty is taken by the Russian authorities as grounds for a criminal prosecution – although as OVD-Info points out, the exact grounds for the searches still remain unclear. Meanwhile in annexed Crimea, lawyers are victims of judicial harassment and disbarred while Crimean Tatar activists are victims of what would seem to be trumped up politically motivated charges. With regard to Russia’s war against Ukraine, this week Human Rights Watch has highlighted Russia’s apparent violations of international humanitarian law and the horrific results that come from indiscriminate use of explosive weapons and widely banned cluster munitions in urban residential areas such as Kharkiv.