28 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
The ever greater degree of repression of freedom of expression in Russia and its occupied territories was the focus of atention of a number of reports by human rights organisations this week. Human Rights Watch devoted a report to the topic. OVD-Info reported on the cases of Evgeny Roizman and Aleksei Gorinov, subject to prosecution for expressing their views on the war and the death of Salman Tepsurkaev, whose torture and death seems to have been the result of his online criticism of the Chechen authorities. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported on the raids on the homes of eight media workers. FIDH pointed out that there is no basis in law not to call Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine a war. Global Voices in a report focused on the authorities attempts to control the internet. Meanwhile OVD-Info reported on restrictions on right of assembly on Russian Flag Day. In terms of the Russian actions in occupied Ukraine and its conduct of the war against Ukraine, Amnesty International reported on the disbarment of Crimean Tatar lawyers, the Committee to Protect Journalists called for all charges against the Crimean Tatar journalist Vilen Temeryanov to be dropped, the board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and the coordination committee of the Belarusian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum issued a joint statement to mark Ukraine’s Independence Day condemning Russia’s invasion, Reporters Without Borders in a series of reports examined the issues facing journalists working in Ukraine and covering the war, Human Rights Watch condemned the use of cluster munitions and Amnesty International concemned moves by Russian-backed armed groups to try Ukrainian prisoners of war in a so-called ‘international tribunal’ in Mariupol as ‘illegal and abusive.’
This week Human Rights Watch issued a statement highlighting the current clampdown on freedom of expression following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 Februay 2022. The organisation said Russian authorities had ‘ruthlessly escalated repression and censorship of free speech,’ adopting new censorship laws ‘which, among other things, criminalized “dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of Russian Armed Forces,” and set out penalties ranging from fines to up to 15 years in prison.’ Human Rights Watch said that by mid-July 2022 the authorities ‘had launched at least 70 criminal cases on such charges.’
The risk of criminal prosecutions forced the closure of what remained of independent media outlets in Russia, and the exile of numerous human rights activists, independent journalists, and critics.Human Rights Watch
OVD-Info reported that at least 41 people were arrested in the Moscow metro on Russian Flag Day. Police apparently identified metro passengers by means of facial recognition cameras. Almost all those detained had been previously arrested for participation in various protests. Most were subsequently released without charge. One detainee was charged with ‘discrediting the Russian army’ for an anti-war slogan on her T-shirt.
This is not the first time the security forces have used facial recognition to detain people in the metro; in this same way people were detained on Victory Day and Russia Day. […] Since the start of the war, it has been used increasingly often as a means of preventing possible protests; at the same time it works as a means of intimidation, as people can now be detained over protests after the fact, wherever and whenever they authorities want.OVD-Info
OVD-Info reported criminal charges have been brought against Ekaterinburg’s former mayor and opposition politician Evgeny Roizman for repeatedly ‘discrediting the Russian army.’ Roizman was arrested and has been banned from certain activities in the run-up to his trial.
Criminal proceedings under the article on repeated discrediting of the Russian army (Article 207.3, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code) can be initiated against those who have been prosecuted at least once before under a similar administrative Article 20.3.3 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offences during the preceding year. This legislation puts a huge number of people at risk of criminal charges: more than two thousand administrative cases are pending in court, and new charges appear almost every day. So even a single fine for discreditation approved after an appeal can lead to criminal proceedings in the event of a repeat offence.OVD-Info
OVD-Info also reported that Aleksei Gorinov, a municipal councillor sentenced to seven years in a penal colony for disseminating ‘fake news’ about the Russian army is not receiving medical treatment for tuberculosis.
‘I’ve been ill for three weeks. I have a continuous cough that does not allow me to breathe freely, sleep or eat. I am receiving no medical help. My condition is worsening. Please help me.’Aleksei Gorinov
OVD-Info reported that Salman Tepsurkaev, the moderator of the Chechen opposition Telegram channel 1ADAT, is dead. Tepsurkaev was kidnapped in September 2020, according to the Committee Against Torture, in a car belonging to a police officer. Subsequently a video appeared online of him being subjected to torture. The authors of 1ADAT have claimed Tepsurkaev was killed by a grenade being put in his mouth that was then exploded.
After the kidnap of Tepsurkaev, the Chechen Investigative Committee refused to open a criminal case, the authorities denied any involvement, and the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov stated that “whoever did this to Tepsurkaev acted justly,” although it “wasn’t worth publishing the video”. In October 2021, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Russian authorities were responsible for the disappearance and torture of Tepsurkaev […]. There is another article of the Convention which states, “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law.”OVD-Info
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported on raids carried out by Russian authorities on the homes of at least eight journalists and media workers and detaining them. At least seven journalists and Telegram media workers remained in detention as of Tuesday, August 23. The organisation said the Russian authorities should immediately release journalists and media workers recently arrested on extortion and fraud charges and ensure that the country’s judicial system is not used to silence critical voices.
The press freedom situation in Russia has only become more alarming since the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Russian authorities are increasingly charging journalists with financial crimes in apparent retaliation for their investigation into business and political issues. The Russian judicial system must not be used to silence critical voices, and authorities must immediately release all the journalists and media workers who remain in custody and drop all charges against them.Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, in New York
The report […] underscores the centrality of the internet in Russia’s political and social life, and thus, the state’s urgency in cementing control over the networked information space, data flows, and telecommunications and internet infrastructure.Global Voices
Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
The FIDH in a statement explained why it is not legally appropriate to call the international armed conflict taking place in Ukraine a ‘special military operation.’ The organisation said: ‘The invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops undoubtedly constitutes an unlawful use of force under the United Nations Charter and an aggression against Ukraine, as recognised by the UN General Assembly in its Resolution on March 2, 2022.’
‘Attempts by the Russian authorities to justify the aggression on Ukraine in terms of international law are both factually and legally incorrect. […] Legally, neither NATO’s “enlargement” nor any of Ukraine’s actions constitute an armed attack against the Russian Federation. Particularly, Article 51 does not recognize a right to preemptive self-defense. Furthermore, the invasion of Ukraine cannot be justified as an act of collective self-defense in support of the “DPR” and “LPR”, as the attack must be carried out against a UN member state. However, the “DPR” and “LPR”, despite their recognition as states by Russia three days before the attack on Ukraine, are neither states under international law, nor members of the UN.FIDH
Amnesty International in a statement condemned the disbarring of lawyers Lilya Gemedzhi, Rustem Kyamilev and Nazim Sheikhmambetov in retaliation for their human rights work defending Crimean Tatar activists against politically motivated charges in Russian-occupied Crimea. Amnesty described their disbarment as ‘a warning to other lawyers in Crimea, at the time when politically motivated reprisals against activists are on the rise.’
The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement Russian authorities in Crimea must drop all charges against the journalist Vilen Temeryanov, release him immediately, and stop prosecuting members of the press in retaliation for their work. FSB officers had searched the home of Vilen Temeryanov, an ethnic Tatar and correspondent for the human rights group Crimean Solidarity and the independent news website Grani, in the village of Vilne, in Russian-occupied Crimea. He was then detained on charges of organizing and participating in the activities the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation banned in Russia as terrorist. Temeryanov could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Authorities also arrested five other Crimean Tartar activists on the same day.
Russian authorities controlling Crimea have relentlessly targeted independent voices trying to shed light on the human rights situation in the region. Authorities must drop all charges against journalist Vilen Temeryanov, release him immediately, and stop cracking down on Crimean Tatar journalists.Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, in New York.
The board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and the coordination committee of the Belarusian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum issued a joint statement to mark Ukrainian Independence Day condemning Russia’s violent aggression against Ukraine and called on the international community to hold the Russian and Belarusian authorities to account for waging war in Europe and to prevent an even closer military alliance between Russia and Belarus.
The Board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and the Coordination Committee of the Belarusian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum urge the international community to use all means possible to hold the authorities of Russia and Belarus, first of all, Vladimir Putin and Aliaksandr Lukashenka, accountable for waging a war in Europe. We call on the civil society groups in the region to combine efforts and stand with the oppressed.The board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and the coordination committee of the Belarusian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum
Reporters Without Borders, which has been providing security equipment, financial and psychological assistance to journalists in Ukraine, as well as training in first aid and physical and psychological safety at its Press Freedom Centres in Lviv and Kyiv, published accounts by three journalists still working in the south and east of Ukraine, describing what it is like to work under occupation, ‘hunted down, threatened and forced to disseminate Kremlin propaganda.’ RSF also reported on the war-time experiences of Ukrainian journalist Yevheniia Podobna, documentaries editor-in-chief at Ukraine’s leading public television channel, Pershyi. RSF also issued a reminder that eight journalists have lost their lives in the six months since the Russian invasion began: ‘Evgeni, Brent, Maks, Pierre, Oleksandra, Oksana, Mantas and Frédéric.’
Journalists who stay in the occupied territories are systematically hunted down by the Russian military, who want to disseminate their own propaganda and eliminate those who could contradict the official Kremlin line, In the occupied zones, the Russians try by force to reproduce the disinformation bubble constructed in Russia. RSF is documenting these cases so that the Russian authorities can be held accountable for their war crimes against journalists.Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
Human Rights Watch published its global Cluster Munition Monitor 2022 report. The report documents Russian forces’ repeated use of cluster munitions that has caused ‘predictable and lasting harm to hundreds of Ukrainian civilians.’ The organsation said hundreds of Russian cluster munition attacks have been ‘documented, reported, or alleged’ in at least 10 of Ukraine’s 24 regions with preliminary data showing at least 689 civilian casualties from cluster munition attacks in Ukraine between February and July 2022. Human Rights Watch noted that ‘Ukrainian forces also appear to have used cluster munitions rockets on at least two occasions.’ and called on both sides in the conflict to ‘reject the use of cluster munitions and join the 2008 international treaty banning them.’
The immediate and long-term suffering that cluster munitions cause civilians make their use today in Ukraine unconscionable as well as invariably unlawful. All countries should condemn the use of these weapons under any circumstances.Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and editor of the Cluster Munition Monitor 2022
Amnesty International in a statement said moves by Russian-backed armed groups to try Ukrainian prisoners of war in a so-called ‘international tribunal’ in Mariupol are illegal and abusive, and ‘a further act of cruelty against a city that has already suffered extensively under Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.’ The organisation said that international law ‘prohibits a detaining power from prosecuting prisoners of war for having participated in hostilities, or for lawful acts of war committed in the course of armed conflict. Under the Third Geneva Convention, prisoners of war charged with crimes are entitled to due process and a fair trial, which can only take place in a regularly constituted court.’ Amnesty International also said Russian forces and Russian-backed armed groups must give independent monitors full access to Ukrainian prisoners of war. Amnesty International shares concerns raised by the UN’s human rights agency (OHCHR) that Ukrainian prisoners of war have been held without access to independent monitors, “exposing them to the risk of being tortured to extract a confession”.’
Any attempts by Russian authorities to try Ukrainian prisoners of war in so-called ‘international tribunals’ set up by armed groups under Russia’s effective control in Mariupol are illegal and unacceptable. International humanitarian law prohibits courts being set up solely to try prisoners of war. Wilfully stripping fair trial rights from prisoners of war, which is precisely what Russia’s action will do, amounts to a war crime. The Geneva Conventions also state clearly that prisoners of war are protected from prosecution for taking part in hostilities. By staging such sham ‘trials’, Russia – as the occupying power – is making a mockery of justice and a public theatre of courts, transforming them into vehicles for propaganda. To choose Mariupol as host of these ‘tribunals’ is particularly cruel and shocking, given Russia’s recent relentless attacks and siege which turned the city into a wasteland before its capture in May. Amnesty International investigated a Russian air strike on the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre in Mariupol and concluded that Russian forces had deliberately targeted civilians, an attack amounting to a clear war crime.Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.