18 September 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 UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, mary Lawlor, urged the Russian authorities to stop the on-going clampdown on human rights defenders in Russia. Both Russian and international human rights organisations called on the UN’s Human Rights Council to establish a mandate for a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Russian Federation. In Russia the destruction of protections for the right of association was again highlighted by a court ruling to take the offices of International Memorial Society away from another Memorial organisation to which they had been transferred. Draconian restrictions on freedom of expression in the light of the ongoing war against Ukraine were evident in the every harsher, torturous treatment of Aleksei Navalny intended to prevent him from speaking out, new charges laid against the lawyer Dmitry Talantov, the abusive treatment on remand of the journalist Maria Ponomarenko, the holding on remand of the artist Aleksandra Skochilenko, the assault on the journalist Badma Byurchiyev, the closing down of the Russian Journalists’ and Media Workers’ Union and the prosecution of four convicts for associaiton with a certain non-political subculture. With regard to Russia’s war against Ukraine, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in separate statements called on the international community to ensure Russia is held accountable for alleged war crimes. Amnesty urged Ukraine to prioritise securing evidence of such alleged crimes and called particular attention to the mass graves discovered in Izium. Reporters Without Borders highlighted the wrongful prosecution on trumped-up charges of Irina Danilovych, a journalist in Russian-annexed Crimea.
This week Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders called again on the Russian Government to stop the clampdown on human rights defenders and criticised the Russian government’s continuing ‘large-scale efforts to silence critical voices and dismantle civil society.’ In her statement she highlighted prosecutions for ‘fake news’ about the Russian military, arrests of peaceful anti-war protesters, new laws criminalising ‘confidentially co-operating’ with a foreign state, an international or foreign organisation, further expansion of the laws on ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable organisations, the discriminatory law on so-called ‘gay propaganda’ and the moves against media in Russia, including Novaya gazeta and the Journalists’ and Media Workers’ Union.
In the past years, I have seen many cases when Russian human rights defenders were criminalised for their legitimate work and exercising the freedom of expression. I therefore continue to be concerned about the use of the criminal provisions introduced shortly after the invasion of Ukraine to target critical voices. Under the “fake war news” law, 114 people have already been prosecuted since its adoption on 4 March 2022. Furthermore, it is deeply alarming that the authorities have introduced even more new crimes that may be used against human rights defenders and create a suffocating effect on civil society. […] I urge the Russian authorities to immediately stop the crackdown on human rights defenders and repeal restrictive and discriminatory laws. I call again on the international community to support human rights defenders in Russia and in exile. The Russian Government is destroying civil society day by day and if the world does not lend a hand to Russian human rights defenders now, it will face the human rights consequences for decades to come.Mary Lawlor The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders
A Moscow court seized the accounts and property of Memorial. OVD-Info reported that after the liquidation of International Memorial, the building in which its office was located was transferred to the Memorial Research & Education Centre (NIPTs). However, in September, the heads of both organisations received a summons concerning a lawsuit regarding the ‘invalidation of deals.’ The court then seized the personal accounts of the directors, as well as the accounts and property of the Memorial Research & Education Centre.
Fresh charges have been brought against the lawyer Dmitry Talantov, held on remand since June on charges of spreading ‘fake news’ about the Russian army. OVD-Info reported that Talantov has now also been charged with incitement of hatred. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
The prosecution of Dmitry Talantov is not only a manifestation of military censorship, but also an example of pressure on lawyers. Dmitry Talantov defended journalist Ivan Safronov, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison for treason. A criminal case was also filed against his other lawyer, Ivan Pavlov. Other defendants in the case were also subjected to pressure.OVD-Info
OVD-Info also reported that the journalist Maria Ponomarenko, held on remand for spreading ‘fake news’ about the Russian army since April, has been put in a punishment cell for a second time, this time for breaking a window in the cell and slashing her wrists.
Maria Ponomarenko was put in pre-trial detention because of a post about the destruction of the drama theatre in Mariupol – this is another case of prosecution for statements about the war and pressure on journalists. The woman has two underage daughters at home, who, according to her, are under pressure from their father. Maria needs psychotherapeutic help, which she cannot get in the detention centre. In spite of this, the court refused to transfer her to house arrest, and being held in solitary confinement may worsen her already precarious mental health.OVD-Info
The Committee to Protect Journalists said Russian authorities should swiftly investigate the assault on Badma Byurchiyev, a news reporter with independent news website Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) who was attacked in front of his home in the southwestern Russian city of Elista, determine whether it was linked to his journalistic activity, and hold the perpetrators to account.
CPJ condemns the violent attack on journalist Badma Byurchiyev and calls on the Russian authorities to swiftly investigate it and determine whether it was connected to his reporting. Russian authorities must do everything to find the perpetrators of the assault and hold them accountable.Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator
The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the closure by a court order of the independent Russian Journalists’ and Media Workers’ Union at the request of Moscow’s prosecutor office.
With the closure of the Russian Journalists’ and Media Workers’ Union, Russia has annihilated one of the last institutions protecting press freedom and defending journalists in the country. Russia has sent a clear signal of its intention to permanently ban independent journalism. Authorities must immediately reverse their decision, stop harassing the union members, and allow journalists and their defenders to work freely in the country.Carlos Martínez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director
In Novgorod region, OVD-Info reported, four convicts are being prosecuted for being members of an extremist organisation – the AUE [‘A Prisoner’s Way of Life is One’], which was designated as ‘extremist’ by the Supreme Court in 2020. It is in fact not a political organisation but more a teenage prisoners’ subculture.
The Sova Centre for Information and Analysis believes that the AUE ideology is not political and is not aimed at changing the constitutional order, and therefore should not be the subject of anti-extremist legal regulation.OVD-Info
Amnesty International condemned the imposition of harsh conditions on prisoner of conscience and prominent Russian political activist Aleksei Navalny by the prison authorities, as evidenced by the latest disturbing reports and photos from the penal colony where Aleksei Navalny is serving a nine-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges of fraud,
We have received deeply disturbing information about Aleksei Navalny’s increasingly harsh treatment in the strict regime penal colony where he is currently locked up. This includes severe penalties for purported offences, and repeated efforts to ostracize him from other prisoners who are reportedly not allowed to speak with or even look at him. In gross violation of his rights as well as Russia’s own laws, Aleksei Navalny is not allowed confidential meetings with his lawyer. His health and wellbeing are at grave risk, and this is tantamount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Russian prison authorities are using the cruel methods they have been refining for years to try and break the spirit of Aleksei Navalny by making his existence in the penal colony unbearable, humiliating and dehumanizing. We demand the immediate and unconditional release of prisoner of conscience Aleksei Navalny and accountability for all those who are responsible for his unlawful imprisonment and ill-treatment.Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Amnesty International, in its Write for Rights campaign focusing on peaceful opposition and the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information, highlighted the case of Aleksandra Skochilenko, an artist arrested by the Russian authorities for peacefully opposing the war in Ukraine. The organisation called on participants to write a letter calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Aleksandra Skochilenko and to show solidarity with her.
OVD-Info also reported that it and nine other Russian NGOs have sent a report to the United Nations about the human rights situation in Russia. Human rights activists have collected information on violations of freedom of speech and assembly, and provided data on torture, political prisoners, domestic violence, and much more. In addition, the authors of the report described what can be done to solve these problems.
In a letter to the Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the UN Human Rights Council, 24 Russian human rights organisations called on Human Rights Council member States to take urgent action to address the dire human rights situation in Russia and establish a mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Russian Federation.
Nine international human rights groups also published a statement calling for the creation of a Special Rapporteur on human rights in Russia. Among other things, they said: ‘Given the escalating repression, restrictions on the operations of independent civil society organizations and suppression of civic space, a rigorous monitoring of the human rights situation in Russia is imperative.’
Russia’s War Against Ukraine
This week Amnesty International highlighted new evidence of alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces following Ukraine’s recent counter offensive (in particular, attacks on civilian residential areas and infrastructure) and urged the Ukrainian authorities to secure evidence of alleged crimes.
As Ukraine regains control of land occupied by Russian forces, it must prioritize securing evidence of their alleged war crimes. Gathering such evidence is extremely resource-intensive, and so we are calling on the international community to provide resources that will assist Ukraine’s efforts. All ongoing and future trials over alleged war crimes must meet fair trial standards.Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Amnesty International has also specifically called for those responsible for war crimes in Ukraine to be held accountable after the reported discovery of a mass burial site containing the bodies of Ukrainian civilians and military in a forest near the town of Izium, Kharkiv region, which the Ukrainian army recaptured following months of Russian occupation,
Back in March, Amnesty International sounded the alarm bell over the fate of civilians in Izium which had been under relentless attack by Russian forces since day four of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine. These newly reported discoveries confirm our darkest fears. The people of Ukraine and the world deserve to know how exactly those buried in the forest near Izium have died. For every unlawful killing or other war crime, there must be justice and reparation for victims and their families and a fair trial and accountability for suspected perpetrators. We reiterate our call for the international community to provide resources to assist Ukraine in securing evidence and conducting the necessary investigations into how these people died and who was responsible. Those who commit or order crimes under international law should remember: there is no statute of limitation, and justice will catch up with them. To ensure justice and reparation for victims, trials of those suspected of war crimes must adhere to international standards for fair trial.Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Human Rights Watch called on world leaders gathering at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City to commit to ensuring accountability for grave human rights violations by the Russian government, namely Russian atrocities in Ukraine, as well as by China and other major offenders.
World leaders should use the UN General Assembly’s global stage to direct the spotlight on the countless crimes by Chinese and Russian authorities. Countries that seek to bring major powers to justice will open the door to addressing the broad range of human rights violations being committed around the globe. World leaders should kick off the next 12 months of the UN General Assembly with a call to action on human rights and accountability, ending hunger and poverty, and mitigating the effects climate change. These leaders should ensure that the outsize attention given the UN General Debate is deserved.Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch
Reporters Without Borders has filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court and the Ukrainian prosecutor-general’s office about treatment of Irina Danilovych, a journalist prosecuted in Russian-annexed Crimea on trumped-up charges of making or possessing explosives. Reporters Without borders reports that she was subjected to enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and denial of the right to a fair trial. The organisation says that at least 14 of Crimea’s bloggers and journalists – including Vladislav Yesypenko, a journalist sentenced to six years in prison on 16 February on a charge of ‘possessing and transporting explosives’ – are currently held in Russian prisons.
The grim series of fabricated charges and unfair trials continues in Crimea. With Russian control over news and information in the occupied territories reaching an unprecedented level, we are filing a complaint so that the Russian authorities can be held accountable for their crimes against Irina Danilovych. And we demand her immediate release.Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk
The Russian authorities continued their onslaught on fundamental freedoms this week as itemized above. In such circumstances, it is perhaps astonishing that the voices of Russia’s human rights defenders and civil society activists can still be heard. However, heard they are. And, moreover, as we have seen this week, Russian activists are making concrete demands of the international community. It is essential that those international fora and organisations that are in a possition to support these individuals and groups and respond positively to their requests, not least the United Nations, do their utmost to do so.