23 October 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 reports from within Russia highlighted the continuing crackdown on public dissent. Artist Pavel Krisevich was given a five-year sentence in a penal colony for an anti-war ‘performance’ on Red Square; activist Artem Kamardin was remanded in custody for two months for reading an anti-war poem in a Moscow square; and artist Aleksandra Skochilenko remains on remand for replacing price tags in a shop with anti-war information. These cases also illustrate two other sides of Russian ‘law enforcement’: torture by police and torturous conditions in detention. Artem Kamardin in particular, but also his colleagues, were viciously beaten by the police officers who detained them. Roman Taganov, an activist convicted on charges of violence against a police officer, alleges he was tortured on remand by being denied medical care – but also because of the poor conditions of detention. Aleksandra Skochilenko is also detained in ‘terrible conditions’ and denied a diet medically necessary for her. Meanwhile the justice system is used against the regime’s political opponents (fresh charges were brought against Navalny); the law on ‘foreign agents’ was further amended to increase restrictions on the right of association and freedom of expression; and the crackdown on independent media continues. With regard to Russia’s war against Ukraine, Human Rights Watch this week published an investigation into the use of torture by Russian forces occupying Izium and Amnesty International described Russia’s attacks on critical civilian infrastructure in Ukraine as war crimes.
This week OVD-Info reported that Artist Pavel Krisevich has been sentenced to five years in prison for ‘hooliganism.’ In June 2021 in a performance he gave a speech on Red Square and shot a blank cartridge at his head to draw attention to the problems of political prisoners in Russia.
Provocative actions often provoke harsher reactions from the authorities than do traditional kinds of protest – rallies and solo pickets. Back in 2012, the members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in jail for a performance in a cathedral; recently Igor Maltsev of St Petersburg has received three years and eight months in jail for burning an effigy in a military uniform. Krisevich’s prison sentence very much fits into this trend.OVD-Info
Human Rights Watch reported on the case of Artem Kamardin who last month participated in a poetry reading on a public square in Moscow in protest against Russia’s war in Ukraine. At the protest, Kamardin urged Russians not to follow illegal orders and called for ‘Freedom for Russia, peace for Ukraine!’ He read a poem he had written criticising the war. Kamardin was subsequently arrested along with five other people and his home was raided by police, where they beat the three people they found in the apartment, including Kamardin’s girlfriend. The report by Human Rights Watch of what happened next merits quoting in full: ‘They threatened to rape her, superglued stickers to her face, and showed her videos of officers beating Kamardin in the next room. A video quickly appeared on social media, showing Kamardin – his eyes half closed, visibly beaten, with fresh cuts on his face, handcuffed, on his knees – apologising for his poetry and promising never to participate in political activities again. During his hearing before a judge on 28 September, Kamardin wore clothes stained with blood and had clear injuries on his face. He said the police tortured him into a recorded “apology”. The police investigator stated that the police were within their rights to use force and denied any wrongdoing. The judge added most of the documents to the case file but did not order an investigation into Kamardin’s treatment. The investigator asked the judge to take into account “the political situation in the country”. The judge sent Kamardin and two others to pretrial custody for two months on charges of inciting hatred toward “members of the … armed groups of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics”, areas of Ukraine currently occupied by Russia. He is currently being held in Moscow’s notorious Butyrka pre-trial prison.’
Russia has a long record of police violence and other abuses against peaceful protesters. The abusers are rarely punished. Anti-war activists are one of the most recent targets. […] Civil society organizations, such as the Public Verdict Foundation, point to the authorities’ “inability or unwillingness” to conduct proper investigations.[…] Someday there will be a reckoning for the monstrous abuses the authorities have committed since 24 February, and the torture of Artyom Kamardin will be part of it.Human Rights Watch
Amnesty International reported on the case of Aleksandra Skochilenko who shared information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Skochilenko is now detained in a Russian jail in what the organisation called ‘terrible conditions’ and faces up to a decade in prison.
Troubled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she decided to do something. On 31 March 2022 she replaced price tags in a local supermarket in Saint Petersburg with little paper labels containing information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the early morning of 11 April 2022, police arrested Aleksandra and charged her with “public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”: a new Article of the Criminal Code hastily introduced by the Russian government in March 2022 to try and stop Russian people criticizing the invasion of Ukraine. Dozens of people have already been detained under this new “offence”. Aleksandra has been held in detention ever since, harassed by staff and cellmates alike. She has coeliac disease and cannot eat any gluten, or she will be extremely ill. Since the detention centre does not provide her with food she can safely eat, she is forced to go hungry much of the time. If convicted, Aleksandra faces up to 10 years in prison.
OVD-Info reported that Roman Taganov, an activist convicted on charges of violence against a police officer, has alleged he was tortured on remand.
[Taganov] said that, despite extreme weakness and symptoms of coronavirus, he was denied medical treatment. A doctor was not even brought to see him when he had an epileptic fit. Taganov added that there weren’t enough beds in the cell; some men had to take turns sleeping on the mattress on the floor or swap with those who had slept on the bed. […] Clearly, prisoners should not have to suffer additionally – the court has already sentenced them to be deprived of their freedom.OVD-Info
OVD-Info also reported further criminal charges have been laid against Aleksei Navalny, recognised by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, for ‘propaganda and incitement of terrorism, financing extremism and rehabilitation of Nazism. Navanly was imprisoned in 2021 immediately on his return from Germany where he was recuperating from poisoning with Novichok when his suspended sentence in the Yves Roche case was changed to a real term in prison.
The authorities continue to bring new charges against him, thus adding to his sentence – he has already been sentenced to nine years in prison for fraud, and has also been accused of setting up an extremist group. The politician’s lawyer has calculated that he could spend up to 30 years in prison because of this new case – the authorities are trying to free themselves from this opponent for a long time.OVD-Info
OVD-Info also reported that the State Duma has passed at first reading amendments expanding the law on ‘foreign agents’. Most amendments clarify existing wording, but broaden the application of the relevant articles of the Code of Administrative Offences.
Now not only those who have already been included on the register can be fined for violating the requirements made of ‘foreign agents’, but also those who only ‘intend’ to act as a ‘foreign agent’. It does not specify how such an attention should be expressed. […] After the adoption of the amendments, the state will have new opportunities to prosecute undesirable people of different professions, and there will be even more administrative cases under the ‘foreign agency’ articles.OVD-Info
The Committee to Protect Journalists this week highlighted Russia’s moves to eradicate independent reporting on the war. The organisation published an interview with Aleksei Obukhov, co-founder and senior editor of SOTA, a media outlet which has continued to function in Russia despite covering the anti-war protests, politics and human rights. However, of the publication’s 40 staff, SOTA’s journalists have paid a high price for their coverage, facing detentions and arrests, fines, and beatings. Others have left the country and continue to report from abroad.
Our priorities are human rights and politics. […] However, we do cover anti-war protests, the refugee situation in Russia, and other domestic stories. At present we have moved the editorial staff abroad — some of our colleagues cannot return due to threats of criminal prosecution. A large part of the staff remains in Russia, working in various regions. To protect correspondents in Russia, we pay for the services of an in-house lawyer. In addition, sometimes publicity and a formal media license helps [protect correspondents from arbitrary prosecution].Aleksei Obukhov, SOTA’s co-founder and senior editor
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine
Human Rights Watch in a major report detailed how Russian forces and others operating under their command routinely tortured detainees during the six-month occupation of Izium in the Kharkiv region. The organisation said it had spoken with over 100 people who had been in Izium during the Russian occupation: ‘Almost all said that they had a family member or friend who had been tortured, and fifteen people, fourteen men and one woman, described being tortured themselves. One of the men had ties to the armed forces but the rest were civilians. The families and friends of two other men who were detained and tortured said the men killed themselves within days their release.’ The report said survivors had ‘described being subjected to electric shock, waterboarding, severe beatings, threats at gunpoint, and being forced to hold stress positions for extended periods’ and identified at least seven locations in the city, including two schools, where soldiers had ‘detained and abused them.’
The cruel violence and abuse in Izium were not random incidents. Multiple victims shared credible accounts with us of similar experiences of torture during interrogation in facilities under the control of Russian forces and their subordinates, indicating this treatment was part of a policy and plan.Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch
Amnesty International in a statement said Russian attacks that seriously damaged about 40% of the country’s energy facilities and led to a nationwide blackout in Ukraine amount to war crimes.
The strategy behind Russia’s latest warfare tactics is unmistakable. In bombing Ukraine’s critical civilian infrastructure, including energy facilities, the Russian army clearly intends to undermine industrial production, disrupt transportation, sow fear and despair and deprive civilians in Ukraine of heat, electricity and water as the cold grip of winter approaches. Russia’s targeting of Ukrainian civilian infrastructure is unlawful. The morale of the civilian population is not a lawful target, and carrying out these attacks with the sole purpose of terrorizing civilians is a war crime. All those responsible for ordering and committing these criminal attacks must be held to account. With Russia ramping up its efforts to terrorize civilians in Ukraine, the international community must urgently respond and condemn these heinous attacks.Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
It perhaps serves to reflect this week on the impunity with which Russian law enforcement at home ,and Rusia’s military abroad, alike commit torture. Over the thirty years of the Russian Federation’s existence efforts by civil society organisations, human rights lawyers and well-meaning lawmakers alike, while they have raised the profile of the problem and had some significant successes, have failed to prevent the widespread practice of torture by Russian law enforcement agents and in places of detention. Many observers have concluded, probably correctly, that over the last three decades this has, ultimately, been a result of a lack of political will. Indeed, as political authoritarianism in Putin’s Russia strengthened its grip on the country, for the regime there was a certain logic in having police and prisons that could terrify the population. Against this background, it is perhaps only to be expected that torture would flourish in conditions where the regime sends its military to invade other states. Until Russia has a political regime that upholds human rights at home and can be held to account by civil society for not doing so, torture and other abuses are likely to flourish where its military is in action abroad. Absent such domestic pressures, in this context the reaction of the international community in condemning Russia’s abuses inside and outside the country and seeking to hold the regime to account in international fora and institutions, including courts, is critical.