30 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 the law restricting freedom of expression by providing for criminal prosecution of persons suspected of distributing ‘fake news’ about the Russian military remained in the news, while violations of freedom of religion and association were evident in the sentencing of a person to 18 years in prison for involvement in the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. There was a recurrence of the egregious Soviet practice of punitive psychiatry against a person who wrote anti-Putin graffiti on a wall. Discrimination against and persecution of LGBTI people was also sadly prominent this week. In Chechnya a court dismissed an appeal by two Chechen LGBTI persons against their imprisonment on trumped-up charges, while the State Duma approved a bill extending the ban on so-called ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ to all age groups. Meanwhile, Moscow city authorities have been using the city’s video surveillance system to track down those avoiding the mobilisation drive.
OVD-Info reported that, for the first time, criminal charges brought for distributing ‘fake news’ about the army had been dropped in the case of a resident of Nizhny Novgorod who posted a link to a video about events in Bucha on the grounds the post appeared before the Ministry of Defence issued an official denial about the events there.
According to OVD-Info’s data, over a hundred criminal cases have been brought in the country under the article on ‘fake news’ about the Russian army. Russians are being investigated for social media posts, artistic actions and even telephone conversations. Under this article people can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.OVD-Info
OVD-Info also reported that Farit Sharifullin was sentenced in Kazan to 18 years’ imprisonment for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir on charges of organising the activities of a terrorist organisation, incitement to terrorist activities and forgery of documents. Hizb ut-Tahrir was designated as a terrorist organisation in 2003 by Russia’s Supreme Court but there is no evidence the organisation engages in or encourges violence.
Many members of Hizb ut-Tahrir are prosecuted simply because they met in apartments, read religious texts and recruited new members. However, their sentences are often very harsh – more than 180 defendants have received over ten years in jail.OVD-Info
In Rostov-on-Don, OVD-Info reported, Mikhail Selitsky was sentenced to compulsory outpatient psychiatric treatment for graffiti on the wall of an apartment building that read: ‘Putin is a thief!’ He was also sentenced to 18 months of ‘restricted liberty’ for vandalism.
Compulsory psychiatric treatment is increasingly being imposed on those involved in political cases. A pensioner prosecuted for his posts on social networks, a shaman who wanted to ‘cast out Putin’ and a protector of a public garden in Ekaterinburg have all been sent to psychiatric hospitals.OVD-Info
Denis Aidin, an anti-fascist activist in the Urals on remand on charges of involvement in a terrorist group and manufacture of explosives, OVD-Info reported, has alleged he was tortured in detention by beatings, a bag being put over his head, being forced to undress and threatened with sexual violence using a truncheon and the leg of a stool.
Denis Aidin is not the first anti-fascist from the Urals who has spoken out about torture. Other people involved in the case have reported psychological pressure, electric shocks and beatings. It seems that the violence is used in order to make detainees incriminate themselves and their friends: some of them retracted the confessions they had made in the first days after the arrests.OVD-Info
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the dismissal by a Russian court of an appeal by Chechen LGBTI siblings Salekh Magamadov and Ismail Isaev against their eight and six year sentences, respectively, on trumped-up charges of ‘aiding illegal armed groups.’ The two had been abducted in Nizhny Novgorod and subsequently tortured. Memorial has designated Magamadov and Isaev political prisoners.
The court’s decision today is the final step in this farcical, unfair trial. Salekh Magamadov and Ismail Isaev will now be imprisoned for many years, yet their only ‘crime’ in the eyes of the Chechen authorities is their open participation in the LGBTI community and peaceful criticism of the local authorities. Freely expressing oneself has become a serious crime in Chechnya and Russia as a whole. Salekh Magamadov and Ismail Isaev must be immediately and unconditionally released. The authorities must also order a thorough investigation into violations of their rights, including allegations of torture and other ill-treatment.Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director
The injustice against Magamadov and Isayev could not be more stark, and their freedom and well-being are at stake. The abuse against them is part of a long-standing pattern of persecution of critics by Chechen authorities.Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Amnesty International condemned the approval in first reading by the State Duma of a bill to extend a ban on so-called “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to all age groups. The bill provides that individuals convicted of this ‘offence’ could be fined between 50,000 and 400,000 roubles and organisations up to five million roubles. The most severe penalties would apply to ‘propaganda’ shared with minors via the media or online or when ‘committed’ by a foreign citizen or stateless person.
In Russia’s new era of repression, state-sanctioned homophobia is about to be ramped up to a whole new level. The new draft ‘gay propaganda’ law not only brazenly deprives LGBTI people of their right to freedom of expression and endorses their discrimination, but will likely also lead to an increase in violent attacks and other hate crimes against them. If approved, this new law will very likely be used to shutter NGOs, block LGBTI-themed websites, stifle social media pages and intimidate activists with extortionate fines. It will certainly encourage further homophobia and abominable discrimination. From banning films and books with openly LGBTI characters to ostracizing LGBTI people, the passing of this new law will be yet another disaster for human rights.Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Human Rights Watch reported that Moscow authorities are using the city’s video surveillance system with facial recognition technology to track down and detain draftees seeking to evade mobilization for Russia’s war on Ukraine. The organisation notes that the authorities have already been using surveillance technology to identify and prosecute peaceful protesters and that Russian law ‘does not meaningfully restrict the use of facial recognition technology, so there’s little to prevent misuse and few, if any, protections for those under surveillance.’
Russian authorities’ use of facial recognition for their draft campaign showcases the variety of ways in which they are quick to misuse technology to violate people’s privacy and punish dissent. This is one of many examples showing why a global ban on all uses of facial recognition that enables mass or discriminatory surveillance is urgently needed.Anastasiia Kruope, Assistant Researcher, Europe and Central Asia, Human Rights Watch
This week there was something of a pause in reporting and commentary by human rights groups on events in Ukraine. In this relative pause, however, attention can be focused on other domestic events – and these events in many cases seem to provide evidence of repressive trends in domestic Russian policy that hark back to the Soviet era. If President Putin is seeking to recreate the Soviet Union in his foreign policy, in domestic policy there seem to be parallel efforts. The evidence this week consists of five factors:
- increasing restrictions on freedom of expression (in particular with regard to the war, but also concerning political leaders, including the President);
- official repression of minority religions (this week, the Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir, but the Christian Jehovah’s Witnesses is also a major target);
- the use of punitive psychiatry by the authorities against individuals;
- discrimination against, and persecution of, LGBTI people;
- monitoring of the general public (nowadays using the latest surveillance technology rather than relying solely on individual agents).
Many observers have commented on the momentum of ‘sovietisation’ of Russia since the early 2000s when Putin first came to power. The efforts of those in the political opposition, civil society activists and human rights defenders to halt and reverse this trend over the years seem to have largely been unsuccessful. The movement towards greater repression has drawn strength from the series of wars conducted by the regime – in particular the first and second Chechen wars, the war against Georgia, the war in Syria, the seizure of Crimea, the intrusion in the Donbas, and finally the all-out invasion of Ukraine. Regime motivations include the fact that external wars invoke a certain level of ‘patriotic’ support for the regime, that a war-time environment can provide ‘justification’ for greater domestic repression, and that a war is also a pretext for hysterical media propaganda. Until now, the Putin regime has been successful (in its terms) in its military adventures and at each point the domestic screws have been tightened. A picture of a Soviet Union being reborn (albeit on a relatively modest scale) while moving towards an authoritarian ‘sovietisation’ of domestic affairs has no doubt animated many of the regimes leaders and supporters. But what happens if the regime suffers a military defeat? At present, this seems the most likely outcome in the war against Ukraine. A defeat will undoubtedly have an impact on the domestic situation in Russia: it’s just that no one seems at all certain quite what.