20 November 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 President Putin revised the membership of his Council on Civil Society and Human Rights to make it still less representative of civil society and still less qualified with respect to human rights; Aleksei Navalny was once more placed in a punishment ‘isolation’ cell; the ‘foreign agent’ legislation was amended (not by the State Duma but by the FSB) to increase the range of information whose publication results in being labelled a ‘foreign agent’; an anti-war protester has claimed he was tortured and has now been placed in a psychiatric clinic; and a report by Reporters without Borders highlighted the repressive measures used against journalists writing on environmental issues. Meanwhile in terms of the war in Ukraine, OpenDemocracy published an article examining anti-gay attacks by Russian solidiers in the occupied territories. And Human Rights House Foundation has summarised the outcomes of the 51st session of the UN’s Human Rights Council which, among other things, voted to establish a Special Rapporteur on human rights in Russia.
This week OVD-Info reported Vladimir Putin had signed a decree removing several prominent individuals – journalists and human rights activists – from the Human Rights Council. Those removed included Aleksandr Verkhovksy, director of the Sova Information and Analysis Centre, Igor Kalyapin,, founder of the Committee Against Torture, and Nikolai Svanidze, a prominent journalist and commentator. The new members to take their place included primarily pro-war journalists and activists.
Now we will have nobody to talk about torture by the police, political repression, rights violations, ‘foreign agency’ and many other topics.Igor Kalyapin, a human rights activist and founder and former head of the Committee Against Torture, a civil society organisation based in Nizhny Novgorod
OVD-Info reported Aleksei Navalny has been transferred (for a seventh time) to an isolation cell four days before a scheduled ‘long visit’ with his family that will not now take place. He is now in solitary confinement; it is not known for how long.
The opposition politician has complained of worsening health; in the punishment cell he suffered from attacks of breathlessness. Now he will end up in a cramped cell again, possibly for months.OVD-Info
The FSB, OVD-Info reported, has extended the list of information, publication of which whill result in being labelled a ‘foreign agent.’ The list includes information about the ‘military and military-technical activities of the Russian Federation’ that can be used to undermine state security ‘if obtained by foreign sources.’
The ‘foreign agent’ legislation is in itself repressive and discriminatory. It gets tougher every year, in order to prosecute journalists and opposition activists.OVD-Info
Dmitry Karimov, a resident of Novosibirsk region, prosecuted for burning a banner supporting the ‘special military operation,’ claims he was tortured in order to force him to testify against himself, OVD-Info reported. After the alleged torture and confession, Karimov’s flat was searched he was taken to a police station where he was threatened with being mobilised if he retracted his confession. When he did so nonetheless, investigators sent him to a psychiatric clinic for examination.
Law enforcement agents often use torture to extract confessions. […] This brutality often goes unpunished […] And it’s hardly worth waiting for law enforcement agencies to become more humane, because the war and the violence going on around them are not conducive to that.OVD-Info
Reporters Without Borders, in a report entitled Blank Spots in the Barents Region, examining the state of press freedom and environmental journalism in the Barents region – the northernmost areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia – says its findings show ‘several alarming tendencies’: corporations try to obstruct public access to information; government bodies are sensitive to political pressure and may attack editorial independence; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been accompanied by an assault on press freedom domestically; and corporations increasingly target individual journalists, labelling them as ‘activists’ to discredit their reporting.
The threats towards climate and environmental journalists in the Barents region are real. Large business conglomerates, industries and policy makers in neither Norway, Sweden, Finland or Russia clearly won’t stop at anything to make it harder for journalists to investigate the effects of the so-called green transition and extraction of minerals and natural resources.Erik Halkjaer, Président of RSF Sweden
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
In an article in OpenDemocracy Finbarr Toesland, a journalist who specialises in covering LGBTQ stories, reported that the Ukrainian LGBT human rights organisation Nash Svit (Our World), which monitors attacks on LGBTIQ people across Ukraine, offers victims support and takes cases to the police, has been documenting targeted anti-gay attacks against Ukrainians by Russian troops that include sexual violence, rape, imprisonment, assault, theft and attempted murder.
At around 8am on a Tuesday morning in August, two Russian soldiers approached 52-year-old Valentyna’s market stall in Ukraine’s Korabelny district and asked her how much some vegetables and fruits cost. Valentyna was wearing stereotypically men’s clothing and had short hair. As she began to answer, the soldiers realised she was a woman and started insulating her: “You are a fag woman, not a woman… we will cure you of this, people like you do not belong in Kherson.” The military officers – who appeared to be former prisoners due to the tattoos on their fingers – threw produce from Valentyna’s stall on the ground. Scared the situation could escalate, Valentyna fled as the soldiers threw potatoes at her back, some of which hit her head. They shouted: “Go, go, while we are kind enough to you. If we see you again, we will put your vegetables inside you, you are motherfucking faggot scum.” The impact of the attack was devastating for Valentyna. She had a heart attack after the incident and was forced to abandon her livelihood, for fear of another attack, and left the city to live with her mother in a nearby village.Finbarr Toesland, ‘Russian soldiers accused of targetted anti-gay attacks in Ukraine,’ OpenDemocracy
United Nations Human Rights Council – 51st Session
In a report summarising its activities around the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF) described how it has worked with other groups to urge the Council to address human rights challenges and support human rights defenders across Eastern Europe and beyond. These included events to promote the adoption of a mandate for a Special Rapporteur on human rights in Russia, a role which was established by the HRC; raising the issue of what more could be done by the HRC to support Russian human rights defenders and organisations seeking to engage with international mechanisms in the face of tightening domestic legislation; the issue of the safety of journalists in Russia; public analysis and criticism of Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ legislation; working alongside Ukrainian civil society partners to draw attention to the situation in Ukraine following the launch of the full-scale Russian invasion; an interactive dialogue with the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine on human rights in Ukraine, with special events devoted to the situation in Crimea; a meeting with the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights on the issue of reprisals across the region; the plight of Belarusian human rights defenders and organisations; and a statement focusing attention on the situation in Georgia and the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
This Council session was an important one for the region. The Council voted to establish a Special Rapporteur on Russia, and we were able to highlight key human rights issues in Eastern Europe. This wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work and excellent cooperation from the network of Human Rights Houses and other civil society partners.Dave Elseroad, Head of Advocacy, Human Rights House Foundation
As Russia’s war against Ukraine continued to meet reverses on the ground, President Putin’s intolerance of criticism of the war was shown by his removal of independent activists and journalists from his Presidential Human Rights Council and their replacement by supporters of the war. At the same time, there can be no doubt that every measure taken by the authorities against Russia’s No. 1 political prisoner, Aleksei Navalny, is personally approved by the man behind the Kremlin’s biggest desk. This kind of personal vengefulness is surely coming to characterised repressive policies in Russia. And where individuals are not of a high enough profile to attract the attention of the Kremlin leader, there are lower officials who will use the available means of repression against individuals they know in a kind of cascade effect in mimicry of the behaviour of their ‘leader’. The ‘foreign agent’ legislation is one such tool available to be used by officials at almost every level against activists and journalists and this week it was given further reinforcement – making possible yet greater arbitrary interpretation. Torture is another and far more brutal means of repression that is widely available and used – and with equal impunity. The report by Reporters without Borders, meanwhile, shone a light on how both state and non-state actors can act repressively against journalists. In short, there has developed over the years of Putin’s rule a whole bouquet of characteristic human rights abuses that are practiced with impunity by the authorities, indeed seem to have become a modus operandi for the officials staffing the repressive state. While domestically these repressive mechanisms have been continuously strengthened and made more oppressive, OpenDemocracy this week showed how this bouquet of Russian ills has in many respects now been transferred to the occupied territories in Ukraine – including officially condoned anti-LGBT attitudes and impunity for lawbreaking by those in uniform. If the establishment of a Special Rapporteur on human rights in Russia by the UN’s Human Rights Committee holds out some hope for the future, it is indeed a future that is yet to come.