27 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 Amnesty International published a new report on human rights violations perpetrated in Russia against monitors and media workers who report from protests. There was much commentary on the new law that extends Russia’s existing homophobic legislation to essentially ban all mention of LGBT-related topics in all media. The four-year sentence for the former Open Russia activist Andrei Pivovarov was upheld for involvement in an ‘undesirable foreign organisation’ (he worked for an organisation that was not ‘foreign’ and was closed down at the time of prosecution). In a rare piece of good news, the acquittal of feminist artist Yulia Tsvetkova on charges of ‘pornography’ was upheld on appeal. Meanwhile, in occupied UKraine five Crimean Tatars were sentenced to long terms in prison of 13 and 14 years for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir and Amnesty International condemned the ‘unlawful transfer or deportation’ of civilians from occupied parts of Ukraine. Finally, Human Rights Watch condemned the use of cluster bombs by Syrian-Russian military alliance on camps for IDPs.
Amnesty International, in a major new report Russia: “You will be arrested anyway”: Reprisals against Monitors and Media Workers Reporting from Protests, documents dozens of cases of unlawful obstruction of journalists’ and monitors’ work during public protests, including arbitrary arrests, use of force, detentions and heavy fines. The organisation said that over the last 10 years, ‘The authorities have severely curtailed people’s rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, deploying a whole arsenal of laws and practices that are in stark contrast to Russia’s international human rights obligations.’
We can see that the Russian authorities are hellbent not only on preventing and severely penalizing any protest, however peaceful, but also on minimizing any public awareness of it. From the very beginning of Vladimir Putin’s presidency in 2000, the Russian authorities have been gradually limiting the right to peaceful protest, have increasingly penalized those who try to exercise it, making Russia a virtually protest-free zone. In February 2022, tens of thousands defied the prospect of extortionate fines and imprisonment and took to the streets of Russian cities in protest against the invasion of Ukraine. The authorities responded by issuing the heaviest penalties available against many participants. The police used brutal force against media workers and monitors observing and independently reporting on the protests. The authorities used the same approach a year earlier at protests in support of the wrongfully imprisoned opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny. By denying the public any knowledge about protests and obstructing their monitoring, the Kremlin is seeking to eradicate any public expression of discontent.Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher
OVD-Info reported that the State Duma had adopted a new bill on ‘LGBTQ propaganda’ that bans its dissemination online, in the media, in films, books and in advertisements. Violation of the law will result in fines of up to five million roubles and foreign nationals will be expelled from the country. Human Rights Watch condemned the legislation as ‘another blow to LGBT rights.’ OpenDemocracy published an article by Lucy Martirosyan setting out how the new law now ‘outlaws all mentions of LGBTIQ-related topics in the media.’
The 2013 ‘gay propaganda’ law was an unabashed example of political homophobia, and the new draft legislation amplifies that in broader and harsher ways. Just as the original law resulted in significant stigma and harm toward LGBT people in Russia, this updated version will have an even more stifling effect on freedom of expression, well-being and security.Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch
The new law practically forbids people from talking about queer experience and highlighting LGBTQ issues. Almost anything can be considered “propaganda” – even photographs of same-sex couples. For most Russians, such large fines are almost impossible to pay, and the only way out is to keep quiet and hide. In addition, the lack of representation of the LGBTQ community in the media leads to increasing intolerance – and homophobic hate crimes have not decreased in the country in recent years anyway.OVD-Info
OVD-Info also reported that the conviction of the politician Andrei Pivovarov has been upheld in his prosecution for participation in the work of an ‘undesirable organisation.’ His sentence was left unchanged – four years in prison and a ban on social and political activities for eight years. A few days before Pivovarov was detained, the Open Russia board had liquidated the organisation in order to safeguard its supporters.
The case against Pivovarov was probably brought to prevent him from standing in the 2021 State Duma elections. “There was nothing criminal about my activities. The case against me is straightforward revenge for my views and political activities,” he said in his closing statement. The authorities increasingly often try to get rid of disloyal candidates by any means they can find: administrative prosecutions to prevent them from running, and sometimes, as in Pivovarov’s case, criminal charges are brought against them. And so it is practically impossible for opposition candidates to participate in Russian politics.OVD-Info
Amnesty International reported that a Russian court in Komsomolsk-on-Amur has upheld the acquittal of feminist artist Yulia Tsvetkova who had been on trial on charges of ‘pornography’ for body-positive drawings of vaginas.
The decision to uphold the acquittal of Yulia Tsvetkova is a rare example of justice in today’s Russia. The repressive architecture built by Vladimir Putin’s administration over the last two decades aims to stage absurd trials based on spurious accusations – it’s rare that anyone escapes the clutches of this system. The repressive architecture built by Vladimir Putin’s administration over the last two decades aims to stage absurd trials based on spurious accusations – it’s rare that anyone escapes the clutches of this system. For three years, Yulia Tsvetkova has faced house arrest, travel restrictions, fines and reprisals simply for exercising her right to freedom of expression. Her inclusion on the infamous ‘foreign agents’ list has also deprived her of the opportunity to work with children and educational organizations. She can breathe slightly easier now that she no longer faces a prison term for promoting the rights of women and LGBTI people.Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Russia Director
Yulia Tsvetkova’s case was ludicrous from the beginning: it was brought because of anatomical representations of female bodies and abstract drawings of vulvas. The pictures were accompanied by body-positive slogans – the artist wanted to teach women to love themselves and accept their bodies in any form. Although the court acquitted her in the end, the artist was subjected to significant pressure. The young woman spent four months under house arrest, was refused medical treatment, received administrative fines because of her other work, and in June of this year she was entered on the register of ‘foreign agents.’OVD-Info
OVD-Info reported that five Crimean Tatars, defendants in a Hizb ut-Tahrir trial – Rustem Sheikhaliev, Ruslan Suleimanov, Osman Arifmemetov, Enver Ametov and Yashar Muedinov, have been given sentences of between 13 and 14 years in prison for participating in the activities of a ‘terrorist organisation’ and preparing the ‘violent seizure of power.’ Three of them worked as journalists for Crimean Solidarity before their arrest. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the sentencing of two of them, the Crimean Tatar journalists Osman Arifmemetov and Rustem Sheikhaliev to 14 years in prison.
The draconian 14-year prison sentences for Crimean Tatar journalists Osman Arifmemetov and Rustem Sheikhaliev demonstrate just how intent Russian authorities are on eliminating any dissenting voices on Crimea. This sentencing should raise alarm bells for anyone who cares about freedom of the press in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea. Russian authorities must immediately release Arifmemetov, Sheikhaliev, and all other imprisoned members of the press.Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator
Heavy sentences are regularly imposed on those charged with involvement [in HIzb ut-Tahrir] – often those convicted are given over ten years in prison. In the opinion of the Sova Information and Analysis Centre, the party has been improperly recognized as a terrorist party. Moreover, its supporters have not yet been found guilty of actual conspiratorial activity, and they are only accused of preparing a violent takeover of power on the basis of party activity, Sova notes.OVD-Info
Amnesty International published a report condemning the unlawful transfer or deportation of civilians from occupied parts of Ukraine.
Russian and Russian-controlled forces have committed war crimes and likely crimes against humanity by unlawfully transferring or deporting civilians from certain occupied parts of Ukraine. Russian and Russian-controlled authorities also forced civilians through an abusive screening process known as ‘filtration,’ where some were arbitrarily detained, subject to torture or other ill-treatment, and separated from their children.Amnesty International
On the occasion of the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a Ukrainian edition of the Glossary on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, a publication that ‘sheds light on essential terminology related to such violence. It is intended to inform the work of researchers, legal professionals, advocates, journalists, and all those addressing the gender dimension of the ongoing war in Ukraine.’
The publication comes at a time when evidence of sexual violence by Russian troops in Ukraine is mounting. Civil society organisations and international agencies have documented patterns of SGBV affecting women, men and children of all ages. The cases documented include – but are not limited to – rape, forced nudity, threats of sexual violence and coercion to witness such violence. In several incidents documented by the United Nations Independent Inquiry Commission on Ukraine, Russian armed forces committed sexual violence against men and women in their custody, often using forced nudity in a coercive and humiliating environment. Victims, including children, have sometimes been forced to witness these crimes.International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
Human Rights Watch in a report condemned the attacks by the Syrian-Russian military alliance on 6 November 2022 that used banned cluster munitions on four camps for internally displaced people. HRW reported that the attacks killed eight civilians and wounded dozens of others.
The Syrian-Russian military alliance continues to defiantly use banned weapons against a trapped civilian population in Syria with devastating consequences “Not only are cluster munitions harming Syrians today, but unexploded submunitions can go on killing long into the future.Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch
If the upholding of the acquital of the artist Yulia Tsvetkova is a rare ray of light in an otherwise very gloomy picture, even here there is very little to celebrate. As Amnesty International and other commentators pointed out, for three years Tsvetkova was under house arrest and was subject to various travel restrictions, fines and reprisals, including being designated a ‘foreign agent’, simply for exercising her right to freedom of expression. Her case is a kind of reductio ad absurdum, even if it did not quite reach the absurdity (the horror) of her being imprisoned. However, this absurdity was reached in the mirror case of the upholding by a court of the conviction and four-year sentence handed down to activist Andrei Pivovarov for participating in an organisation that was neither ‘foreign’ nor even existed at the time of his prosecution.
Amnesty International’s report this week on violations related to public protests paints the stark context of a human rights situation in Russia that has deteriorated dramatically over the past ten years. And this week the passage of new homophobic legislation is another clear indication that, domestically, the Russian authorities are set on continuing a policy of repression of dissent, restriction of freedom and persecution of selected minorities. The conviction of five Crimean Tatars and sentencing to extraordinarily long terms of imprisonment (13-14 years) for involvement in HIzb ut-Tahrir (an organisation that does not advocate violence but has been wrongly banned as ‘terrorist,’ as Memorial Human Rights Centre among others regularly pointed out before its liquidation) represents a kind of triumph of this absurdity of the Russian justice system, exercising jurisdiction on a territory where it has no right to do so and with such vicious arbitrariness into the bargain.
Of course there is a kind of logic to all this, a logic that we see most clearly expressed in Russia’s ongoing military aggression against Ukraine (as evidenced yet again by Amnesty International’s report this week). Russia’s current regime respects human rights neither at home nor abroad, and if the domestic repression is of a far milder nature, taken on the whole, from the outrageous violence we all witness in Ukraine – and in Syria, as Human Rights Watch has described in its latest report on the region – these are, it must surely be the case, two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same regime. As seems most likely, and tragically, so long as this regime is at war, there will be repression at home, and so long as there is repression at home, the regime will find itself a war to wage.