11 December 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 Ilya Yashin was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison on charges of spreading ‘fake news’ about the Russian military, the civil society organisation Vesna [Spring] based in Saint Petersburg was designated as ‘extremist,’ a neighbour of one of the defendants in the Network case said he himself had been tortured in 2018 and the European Platform for Democratic Elections marked ten years of its existence, noting that the Russian election monitor Golos had had to suspend its membership because of repressive actions by the Russian authorities. As Russia continued its unlawful war against Ukraine, Amnesty International reported on the particular impact the war was having on the elderly and Human Rights Watch issued a report on the impact of Russia’s widespread targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure which it described as ‘‘primarily designed to instill terror among the population in violation of the laws of war.’ Internationally, Latvia’s electronic media regulator to rescind the licence of the independent Russian TV channel Dozhd drew widespread criticism, not least from Reporters Without Borders and Article 19. And Human Rights Watch urged the members of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to vote to accredit a number of NGOs whose accreditation Russia, among other states, had been blocking.
Domestic Russian news
Politician Ilya Yashin, OVD-Info reported, was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison on charges of spreading ‘information known to be false’ about the Russian army on grounds of political hatred. The criminal case had been launched against him in July because of a YouTube channel stream in which he spoke about the killings in Bucha. Amnesty International condemned the conviction and sentencing and called for Yashin’s immediate and unconditional release and and the release of all those imprisoned solely for expressing their opposition to the war of aggression. The organisation pointed out that extrajudicial executions of civilians and other war crimes committed by members of Russian forces in Bucha have been documented by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch also called for Yashin’s release and said the sentence was part of ‘continued efforts to dismantle and decapitate Russia’s peaceful political opposition and silence any criticism of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine.’ The organisation pointed out that Yashin was a close friend of the murdered Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, an ally of Vladimir Kara-Murza, held in detention since April on charges of “false information” for criticizing Russia’s war in Ukraine, and a colleague of Aleksei Gorinov, a fellow Moscow councillor and the first person to be sentenced to prison time (seven years) on ‘fake news’ charges related to statements about the war in Ukraine.
Heavy fines, imprisonment, loss of livelihood, harassment, and physical attacks are all being used to silence those who protest or speak out against the war of aggression against Ukraine. In today’s Russia, telling the truth about human rights violations has literally been made a crime. Considerable personal risk has never deterred Ilya Yashin from speaking truth to power. As many others, he could not stay silent about the Russian forces’ killing of civilians in Bucha. Now he’s paying a high price for speaking out, facing eight and half years behind bars.Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Russia Director
Ilya Yashin spoke out about some of Russian forces’ atrocities in Ukraine in full knowledge of the personal risks,” That should never be grounds for legal action, yet the Kremlin relentlessly continues to persecute high-profile pro-democracy figures and opponents of Russia’s war in Ukraine. […] The verdict against Yashin is a travesty of justice and an act of cowardice, directed by a Kremlin that feels threatened by vocal and visible critics like him,” Denber said. “That is no excuse to deprive him of his liberty and rights. They should immediately and unconditionally free Yashin, Kara-Murza, Gorinov, and others persecuted on these spurious charges and drop all charges against them.Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch
The criminal article on ‘fake news’ about the Russian army appeared in March 2022 and quickly became a tool of military censorship and repression. At least 121 people have been prosecuted under it, according to OVD-Info’s calculations. The conviction of Ilya Yashin is yet another example of how the authorities seek to silence dissenters.OVD-Info
The Vesna [Spring] movement, OVD-Info reported, has been declared an extremist organisation by St Petersburg City Court in response to a lawsuit filed by the prosecutor’s office. The activists do not know the content of the lawsuit since parts of the case against them were classified. The members of the movement intend to appeal against the court ruling and plan to continue their activities. The Federal Financial Monitoring Service has already added Vesna to the list of ‘terrorists and extremists,’ and subsequently the Ministry of Justice added the movement to the list of ‘foreign agents.’
Since the start of the war with Ukraine, members of Vesna have been staging anti-war demonstrations and announcing protests on social media, which quickly attracted the attention of the authorities. In May, a criminal case was opened against supporters of the movement for their involvement in an NGO that infringed on the rights of citizens. Later, the charge of incitement to mass disorder was added to the charges. There are a total of eight defendants in the case, not all of whom are associated with Vesna.OVD-Info
Aleksei Runov, a neighbour of one of the defendants in the Network case, has said that he was himself tortured in 2018, OVD-Info has reported. Runov, an anti-fascist activist, said that at the time he was living in the same flat in St Petersburg as Igor Shishkin, later convicted of participation in a terrorist group. According to Runov, law enforcement officers conducted a search of his home in January 2018, took him to a van, put him face down on the floor, put a black bag over his head and began to electrocute him while asking him questions. Runov was then taken to the city’s FSB office where the interrogation continued.
In 2020, the ten defendants in the Network case were sentenced to long jail terms. According to the FSB, young people in Penza and St Petersburg organised a terrorist group called Network and intended to overthrow the government. The defendants in the case have alleged they were subjected to psychological pressure, electrocution and beatings, and had weapons planted on them; some of them have recanted the confessions they gave in the days following their detention. Memorial Human Rights Centre stated that the entire case was built on torture and the resulting testimony of defendants and witnesses, and that the investigation consisted of fitting the real facts to the theories of FSB officers.OVD-Info
The European Platform for Democratic Elections has marked ten years of its existence, saying that fighting for election integrity now more important than ever. Since its launch in December 2012 by European citizen election observation organizations, the EPDE has evolved into a professional network of 16 members from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Sweden and Ukraine. It’s Russian founding member, Golos, has been forced to suspend its membership in the EPDE.
While achievements in electoral integrity have been made in Ukraine, Armenia and the Republic of Moldova, we witness brutal crackdowns against civil society actors in the Russian Federation, Belarus and Azerbaijan as well as worrying trends in some EU Member States. […] In the Russian Federation, EPDE itself was branded a so-called Undesirable Foreign Organization (“UFO”). The criminalization of any form of affiliation with EPDE forced our founding member, the Russian movement “Golos” to suspend its membership of EPDE. With the ongoing war against Ukraine and its networks of malign influence, Russia exerts its corrosive influence beyond its borders.The European Platform for Democratic Elections
Russia’s war against Ukraine
Amnesty International in a report said that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has had a ‘devastating impact’ on older people.
This report shows how older people have made up a disproportionate number of civilian deaths and injuries. It also shows how intersecting challenges such as disability, poverty and age discrimination place older people in displacement at higher risk, particularly with regards to accessing housing. Older people stay behind in damaged homes without roofs or windows, and thousands have been placed in state institutions, which can lead to their isolation, neglect and abuse.Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch published a report detailing Russian forces’ widespread and repeated targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure which the organisation said appears ‘primarily designed to instill terror among the population in violation of the laws of war.’ The organisation noted that ‘numerous missile and drone attacks in October and November have deprived millions of civilians of at least temporary access to electricity, water, heat, and related vital services ahead of the cold winter months’ and the attacks ‘have also killed at least 77 civilians and injured 272.’ The laws of war prohibit attacks on objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population and violence or threats, “the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population.”
By repeatedly targeting critical energy infrastructure knowing this will deprive civilians of access to water, heat, and health services, Russia appears to be seeking unlawfully to create terror among civilians and make life unsustainable for them. With the coldest winter temperatures yet to come, conditions will become more life-threatening while Russia seems intent on making life untenable for as many Ukrainian civilians as possible.Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement saying it ‘deeply regrets the ‘inexplicable decision’ by Latvia’s electronic media regulator to rescind the licence of the Riga-based independent Russian TV channel Dozhd.
The incomprehensible and disturbing decision to rescind Dozhd’s licence in Latvia is unworthy of a European country that defends press freedom,” This censorship of an independent Russian media outlet undermines efforts to combat Kremlin propaganda, which is one of the Latvian government’s goals. If the decision was taken in connection with State Security Service concerns about ‘threats to national security and public order,’ as claimed in the media regulator’s official statement, the regulator must provide a precise explanation of the reasons.Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk
Article 19, along with other partners in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (Article 19 Europe, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, European Federation of Journalists, International Press Institute, Mass Media Defence Centre and OBC Transeuropa) in a statement urged Latvia’s media regulator not to revoke Dozhd license pending court review and expressed ‘serious concern over the decision by Latvia’s National Electronic Mass Media Council (NEPLP) to revoke the broadcast license of exiled independent Russian TV station Dozhd, which is based in Riga.
Given the clear implications for media freedom, our organisations urge the regulator to refrain from enforcing the revocation until a court has reviewed the decision. […] While our organisations recognise the sensitivity of this issue in Latvia, our shared view is that the decision to revoke their broadcast license is disproportionate and ultimately counterproductive. […] Independent Russian journalism should be provided a safe refuge in Europe. Dozhd’s mission of providing independent news to Russian-speaking audiences is a crucial one and we hope this matter can be resolved.Article 19 Europe, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, European Federation of Journalists, International Press Institute, Mass Media Defence Centre and OBC Transeuropa
Human Rights Watch urged United Nations member countries in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to vote to accredit nine human rights and other civil society organizations ‘whose UN applications have been stuck in limbo due to several countries including China, Russia, and India obstructing the accreditation process.’ The organisations in questions are: the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Coptic Solidarity, the Arab-European Center of Human Rights and International Law, the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice, the World Union of Cossack Atamans, Man and Law, and World Without Genocide.
Accrediting these nine groups would send a strong signal to UN member countries about the importance of civil society organizations at the UN. But more rights-respecting governments should seek seats on the NGO committee to tip the balance against abusive ones. Abusers currently have the upper hand on an anti-NGO committee that has become the UN’s merciless gatekeeper. Governments should keep working to shift the balance in favor of those that support civil society.Human Rights Watch
This week there is further evidence of the extreme repression to which the Russian authorities are resorting domestically: the severity of the eight-and-a-half-year sentence handed down to Ilya Yashin for publicly discussing Russia’s war crimes (following the earlier seven-year sentence given to Yashin’s fellow councillor Aleksei Gorinov on the same charge) and the appeal court decision to uphold the 22-year sentence in the case of Ivan Safronov, a journalist whose guilt on charges of treason, as Lev Shlosberg pointed out, ‘was not only unproven, but obviously non-existent.’ Despite this clampdown on freedom of expression, as yet defendants have a right to speak in court. Yashin, in his moving speech at the end of his trial, addressing not only, it may be said, his family, friends and colleagues but the wider Russian public, urged: ‘Please, do not lapse into despair and do not forget that this is your country and mine. It is worth fighting for.’ Examples of the suppression of freedom of expression was paralleled this week by a further attack on the right of association: the designation of the civil society group Vesna as an extremist organisation (while other reminders this week of the authorities’ clampdown on the right of association included the fact that the election monitor Golos, a founder of the EPDE now celebrating its tenth anniversary, is no longer a member of that association and Russia’s efforts to prevent the accreditation of Russian and other NGOs at the UN ECOSOC).
Meanwhile reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continued to highlight the Russian regime’s murderous invasion of Ukraine, not least its utter disregard for the lives and well-being of Ukraine’s citizens and for the laws of war. The ever-growing gulf between Russia and Europe (and the West in general) took a new form this week when Latvia’s electronic media regulator revoked the broadcasting licence of Dozhd TV, itself in exile from Putin’s Russia. Looking ahead to a post-Putin Russia, it is surely vital that proponents of democratic institutions and human rights in Russia should find support and succour in the West. This would do much to ensure that, if there is once again a turn to liberalisation in Russia, positive and mutually beneficial relations, albeit realistic in nature, will be possible between Russia and its neighbours, as more generally between Russia and the West, on the grounds that they are underpinned both by a sure knowledge of each other and by a shared commitment to human rights.