18 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 on the domestic front reports highlighted a number of prosecutions in Russia, both completed and ongoing, for ‘discrediting’ the Russian armed forces by disseminating information that the authorities claim is ‘known to be false’. These included those of Aleksei Gorinov, now ill in a prison hospital, Richard Rouz, who has been threatened while in pre-trial detention, and the journalist Valery Badmaev, currently under a curfew and travel restrictions and banned from using the internet or the telephone. Meanwhile a Moscow city local politician, Ketevan Kharaidze, was convicted of fraud in a case widely believed to be politically motivated. In a report Amnesty International condemned Russia’s failure to deal with rising levels of domestic violence. In relation to Russia’s war against Ukraine, Amnesty International condemned the adoption in first reading by the State Duma of a bill that would effectively give domestic immunity from prosecution for war crimes to Russian troops; in its report on the state of journalism, Reporters Without Borders stressed the number of journalists killed by Russian forces in Ukraine (as well as the jailing for 22 years of the journalist Ivan Safronov); Human Rights House Foundation delivered a statement on Ukraine at the UN Human Rights Council highlighting enforced disappearances and the situation for civil society in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; and in a report Human Rights Watch identified the unlawful use of cluster munitions by Russian forces in Kherson. Meanwhile among those congratulating this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates (Center for Civil Liberties [Ukraine], Memorial [Russia] and Viasna’s Ales Bialiatski [Belarus]) were the International Federation for Human Rights and the Human Rights House Foundation. One of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, made a speech at the awarding of Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Prize, which this year went to journalists from Iran, Ukraine and Morocco.
OVD-Info reported that Moscow former district councillor Aleksei Gorinov, jailed for seven years for disseminating ‘fake news’ about the Russian army, was admitted to the hospital at Penal Colony No. 3 in Vladimir region. Previously, the former local councillor had been refused treatment. In the pre-trial detention centre, he had fallen ill with bronchitis when kept in a cold cell.
The lack of medical care in prisons is not just a problem for political prisoners. Often there is a shortage of doctors and paramedics in prisons. […] The medics who work in penitentiary institutions are subordinate to the staff of the Federal Penitentiary Service and cannot always take decisions without their consent. All this leads to prisoners suffering from health problems, and some are even disabled by the time of their release.OVD-Info
OVD-Info also reported that Richard Rouz, prosecuted in Kirov for disseminating ‘fake news’ about the Russian army and for justifying terrorism, said investigators threatened him with physical violence. His wife and child have already left Russia.
Prisoners in pre-trial detention facilities are often completely unprotected: staff can deny them contact with the outside world by not handing over letters or refusing to allow lawyers or human rights activists to see them. A person is left alone to face the system and never knows when threats may become reality.OVD-Info
The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Russian authorities to immediately drop all charges against journalist Valery Badmaev, editor-in-chief of Sovremennaya Kalmykia, a newspaper in Elista the capital of Kalmykia, and stop harassing members of the press. The charge against Badmaev of ‘discrediting’ the Russian army apparently stems from a video the journalist shared on the Russian social media network Vkontakte that featured an interview with a member of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion describing the Russian army’s alleged use of phosphorus bombs in the war.
If convicted, Badmaev faces up to three years in prison.The continued persecution of Russian journalist Valery Badmayev shows authorities’ determination to suppress one of the only independent voices in Kalmykia striving to engage with the realities of the war in Ukraineю Authorities must immediately drop all charges against Badmayev and stop harassing journalists who report and comment on the war.Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator
Meanwhile in OVD-Info reported that a Moscow district local councillor Ketevan Kharaidze was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of fraud. Kharaidze was also fined 700,000 roubles and banned from holding public office for two years. In addition, the court ordered her to pay five million roubles to the victim.
The case of Ketevan Kharaidze is an example of how the state prosecutes opposition figures for ‘non-political’ offences. The councillor herself believes that the criminal case against her was initiated because in May 2021 she announced her intention to run in the September elections to the State Duma.OVD-Info
A new report by Amnesty International – Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Protect Women from Violence in Crises and Beyond – examines the institutional, social and cultural challenges faced by survivors of domestic violence in the region. The organisation points out that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its focus on ‘traditional values’ contribute to a deterioration in human rights and rising levels of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The report cites as examples Russia’s state-sponsored homophobia and its crackdown on human rights and women’s rights, The country has only 14 state-run shelters for women for a population of 146 million. In 2020 only three of 44 hospitals in Moscow were ready to provide non-emergency abortion services.
The pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the unspeakable horrors of conflicts, and their ramifications across the region have made it more difficult for those experiencing domestic violence to report it. It’s also now more difficult to flee unsafe situations, access shelters and other critical support services, obtain protection orders (if at all available) or rely on effective legal remedies.Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Researcher
Amnesty International condemned the adoption in first reading by the Russian State Duma of a bill that ‘effectively removes criminal liability for crimes committed by Russian forces and their proxies in the occupied territories of Ukraine.’
The bill, which refers to territories whose annexation was announced by Russia on 30 September, envisages legal immunity to those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law carried out on Ukrainian soil, so long as said crimes were committed ‘aimed at protecting the interests of the Russian Federation.’ While the document doesn’t specify what criminal offences would qualify as ‘protecting the interests of Russia’ Amnesty International believes the bill expressly seeks to legalize the commission of war crimes by the Russian forces and their proxies. It turns Russia’s failure to ensure justice for victims into an official policy. Russian servicepeople should remember that even if this unprecedented bill is eventually passed, it will not override international law and will not protect war criminals from eventually facing trials abroad under universal jurisdiction.Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Reporters Without Borders said in its annual report that a record total of 533 journalists are currently detained worldwide. The number of those killed increased again this year – to 57– while 65 journalists are being held hostage and 49 are missing. The organisation said Russia’s war against Ukraine is one of the reasons for this rise with eight journalists killed in the first six months of the war, including Maks Levin, a Ukrainian photojournalist deliberately shot by Russian soldiers, and Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, a French video reporter for the TV news channel BFMTV, killed by shrapnel from an exploding shell. The organisation also highlighted the case of Ivan Safronov sentenced to 22 years in prison for revealing ‘state secrets’ that were readily available online.
Dictatorial and authoritarian regimes are filling their prisons faster than ever by jailing journalists. This new record in the number of detained journalists confirms the pressing and urgent need to resist these unscrupulous governments and to extend our active solidarity to all those who embody the ideal of journalistic freedom, independence and pluralism.Christophe Deloire, RSF Secretary-General
Human Rights House Foundation delivered a statement on Ukraine at the UN Human Rights Council, highlighting enforced disappearances and the situation for civil society in the context of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The organisation urged the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights to make civil society engagement a continued priority during all aspects of his tenure in office.
Amongst the international crimes being committed by Russia in Ukraine, we are particularly dismayed by the summary arbitrary executions of unarmed civilians. We continue to draw attention to the hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances of Ukrainians in the newly occupied territories. Furthermore, we also draw the Council’s attention to the General Assembly’s draft resolution on the human rights situation in Crimea being considered this week in New York. The resolution identifies a number of unjustly detained people in Crimea, including “Emir-Usein Kuku, Server Mustafayev, Vladyslav Yesypenko and many others. More must be done to secure the freedom of all people unjustly detained and disappeared in Ukraine, including those in Crimea, some of whom have been in prison for multiple years.Human Rights House Foundation
Human Rights Watch in a report said Russian forces have apparently used cluster munitions on civilian areas of Kherson at least three times since they retreated from the city. As of November 25, the attacks killed at least 15 residents, including a child, and wounded 35, Human Rights Watch reports. The organisation’s researchers were in Kherson city from 20-24 November.
Residents of Kherson survived eight months of Russian occupation, and are finally free from fear of torture, only to be subjected to new indiscriminate attacks, apparently including cluster munitions. These attacks are being carried out with no apparent regard for civilian life. They are a direct rebuke to claims by Russia that it is only targeting the military.Belkis Wille, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch
Nobel Peace Prizes
The International Federation for Human Rights welcomed the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to three of its members: Ales Bialiatski, President of Viasna (Belarusian organisation) and former FIDH Vice President, Memorial, a Russian organisation and the Centre for Civil Liberties (CCL), Ukrainian organisation.
This prize honours us all, it also gives us a moment to ponder on the cost of freedom, of the right to self determination and to a peaceful life : for those praised today this often means bravely enduring the exact opposite. Their resistance is a way to transcend these hardships, a way to claim in the face of those trying desperately to smother them, that human rights are truly universal.Eléonore Morel, CEO of FIDH
Human Rights House Foundation also issued a statement congratulating what it called ‘these brave human rights defenders’: Center for Civil Liberties (Ukraine), Memorial (Russia) and Viasna’s Ales Bialiatski (Belarus). The statement quoted from the speeches of the laureates’ representatives, including Yan Rachinsky, head of Memorial:
Memorial is precisely a union of people who voluntarily assume civic responsibility for the past and present and work for the future. And maybe we should take this award not only as an assessment of what we have managed to do in thirty-five years, but also as a kind of advance on what we aim to do, because we are not giving up and we continue to work.Yan Rachinsky (Memorial) [read his full acceptance speech here]
Meanwhile, the Dmitry Muratov, 2021 Nobel peace laureate and then editor of the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta. attended the awarding of the 30th annual Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Prize to Iranian journalist Narges Mohammadi for Courage, Ukrainian journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Yevhen Maloletka for Impact, and Moroccan journalist Omar Radi for Independence. For the past 30 years, the RSF Press Freedom Prize has been honouring journalists and media outlets whose work has made an exceptional contribution to the defence or promotion of press freedom across the world. RSF reported: ‘In a speech opening the event, Muratov paid tribute to his Novaya Gazeta colleague Anna Politkovskaya, and to the 1,200 other journalists murdered in the past 15 years. Referring to “a new era of confrontation between dictatorial or authoritarian regimes and independent journalism,” he added: “Once journalists were killed but now entire media are liquidated”.’
Each year, the prize is awarded to extraordinary people who exercise journalism so that democracy and human rights can exist, so that the challenges facing humanity can be addressed, globally and locally, in order, as Albert Camus simply put it, to prevent the world from unravelling.RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire, at the opening of the award ceremony.
This week’s news makes clear how the Russian regime is fighting a war on two fronts. On the one hand this involves discouraging and preventing expressions of dissent about the war (prosecutions of Aleksei Gorinov, Richard Rouz and Valery Badmaev) and continuing repression of those active in the political opposition (Ketevan Kharaidze), while more broadly pursuing repressive policies based on ‘traditional values’ that, as Amnesty International points out, involves ‘state-sponsored homophobia and its crackdown on human rights and women’s rights’. On the other hand, with regard to Ukraine, we see the adoption of legislation that would give imunity for war crimes to Russian troops at the same time as these troops are committing possible war crimes against civilian targets (including use of cluster munitions) while other organisations highlighted different aspets of the Russian invasions such as the killing of journalists (Reporters Without Borders) and enforced disappearances (Human Rights House Foundation). In this context it is perhaps only to be expected that the Russian civil society organisation that has won the Nobel Peace Prize has itself been closed down and its property confiscated by the state in Russia (just as the previous year’s Russian winner edited a newspaper [Novaya gazeta] which has also been closed down in Russia). Civil society in Russia has been virtually eliminated by the authorities. One would like to say that no country can survive without its civil society, just as no country can survive without some degree of human rights protection. Yet Russia’s current regime seems set on testing that hypothesis – that hope – to destruction.