27 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 past week the clampdown on the right of association in Russia plumbed new depths when the Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit to close down Russia’s oldest human rights organisation, the Moscow Helsinki Group; in the same week activist Daria Poliudova was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment on charges of ‘creating an extremist group.’ These actions also illustrate the on-going crackdown on freedom of expression, also to be seen in the sentencing of Vladimir Rumyantsev to three years’ imprisonment for disseminating ‘fake news’ about the Russian military, the on-going prosecution of media editor Mikhail Afanaseyev on the same charge and the prosecution of a schoolboy on charges of incitement of terrorism and its justification or propaganda. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch raised concerns about the surveillance of school-age children in Moscow and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Memorial published a joint report on the failure of the authorities to provide transitional justice for victims of the Gulag. With respect to Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, this week Human Rights Watch condemned a bill passing through the State Duma that would provide domestic immunity for Russian war crimes committed in occupied Ukraine and highlighted an attack on Ukrainian medical facilities; while Amnesty International and FIDH reported on Russia’s unlawful attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.
OVD-Info reported that the Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit to dissolve the Moscow Helsinki Group on the grounds that the organisation’s staff had attended events in cities outside the capital, which, as a regional organisation, the Moscow Helsinki Group had no right to do. The Moscow Helsinki Group noted that the list included trial observations, complaints about lack of access to courts and seminars with regional partners, including some conducted online, and also an appeal to the Governor of St Petersburg to lift restrictions on holding public events. Human Rights Watch condemned the move to close an organisation that has been ‘working tirelessly to expose abuses, build up a country-wide human rights movement in Russia, and advocate for the rule of law.’
The Moscow Helsinki Group was founded in 1976 by Soviet dissidents and is the oldest human rights organisation in the country. Its staff monitors human rights in accordance with the Helsinki Accords which were signed by 35 countries in 1975. In the 1980s, the organisation was dissolved because of state pressure, and now, thirty years later, history is repeating itself.OVD-Info
The liquidation lawsuit is based on the Justice Ministry’s ad hoc inspection of MHG. […] These are obviously bureaucratic pretexts that could not justify such a drastic move. This year, Moscow courts liquidated four other major human rights groups in addition to Memorial, so it’s hard to find optimism for a fair trial for MHG. But it’s not hard to be optimistic about Russia’s human rights movement. It outlasted the Soviet Union; it will outlast today’s oppressors.Tanya Lokshina, Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
Daria Poliudova, OVD-Info reported, has been sentenced to nine years in prison for creating an extremist group, Left Resistance. Another activist of the movement, Kirill Kotov, received a three-year suspended sentence. In addition, Poliudova was found guilty of public incitement of terrorism or its justification for a post titled ‘Execute the traitor Putler for treason!’; publications on the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea; and pickets in support of members of the Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir. Poliudova is currently serving a six-year sentence for justifying terrorism and she will serve both terms concurrrently, counted as having started in January 2020 when she was remanded in custody in connection with her previous trial.
The investigation considers staging pickets and publishing material on social media to be the activities of an extremist group. However, it should be noted that the right to organise peaceful rallies and disseminate information in the media and on social networks are guaranteed by the Constitution. Also, according to the Memorial Human Rights Centre, there is nothing criminal in either the subjects of the posts or the text of the placards.OVD-Info
OVD-Info also reported that a criminal case has been brought against a schoolboy from Yakutia over a video about Columbine. The eleventh-grader has been charged with public incitement of terrorism and its justification or propaganda. In November, the schoolboy allegedly posted a TikTok video on his Telegram chat about the 1999 American school shooting by teenagers Dylan Clebold and Eric Harris, and signed it with the words ‘We could do it again.’ The court remanded the young man in custody.
In February, at the request of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Russian Supreme Court declared Columbine a terrorist movement and banned it from the country. The word ‘Columbines’ refers to mass murders in school facilities, and there is no evidence that an organised movement of that name exists. After the court’s decision, participants in Internet communities about school shootings, or users who spread information about such cases, could face criminal liability. They will not be prosecuted for actual violence, but for their statements on social networks, and the punishment could be imprisonment, which is hardly proportionate.OVD-Info
A court in Vologda, OVD-Info reported, has sentenced Vladimir Rumyantsev, a 61-year-old stoker and radio ham, to three years in prison for disseminating ‘fake news’ about the Russian army on his VKontakte page and via his personal radio station, where he rebroadcast, for example, YouTube broadcasts of Ekho Moskvy, which had by that time been closed.
The Committee to Protect Journalists argued that the case of Mikhail Afanaseyev, chief editor of the online magazine Novy Fokus who was detained and his digital devices seized in April and now faces a possible 10-year sentence on charges of disseminating ‘fake news’ about riot police in southern Siberia refusing to serve in Ukraine, illustrates how forensic tools have opened a new front for using phone data to prosecute journalists.
A law enforcement agent scrolling through a journalist’s unlocked phone is already a problematic scenario for press freedom. But this risk is supercharged by technology that can copy and search the entire content of phones and computers, sometimes even if they are locked. Like spyware, forensic tools can access everything on a phone or computer, but unlike spyware, such tools are in widespread, open usage in democracies as well as more repressive regimes. Their use has accelerated threats to the press while protections and public awareness lag behind.Madeleine Earp, Consultant Technology Editor for Committee to Protect Journalists
Human Rights Watch in a report said millions of Moscow children have been subjected to surveillance. The organisation said that ‘NLB Team,’ a pro-Ukrainian hacker group, reportedly leaked the personal data of more than 17 million children and parents who used the online learning platform Moscow Electronic School. However, prior to the hack, the Moscow city government had itself violated the privacy of Moscow Electronic School’s students. The organisation said the platform ‘secretly surveilled children online and tracked them across the internet, outside of school hours, and deep into their private lives.’
Children and their data are not pawns in times of war, nor commodities to be exploited in peacetime. All actors should immediately refrain from physical or digital attacks on schools and on children. And the Moscow city government should protect its children’s privacy, including from itself.Hye Jung Han, Researcher and Advocate, Children’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch
FIDH in a report said that more than thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, victims of the Gulag are still stranded in remote parts of Russia to which they or their parents were deported, and the true nature and extent of atrocities committed by the Soviet regime generally remains outside the public domain. The organisation noted that the recently liquidated Memorial ‘quietly led the struggle to obtain reparations for victims of repressions and to uncover the truth about Soviet-era atrocities.’
Memorial’s joint publication with International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) details Memorial’s efforts to further transitional justice for the victims despite the formidable political and legal obstacles they face in today’s Russia. In their new report published today: ‘Overcoming the Past : An Overview of Memorial’s Transitional Justice Jurisprudence in Russia’, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Memorial offer a detailed account of litigation efforts undertaken by Memorial to help children of GULAG detainees to return to the homes of their exiled parents and to facilitate access to archives concerning Soviet-era repressions.FIDH
By whitewashing the repressive Soviet past and denying access to archives, Russia is not only denying justice to surviving victims, but it is also feeding its current propaganda machine. The authorities have a specific objective of manipulating history to create a rhetorical equivalency between the current ‘denazification’ campaign in Ukraine to the Soviet Union’s liberating mission during the Second World War, facilitating propaganda of the ongoing aggression.Ilya Nuzov, Head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk at FIDH.
Our work demonstrates that even in the current political conditions in Russia it is imperative, and possible, to pursue efforts to vindicate the rights of victims of the repressive Soviet regime. […] Whether it’s a recognition of a policy failure by the regime to provide reparations or access to files of a rehabilitated person, these are small but important steps towards transitional justice in Russia which were never undertaken by the authorities in good faith.Grigory Vaypan, a lawyer of Memorial
Russia’s war on Ukraine
Human Rights Watch called on Russia to withdraw a bill adopted by the State Duma unanimously in its first reading that would ‘provide effective immunity for certain crimes committed in occupied areas of Ukraine, in violation of Russia’s international legal obligations.’ The organisation said the bill seeks to impose the Russian criminal code and code of criminal procedure in Russia-occupied areas of Donetska, Luhanska, Zaporizka, and Khersonska regions and mandates dropping criminal cases and overturning convictions against those who committed crimes prior to September 30 while acting ‘in the interests of the Russian Federation’ in those regions. The organisation notes that these crimes would ‘presumably include war crimes and grave human rights abuses, and would cover Russian officials and their proxies.’
Russia’s proposed new law would ensure domestic impunity for Russian officials and their proxies who have committed war crimes and grave abuses in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. The bill shows utter disregard for Russia’s obligations under the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law. […] Russia should drop this immunity bill instead of licensing further lawlessness.Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch
Amnesty International in a statement called for Russia to end its unlawful targeted assaults on civilian infrastructure. The organisation said that Russian armed forces’ continued attacks against Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure are a ‘blatant violation of international humanitarian law’ and ‘endanger the lives of civilians with freezing temperatures setting in.’ The attacks ‘prevent Ukrainian civilians from accessing education, healthcare, and food while also forcing people to endure freezing conditions in their own homes.’
As many countries across the world enter the festive period, their streets covered in Christmas lights, the world must remember Ukraine, which continues to be mercilessly plunged into darkness by Russia’s sustained, deliberate and unlawful attacks on its energy infrastructure. Ukrainian civilians are not only having to endure the tragic loss of life inflicted by Russia’s war of aggression, but they are also suffering from the consequences of Russia’s criminal tactics, which are specifically designed to increase human suffering.Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
FIDH published a position paper in which it said that Russia’s attacks against energy infrastructure ‘violate international humanitarian law and could be qualified as war crimes.’ The organisation noted that since early October, Russia’s attacks against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure have ‘dramatically increased’ with almost weekly strikes against power stations and other energy facilities, causing millions of Ukrainians to suffer power and water outages. As temperatures in Ukraine drop below zero, experts warn of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe. The organisation said the Russian attacks against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure are illegal under international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict, specifically the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, a treaty that regulates the conduct of hostilities and that has been ratified by both Russia and Ukraine.
On 8 December, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin publicly admitted that Russia’s strikes were deliberately directed against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, insinuating that Russia will not cease targeting power stations and other energy facilities across Ukraine.FIDH
Human Rights Watch reported on a missile attack on a maternity hospital in southern Ukraine in the Vilniansk district’s central hospital in the Zaporizka region. The report said that, two doctors were injured in the attack. The organisation noted that in nearly 10 months of war, ‘attacks have hit many other hospitals in Ukraine, including a maternity hospital in Mariupol in March’ and that the World Health Organization ‘reported more than 715 attacks on health care, killing and injuring more than 229 people.’
Despite the risks of war, healthcare workers like Andriy [Kozin – one of the injured doctors] are there for their patients. Attacks on healthcare institutions jeopardize vital, timely and quality services, endangering patients’ lives and health. All attacks on healthcare personnel, patients, and healthcare facilities should stop and their protected status should be respected.Kseniya Kvitka, Assistant Researcher, Human Rights Watch
In a 2013 interview with Rights in Russia, the late Arseny Roginsky, then head of the International Memorial Society, pointed out that the Russian authorities had never really come to accept and recognise the right of association of Russian citizens. The closing down of For Human Rights and then Memorial showed this lack of recognition was becoming a definite official policy of eradication of civil society groups, a scorched earth policy that reached its apotheosis this week with the move to close the Moscow Helsinki Group, founded in 1976 by Soviet dissidents.
Putin’s repressive policies and what might be called his ‘sovietisation’ of the Russian polity were also to be seen in other ways this week. With higher profile activists such as Navalny, Yashin and Kara-Murza either in prison or detention, reports focused on a series of less well-known individuals have been either sentenced or are being prosecuted for expressions of opinion, including those cited above of Poliudova, Rumyantsev, Afanaseyev and a schoolboy from Yakutia. Meanwhile, as recent reports show, the Russian state is increasing its surveillance capacity, not least in relation to schoolchildren, and predictably failing to provide justice for victims of historical crimes by the Russian state. We also see – as with the latest bill providing domestic immunity for war crimes – law reduced, very much in Soviet style, to little more than a means for state authorities to do exactly as they wish.
The closure of the Moscow Helsinki Group is an extraodinary development for the political leader who acceded to the presidential office in 2000 at a time when post-Soviet hopes for a freer and more liberal country still remained very much alive (illustrated, not least, by the 2001 Civic Forum of civil society organisations from all over the country which he attended at the invitation of Liudmila Alekseeva, then head of the Moscow Helsinki Group). The Moscow Helsinki Group’s closure seems ineluctably to be connected to Putin’s February invasion of Ukraine. And indeed, over the 22 years of Putin’s rule, as step by step he created an ever more personalised pyramid of power, there has always been a close relationship between military action (at home or abroad) and domestic repression. In his latest and most destructive move, Putin decided to do his utmost to destroy Ukraine as a country, as the latest reports by international human rights groups well illustrate. Yet his policies are also having a devastating impact on Russia, if of a different kind. If it is in any sense possible to put the appalling and irreplaceable loss of human life caused by Russia in Ukraine to one side, at this stage of the conflict it seems reasonable to suppose that when the war has ended, Ukraine will be rebuilt with the assistance of its Western partners. The destruction Putin has wreaked on Russia itself may ultimately prove to have far longer lasting consequences.