8 January 2023
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 Front Line Defenders highlighted the case of Sergei Babinets, formerly head of the Committee Against Torture, fined under Russia’s repressive ‘foreign agent’ legislation despite the fact that the organisation no longer existed. The 2018 suicide bombing of the Arkhangelsk FSB headquarters by Mikhail Zhlobitsky continues to resonate as yet another person – Yaroslav Vilchevsky in Vladivostok – was prosecuted for referring to Zhlobitsky as a ‘hero.’ Meanwhile, in Rostov-on-Don three minors were detained for ‘intending’ to commit an arson attack against a military recruitment office, and in Crimea Andrei Belozerov, under house arrest for posting on VKontakte a report about Russia’s shelling of the Ukrainian civilian population, is going hungry because he cannot go out to the shops. In its annual report on the numbers of journalists killed, Reporters Without Borders pointed out that Russia remains the European country where the greatest number of journalists have been killed in the last 20 years.
Front Line Defenders issued a statement condemning the court decision to uphold on appeal the fine imposed on human rights defender Sergei Babinets, formerly chair of the prominent Committee Against Torture (CAT) NGO, under the ‘foreign agent’ law. The Committee Against Torture, based in Nizhny Novgorod, was shut down on 10 June 2022 after it was listed as a foreign agent. Babinets argued that the Court cannot fine him for the activity of an organisation that no longer exists, he plans to appeal the decision.
Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned about the judicial harassment and prosecution of human rights defender Sergey Babinets. Front Line Defenders, again, reiterates its concern over the Russian Government’s continued use of foreign agents laws to prevent human rights defenders from exercising their legitimate and peaceful human rights work in the country.Front Line Defenders
OVD-Info reported that Yaroslav Vilchevsky, a resident of Vladivostok, is being prosecuted for justifying terrorism because of a post on the VKontakte social media site which referred to the anarchist Mikhail Zhlobitsky, who blew himself up, injuring three officers, in the Arkhangelsk FSB building in 2018, as a ‘hero’. If convicted Vilchevsky faces up to seven years in prison.
At least 49 criminal cases have been launched across the country because of posts about Zhlobitsky. […] In 2020, Kaluga resident Ivan Liubshin was sentenced to five years and two months in prison for calling Zhlobitsky ‘the hero of the week, at least’ (according to Liubshin, he meant the anarchist had become a hero of the news cycle). Also that year, Radio Svoboda journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva was fined 500,000 roubles for a broadcast on ‘Ekho Moskvy in Pskov’ in which she speculated about possible motives for the young man’s actions.OVD-Info
OVD-Info also reported that In Rostov-on-Don, three young people, including two minors, have been detained on suspicion of attempting to set fire to a military recruitment office. Investigators allege the young people intended to throw Molotov cocktails into the building but were unable to carry out their plan ‘for reasons beyond their control’.
Arson attacks have been occurring at military recruitment offices throughout the country since the beginning of the full-scale war against Ukraine, and after the announcement of the ‘partial’ mobilization such attacks became more frequent. Most of the cases are probably protests against Russian military aggression. Under conditions of military censorship, increased repression and the impossibility of legally expressing protest, the country’s residents have to resort to extreme measures in the hope that they will somehow influence the situation.OVD-Info
In Crimea, OVD-Info reports, former technical school teacher Andrei Belozerov, who is under house arrest on charges of disseminating ‘fake news’ about the Russian military after posting on VKontakte a report about the shelling of the civilian population of Ukraine by Russian troops, is going hungry because he is unable to buy himself groceries and consequently is suffering from fainting spells. Under house arrest, he is unable to go to the shops and his wife and son live far away and cannot travel to see him because of financial hardship.
House arrest can be a much more difficult experience than it seems from the outside. In a pre-trial detention centre, a prisoner at least receives free food, but under house arrest they have to provide for their own sustenance. As a rule, a person who has been restricted in this way can communicate only with close relatives, the investigator, their lawyer, and one employee of the Federal Penitentiary Service – a neighbour can’t just bring them groceries.OVD-Info
Reporters Without Borders reported in its annual review on the number of journalists killed in connection with their work that Russia remains Europe’s deadliest country for the media, with the most journalists killed over the past 20 years, not least the high-profile killing of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya on 7 October 2006. Since 24 February 2022 when Russia once again invaded Ukraine, eight journalists have been killed as a result of the fighting.
Behind the figures, there are the faces, personalities, talent and commitment of those who have paid with their lives for their information gathering, their search for the truth and their passion for journalism. In each of its annual round-ups, RSF has continued to document the unjustifiable violence that has specifically targeted media workers. This year’s end is an appropriate time to pay tribute to them and to appeal for full respect for the safety of journalists wherever they work and bear witness to the world’s realities.Christophe Deloire RSF secretary-general
The 2018 case of Mikhail Zhlobitsky in a certain way represents in miniature how laws on public expression are used in Russia in relation to the current ongoing war against Ukraine. Once Zhlobitsky had blown himself up in the Arkhangelsk FSB headquarters, reference to the event that did not follow, or even tried to expand on, the official version of events was liable to be subect to prosecution. The most high-profile example of this was the 2020 conviction of Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva for ‘publicly inciting terrorism.’ She was fined 500,000 roubles for a radio broadcast in which she had discussed the possible motives for the bombing. The prosecutors had asked for her to be sentenced to six years in prison, but at that stage in the history of the Putin regime, their time had not yet come. Today the war overshadows all aspects of human rights in Russia, yet freedom of expression seems to be the very litmus paper for the increasing levels of repression exercised by the regime. In this regard, one of the latest victims is, as noted above, Crimean resident Andrei Belozerov who has been prosecuted for publicising facts about the Russian military’s actions in Ukraine. Lack of freedom of expression may to some extent create an appearance of support for the war, but that opposition is probably being driven underground, as possibly evidenced by the arrest of three minors in Rostov-on-Don for attempted arson of a military recrutiment centre. The upholding on appeal of the fine levied against Sergei Babinets, formerly head of the Committee Against Torture, highlighted by Front Line Defenders this week, also reflects restrictions on freedom of expression: the obligation of an organisation to state its ‘foreign agent’ status on all its publications. Babinets’ prosecution is in some sense an echo of a time when the ‘foreign agent’ law was still being used primarily against NGOs. And indeed, the fundamental right of association has never ceased to be a target of the law – see for example the high profile cases of Memorial and most recently the Moscow Helsinki Group. But latterly the law has also been adapted to target media outlets, journalists and individual activists. If freedom of expression is a litmus paper for the regime’s repression of human rights, journalists as a profession have in many ways borne the brunt of that repression. As Reporters Without Borders pointed out this week, over the past 20 years of the Putin regime Russia has been the European country with the greatest number of journalists killed.