15 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 seven Muslims were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for involvement in the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir that Russia considers ‘terrorist’ despite the fact that the organisation does not advocate or carry out acts of violence; security forces kidnapped about 20 people from the village of Alkhan-Kala in Chechnya, some of whom alleged they were tortured; a man arrested after he threw a Molotov cocktail at the Krasnodar FSB building, wearing facepaint in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, alleged he has been tortured in detention; the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in a statement condemned the jailing of citizen journalist Iryna Danilovich on trumped up charges; Human Rights Watch in its latest annual report on global human rights said the Russian authorities’ invasion of Ukraine ‘marked the start of a new, all-out drive to eradicate public dissent in Russia.’
OVD-Info reported that seven defendants received harsh sentences ranging from 13 to 19 years’ iimprisonment for involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation banned by Russia as ‘terrorist’ in 2003, despite the fact that Hizb ut-Tahrir neither engages in nor avocates violence.
The number of those convicted [for involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir] is growing rapidly, while the sentences handed down are very severe: at least 116 people have received sentences of 10 to 15 years, and 107 have been sentenced to 15 years or more. According to the Sova Centre for Information and Analysis, the party has been incorrectly labelled as a terrorist group. The project ‘Political Prisoners. Memorial’ believes the prosecution of Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters in Crimea is a tool for suppressing public solidarity and civic activity among local residents.OVD-Info
Security forces kidnapped about 20 people from the village of Alkhan-Kala in Chechnya, OVD-Info reported. A relative of one of the detainees said they were tortured in Grozny for their opposition views.
In Chechnya, those who oppose the authorities are dealt with far more brutally than in other parts of the country. Kidnappings and torture are not uncommon there. A person may simply disappear, and their relatives don’t even know where to turn and how to help them. At the same time, the actions of police officers almost always go unpunished, which is why they continue to use such methods of persecution.OVD-Info
Igor Paskar, detained in June 2022 and charged wtih committing an act of ‘terrorism and vandalism motivated by political hatred’ after throwing a Molotov cocktail at the Krasnodar FSB building (setting light to a doormat) and then waiting to be arrested with yellow and blue paint on his face, has alleged he was tortured after his arrest, OVD-Info reported. He stated that police officers kicked him, threatened him with a gun, used electric shocks, and tried to rape him with a dildo.
Russian police often torture detainees, especially after protests or anti-war speeches. In this way, they try to force them to give false testimony, to incriminate their acquaintances, or simply to answer questions if they have refused to do so.OVD-Info
OVD-Info reported the Arkhangelsk environmental movement ’42’ has closed down after being designated a ‘foreign agent’. The activists decided it was too risky to continue their work. The organisation, set up nearly five years ago, has been involved in implementing a system of separate waste collection, environmental education and protesting the construction of a landfill at Shies in Arkhangelsk region.
The ‘foreign agents’ legislation is tightened every year to persecute dissenters. Opposition politicians and journalists are the people most often subject to it, but other organisations that criticise the government, such as environmental organisations, are also on the ‘foreign agent’ list. […]Being declared a ‘foreign agent’ seriously complicates the work of environmentalists, and, as in the case of the ’42’ movement, can lead to the closure of the organisation, which is exactly what the government wants.OVD-Info
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH, published a statement on the sentencing and ongoing arbitrary detention in Detention Centre No. 1 in Simferopol, Crimea, of Iryna Danilovich, a nurse and a citizen journalist in Crimea who had been publicising human rights issues, not least in the health care system, and since 24 February 2022 has been critical of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On 28 December 2022 Danilovich was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment and fineed 50,000 roubles on charges of ‘illegally purchasing and storing explosives.’ Danilovich maintains the FSB planted the explosives on her.
The Observatory strongly condemns the sentencing of Iryna Danilovich on trumped-up charges, and urges the Russian authorities in control of Crimea to immediately and unconditionally release her. The Observatory further calls on the authorities to put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against her and all human rights defenders and journalists in Crimea.Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Human Rights Watch in its new World Report 2023 reviewing human rights practices in nearly 100 countries said the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine marked the start of a new, all-out drive to eradicate public dissent in Russia. The measures adopted by the authorities, against the background of a projected ‘besieged fortress’ mentality, include a ‘broad range of new laws introducing war censorship. These laws provided for long prison sentences for “offenses” such as referring to the armed conflict in Ukraine as a “war,” criticizing the invasion or the conduct of Russian armed forces, and reporting on war crimes by the Russian military or on Ukrainian civilian casualties.’ The organisation noted that Russia was suspended from the United Nations Human Rights Council, was expelled from several other international bodies, and left the Council of Europe.
Against the backdrop of war, Russian authorities doubled down on their relentless attack against dissent and civic activism. The Kremlin clearly aims to silence any public opposition to the war, any criticism of the government, or any expression of social nonconformism.Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch
This week Human Rights Watch in its annual report provided an excellent summary of the human rights situation in Russia. The massive invasion of Ukraine that began in February 2022 does indeed seem to mark the apotheosis of an ‘all-out drive to eradicate public dissent in Russia’ as the report said. Yet in many ways what we are seeing is merely the logical development of Putin’s rule, increasingly authoritarian, over the past 20 years. If there had not been a war, the regime would have had to start one, an observer may think, before considering, on reflection, the series of actual wars the Putin regime has indeed waged – in Chechnya, against Georgia, in Syria, Crimea, the Donbas and now all of Ukraine. Indeed, over the past 20 years increasing domestic repression has gone hand in hand with external wars. As Human Rights Watch also noted, ‘At home the authorities projected a “besieged fortress” mentality, amplified rhetoric claiming malevolent foreign influence […].’ For this ‘fortress mentality’ an external war is perhaps a sine qua non. However, it should not be forgotten that while the regime has apparently successfully exploited emotions of patriotism and imperialism (through its control of the media) to mould public consciousness for years, many Russian citizens seem to have been ready to ‘take the bait.’
Aspects of the regime’s ‘all-out drive to eradicate public dissent in Russia’ this week, highlighted by OVD-Info and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, include the continuing clampdown on freedom of religion (prosecutions for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir), terror in Chechnya (the abduction and probable torture by security forces of villagers), widespread torture by law enforcement agencies (alleged torture of a man suspected of trying to set fire to an FSB building in Krasnodar), and freedom of expression (the conviction and ongoing detention of a citizen journalist in Crimea).
Against the background of the regime’s ongoing ‘war’ against its own civil society on the ‘domestic front,’ it might be argued that a long-term if not to say permanent state of war against a neighbouring country would indeed suit Vladimir Putin perfectly well – if it were not for two particular risks he and his regime run that are unrelated to human rights: the bigger and longer the war, the greater the risk of military defeat by Ukraine on the battlefield and the risk of domestic economic collapse. As the New Year begins, there seems little doubt 2023 will be critical in terms of seeing whether the regime can indeed manage the risks it has incurred.