29 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 saw the declaration of independent media outlet Meduza, based in Latvia, and the US-based Andrei Sakharov Foundation as ‘undesirable organisations’ (thereby exposing those who engage in any way with the organisations to criminal prosecution) and the seizure by the Moscow authorities of premises used by the Andrei Sakharov Centre and the liquidation of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Two years on from the arbitrary detention of Aleksei Navalny, Amnesty International criticised the Russian authorities for being what it called ‘relentless in their attempts to dismantle the opposition movement and to create a more fearful environment for those defending human rights.’ Meanwhile, two Moscow journalistss were jailed for 15 days each for reporting on a local government meeting. In occupied Crimea, six individuals were remanded in custody on charges of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Civil Rights Defenders condemned the seven-year sentence handed down recently to human rights defender and citizen journalist Iryna Danylovych for exposing problems in the health care sector in occupied Crimea. The Committee to Protect Journalists in its report on 2022 emphasised that Journalists covering the Ukraine war ‘face enormous risk’ with at least 15 journalists killed in Ukraine as they were engaged in newsgathering and reporting.
Meduza was declared an undesirable organisation. The decision by the Prosecutor General’s Office was taken on the basis that SIA Medusa Project, the publication’s legal entity, ‘poses a threat to the foundations of the constitutional order and the security of Russia,’ OVD-Info reported. The designation makes it a crime to distribute the outlet’s content or donate to it from inside or outside Russia. Meduza had been declared a ‘foreign agent’ in April 2021. In March 2022, Meduza’s website had been blocked by Roskomnadzor. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the moved and called on the Russian authorities to allow Meduza to work freely.
By banning Meduza by putting multiple labels on it and blocking its website, Russian authorities are showing that they will do anything to impede the work of one of the leading independent Russian-language media outlets. Authorities must overhaul the country’s regulations on undesirable organizations and foreign agents, and let all media outlets work freely.Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator
Meduza is one of the most well-known uncensored Russian-language media outlets. Its staff and managers now face criminal prosecution, up to and including imprisonment. Lawsuits can even be filed against people who merely post material from Meduza on social networks or donate money to journalists, or who provide commentary or interviews. All this makes Meduza’s work virtually impossible. This is what the authorities want: to silence those who speak openly about what is happening in the country and talk about Russian military aggression in Ukraine.OVD-Info
This is a very bad event. We are de facto outlawed in Russia. Nevertheless, we were waiting for this to happen – and we tried to prepare ourselves, morally and organization-wise. Meduza will carry on its work. The stronger the pressure, the stronger our resistance.Meduza editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov, speaking to CPJ via messaging app
We fear for our readers. We fear for those who have collaborated with Meduza over the years. We fear for our loved ones and friends. Still, we believe in what we do.Meduza’s editorial staff in a January 26 statement
Meduza is probably the strongest and most professional independent Russian publication, operating from a different jurisdiction. No amount of labeling will undermine their already established professional reputation.Mass Media Defense Center director Galina Arapova, speaking to CPJ via messaging app
Human Rights Watch condemned the designation by Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation as ‘undesirable,’ saying that by labeling the foundation as such ‘the Kremlin is also ostracizing Sakharov’s legacy and, essentially, all the human rights defenders, independent journalists, activists, pro-democracy scientists, and cultural figures associated with it in Russia.’ The foundation was created in 1989 by Sakharov’s widow, Elena Bonner, and his American supporters to safeguard and promote the legacy of Andrei Sakharov. OVD-Info reported that the Moscow city property department has terminated the lease agreements for the Centre’s main building, its exhibition hall and the apartment on Zemlyanoi Val street where Andrei Sakharov used to live that is now a museum. The organisation was added to the register of ‘foreign agents’ back in 2014. And in January 2023, the General Prosecutor’s Office declared the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, an American non-governmental organisation founded by the academician’s widow Elena Bonner “undesirable”.
But Sakharov’s legacy lives on – and there will come a time when we gather in Moscow again, under his portrait.Tanya Lokshina, Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
It is possible to be a free person in an unfree country. Unfortunately that is not the case for a museum and a community centre.The Sakharov Centre, quoted by OVD-Info
Moscow City Court ruled that the Moscow Helsinki Group must be shut down, upholding a suit filed by the Ministry of Justice in December 2022 following an unscheduled inspection at the request of the Moscow prosecutor’s office. According to officials, OVD-Info reported, the organisation had committed “gross” and “irreparable” violations of the territorial scope of its activities. OVD-Info noted that the Moscow Helsinki Group was founded back in 1976 by Soviet dissidents and is the oldest human rights organisation in the country. Amnesty International condemned the court order to liquidate Moscow Helsinki Group human rights organization as unlawful. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) described the moved as ‘draconian’ and not in compliance with international standards on freedom of association.
Russia is rapidly plunging ever deeper into a human rights crisis, as compulsive disdain and fear of human rights, and those who promote them, becomes state policy. In a country where human rights are defiled and dishonoured, there is virtually no more space for human rights work. Following the liquidation of Memorial, the For Human Rights Movement, and Open Russia, and eviction of the Sakharov Centre from its premises, the authorities have now closed down Moscow Helsinki Group. This is particularly cynical in light of President Vladimir Putin’s visit in 2017 to Moscow Helsinki Group’s celebrated chairperson and icon of the Soviet dissident movement, Ludmila Alekseeva, and his subsequent laying of flowers at her 2018 funeral. The Russian authorities dismantling of the oldest human rights group in the country will go down in history as a shameful act. The decision to liquidate Moscow Helsinki Group is unlawful and must be reversed, and the repression of civil society must stop. Russia and its people deserve better.Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
The Observatory recalls that the legislation governing NGOs’ activities in Russia is draconian and falls short of international standards on freedom of association. The liquidation of MHG is an unnecessary and disproportionate penalty for the violations allegedly committed by the organisation, and violates Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the right to freedom of association. Furthermore, according to international standards on freedom of association, inspections of NGOs are only legitimate if they are justified, for instance, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that serious breaches of the law have occurred. The unscheduled inspection of the MHG had no such justification and violated international standards on freedom of association.The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
The Committee to Protect Jurnalists called o the Russian authorities to immediately release journalists Ilya Makarov and Maksim Litvinchuk, detained by Moscow police on January 19 while they reported on a local government meeting. The authorities accused the two journalists for the independent online outlet Sota.Vision of disrupting the meeting and chargd them with disorderly conduct. On January 20, a Moscow court ordered them both to be jailed for 15 days, the maximum penalty under the Russian administrative code.
Ilya Makarov and Maksim Litvinchuk, two of the few remaining independent journalists in Russia, were arrested simply for doing their jobs and trying to cover an event of public interest. Authorities should immediately release them, and let all members of the press work freely.Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator
Amnesty International in a statement said that In the two years since mass protests in Russia against the politically motivated detention of prominent opposition activist Aleksei Navalny, the Russian authorities have been relentless in their attempts to dismantle the opposition movement and to create a more fearful environment for those defending human rights. The organisation said the Kremlin has attacked political opponents, independent media and civil society organizations on numerous fronts, weaponizing the law to bring about arrests and prosecutions on spurious charges while liquidating longstanding civil society organizations to stop their vital work.
In the past two years, the Russian government has only intensified its witch-hunt of opposition and civil society organizations. Not one critic, human rights defender or independent journalist is safe from the threat of persecution, reprisals and repression. Following Aleksei Navalny’s attempted poisoning in 2020 and arrest in 2021, Russian authorities sought to destroy freedom of expression in the country. This swift and ruthless crackdown allowed them to quickly stop mass protests against the full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year later. […] Organizations associated with Aleksei Navalny are considered to be the archnemesis of the authorities, and have become the target of sweeping repressions. As a result, most of Navalny’s associates have had to flee the country. […] Aleksei Navalny and his associates who have been deprived of liberty for their peaceful activism must be released immediately and unconditionally, and all charges against them should be dropped. The international community should step up its support of Russian civil society, which is badly maimed but still capable of remarkable feats of resilience, courage and perseverance.Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Russia Director
Six Crimean Tatars have been sent to a pre-trial detention facility in a Hizb ut-Tahrir case, OVD-Info reported. Ekrem Krosh, Aider Asanov, Refat Seydametov, Osman Abdurazakov, Khalil Mambetov and Leman Zekeryaev were remanded in custody for two months.
Their houses had been searched on the previous day. The wives of Seydametov and Zekeryayev suggest that police officers might have planted illegal books on their husbands and Asanov’s mother said that during the search police officers threw her son on the floor and kicked him in the legs. Local residents came to support the men at their hearing – police officers detained 30 people and later sentenced most of them to terms in jail ranging from 10 to 16 days. Some of the detainees are relatives of other defendants in the Hizb ut-Tahrir case.OVD-Info
Civil Rights Defenders condemned the recent sentencing of women human rights defender and citizen journalist Iryna Danylovych to seven years in prison for exposing problems in the health care sector in occupied Crimea. The organsiation commented that ‘Human rights are under attack in occupied territories, and its defenders are seen as the enemy.’
The Crimean Peninsula was occupied by Russia in 2014, which has had severe consequences for human rights and freedom of speech. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago, the situation has deteriorated even more. The occupying authorities are using the war against Ukraine as an excuse to further crack down on human rights on the peninsula.Civil Rights Defenders
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Journalists covering the Ukraine war face enormous risk, with at least 15 journalists were killed in Ukraine in 2022 following Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country on February 24.
CPJ has confirmed that 13 of those were killed while engaged in newsgathering and reporting, and is investigating whether two others killed during the conflict lost their lives because of their media work.Committee to Protect Journalists
This has been an extraordinary week in terms of developments in Russian civil society with the effective closing down of the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Sakharov Centre, and further efforts to close down the Meduza media outlet (already exiled). And yet, while few may have foreseen these developments just a few years ago, what we are seeing is in some sense a logical development on the basis of earlier trends in the course of the long Putin presidency. Amnesty International’s statement marking two years since the protests over the arbitrary detention of Alekse Navalny points to the regime’s determination to extirpate all ‘opposition and civil society organizations,’ creating a situation in which ‘Not one critic, human rights defender or independent journalist is safe from the threat of persecution, reprisals and repression.’
The Russian authorities under Putin have never bothered to distinguish between political opposition, civil society activism and independent journalism. This was seen in the regime’s earliest moves against independent media and its steps to control civil society groups that went in parallel with new restrictions on political opposition. It was not so much that the authorities feared civil society as a kind of ‘reserve pool’ for political opposition, a realm into which its political opponents could retreat and build greater public support. From the outset the Putin regime identified independent civil society activism per se as something inimical to its ambitions.
This was not understood by many. A large spectrum of civil society activists in Russia believed that by ‘keeping out of politics’ they could maintain a degree of autonomy and provide useful services for the community – and they were critical of other activists whom they considered overly ‘political.’ But the fact proved to be that the Putin regime is incompatible with the very notion of civil society.
Back in 2013 in an interview with Rights in Russia, Arseny Roginsky noted that, like its Soviet forbears, the Putin regime had not at some fundamental level accepted that citizens have a right of association. And now in the first month of 2023 we see there is no Memorial, no Moscow Helsinki Group, no Sakharov Centre. However, the regime’s refusal to recognise the right of association is only one example of its refusal to recognise the very notion of rights in principle, whether these be the rights of an organisation of of an individual – as either citizen or human being. This week we see journalists jailed and those belonging to a community of faith remanded in custody. In a certain obvious sense, then, these individuals have been jailed for being journalists or people professing a particular faith. But, just as obviously, It is not just for their reporting or for their religion that these individuals are in detention. It is because they are individuals who choose to act autonomously. The regime in power in Russia today refuses to recognise that individuals have autonomy and rights to act, speak, believe or cooperate with others as they see fit. The ultimate demonstration of this attitude by the regime towards the individual is the invasion of Ukraine where we see that the lives of individuals, whether Ukrainian or Russian, plainly have no value in themselves for the regime.