5 February 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 Aleksei Navalny was transferred for a six-month term as a punishment to a cell-type facility within the penal colony where he is held. Twenty-year-old Vyacheslav Borisenko was sentenced to 12 years in a strict regime penal colony for starting a fire at a military enlistment building that lasted three minutes and extended to one square metre. The ex-governor of Khabarovsk region Sergei Furgal has been convicted of murder and attempted murder. In Mari El, the Ministry of Justice has demanded the liquidation of the human rights organisation Man and Law [Chelovek i zakon – also translated as The Individual and the Law]. Amnesty International condemned what it called the persecution of Oleksandr Marchenko, a Ukrainian national jailed in Russia for ten years on charges of espionage who has been denied urgent medical care and has now been fined for ‘discrediting the Russian armed forces.’ The Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement said Russian authorities must stop their efforts to silence reporting on the country’s invasion of Ukraine and stop harassing foreign outlets covering the conflict and criticised the move by a Russian court to summon the Kazakhstan-based independent news website Arbat.Media for publishing allegedly inaccurate information about the war in Ukraine. With regard to Ukraine proper, the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre said Zmina, a Ukrainian human rights organisation that uses its website to share information about the human rights situation in Ukraine, is asking the European Court of Human Rights to rule on the Russian Federation’s action in blocking the organisation’s website in an occupied area of Ukraine; and Human Rights Watch in a report said Ukraine should investigate its military’s apparent use of antipersonnel landmines in and around the city of Izium. Human Rights Watch said Russian forces have also used antipersonnel mines in multiple areas across Ukraine.
Human Rights in Russia
Aleksei Navalny is being transferred for a six-month term (the maximum possible) to a cell-type facility within the penal colony where he is held, OVD-Info reported. The politician had already received punishment of this kind in November 2022. He had previously been punished by being sent to a punishment cell eleven times and has been declared a ‘persistent offender.’
Solitary confinement is an additional tightening of the prison regime: prisoners are not allowed to have long visits and can only have short visits once every six months. In solitary, the number of parcels and packages that can be received is limited, as is the sum of money that can be spent in the prison shop. Prisoners are kept in a locked room and have to work separately from the other prisoners. All of this can undoubtedly undermine a person’s morale and psychological health. This is clearly what the authorities are seeking to do – to break Navalny by depriving him of the opportunity to meet his loved ones and socialise with other prisoners..OVD-Info
Vyacheslav Borisenko, a 20-year-old resident of Nizhnevartovsk, has been sentenced to 12 years in a strict regime colony for setting fire to a military enlistment office, OVD-Info reported on charges of committing an act of terrorism by prior conspiracy. A second defendant who retracted his confession, Vasyl Gavrilishen, remains in pre-trial detention.
Russians started setting fire to military registration and enlistment offices in various regions after the start of the full-scale war with Ukraine, and after the announcement of a ‘partial’ mobilisation the number of such cases increased dramatically. Probably most of them should be considered protests against Russian military aggression, as it becomes almost impossible to express such protest legally under conditions of military censorship and growing repression. Such attacks are prosecuted quite harshly. Despite the fact that the fire in Nizhnevartovsk was only one square metre in size, it was extinguished in three minutes and there were no casualties at all, as the building was empty at the time, the defendant was given a very long sentence.OVD-Info
In a jury trial, the ex-governor of Khabarovsk Region Sergei Furgal, OVD-Info reported, has been convicted of the attempted murder of businessman Aleksandr Smolsky, as well as of the murders of former head of the Khabarovsk Territory Oleg Bulatov and businessman Evgeny Zori.
After Sergei Furgal’s detention [in July 2020], a wave of protests began in the Far East, and soon people in other regions joined the rallies in his support. Many consider the former governor’s criminal prosecution to be linked to his successful political activities and do not believe the charges are justified. Furgal himself claimed he was subjected to pressure from the investigators: he was kept in pre-trial detention centre isolated from outside information and denied medical treatment for some time. He also complained that he was not allowed to make phone calls or meet with friends and family.OVD-Info
The Ministry of Justice has demanded the liquidation of the human rights organisation Man and Law [Chelovek i zakon – also translated as The Individual and the Law], OVD-Info reported. The organisation is based in the Republic of Mari El. On the basis of an unscheduled inspection in December 2022, the Ministry of Justice concluded the organisation’s activities were political in nature.
The human rights organisation Man and Law was set up in 1999. Its staff works to protect the rights of civil activists, children and prisoners, as well as to record misconduct by the authorities. The authorities constantly seek to get rid of such initiatives: in December 2021, Moscow City Court ordered the liquidation of the International Memorial Societyand the Memorial Human Rights Centre, and in January 2023, the same decision was made in relation to the Moscow Helsinki Group. It is likely that the same fate awaits Man and Law soon – the pressure on those who fight against human rights violations is only getting stronger.OVD-Info
Amnesty International in a statement condemned the persecution of Oleksandr Marchenko, a Ukrainian national jailed in Russia for ten years in a strict regime penal colony in November 2020 by Krasnodar Regional Court on charges of espionage. In December 2022 he was fined for ‘discreditation of the Russian armed forces’ and his appeal is to be heard on 7 February 2023.
The penal colony authorities have intermittently placed him in punishment or confinement cells on spurious grounds and deny him contact with his partner. He has been regularly denied urgent medical care which poses a risk to his life and may amount to torture.Amnesty International
The Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement said Russian authorities must stop their efforts to silence reporting on the country’s invasion of Ukraine and stop harassing foreign outlets covering the conflict. The organisation was reacting to the news that the Leninsky district court in the city of Vladimir summoned the Kazakhstan-based independent news website Arbat.Media to a February 17 hearing for publishing allegedly inaccurate information about the war in Ukraine, according to multiple media reports, a report by Arbat.Media, and the outlet’s chief editor Syrym Itkulov, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
After cracking down on the coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine on its own territory, Russian authorities are now trying to censor reporting abroad as well. Authorities must immediately drop any legal proceedings against the Kazakh outlet Arbat.Media, and stop trying to put foreign media under the same yoke as Russian outlets. Kazakh authorities, for their part, must send a clear signal that the country’s news outlets are in no way subject to Russian law.Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator
Russia’s war against Ukraine
The European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) in a statement said Zmina, a Ukrainian human rights organisation that uses its website to share information about the human rights situation in Ukraine, has asked the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to rule on the Russian Federation’s action in blocking its website in an occupied area of Ukraine, alleging a politically-motivated violation of its freedom of expression. Zmina had received no warning or notification from the Russian authorities, and it was only by checking the website of the Russian telecoms regulator that they found out their website had been blocked. Zmina is represented before the ECtHR by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) and its Kyiv-based partners Regional Press Development Institute.
Ukrainian citizens in Crimea already had limited access to information. By blocking access to our portal, which provides information on human rights violations and on how to protect human rights, the Russian authorities further exacerbated the vulnerability of these Ukrainian citizens and deepened their isolation, causing great harm.Tetiana Pechonchyk, Head of Zmina’s Board, quoted by EHRAC
Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine is a violation of its international obligations. In addition, it is violating its obligations in relation to freedom of expression by obstructing the dissemination of information about human rights violations, and ways to protect rights.Ukrainian lawyer Sergiy Zayets, who helped prepare the complaint to the ECtHR, quoted by EHRAC
The blocking of independent media reporting on Russian aggression in Ukraine is a key aspect of Russia’s attempts to censor and control the narrative around its invasion. Zmina’s case is of particular significance as it concerns the Russian authorities’ application of Russian law to the occupied territory of Crimea, and their attempts to prevent the legitimate dissemination of information by a Ukrainian NGO to individuals in Ukrainian sovereign territory.Camilla Alonzo, lawyer, EHRAC
Human Rights Watch in a report said Ukraine should investigate its military’s apparent use of thousands of rocket-fired antipersonnel landmines in and around the eastern city of Izium when Russian forces occupied the area. Human Rights Watch said it had documented numerous cases in which rockets carrying PFM antipersonnel mines, also called “butterfly mines” or “petal mines,” were fired into Russian-occupied areas near Russian military facilities. Human Rights Watch said Russian forces have also used antipersonnel mines in multiple areas across Ukraine, including victim-activated booby traps, since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, as documented by the organisation in three previous reports.
Ukrainian forces appear to have extensively scattered landmines around the Izium area, causing civilian casualties and posing an ongoing risk. Russian forces have repeatedly used antipersonnel mines and committed atrocities across the country, but this doesn’t justify Ukrainian use of these prohibited weapons. Any use of antipersonnel landmines is unlawful, and Ukraine should thoroughly investigate what happened and ensure its forces do not use them. Authorities should also ensure that assistance is provided to any civilian or their family found to have been harmed or killed by these indiscriminate weapons.Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch
This week the Russian authorities made plain their intention to break the will of Russia’s most famous prisoner of conscience – Aleksei Navalny – by putting him in solitary confinement for six months. It is also an admission that so far they have not succeeded in doing this. In relation to another of its political opponents, the ex-governor of Khabarovsk region Sergei Furgal who enjoyed considerable popular support in the region, the regime has finally got its way: Furgal has now been convicted of murder and attempted murder. In other news, the process of tearing up the right of association – in fact razing independent civil society to the ground – continued, following the recent forced closures of human rights and civil society organisations such as Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group, with moves to shutter Chelovek i Zakon (‘Man and Law’). Clearly, following events in the capital, regional authorities are now also moving to close down groups based in the regions. The authorities paranoia about anti-war sentiment is illustrated this week by the 12-year sentence handed down to 20-year-old Vyacheslav Borisenko for a three-minute fire at a military enlistment building, the summoning of a Kazakhstan-based independent news website, Arbat.Media, for publishing allegedly inaccurate information about the war in Ukraine, and the blocking in Crimea of the website of the Ukrainian human rights organisation Zmina. The main publication by human rights groups specifically on Russia’s war against Ukraine this week was a report by Human Rights Watch condemning the apparent use of antipersonnel landmines by Ukrainian – as well as Russian – forces. It is often commented that Russia’s approach to the territory it occupies in its war against Ukraine is, at enormous human cost, to destroy everything there, clear the ground and then rebuild – as happened in Grozny, for example, it is said. But restoring infrastructure – as the example of Grozny shows – is only part of the problem. One has to wonder in what kind of dystopia will the citizens of Russia be living after civil society and every pretence at human rights protection and the rule of law in their country are destroyed?