12 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 Sergei Furgal was sentenced to 22 years in prison; the anarchist Denis Kozak, charged in Russia with justification of terrorism, was detained in Kazakhstan; in Tatarstan a criminal case has begun in relation to membership of the religious group All-Ayat which the investigators allege is an extremist organisation;activities of an extremist organisation; the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the trial of journalist Maria Ponomarenko and the arrest of another journalist on separate charges, Iskander Yasaveyev; RSF hosted a press conference at which Marina Ovsyannikova spoke about how she managed to flee from Moscow with RSF’s help; and Human Rights Watch reported on a new law extending compulsory DNA data collection to millions of people in Russia. With regard to Ukraine, Dzhemil Gafarov, a Crimean Tatar activist, died in pre-trial detention after being refused medical treatment, where he was held on charges of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation banned in Russia but not in Ukraine; Human Rights House Foundation reported on the extraordinary work of Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv that against the background of war continues to work to support civil society and the local community, as well as documenting possible war crimes; and The European Human Rights Advocacy Centre announced the creation of a new online resource to support bringing those responsible for human rights violations and crimes resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to justice.
Sergei Furgal, the former governor of Khabarovsk Region, OVD-Info reported, has been sentenced to 22 years in a strict regime penal colony, convicted of organising the murder of two people and attempted murder, as well as the illegal acquisition and possession of weapons and ammunition.
Many residents of the Far East believe the criminal prosecution of Sergei Furgal is unjustified and attribute it to the official’s successful political activities – he has often been called the ‘people’s governor’.OVD-Info
Anarchist Denis Kozak, charged in Russia with justification of terrorism, has been detained in Kazakhstan at Russia’s request, OVD-Info reported. Kazakh human rights activists have pointed out that this is illegal – the offence for which he is being prosecuted in Russia does not exist in Kazakhstan.
Even after leaving Russia, a person who is politically persecuted can face pressure. There has already been a similar case in Kazakhstan: in November 2022, security forces detained Buryat journalist Evgeniya Baltatarova at Almaty airport. Two cases were opened against her in Russia under an article on ‘fake news’ about the army. In most such situations, deportation is not possible – a detainee can only be deported if the offence for which the criminal case has been brought is also defined in local law.OVD-Info
OVD-Info reported that in Tatarstan, members of the religious group All-Ayat have been searched and one of its alleged participants detained, after investigators opened a criminal case for the offence of organising the activities of an extremist organisation.
The Sova Centre considers it wrong to classify the organisation itself and materials disseminated in its magazine, Selena’s Star, as extremist. The publication contains negative statements about world religions, but according to Sova this should not serve as a basis for banning religious associations as extremist, as supporters of Allya-Ayat do not allow incitement to aggression against followers of other religions.OVD-Info
The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the Russian authorities for seeking to sentence journalist Maria Ponomarenko to a nine-year prison term (in Barnaul) and detaining RFE/RL columnist Iskander Yasaveyev (in Kazan). The organsiation called on the Russian authorities to immediately release journalist Maria Ponomarenko and columnist Iskander Yasaveyev and stop prosecuting members of the press over their reporting and commentary on the war in Ukraine, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday. CPJ noted that at least 19 journalists were behind bars in Russia on December 1, 2022, when CPJ conducted its most recent prison census.
By requesting a nine-year prison term for Maria Ponomarenko and arresting Iskander Yasaveyev, the Russian government is showing its firm resolve to punish any independent reporting on the war in Ukraine. Authorities should immediately release Ponomarenko and Yasaveyev, drop all charges against them, and stop punishing members of the press who have courageously remained in Russia despite the country’s clampdown on the media.Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator
Reporters Without Borders [RSF] announced at a press conference on 10 February how Marina Ovsyannikova managed to escape from Moscow with RSF’s help four months ago. RSF coordinated her extraction from Russia.
The resources deployed by RSF were extraordinary, They saved my life, they helped me to flee Russia, a country where the government is run by war criminals.Marina Ovsyannikova said at today’s press conference, quoted by RSF
What Marina Ovsyannikova has done “shows that it is possible to resist propaganda apparatuses, that one can disrupt them from within, that one can say no, and that it is possible to get out of them, to defect, to oppose the falsification of history and the news, and to oppose their manipulation,”RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire
Human Rights Watch published a report on a new law that extends compulsory DNA data collection to millions of people. HRW said the new legislation boosts Russia’s massive surveillance system and delivers another blow to the right to privacy. According to the organisation, ‘Anyone suspected of any crime will have their DNA collected, and those convicted or sentenced to administrative detention for a misdemeanor will have their DNA profile stored in a state database for life.’
Russian law gives law enforcement agencies unrestricted powers to access and use the information in the database without independent oversight.Aleks Lokhmutov, HRW‘s Research Assistant, Europe and Central Asia Division
Russia’s War Against Ukraine
OVD-Info reported that Dzhemil Gafarov, a Crimean Tatar and defendant in a Hizb ut-Tahrir prosecution, has died in pre-trial detention. He had been denied treatment for kidney failure. He had also suffered a heart attack while in pre-trial detention.
Obtaining quality medical care in pre-trial detention is virtually impossible. Adygean activist Roman Taganov, convicted in an the ‘anti-war case’, was not permitted a doctor even after he had an epileptic seizure, and the requests of Sergei Komandirov, an opposition blogger from Smolensk, to be examined by prison staff were ignored for seven months.OVD-Info
Human Rights House Foundation reported on the work of Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv (EHRHC) whose headquarters was damaged in an attack by Russian forces and has since been working tirelessly to repair the House, assist in the healing process for the community, document possible war crimes and provide educational facilities against a background of continuing Russian military aggression.
Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv is a place of strength and love, a meeting centre for hundreds of wonderful people. It was before the war. It is during the war. It will be after.EHRHC’s Lyudmyla Yankina, quoted by HRHF, “
The European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) announced the creation of a new online resource, Mapping of Accountability, in Ukrainian and English to provide information primarily for lawyers and activists, on the existing pathways to legal accountability, for those responding to human rights violations and crimes resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The website is a joint project developed by EHRAC and the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group (ULAG).
We hope this tool will provide a one stop shop for those practitioners who are considering building cases and submitting them to accountability mechanisms already available in relation to Ukraine. We have highlighted subject-matter jurisdiction, the most relevant standards and the available remedies for each of the mechanisms, in an accessible format that can be kept up to date as new options for accountability are developed.Nadia Volkova, Director, ULAG, quoted by EHRAC
The war in Ukraine has already resulted in a vast number of crimes and human right violations. In the context of the Russian Federation’s expulsion from the Council of Europe, it’s important for all human rights defenders to understand the alternative potential routes to accountability. The mapping project which has resulted in this new site helped us to gain a clearer oversight of the changing landscape and potential avenues for redress. We built on this research to inform the work of lawyers, activists, and others working on accountability in Ukraine.Kate Levine, Senior Legal Consultant, EHRAC
Human Rights Watch’s warning this week about the authorities’ excessive and uncontrolled use of surveillance technologies brings to mind an Orwellian (1984) scenario for the development of the Russian state. There is no doubt that a foreign enemy (Ukraine, the West) is of use to Russia’s authoritarian regime in justifying new steps towards pervasive control and repression of society. And many Russian citizens may be convinced by the need for such security measures (especially when, quite possibly,, people from your own social group or city may not be dying at the front). And the regime is clever at targetting individuals or groups who can be depicted as ‘anti-social’ or hostile elements – even if they haven’t been given the ‘foreign agent’ label. Just glance at some of this week’s news: ex-governor Sergei Furgal is a murderer; ‘extremist’ religious ‘sects’ are undermining state and society (All-Ayat, Hizb ut-Tahrir); anarchists are fleeing justice; journalists may be working for hostile foreign media or at least take a hostile view of ‘our’ authorities (Ponomarenko, Yasaveyev, Ovsyannikova); ethnic groups who may not even wish to be part of Russia cannot be trusted (once Chechens, now Crimean Tatars or Ukrainians). What we see in Russia is redolent of the situation described by Martin Niemöller in his famous poem that ends, ‘Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.’ The purpose of the surveillance state is to create an atomized society where individuals’ mutual relations mean less to each of them than their own individual fear of the state. Civil society – a society constituted by a wealth of informal and formal networks among free and active (‘ordinary’) citizens, containing all kinds of attachments, friendships, connections, associations and movements – is anathema to the current Russian regime. Not for nothing has the regime’s campaign against civil society groups led to the enforced closure of Memorial, Moscow Helsinki Group and Sakharov Centre – groups symbolic of the moral power of individuals freely coming together in the pursuit of a just cause.