Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 17 February 2023]

19 February 2023

By Simon Cosgrove

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 in Russia journalist Maria Ponomarenko was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for a post about the Russian attack on the Mariupol theatre, two Jehovah’s Witnesses were both sentenced to six-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for their faith, Russia failed to renew the accreditation of Arja Paananen, Russia correspondent of the Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat, there were concerns that imprisoned activist Andrei Pivovarov has been forcibly disappeared, and a US citizen was deported and banned from entering Russia for 40 years for walking a calf on Red Square. With regard to Russia’s war against Ukraine, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and its Ukrainian partner, the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), published a summary of acts of violence and abuses against journalists and media outlets in Ukraine since the start of the war. Russia also figured in news from the UN this week. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for the immediate release of Aleksei Gorinov, sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for discrediting the Russian army, and United Nations member states agreed to fully fund UN human rights mechanisms that Russia, among others, had sought to defund.

Human Rights in Russia

Alicia Day, a US animal rights activist who led a calf around Red Square, has been banned from entering Russia for 40 years, OVD-Info reported. On 31 January she was arrested on Red Square with the calf, jailed for 13 days for disobeying police officers and fined 20,000 roubles for taking part in an action that hindered the movement of pedestrians.

Foreigners can be banned from entering Russia even for administrative offences. In 2021, Belarusian citizen comedian Idrak Mirzalizade was banned from Russia for 14 years after he had been jailed for ten days for ‘inciting hatred’ in a joke. The prosecution of Day violated the right to freedom of assembly, while the prosecution of Mirzalizade violated the right to freedom of speech. However, it is unlikely that either of them will be able to challenge these decisions, nor will they be able to return to the country in the coming years.


Maria Ponomarenko, a RusNews journalist, was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment after she was found guilty of spreading ‘fake news’ about the war, motivated by hatred, OVD-Info reported. Maria Ponomarenko was prosecuted because of a post in an anonymous Telegram channel which referred to the destruction of the Mariupol Drama Theatre by an air strike.

Amnesty International condemned the conviction and sentencing of journalist Maria Ponomarenko and called for her immediate and unconditional release. The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned Ponomarenko’s conviction and sentencing.

I have the right to say the word ‘war’ because I am being judged under the laws of military censorship.

Maria Ponomarenko in a statement to the court at her trial, quoted by Amnesty International

Maria Ponomarenko’s sentence shows that in Russia telling the truth, denouncing a war crime and demanding justice for the killing of civilians, has itself become a grave offence punishable by many years in prison. Her sentence is yet another example of injustice and the cynicism of the authorities in Russia, which are disturbingly routine. The authorities are trying to lock up all those who disagree with them and intimidate others to stay silent and look the other way rather than risk years behind bars. […] Maria Ponomarenko and all those imprisoned in Russia for their criticism of the invasion of Ukraine should be immediately and unconditionally released.

Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Russian authorities should be ashamed of the six-year prison sentence given to journalist Maria Ponomarenko, whose sole so-called crime was publishing information about the war in Ukraine that did not conform to the official narrative. Authorities should not contest Ponomarenko’s appeal, drop all the charges against her, and stop jailing independent voices.

Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator

At least 138 people across the country are being prosecuted for ‘fake news’ about the Russian Army. Aleksei Gorinov, a Moscow municipal deputy, was the first to receive a jail sentence, being sentenced to seven years in prison last June. Dozens more Russians are likely to be imprisoned, with sentences of up to 15 years.


Jehovah’s Witnesses Konstantin Sannikov from Kazan (Tatarstan) and Aleksandr Kalistratov from Gorno-Altaisk (Republic of Altai) have been sentenced to prison terms of six-and-a-half years, OVD-Info reported. Sannikov, held on remand since the end of August 2020, suffered chronic diseases of the cardiovascular system and abdominal organs while in custody.

The mass criminal prosecution of members of the denomination began in 2017, when the Supreme Court declared the Administrative Centre of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia an extremist organisation, liquidated it and banned its activities in Russia. Cases are usually brought against those who simply practise their religion: for example, organising worship or reading the Bible with friends. Many of the believers behind bars are elderly people whose health deteriorates considerably in detention. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia portal, as of 15 February, a total of 368 members of the denomination have been imprisoned.


The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Russia had failed to renew accreditation of Arja Paananen, a longtime correspondent of the Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat in Russia. The organisataion said the Russian authorities should not interfere with the renewal of the Finnish journalist’s accreditation and visa and let her work freely. Paananen started reporting from Moscow and Saint Petersburg in 1990.

Russian authorities should not let political considerations affect their decision to renew Finnish journalist Arja Paananen’s accreditation. Authorities should either grant Paananen’s renewal at once or publicly disclose the reason why her visa and accreditation have been denied.

Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator

I will of course continue to cover Russia, it’s my job

Arja Paananen, quoted by CPJ

Russia’s actions are clearly deliberate: they do not want Paananen to be allowed to cover what is happening in Russia.

Ilta-Sanomat editor-in-chief Johanna Lahti quoted by CPJ

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in separate statements called on the Russian authorities to disclose the whereabouts of imprisoned activist Andrei Pivovarov disappeared one month ago. Andrei Pivovarov, an opposition activist and human rights defender, and the former executive director of the now dissolved Otkrytaya Rossiya (Open Russia) movement, was sentenced to four years in a penal colony in July 2022 on charges of leading an ‘undesirable organization.’ The organisations noted that the Russian authorities refused for a month to give information about Pivovarov’s location.  

Andrei Pivovarov is not only serving an unfair sentence on politically motivated charges for a ‘crime’ that doesn’t exist in international law. The authorities are subjecting him to enforced disappearance – a crime under international law, by not revealing his fate or whereabouts. The authorities are subjecting [Andrei Pivovarov] to enforced disappearance – a crime under international law, by not revealing his fate or whereabouts. […] The Russian authorities should immediately disclose Andrei Pivovarov’s whereabouts and release him immediately and unconditionally. Likewise, the country’s prisoner transportation system must be wholly reformed to comply with international human rights standards.

Natalia Zviagina, Russia Director, Amnesty International

After throwing him behind bars on groundless charges, the Russian authorities have further violated Andrey Pivovarov’s rights by forcibly disappearing him. […] The Russia government’s outrageous treatment of Pivovarov reflects the ever-growing campaign of harassment and intimidation that the authorities have unleashed against its own society. This has reached new levels in the year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and needs to stop. […] Both Pivovarov and his family, who suffer, not knowing his whereabouts, are being punished for his peaceful criticism of the government.

Damelya Aitkhozhina, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch

Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), with the help of its Ukrainian partner, the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), published a summary of the acts of violence and abuses against journalists and media outlets in Ukraine – and to the resources deployed to support reliable journalism and combat Russian propaganda – in the year since Russia launched its invasion on 24 February. The organisation said a total of 12,000 Ukrainian and foreign journalists have been accredited to cover the war in Ukraine in the past year. Exposed to frequent bombardment and often deliberately targeted by Russian forces, they risk their lives every day to report what is happening. The report said 8 journalists killed; 26 journalists were knowingly targeted; 19 journalists were injured; 16 TV towers targeted by air strikes; four types of media infrastructure were targeted; RSF lodged seven war crimes complaints; there were 42 cyber-crimes against media and 217 Ukrainian media were closed down for reasons including supply problems, loss of subscribers and advertisers, lack of staff, and financial losses resulting from destruction.

While the situation is particularly alarming for journalists in the occupied areas, all of the Ukrainian media have been hit hard by the war and its repercussions. […] RSF lodged seven war crimes complaints with the International Criminal Court and Ukraine’s prosecutor-general for a total of 44 acts of violence and abuses involving more than 100 journalists and 11 radio and TV towers in Ukraine. These crimes confirm that the Russian armed forces have been waging an all-out war on news and information.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Institute of Mass Information (IMI)

Russia At The UN

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for the immediate release of Aleksei Gorinov, convicted in a ‘fake news’ case, OVD-Info reported. The UN demanded that the Russian authorities conduct an independent investigation and take action against those responsible for the unlawful prosecution and imprisonment of the former Moscow municipal deputy. The UN also acknowledged that the politician was being persecuted for exercising his right to freedom of speech and the right to participate in political life. The experts of the UN working group expressed their opinion in response to a complaint which had been prepared by OVD-Info staff together with foreign lawyers. In June 2022, Gorinov was sentenced to seven years in prison for speaking out about the war at a meeting of the municipal council of deputies of which he is a member.

The UN decision provides an opportunity to draw attention to the case of Aleksei Gorinov and to demand a review of the sentence. Even if this does not happen, the UN position could also be used in the trials of other anti-war defendants who are being prosecuted because of their statements. Perhaps in this way, it will be possible to reduce the number of harsh punishments or to achieve the cessation of prosecution of some Russians altogether.


Human Rights Watch reported that United Nations member states agreed to fully fund UN human rights mechanisms that China, Russia, and their allies had sought to defund in the 2023 budget. The organisation said this should set a precedent for UN human rights funding in the future.

Human Rights Watch has warned for years about China and Russia-led efforts to slash funding for UN human rights work, which was aimed at undermining decisions by the UN Human Rights Council, General Assembly, and Security Council. […] All these efforts failed. The Czech Republic as European Union president countered by proposing full funding for human rights mechanisms at the level proposed by Secretary-General António Guterres. The resolution passed by a sizable majority. […] Not only did the defunding efforts fail, but the highly problematic recommendations put forward by the UN Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions were rejected.

Louis Charbonneau, United Nations Director, Human Rights Watch

This past week has seen continued flagrant violations by the Russian authorities of fundamental human rights: a journalist jailed for six years for an online comment about the war; two Jehovah’s Witnesses jailed for six-and-a-half-years each for their faith; the apparent disappearance within the prison system of an activist jailed for four years on trumped up charges under the repressive law on ‘undesirable organisations’; the UN highlighting the arbitrary detention of a Moscow district council member (again, for a statement against the war); a foreign journalist denied accreditation for their reporting; a foreigner banned from the country for 40 years for a misdemeanour. Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and its Ukrainian partner, the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), reported on the devastation wreaked by the Russian authorities on the media space in Ukraine. Without respect for fundamental human rights – not least freedom of expression and freedom of religion – civil society cannot exist. In Rights in Russia’s monthly podcast, Then & Now, this week, Svetlana Gannushkina told Teresa Cherfas that in her view a modern state cannot exist without civil society. Gannushkina called upon the Russian authorities to recognise that fact and to engage with, and support, civil society. She also pointedly said that what is happening today in Russia amounts to ‘the destruction of the state.’ It turns out that the self-proclaimed ‘statists’ under Vladimir Putin, by suppressing civil society and undermining fundamental human rights, undermine the state itself.

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