26 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 saw the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that began on 24 February 2022. To mark the event a number of human rights organisations published statements and reports, including OVD-Info, Memorial Centre for Human Rights Defence, Amnesty International, Article 19, Civil Rights Defenders, European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, Human Rights House Foundation, Human Rights Watch, and the International Federation for Human Rights. Meanwhile OVD-Info reported on arrests of those protesting on the anniversary of the war, the designation of Aleksei Gorinov as a ‘flight risk’ in the penal colony where he is held, the ordering of Maksim Voronovsky, charged with justifying terrorism, to undergo compulsory psychiatric treatment as an in-patient, the raising of concerns by Amnesty International about the forcible disappearance of Idris Arsamikov from Chechnya, and a similar statement by Human Rights Watch on the feared forcible disappearance of activist Andrei Pivovarov.
On 24 February 2023, OVD-Info reported, at least 54 people were detained at anti-war rallies in 14 Russian cities – for pickets, laying flowers and even for writing in the snow. Looking back over the past year, in addition to the tens of thousands of dead, destroyed cities and millions of refugees, the organisation noted aggressive misanthropic propaganda from TV screens, military censorship and the forced emigration of hundreds of thousands from Russia. The year saw what OVD-Info called an ‘unprecedented crackdown’ on protests against the war in Russia ‘with hundreds of citizens facing criminal charges and thousands facing administrative penalties.’
We have counted almost 20,000 arrests on the grounds of an anti-war stance. On at least 413 occasions, police officers used force against detainees, for example, beating them or using tasers. We recorded 18,183 prosecutions under ‘assembly’ articles of the Code of Administrative Offences and 5,846 cases under the article on discrediting the Russian army. At least 447 people have been prosecuted in ‘anti-war’ cases, 128 of whom are in custody. Some of them reported violence, threats, pressure and ill-treatment by security forces, and at least 15 were tortured. Since the beginning of the war, military censorship has effectively been declared in the country. More than 10,000 websites have been blocked. The state has continued to fight even harder against independent media: the websites of at least 265 publications were added to the registers of banned publications, and 34 journalists became defendants in “anti-war cases.”OVD-Info
Aleksei Gorinov, OVD-Info reported, sentenced to seven years in prison for criticising the ewar, has been placed on the ‘preventive detention registry’ in the penal colony on the grounds he was a ‘flight risk.’ This means that guards check up on him every two hours day and night.
Inclusion on the preventative detention registry is one of the means of putting pressure on political prisoners in pre-trial detention centres and penal colonies. Officials often do not explain why a person is placed on the registry, so it’s almost impossible to challenge the move. In February 2021, Aleksei Navalny was placed on a preventive detention register, also as a flight risk.OVD-Info
Maksim Voronovsky, prosecuted for justification of terrorism for comments he made about Mikhail Zhlobitsky, who carried out a suicide bombing at the FSB headquarters in Arkhangelsk, has been ordered to undergo indefinite compulsory treatment in a special psychiatric hospital, OVD-Info reported. The court decided Voronovsky was not aware of the nature of his actions, and the danger they posed to the public, so he could not be sentenced to serve a term in a penal colony.
There is no hope a person placed in compulsory psychiatric treatment might actually get quality medical care. Violence, torture and isolation are far more likely. Punitive psychiatry is often used in political cases. For example, since 2021, the Yakut shaman Aleksander Gabyshev, who was prosecuted on charges of violence against a public official, has been undergoing compulsory treatment.OVD-Info
Amnesty International called for the Russian authorities to immediately release and ensure the safety of Idris Arsamikov who has been forcibly disappeared. A 28-year-old Chechen man, Idris Arsamikov was arbitrarily arrested on fabricated charges of fraud in Moscow’s Domodedovo airport and transferred to Chechnya.
Idris Arsamikov had previously reported being arrested and tortured by the Chechen police for his perceived sexual orientation. He is at grave risk of further torture and other ill-treatment and his life is at risk. The Russian authorities must immediately release him and ensure his safety.Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch published a statement on the plight of Andrei Pivovarov, who at that time was feared to have been forcibly disappeared.
Russian authorities have refused for a month to provide information about the location of a political prisoner, Andrey Pivovarov, raising concerns that he has been forcibly disappeared, Human Rights Watch said today.Human Rights Watch
Russia’s War Against Ukraine
Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre published a report marking the anniversary entitled А Chain of Wars, a Chain of Crimes, a Chain of Impunity: Russian Wars in Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine. The report described Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine as ‘an act of aggression unparalleled in European history since World War II.’ The report compares the events of the past year in Ukraine with Russia’s other wars – the Syria War, and the First and Second Chechen Wars.
All of this did not start just a year ago. The annexation of Crimea took place ten years ago, then the aggression in Ukraine’s east a short time later. […] In general, our country has been at war almost non-stop for over forty years, since Afghanistan. It all comes from there — “purges”, “filtration”, or using Grad missiles on populated cities. We were trying to find an answer to the question: how are these practices shared and repeated? A Chain of wars, a Chain of crimes, a Chain of Impunity — the last word is key here. Impunity for past crimes leads to new crimes. A demand for justice — as in, punishment for those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity — is not just a figure of speech. It is, probably, the only way to break this chain.Aleksandr Cherkasov, from the forward to the report by Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre
Civil Rights Defenders in a statement to mark a full year since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine praised the work of many Ukrainian human rights defenders and civil society organisations that have stayed in the country, including Almenda that documents war crimes against children. Since the invasion, the organisation said, 438 children have been killed. As many as two out of three Ukrainian children have been internally or externally displaced and according to a report by Almenda from the end of November 2022, at least 386 Ukrainian children who lived in the occupied territories had been illegally adopted to Russians.
It’s really important that there will be accountability for those losses that cannot be undone, and for all those deaths of children. It is also important that we save the history of what is happening in Ukraine right now.Mariia Sulialin, Almenda, quoted by Civil Rights Defenders
Amnesty International in a statement said that victims’ rights must be at the heart of all justice efforts and the International community must develop a robust plan to address the demands for justice of the victims of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The organisation called Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine “an act of aggression and human rights catastrophe” and noted that since the start of the invastion, Russian forces have committed war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law, including extrajudicial executions, deadly strikes on civilian infrastructure and places of shelter, deportations and forcible transfers of civilians, and unlawful killings committed on a vast scale through shelling of cities.
While the invasion continues and the full extent of the crimes committed in Ukraine remains unknown, demands of victims and survivors for justice and their rights must be prioritized. The international community has a clear duty to ensure that those responsible for crimes under international law know that accountability and justice will triumph over impunity. As Russian armed forces appear to be stepping up their offensive in Ukraine, the commitment to hold all perpetrators of human rights violations and war crimes to account is as urgent as ever. The people of Ukraine have suffered unimaginable horror during this war of aggression over the last 12 months. Let us be clear: the hands of Vladimir Putin and his armed forces are stained with blood. Survivors deserve justice and reparations for all they have endured. The international community must stand steadfast to see this through to the end so that justice is served. One year in, it’s patently clear more must be done.Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
Human Rights House Foundation in an op-ed, written together with four other Norwegian organisations said Ukrainians are fighting two battles – one against the brutal Russian invasion, and the other to defend the democratic progress the country has made since independence in 1991. The organisations said, ‘Weapons are needed to win the first battle, and for the second, a victory depends on support for local democracy and civil society.’
The democracy that Ukrainians sacrifice their lives to defend every day is built locally. The country’s security and future development depend on good cooperation between local authorities and a strong civil society. Ukrainians have typically had greater trust in voluntary organisations than in central authorities.Human Rights House Foundation
In a statement issued on the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) said it would continue to support its partners in Ukraine ‘to challenge crimes and human rights violations resulting from the war, including those that disproportionately target marginalised communities within Ukraine.’ The organisation also called on the international community ‘to support Ukraine and act now to bring an urgent end to Russian aggression, to ensure that new and existing pathways to accountability are effective, that perpetrators are eventually brought to justice and that victims and families are provided with redress.’
On this, the first anniversary of the Russian Federation’s illegal and devastating war on Ukraine, we stand with the many victims of this conflict and the brave human rights defenders documenting the rising count of war crimes and other egregious human rights abuses. The current war is an escalation of many years of Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine and the unlawful annexation of Crimea, which have already caused mass displacement and conflict-related human rights abuses.EHRAC
In a statement the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said its member organisations in Ukraine, the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), and the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG), have helped to document close to 30,000 alleged international crimes. The organisation noted, ‘Behind these figures are deaths and grief of thousands of victims, exacerbated by the impunity of Russia’s leadership. FIDH and its members worldwide call on international institutions and governments to ramp up efforts to ensure justice in Ukraine as a means of promoting international peace and security.’
One year ago, the world woke up in shock as Russia’s armed forces launched a large-scale attack against Ukraine in an apparent attempt to conquer the capital Kyiv and overthrow a democratically elected government. Along with the international community, FIDH strongly condemned Russia’s aggression. The offensive was resisted by Ukraine’s defenders, but the suffering of the Ukrainian people was only beginning. In one year, CCL, KHPG, and the other Ukrainian NGOs that are members of the “Tribunal for Putin” coalition, have documented approximately 30,000 incidents of alleged international crimes committed, for the most part, by the invading armed forces, including summary executions, torture, unlawful confinement, ill-treatment, rape, and other sexual violence committed in areas occupied by Russia’s armed forces. Many of these episodes of horrific violence have resulted in domestic investigations, in Ukraine and elsewhere, and already several prosecutions of Russian soldiers for violations of the laws and customs of war.International Federation for Human Rights
Article 19 published an Open letter of solidarity signed by writers, journalists, artists, human rights defenders, and those who stand in solidarity with them from around the world ‘including those who stay in Ukraine and made the difficult decision to leave our homes.’ The authors said the letter was written to express ‘our collective condemnation of Russia’s multi-pronged war against the Ukrainian people and culture.’
We grieve for the thousands of people killed as casualties of Russia’s campaign of violence. Russia’s war has sought to rupture Ukraine’s social fabric and culture, displacing millions of people in the destruction of cities and towns. We grieve for the deaths of writers, artists, journalists, cultural workers, and all who have cultivated Ukraine’s blooming culture and civil society sector. In the last year, the space for free expression in Ukraine has been under attack by the Russian military’s actions. Russian soldiers have deliberately killed and kidnapped journalists and writers. Artists had to flee Ukraine in order to survive and continue their work. Russian bombardments have indiscriminately destroyed and damaged hundreds of places where Ukrainians experience culture and history, from community cultural houses to Holocaust memorial centres. There is evidence that the Mariupol Drama Theater, the 19th century Regional Youth Library in Chernihiv, and other remarkable cultural objects have been deliberately targeted. But Russia’s military actions since 24 February, 2022, represent only one prong in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine.Article 19
Human Rights Watch in a statement said Russian forces should be held to account for the atrocities they have committed. The publication gave as example 12 attacks on civilians and other serious human rights abuses and laws-of-war violations that Human Rights Watch documented over the past year.
Russian forces have shattered the lives of millions of Ukrainian civilians and devastated Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Russian forces committed a wide range of atrocities, whose victims deserve justice. Those responsible, up to the highest levels, should be held accountable.Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch, together with Situ Research, also published a detailed investigation in to the use of cluster munitions by Russia in an attack on the Kramatorsk train station on 8 April 2022. The organisation described the attack as ‘one of the deadliest single incidents for civilians since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022.’
On April 8, at 10:28 a.m., a ballistic missile equipped with a cluster munition warhead dispersed 50 small bombs, known as submunitions, over the train tracks and station in Kramatorsk, where Tamara and several hundred other people were anxiously waiting for evacuation trains to take them to relative safety away from the worst fighting. At least 58 people were killed – all of them to our knowledge civilians – and over 100 others were injured. After Ukrainian officials reported the attack, the Russian government that day denied responsibility, saying their forces did not have or deploy the ballistic missile used, and then blamed Ukrainian forces for the attack. The attack remains one of the deadliest single incidents for civilians since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022. Russia’s attack on the crowded Kramatorsk train station was unlawfully indiscriminate. Railroad tracks and train stations are used by armed forces for military purposes and therefore can be lawful military targets. However, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the Kramatorsk station was at the time of the attack being used for military purposes or that there were Ukrainian forces in the area. Airstrikes or artillery attacks on objects where there is no military objective are indiscriminate.Human Rights Watch
While the world marked the anniversary of Russia’s fullscale invasion of Ukraine, in Russia itself it was very much ‘business as usual’: protesters were detained, political prisoners were subject to ever greater harassment, there was a new case of what seems to be Soviet-style punitive psychiatry, and the authorities were apparently responsibility for two cases of enforced disappearance. Of all the publications put out to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, perhaps the most powerful has been that from the Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre that draws comparisons between Russia’s past wars and its currrent war against Ukraine. The report, А Chain of Wars, a Chain of Crimes, a Chain of Impunity: Russian Wars in Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine, argues that the impunity Russian military commanders and personnel enjoyed in Chechnya, Syria and elsewhere for war crimes is a direct cause of the atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. The report calls for those responsible to be held to account, and in this it chimes with the other statements and reports issued by human rights organisations this week, marking the tragic anniversary of the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Justice must be done.
The post-Soviet wars waged since the early 1990s have not been a chain of random events and coincidences. They should be seen as a chain of wars, a chain of crimes, a chain of impunity. Impunity for past crimes generates new crimes and provokes new criminals. Surovikin, Strelkov, and other “heroes” of the war in Ukraine brought with them the experience of three decades of unpunished violence. The butchered city of Mariupol is a consequence of the destruction of Grozny. The impunity for the murderers of Samashki and Novye Aldy inevitably spawned Bucha. The “filtration camps”, through which Mariupol residents had to pass, inherited the “filtration system” that had existed in Chechnya. There can be no lasting peace without memory and justice.А Chain of Wars, a Chain of Crimes, a Chain of Impunity: Russian Wars in Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine, Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre, Novaya gazeta, 24 February 2023