26 March 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 in Russia the homes of nine members of Memorial were searched on a spurious pretext and charges of ‘discrediting the Russian army’ were laid against one of the group’s leaders, Oleg Orlov; the Ministry of Justice moved to close down the Sova Centre, an NGO that monitors legislation and civil society in the realm of rightwing and nationalist activism; Ilya Baburin, on remand on charges of arson of an army recruitment centre, has been subjected to mistreatment in a remand prison; and the adopted son of Natalia Filonova, who is on remand on charges related to an anti-war protest, was placed in an orphanage and has now been refused permission to attend her trial. In relation to UKraine and Russia’s invasion of that country, OVD-Info reported that convicted Crimean activist Irina Danilovich has gone on a dry hunger strike to protest against a lack of medical care; the International Federation for Human Rights [FIDH] welcomed last week’s issuance of arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, and the Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova; Human Rights Watch published a report on the Russian military’s attack on civilians in residential areas of the town of Izium; Amnesty International in its annual report called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ‘a chilling example of what can happen when states think they can flout international law and violate human rights without consequences’; and Human Rights House Foundation delivered a statement on Ukraine at the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council calling for continued support for the Commission of Inquiry, the renewal of its mandate, and to ensure that it is fully resourced. Finally, Reporters Without Borders [RFS] issued a statement pointing out that Georgia had denied entry to a number of independent Russian journalists since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
OVD-Info reported that on 21 March law enforcement officers searched nine apartments of Memorial employees, as well as the organisation’s Moscow office on Maly Karetny Pereulok, in relation to an investigation into alleged ‘rehabilitation of Nazism.’ According to OVD-Info, investigators allege that Memorial, ‘disregarding historical truth,’ had published the names of three men on its ‘List of Victims of Soviet Political Terror’ who may have participated in Nazi crimes on the territory of the Soviet Union. OVD-Info also reported that criminal charges were filed against Oleg Orlov, council member of Human Rights Defence Centre Memorial that was established after the Russian authorities shut down Memorial Human Rights Centre of which he was at that time chair, for repeatedly discrediting the army. The apartments searched included those of Oleg Orlov, formerly co-chair of Memorial Human Rights Centre, Yan Rachinsky, formerly thehead of International Memorial; Nikita Petrov, formerly deputy chair of the organisation; and former staff members Aleksandra Polivanova, Aleksandr Guryanov, Galina Yordanskaya, Alena Kozlova and Irina Ostrovskaya. The moves against former Memorial staff have been condemned by, among others, Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch and The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.
By raiding the homes of members of Memorial, the Russian authorities are continuing their witch-hunt against human rights defenders and activists. They view Memorial’s work, which includes protecting human rights in an increasingly repressive Russia and recording the crimes against humanity committed during the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union, as a threat to their power. As a pretext for raiding the homes of members of Memorial, the Russian authorities accused them of ‘rehabilitating Nazism’, which is manifestly absurd. The Kremlin must urgently end its shameful campaign of repression against activists and those working to preserve the memories of Stalin’s brutality. Memorial’s crucial work of documenting the past, educating young people and marking the history of political repression must be allowed to continue.Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Russia Director
The Observatory strongly condemns the raid on the homes and the judicial harassment of Oleg Orlov, Yan Rachinsky, Nikita Petrov, Alexandre Guryanov, Galina Jordanskaya, Alena Kozlova, Irina Ostrovskaya and Alexandra Polivanova, as well as the ongoing brutal crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society organisations in Russia, which further escalated after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.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)
[…] with today’s raids on Memorial and interrogation of their staff, the authorities are making clear that once they close down an organization, they will carry on prosecuting activists who continue to speak out. They should drop the ludicrous “discrediting” charges against Orlov and the retaliatory “justification of Nazism” case, at once.Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
Front Line Defenders is gravely concerned about the raids, judicial harassment, and targeting of the former representatives of International “Memorial” and Human Rights Center “Memorial” for their peaceful and legitimate human rights work. The organisation condemns the fact that the human rights defenders were denied access to legal support. Despite many calls, the Russian authorities continue to systemically target human rights defenders and civil society organisations through trumped up charges and bogus lawsuits. Front Line Defenders condemns the Russian governments supression of all spaces for human rights defenders who remain in the counrty and it’s radical and violent interference with defenders’ critical and legitimate human rights work.Front Line Defenders
Front Line Defenders condemns the continued persecution of human rights defender Oleg Orlov, for his peaceful and legitimate human rights work. Front Line Defenders urges that the expansion of the Russian Federation’s Criminal Code with a set of articles against “discreditation” and “fakes” against the Russian military fosters censorship in the country and is being disproportionately used to target human rights defenders and journalists.Front Line Defenders
The Russian state has been trying to eliminate Memorial for a long time. In 2014, the Memorial Human Rights Centre was recognized as a ‘foreign agent,’ and in 2016 the International Memorial Society was added to the registry. In December 2021, the courts ordered the liquidation of both organizations. […] But the security forces did not think it enough to liquidate the organizations – they continue to prosecute those who are in any way associated with them.OVD-Info
On 20 March 2023, the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis (Sova Centre) reported that the Russian Ministry of Justice had filed a suit to permanently shut it down on the grounds that the organisation, which is registered in Moscow, allegedly organised events outside in other areas of Russia. The organisation plans to challenge the Ministry of Justice’s actions in the courts.
Front Line Defenders condemns judicial harassment of Sova Centre by state actors and believes that this harassment is due to the peaceful human rights work of the organisation. Front Line Defenders expresses grave concerns about the continuing systemic targeting of human rights organisations in Russia through inspections and investigations by state actors, as well as through targetting human rights organisations with bogus lawsuits with the aim of shutting them down. Such targetting, places human rights defenders under increased risk and further hampers their peaceful and legitimate human rights work.Front Line Defenders
OVD-Info reported that Solidarity Zone, a human rights project, has described how officials at a Novosibirsk remand prison put pressure on Ilya Baburin who is charged with attempted arson of a military enlistment office. Baburin was placed in a ‘psychiatric isolation cell’ where he was undressed completely and not allowed to use the toilet. Baburin was subsequently placed in a punishment cell for 18 days (although the maximum term of punishment is 15 days). At present he is in a punishment cell where he has been sent for 14 days.
Pressure put on a detainee in a remand prison is not always torture, beatings, or threats. Sometimes law enforcement officers find more sophisticated ways to break a person. In that way, they protect themselves, since nobody is likely to punish them for putting the detainee in a punishment or isolation cell, while they may be prosecuted for real violence.OVD-Info
OVD-Info reported that there are concerns over teenager Vladimir Alalykin in an orphanage in Buryatia who has not been in in touch with any family or friends recently. The adopted son of Natalia Filonova, he was sent to an orphanage after his adoptive mother was remanded in custody in November 2022 in relation to an ‘anti-war’ prosecution. He is not being allowed to attend her trial. Filonova was charged with violence against the police at a demonstration against military mobilization.
The children of those who are held on remand can be taken away by children’s welfare authorities if there is no second parent or the second parent is unable to look after the child. At the same time, if the case is political, the child can be put under pressure. In this way, many fathers and mothers are deprived of the opportunity to protest – because in Russia, even peaceful protests are prosecuted, many are afraid to go into the streets, knowing they could end up behind bars and their children in bad conditions.OVD-Info
OVD-Info reported that convicted Crimean activist Irina Danilovich has gone on a dry hunger strike to protest against a lack of medical care. On 21 March it became known that her health had deteriorated while she was was kept in the basement of an FSB building for more than a week, and then placed in a remand centre without heating.
A hunger strike is one of the few means of protest available to prisoners, and sometimes it proves effective, especially when what is at issue are that conditions in a detention centre or penal colony are involved. In March 2021, Aleksei Navalny went on a hunger strike to protest the lack of medical treatment for back pain and leg problems. He ended his hunger strike after he was transferred to a prison hospital and doctors were allowed to see him.OVD-Info
The FIDH has welcomed the issuance of arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, and the Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. The two have been accused of involvement in war crimes – namely, deportations and illegal transfers of Ukrainian children to Russia. The FIDH noted that this is the first time since its creation that the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for the President of a permanent member state of the UN Security Council.
The fact that authoritarian leaders consider themselves untouchable leads to aggressive wars that cause suffering to millions of people. However, history has shown that authoritarian regimes fall and their leaders are brought to justice.Oleksandra Matviichuk, FIDH Vice President and Head of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), an FIDH member organisation.
The issuance of these arrest warrants marks a significant milestone for international justice and the fight against impunity. It is now evident that Heads of States cannot use immunity as a shield for themselves.Mazen Darwish, Secretary General of FIDH and Executive Director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), a member organisation of FIDH.
Human Rights Watch published a report on the attack by Russian forces on residential areas in the town of Izium. The organisation said Russian forces used a large air-delivered munition on an apartment building on March 9, 2022, in Izium, eastern Ukraine, in an attack that killed at least 44 civilians and violated the laws of war. The report, “A Thousand Explosions in My Ears,” uses survivor testimony, photos, videos, and 3D modeling of the building at 2 Pershotravneva Street to show the devastating effects of the attack – one of the single deadliest for civilians since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Generations of families in the basement were entombed by this single attack. We found no evidence to justify treating the apartment building as a legitimate military target, or that Russian forces tried to avoid or minimize the destruction of so many civilian lives. […] The survivors and victims’ family members deserve answers and justice. The devastation and pain will never be erased, but accountability can help enforce that these kinds of acts will not be tolerated.Richard Weir, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “
Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 2022 on the state of human rights in the world highlights what the organisation calls double standards throughout the world on human rights and the failure of the international community to unite around consistently-applied human rights and universal values. The organisation contrasted what it called the West’s ‘robust response’ to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine with a ‘deplorable lack of meaningful action’ on grave violations by some of their allies including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a chilling example of what can happen when states think they can flout international law and violate human rights without consequences. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created 75 years ago, out of the ashes of the Second World War. At its core is the universal recognition that all people have rights and fundamental freedoms. While global power dynamics are in chaos, human rights cannot be lost in the fray. They should guide the world as it navigates an increasingly volatile and dangerous environment. We must not wait for the world to burn again. […] Had the system worked to hold Russia accountable for its documented crimes in Chechnya and Syria, thousands of lives might have been saved then and now, in Ukraine and elsewhere. Instead, what we have is more suffering and devastation. If Russia’s war of aggression demonstrates anything for the world’s future, it is the importance of an effective and consistently applied rules-based international order. All States must step up their efforts for a renewed rules-based order that benefits everyone, everywhere. Responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave us some evidence of what can be done when there is political will. We saw global condemnation, investigations of crimes, borders opened to refugees. This response must be a blueprint for how we address all massive human rights violations.Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
On 21 March 2023, Human Rights House Foundation delivered a statement on Ukraine a the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council calling for continued support for the Commission of Inquiry, the renewal of its mandate, and to ensure that it is fully resourced. The organisation said that despite widespread and continued occurrence of international crimes and serious human rights violations, ‘ground-breaking and important work is being done to advance accountability, and it remains essential that such efforts receive strong international support.’
The report of the Commission of Inquiry is clear: war crimes are being committed in Ukraine, including the torture and killing of civilians and the forced transfers and deportations of children. The patterns of serious violations suggest other crimes are likely being committed as well, including crimes against humanity. […] Alongside the work of the Commission of Inquiry, our civil society partners in Ukraine are at the forefront of documentation efforts on the ground, including gross violations of the rights of the child and the widespread re-education and militarisation of children in the occupied territories.Human Rights House Foundation
RSF said that since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, at least 11 independent Russian journalists have been denied entry to Georgia for no good reason. The organisation suspects Russia may be exerting pressure on the Georgian authorities and urges Georgia to explain these decisions and to put a stop to this practice. Examples of victims cited by RSF include: Aleksandra Shvedchenka, the Georgia correspondent of the Russian exile TV channel Dozhd (TV Rain), Filip Dziadko, who had been living in Georgia for a year with his family, and Aleksei Ponomarev, podcast editor at the independent media outlet Kholod.
For the many Russian journalists fleeing their country’s totalitarian decline, Georgia has long been a land of asylum. These unjustified denial of entry decisions – with terrible consequences for the journalists concerned, who are condemned yet again to rebuild their lives – reflect the harder line being taken by the Georgian government towards independent media. We call on the government and its prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, to explain these decisions, to resist any pressure from the Russian authorities, and to resume a policy of welcoming all Russian journalists who are forced to flee their country.Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
As the historian Timothy Snyder in a speech to the UN recently eloquently pointed out, it is the Russian state that is causing harm to the Russian people. One could also say, to use the language often used by the agents of the regime, that it is the Russian state that is discrediting itself. This week we learned that shutting down the Memorial organisations was not enough for Putin’s malevolent regime: they have set the FSB to continue to judicially harass and prosecute its activists as well. One can only wonder that at a time of crisis for the Russian government, with a catastrophic military failure and a collapsing economy, the regime still wishes to expend the effort, time and money on these absurd persecutions.
Another example of the absurd actions resulting from what can perhaps best be called the regime’s paranoia is the move to shut down another prominent NGO, albeit one of a very different nature from Memorial: the Sova Centre. The Sova Centre is well known for its expertise on legislation and civil society activism, with a particular focus on the political rightwing and nationalism. A small organisation, under Aleksandr Verkhovsky it has made an international name for itself by its impartial and scrupulous analysis.
Two examples of ordinary citizens caught in the repressive mill of the Russian state system are Ilya Baburin and Natalia Filonova, both held on remand. While the former has been subject to severe mistreatment, the latter’s son has been effectively incarcerated in an orphanage. Across the border in occupied Crimea, meanwhile, another victim of mistreatment is the convicted Crimean activist and citizen journalist Irina Danilovich who has been driven to go on a hunger strike (without water) in an attempt to obtain a minimum of necessary medical care.
As the situation inside Russia continues to deteriorate, this week has seen a number of important statements and reports by international human rights groups not only condemning the domestic repression by the Russian regime, but also condemning various aspects of the probable war crimes consequent upon Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine: welcoming the arrest warrants issued by the ICC (FIDH); condemning Russian atrocities against civilians in Izium (HRW) and Russia’s violations of international law and human rights (Amnesty International); calling for continued support for the UN’s Commission of Inquiry into violations in Ukraine (Human Rights House Foundation); and condemning neigbouring states, namely Georgia, for giving in to probable Russian pressure to deny entry to independent Russian journalists (RSF). These various statements and reports illustrate the crucial ongoing work being done to gather evidence that may one day be used to bring the perpetrators to justice.
In the introduction to Amnesty International’s annual report, the organisation’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard pointed out that, ‘If Russia’s war of aggression demonstrates anything for the world’s future, it is the importance of an effective and consistently applied rules-based international order.’ She argues that, ‘Had the [international] system worked to hold Russia accountable for its documented crimes in Chechnya and Syria, thousands of lives might have been saved then and now, in Ukraine and elsewhere. Instead, what we have is more suffering and devastation.’ For the future of the world, her argument makes it all the more important that those responsible for the suffering and devastation in Ukraine now be held to account.