2 April 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 Aleksei Moskalev, sentenced to two years for discrediting the Russian military was recaptured in Minsk after having fled house arrest; the Free University was designated an ‘undesirable foreign organisation’; US journalist Evan Gershkovich was arrested and remanded in custody on charges of espionage; and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders joined other human rights groups in condemning the ongoing judicial harassment of Oleg Orlov, Yan Rachinsky and other Memorial associates. Meanwhile, in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Article 19 and other international media rights organisations pointed to the importance of a free press one year on from the discovery of the atrocities in Bucha, the case of nurse and citizen journalist Iryna Danylovych on dry hunger strike in Crimea continued to be cause of concern; Denis Narolsky, a contract soldier from Crimea who refused to fight in Ukraine, was sentenced to nine years in a strict regime penal colony; and Human Rights Watch pubished a question-and-answer document on various aspects of the international justice response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and joined Amnesty International in calling on the international community to respond to crises and conflicts elsewhere in the world in a similarly effective manner.
OVD-Info reported that Aleksei Moskalev, father of Masha, who drew an anti-war drawing at school, and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for anti-war posts on social media, has been detained in Minsk. The night before Moskalev was sentenced he had escaped from house arrest.
The story of Aleksei and Moskalev and his daughter Masha is an example of how the government puts pressure on dissenters of all ages, even children. Masha is not allowed out of the rehabilitation centre, and Aleksei was detained on the territory of another state.OVD-Info
The Prosecutor General’s Office, OVD-Info reported, has designated the Free University an undesirable organization. The prosecutor’s office has said that ‘in the course of the educational process, students develop a persistent aversion to Russia and the ultra-liberal model of European democracy is imposed on them.’ The project itself calls its goal ‘to rebuild the university, freeing teachers from all administrative diktat.’
People charged with participation in the activities of an ‘undesirable’ organization face charges that can include terms of imprisonment. […] Now those who post information about courses at the Free University on social networks or send donations to the organisation may also be prosecuted. Without this support, the independent educational project will not be able to survive.OVD-Info
The University was founded a little more than two years ago by former teachers at the Higher School of Economics, by professors who for many years were acknowledged as the best in their departments. New information technologies provided the opportunity for the university’s work – lectures and seminars took place remotely with the aid of сloud platforms for holding online video conferences. The Free University non-profit organisation was registered in Riga but effectively it was and remains an extra-territorial organisation, its teachers and students based in Russia and abroad.Ilya Shablinsky, commentator and legal expert, formerly deputy head of the Department of Constitutional and Municipal Law at the Higher School of Economics
American journalist Evan Gershkovich has been detained and remanded in custody on charges of espionage, OVD-Info reported. The Wall Street Journal journalist disappeared in Ekaterinburg on 29 March. The next day it became known that he was facing criminal charges of espionage. Gershkovich was taken to Moscow and remanded in custody. According to OVD-Info, Gershkovich had been interviewing Ekaterinburg residents about their attitudes toward the Wagner PMC. The Investigative Committee alleged that he had been ‘gathering information about one of the enterprises of Russia’s military-industrial complex.’ Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists and a number of other news organisations and non-governmental press freedom groups have written to the Russian Ambassador to the US, Anatoly I. Antonov, to call for the release of Evan Gershkovich. The letter to Ambassador Anatoly I. Antonov describes the detention of Gershkovich as a ‘significant escalation’ of Russia’s actions against press freedom.’ In a separate statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Russian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Evan Gershkovich, drop all charges against him, and allow the media to work freely. Reporters Without Borders [RSF] said the US journalist was the victim of ‘clearly arbitrary’ treatment and he was ‘clearly a Russian state hostage.’ Human Rights Watch also called for the journalist’s immediate release.
The prosecution of Evan Gershkovich is the first such case against a foreign journalist. If convicted of espionage, he faces from 10 to 20 years in prison. In September 2022, Moscow City Court convicted Ivan Safronov, an ex-employee of the Kommersant and Vedomosti newspapers, of state treason, which applies to Russian citizens, not foreigners. Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in prison and fined half a million roubles. Pressure on Russian and foreign journalists is an attempt to deprive the world of access to independent information about what is happening in Russia.OVD-Info
It seems that those who initially interpreted the arrest as a boost to the Kremlin’s reserves for prisoner exchanges are right. It’s not yet clear who they’d like to exchange the journalist for but candidates do exist. As it happens two Russian citizens, staffers of one of the Russian special forces, were recently arrested in Slovenia. Perhaps they will come up too. Be that as it may, Gershkovich is a fairly substantial figure for an exchange: a journalist at a respectable publication and a relatively young professional, in whose fate the American public is taking a lively interest. It seems too that his time spent in a Russian jail will soon become an issue in pre-election clashes in the USA. It looks like the Russian special services thought seriously about who they needed.Ilya Shablinsky, commentator and legal expert, formerly deputy head of the Department of Constitutional and Municipal Law at the Higher School of Economics
We, the undersigned news organizations and nongovernmental press freedom organizations, write to express our deep concern regarding your government’s detention of journalist Evan Gershkovich and the unfounded espionage charges leveled against him. […] Gershkovich is a journalist, not a spy, and should be released immediately and without conditions. […] Gershkovich’s unwarranted and unjust arrest is a significant escalation in your government’s anti-press actions. Russia is sending the message that journalism within your borders is criminalised and that foreign correspondents seeking to report from Russia do not enjoy the benefits of the rule of law.Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists and a number of other news organisations and non-governmental press freedom groups in a letter to Russia’s ambassador to the US, Ambassador Anatoly I. Antonov.
By detaining the American journalist Evan Gershkovich, Russia has crossed the Rubicon and sent a clear message to foreign correspondents that they will not be spared from the ongoing purge of the independent media in the country. Authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Gershkovich, drop all charges against him, and let the media work freely and without fear of reprisal.Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Gershkovich’s arrest marks Russian authorities’ desire to keep foreign journalists away and stop their reporting on topics that are critical of the government or that unmask its abuses. It is a depraved, cynical move. The Russian government should free Evan Gershkovich at once.Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
Evan Gershkovich’s detention clearly amounts to institutional hostage taking. The Russian authorities are showing marked bad faith, otherwise they would respect his defence rights. We know that this government is creative when it comes to manipulation, especially with regard to journalists.Christophe Deloire, RSF secretary-general
The 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), issued a statement condemning the judicial harassment of leading figures in Memorial by the Russian authorities.
The Observatory has been informed about the opening of criminal proceedings against Oleg Orlov, co-chair of Memorial Human Rights Center (HRC “Memorial”), a member organisation of FIDH, as well as the raid on his and at least seven members of the dissolved NGO International Memorial’s homes or family’s homes, namely: Yan Rachinsky, head of the management of International Memorial; Nikita Petrov, deputy chair of the organisation; and employees Alexandra Polivanova, Alexandre Guryanov, Galina Jordanskaya, Alena Kozlova and Irina Ostrovskaya. 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.The 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)
Russia’s War on Ukraine
Article 19 together with European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), International Press Institute (IPI), Justice for Journalists Foundation (JFJ), OBC Transeuropa (OBCT) and South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) issued a statement marking one year since the atrocities in Bucha were uncovered, following the retreat of the Russian army. The organisations called on the Russian authorities to provide the Russian public with independent information on the war in Ukraine and for the international community to continue to support the work of independent media covering the war, and to hold all those responsible for attacks on journalists to account.
Independent media worked tirelessly and courageously, and often at great personal risk, to help expose the crimes and the extent of the brutality that Russian forces inflicted on Bucha and other parts of the country. Their work is a reminder of the indispensable role that journalism plays in times of war. Independent journalists serve as the world’s eyes and ears in war zones. Without them, we are blind – and powerless against the forces of state propaganda. […] As the world remembers the uncovering of the massacres in Bucha one year later, we reinforce our solidarity with all journalists working to pierce the armour of propaganda and report the truth about Russia’s war and its cost to the Ukrainian people. We demand that Russian authorities cease their attacks on those who still brave repression to provide the Russian public with independent information on the war in Ukraine. And we call on the international community to continue to support the work of independent media covering the war, and to hold all those responsible for attacks on journalists to account.Article 19, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), International Press Institute (IPI), Justice for Journalists Foundation (JFJ), OBC Transeuropa (OBCT) and South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), issued a statement on the dry hunger strike by Iryna Danilovich while in detention. The organisation noted that ‘Ms Danilovich is a nurse and a citizen journalist who has been working on disseminating the rights of medical workers and the problems in the healthcare system in her media project called “Crimean Medicine Without Cover”. She has also collaborated with the citizen journalism outlet on human rights “Inzhir Media”. She remains arbitrarily detained since April 2022 as reprisals for her work and criticism to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.’ The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement calling on the authorities in Russian-occupied Crimea to ‘allow journalist Iryna Danylovych access to swift and thorough medical care, and should release all members of the press held for their work.’ Amnesty International and Human Rights House Foundation also issued statements highlighting the plight of Danylovych and calling for her release.
The Observatory strongly condemns the authorities’ reluctance to provide Iryna Danilovich with medical assistance, as well as her ongoing arbitrary detention. The Observatory urges the Russian authorities in control of Crimea to guarantee in all circumstances her physical integrity and psychological well-being, including by granting her access to adequate and comprehensive medical treatment. The Observatory further urges the authorities to immediately release her, quash her prison sentence and put an end to all acts of harassment against her and all human rights defenders and journalists in Russian-occupied Crimea.The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH),
Russian authorities in occupied Crimea should immediately grant journalist Iryna Danylovych access to medical assistance and stop punishing members of the press for their work. Danylovych should not be in prison in the first place, and authorities should stop retaliating against Crimean journalists by depriving them of their basic rights.Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists
Irina Danilovich, a nurse and human rights activist from Russian-occupied Crimea was abducted by Russian security service on 29 April 2022 and held incommunicado until 11 May. Her health has progressively deteriorated for months, and she started a hunger strike in protest against the denial of health care. Her life is in danger.Amnesty International
Iryna Danilovych was imprisoned in April last year and has been subjected to torture, has almost lost her hearing, constantly suffers headaches, has problems with coordination, and believes she has had at least one micro-stroke in prison. Instead of providing medical aid, “authorities” of the pre-trial detention center told her: “cut your veins” and refused to call for an independent doctor. She has demanded an end to her ill-treatment and started a dry hunger strike on 21 March, in her words: “until medical aid is provided or until my biological death”. We call on the immediate hospitalization and exoneration of Danilovych and we ask the High Commissioner what more can be done to assist political prisoners like Iryna Danilovych, who are in urgent need of medical attention alongside other support.Human Rights House Foundation
OVD-Info reported that Denis Narolsky, a contract soldier from Crimea who refused to fight in Ukraine, has been sentenced to nine years in a strict regime penal colony. The court sentenced Narolsky to nine years in a strict regime penal colony on charges of desertion. Narolsky pleaded guilty and explained he did not want to take part in the war.
The penalty for desertion in conditions of armed conflict (Article 338, Part 3, of the Russian Criminal Code) was added to the Russian Criminal Code in September 2022, a few days after Putin announced the ‘partial mobilization.’ This part of the article provides for a punishment ranging from five to 15 years’ imprisonment. According to Mediazona, as of 22 March, there had been at least 500 prosecutions of contract service personnel and mobilized soldiers in Russian courts on charges of abandoning their units without authorisation, refusing to follow orders, and desertion.OVD-Info
Human Rights Watch pubished a question-and-answer document covering various aspects of the international justice response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, including developments before the ICC and in Ukrainian and other national justice systems, intended to help provide further information to governments and other actors engaged in international justice efforts in Ukraine and globally to understand key features of this response as it continues to develop. Human Rights Watch joined with Amnesty International (see the latter organisation’s recent annual report) in pointing to ‘double standards’ in the West’s responses to international crises, comparing the swift response to events in Ukraine with the reaction to serious crimes elsewhere.
Governments and international bodies that have made unprecedented efforts to promote justice for crimes committed since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine demonstrate the ability to deliver on victims’ rights when political will is high. Human Rights Watch issued a question-and-answer document on the international justice response to the Russia-Ukraine war. The swift international response to the crimes committed in Ukraine also puts into sharp focus the unevenness and double standards in access to justice for victims of serious crimes elsewhere. This also threatens the legitimacy of justice when it is delivered. All governments should work to strengthen the global system of accountability and counter double standards for serious international crimes.Human Rights Watch
The ICC warrant for Putin reflects an evolving and multifaceted justice effort that is needed elsewhere in the world. Similar justice initiatives are needed elsewhere to ensure that the rights of victims globally – whether in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, or Palestine – are respected. […] The incredible efforts poured into ensuring justice in Ukraine have shown the importance of a concerted international response. The support for accountability efforts for Ukraine should become a paradigm for the international community’s response to crises and conflicts elsewhere in the world.Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch
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.said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
This week saw the Putin regime continue with its efforts to seal itself and its citizens off from the international community, designating the Free University as an ‘undesirable foreign organisation’ and effectively taking hostage the US journalist Evan Gershkovich on trumped up spying charges. The arrest of Gershkovich is particularly shocking and no doubt intended to curtail international reporting on the situation inside Russia. Meanwhile, pressure on Russian citizens continues, as seen in the egegious case of Aleksei Moskalev. sentenced to two years for ‘discrediting the Russian military’ while his young daughter remains isolated in a ‘rehabilitation centre,’ and the repressive measures against Memorial staff are ongoing. In Ukraine, the treatment of Crimean nurse and human rights activist Iryna Danylovych, now on a dry hunger strike to protest her denial of health care in detention, is no doubt meant by the Russian authorities to deter others, as is the nine-year sentence handed down to Denis Narolsky, a soldier from Crimea who refused to fight against Ukraine. As the one year anniversary of the discovery of the atrocities in Bucha passed, media rights groups urged that authorities recognise the importance of independent journalism – apparently a forlorn hope with regard to Russia, in particular in the light of the treatment of Evan Gershkovich and Iryna Danylovych – and while Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International welcomed the moves to bring international justice to bear on violations in Ukraine, they expressed frustration that such actions have not been replicated with regard to some other parts of the world.