30 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 two men were jailed for private conversations about the war; two leading human rights NGOs came under attack – Sova Centre in Moscow was closed down while Team against Torture in Nizhny Novgorod and its members were subjected to searches; the pre-trial detention of the lawyer Dmitry Talantov on charges of disseminating ‘fake news motivated by hatred’ was extended for comments he made about the war; judicial proceedings continued against human rights defender Oleg Orlov, also for comments about the war; an LGBTQI+ activist Yan Dvorkin is under investigation for ‘LGBT propaganda’; OVD-Info reported on widespread violence by law enforcement officials against defendants in ‘anti-war’ prosecutions; in Murmansk police raided the offices of the independent news website Arkticheskiy Obozrevatel and the homes of its editor-in-chief Vyacheslav Gorodetskiy and reporter Dmitry Artemenko in connection with a case of alleged slander; a court issued an arrest warrant in absentia for Christov Grozev for allegedly illegally crossing the Russian border; Aleksei Navalny was reported to be isolated from all prisoners except those who inform against him; and three human rights groups – OVD-Info, Memorial and Russia Behind Bars – have taken a challenge against Article 20.3.3 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offences on ‘discrediting the Russian army’ to the Constitutional Court.
With regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the occupied Ukrainian territories, Ukrainian reporter Bohdan Bitik was shot and killed by a sniper outside the city of Kherson; Abdureshit Dzhepparov, an indigenous and minority Crimean Tatar rights defender and coordinator of the Crimean Contact Group on Human Rights, was jailed for 12 days for allegedly disobeying a police officer; Amnesty International condemned the disbarring in Crimea of human rights lawyer Lilia Hemedzhy; Amnesty International also condemned the latest Russian attacks on residential areas in Ukraine that killed at least 17 including two children, urging that the need for ‘truth, justice and reparations’ for victims of Russian aggression in Ukraine was ‘ever more paramount’; and Human Rights House Foundation in its annual report condemned the ‘unprecedented assaults on human rights stemming from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.’
OVD-Info reported that Russian citizens are being sent to prison for private conversations. Samuel Vedel (Sergei Klokov) was been sentenced to seven years in a penal colony for conversations he had on the phone with friends and colleagues about the war in Ukraine – including the murder of civilians. Aleksei Sukhobokov was sentenced to two and a half years in a penal colony for ‘justification of terrorism’ – he allegedly ‘rejoiced’ over the explosion on the Crimean bridge in conversation with colleagues.
It’s not safe to speak publicly about the war, but it seemed that it was at least possible to express your opinions on the phone or in private conversation. It turns out that this is not the case – police officers are listening to conversations even without judicial permission, and ‘concerned’ fellow citizens write denunciations.OVD-Info
Human rights organisations continue to be targeted by the authorities. On 27 April a ruling of Moscow City Court liquidated the Sova Information and Analysis Centre, OVD-Info reported. The human rights activists were accused of violating the territorial scope of the organisation’s activities because they took part in events outside Moscow – the same charges laid against the Moscow Helsinki Group. On 28 April in Nizhny Novgorod police officers searched the homes of lawyers from the Committee Against Torture, as well as the organisation’s office, OVD-Info reported.
Sova investigates the problems of nationalism and xenophobia, the relationship between religion and society, and also the unjust use of anti-extremist legislation, while the Committee Against Torture specialises in investigating complaints of torture. However, the authorities have no need of such organisations, and in recent years they have stubbornly sought to destroy all human rights activism in the country.OVD-Info
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), also condemned the raids on the offices of the Crew Against Torture-Russia (CAT-Russia) office in Nizhny Novgorod, as well as on the homes of several staff of the organisation, including its deputy chairperson Olga Sadovskaya. The organisation noted that Olga Sadovskaya is a member of the OMCT Executive Council who specialises in the submission of applications to the European Court of Human Rights for violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“prohibition of torture”).
The Observatory condemns the searches conducted in the offices of CAT-Russia and the apartments of three of its members and calls on the Russian authorities to put an immediate end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against them and all human rights defenders and organisations in the country. The Observatory expresses its concern over the ongoing targeting of CAT-Russia as well as over the crackdown on all independent human rights organisations in Russia and urges the authorities to guarantee, in all circumstances, the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, as enshrined in international human rights law, and particularly in Articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Front Line Defenders issued a statement condemning the extension of pre-trial detention for human rights lawyer Dmitry Talantov, president of the Bar Association of the Udmurtia region who also acted for Ivan Safronov, targeted for his Facebook posts against the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine as well as for incitement of hatered. The organisation reported that on 20 April 2023, Zavyalov district court in Udmuriya extended the Talantov’s pre-trial detention until 26 June 2023. He has been in detention since September 2022.
Front Line Defenders condemns the ongoing detention of human rights lawyer Dmitry Talantov as it believes he has been solely targeted as a result of his legitimate work as a human rights lawyer. Front Line Defenders condemns the criminal persecution of human rights defender Dmitry Talantov for the so-called “public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces.” 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. Front Line Defenders reiterates its concern about the systemic grave misuse of the set of new censorship laws that are disproportionately used to silence human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists.Front Line Defenders
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders issued a statement condemning the judicial harassment of Oleg Orlov, co-chair of Memorial Human Rights Center (HRC “Memorial”), a member organisation of FIDH and a prominent Russian human rights activist,
The judicial harassment of Oleg Orlov is another blow to the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, which had been dissolved by the authorities in December 2021, which was later confirmed in appeal in April 2022. It is also part of a broader crackdown on anti-war protesters who oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Observatory recalls that in 2022, Orlov was fined five times for holding solitary anti-war demonstrations. Two of these convictions were under the law on “discrediting the army” (Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation). […] The Observatory strongly condemns the criminal proceedings against Oleg Orlov, calls on the Russian authorities to drop all charges against him and to stop all acts of harassment, including at the administrative and judicial levels, against him and all human rights defenders and organisations in Russia.Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Front Line Defenders reported that on 21 April 2023, law enforcement officers summoned human rights defender Yan Dvorkin to the Moscow Police Station Mariyna Rosha in connection with an administrative case launched against the human rights defender for so-called ‘LGBT propaganda.’ Yan Dvorkin is the founder and the Head of Centre T, a Russian human rights group, Front Line Defenders said, that provides various types of assistance to transgender and nonbinary persons all across the country. Centre T also supports relatives and people close to members of the community.
Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned about the targeting of human rights defender Yan Dvorkin with the so-called “LGBT propaganda law” for his legitimate and peaceful human rights work. Front Line Defenders urges the government of the Russian Federation to stop labelling LGBTIQ+ human rights work as propaganda and ensure, that LGBTIQ+ rights defenders can freely perform their work to protect and support the community in Russia.Front Line Defenders
The Committee to Protect Journalists said Russian authorities should immediately return all equipment confiscated from the independent news website Arkticheskiy Obozrevatel and two of its journalists and stop harassing members of the press for their reporting. CPJ said that on April 20, police in the northwestern port city of Murmansk searched the editorial office of Arkticheskiy Obozrevatel (Artic Observer), as well as the homes of editor-in-chief Vyacheslav Gorodetskiy and reporter Dmitry Artemenko, according to multiple news reports, a Telegram post by the outlet, and a person familiar with the case who communicated with CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.
Russian authorities should drop all attempts to intimidate and silence Arkticheskiy Obozrevatel and its journalists. Authorities should immediately return all equipment confiscated from the outlet and its staff, and refrain from hindering the work of one of the few remaining independent news websites in the country.Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director
Committee to Protect Journalists said Russian authorities should immediately drop all charges against journalist Christo Grozev and stop seeking to arrest independent journalists in retaliation for their reporting. On April 21, during a closed-door hearing, a court in Moscow ordered Grozev’s arrest for allegedly crossing the Russian border illegally. CPJ said the court classified Grozev, a foreign national who never worked or lived in Russia, as “arrested in absentia,” meaning he would be immediately detained if he traveled to Russia or if he traveled in a country that could extradite him to Russia.
By arresting journalists in absentia, Russian authorities are lashing out at those who report independently on the country from beyond its borders. Russian authorities must immediately drop all charges against Bellingcat journalist Christo Grozev, as well as all members of the press who have already been arrested in absentia, and stop such cynical moves aimed at intimidating independent journalists.Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator
At least 32 of the defendants in ‘anti-war’ prosecutions have been subjected to torture and violence, OVD-Info reported after analysing data on repressions during April in its monthly summary of anti-war repression. The organisation reported that in 14 cases defendants were beaten during interrogation, in 13 during detention, and one person was beaten in court. Another four were taken to an undisclosed location and forced to confess by various means – beatings, electrocution, plastic bags over the head and threats of murder and rape.
Fresh reports of the torture of defendants in ‘anti-war’ prosecutions emerge regularly. However, not one of these complaints has had any effect – the authorities simply refuse to investigate these crimes. Police officers are aware of their impunity, so they continue to use these methods. And because of the bloody war brutality is only increasing – because the state approves if force is used against ‘enemies’.OVD-Info
A separate building has been built for Aleksei Navalny at the penal colony where he is being held, and a unit of ‘stool pigeons’ has been formed, OVD-Info reported. Navalny has been sent to serve his sentence in a unit where only prisoners who have informed on others are held. Other prisoners have been forbidden to talk with the opposition leader or even look at him.
They are trying to make Aleksei Navalny’s time in prison unbearable in a variety of ways. He is constantly being sent to an isolation cell, he is denied letters and he is prevented from communicating with his lawyers. Now it has emerged that he has been deprived of one of the few joys available to prisoners – simple communication with other convicts. The opposition leader cannot share with them anything the administration of the penal colony might not like, because they will immediately inform the Federal Penitentiary Service staff about it.OVD-Info
OVD-Info reported that together with two other other human rights groups – Memorial, Russia Behind Bars – it was taking a complaint to the Russian Constitutional Court, calling for the repeal of the article of the Russian Criminal Code on the discrediting of the Russian army (Article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences) as it constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of expression.
In our constitutional complaints, OVD-Info and our partners argue that Article 20.3.3 of the CAO violates the freedoms of conscience,expression and assembly, and constitutes discrimination on the grounds of political convictions. In particular, we specify that this article pursues the sole aim of suppressing dissent and anti-war voices, and that such restrictions on human rights violate the principles of a democratic state. As we argue, the State should not, through Article 20.3.3, target the expression of anti-war opinions, even if those found guilty are fined rather than arrested. Moreover, if an individual is found to be “discrediting the army” for a second time within a year of their original administrative prosecution, he or she faces a prison sentence of up to 5 years according to part 1 of Article 280.3 of the Criminal Code. This creates a chilling effect and prevents people from sharing their opinions publicly.OVD-Info
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
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), reported on the jailing under administrative law of Mr Abdureshit Dzhepparov, an indigenous and minority Crimean Tatar rights defender and coordinator of the Crimean Contact Group on Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation that monitors and documents human rights violations, provides legal support to victims and investigates enforced disappearances in occupied Crimea.
The Observatory expresses its utmost concern over the administrative detention of Abdureshit Dzhepparov and urges the Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release him, to drop all charges against him and to put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the administrative and judicial levels, against him and all human rights defenders and organisations in Crimea.Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
RSF reported that a Ukrainian reporter was fatally shot by a Russian sniper on 26 April near the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine. RSF said that Bohdan Bitik was the ninth journalist to be killed in Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion in February 2022, he was assisting an Italian reporter for the newspaper La Repubblica, who was wounded in the shoulder. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) regards his death as yet another Russian war crime. RSF pointed out it has already filed seven complaints with the International Criminal Court and Ukraine’s prosecutor-general in connection with a total of 44 crimes committed in Ukraine affecting more than 100 journalists and 11 TV and radio towers or installations.
Deliberately attacking a journalist during an armed conflict is a war crime under international law. Bohdan Bitik’s death is a cruel reminder that, contrary to their obligation to ensure the safety of civilians, including journalists, armed forces use them as targets. We offer our sincere condolences to the slain journalist’s family and, by continuing to inform international judicial authorities, we will do everything possible to ensure that this crime does not go unpunished.Jeanne Cavelier, head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk
Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the disbarring of human rights lawyer Lilia Hemedzhy in Crimea. Lilia Hemedzhy, a lawyer representing Crimean Tatars, has been disbarred, from the Bar Association of the Chechen Republic, in retaliation for her work in Russian-occupied Crimea. Previously, her request to be transferred to the Bar Association of Crimea had been arbitrarily declined. This decision bars her from defending members of Crimean Tatar community in criminal proceedings.
Lilia Hemedzhy has been one of the few lawyers who have been helping Crimean Tatar activists to fight persecution and seek justice, in a setting where legal professionals providing services to Crimean Tatars face harassment and persecution. […] Many prominent members of the Crimean Tatar community have been among the most vocal critics of Russian discriminatory policies on freedom of religion and belief; the entire community has been regarded as disloyal and targeted with reprisals. People speaking up about human rights violations committed in Crimea since 2014 have faced persecution, including enforced disappearances, harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest, torture and other ill-treatment, and prosecution and long-term imprisonment following unfair trials under politically motivated charges.Amnesty International
Amnesty International in a statement said that the need for ‘truth, justice and reparations’ for victims of Russian aggression in Ukraine was ‘ever more paramount’ following latest attacks by Russian forces in Ukraine, ‘including reports of a missile attack on an apartment building which is reported to have killed at least 17 civilians, including two children.’
While tens of thousands of cases of war crimes have already been filed by prosecutors in Ukraine, the true number of victims of this invasion will likely be much higher. The harm caused by Russia goes beyond the physical; the civilian population of Ukraine is enduring unimaginable psychological and economic harm as a direct result of Russia’s aggression and economic and humanitarian aid are crucial to combat its dreadful impact. We are calling for the international community to step up and coordinate and act to ensure that Vladimir Putin and all those suspected of responsibility for war crimes in Ukraine are brought to trial and held accountable to secure truth, justice and reparations for all victims of crimes under international law.Marie Struthers, Regional Director, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Amnesty International
Human Rights House Foundation, in its annual report, said 2022 was a year of unprecedented assaults on human rights stemming from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The organisation said the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation on 24 February 2022, which has led to ‘an enormous loss of civilian life and displacement of millions of Ukrainian civilians’ and ‘contributed to a global food security crisis, among other catastrophic developments,’ ‘must be considered within the broader regional human rights crisis which encompasses Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine and addressed accordingly by the international community.’
As Russia’s playbook to silence dissent and independent voices is copied and employed by more governments across the region and beyond, societies’ mobilisation to push back these attempts is more crucial than ever. Now is the time to step up international communities’ support and solidarity and do more.Maria Dahle, director, Human Rights House Foundation
Human Rights House Foundation in its annual report condemned the ‘unprecedented assaults on human rights stemming from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.’ Indeed, Russia’s war against Ukraine and the horrific atrocities that accompany it have become the context within which domestic Russian repression must be seen; they are also no doubt the cause – and pretext – for the increasing repression within Russia. The past week shows very clearly that the Putin regime’s priority targets in terms of domestic repression are freedom of expression, right of association, LGBTQI+ activism and opposition politics.
Today in Russia dissent regarding the war against Ukraine in any form, whether expressed publicly or privately, is likely to be subject to prosecution. This week two men were jailed for sentiments expressed in private conversation, while other individuals are being prosecuted for public expressions of dissent, including notably Dmitry Talantov and Oleg Orlov (the selection of these latter two also shows that human rights activists and lawyers who act in high profile human rights cases are also likely targets of the regime). At the same time, independent media, such as the news website Arkticheskiy Obozrevatel in Murmansk, can be persecuted for reasons unconnected with the war (such as exposing corruption). And the use of the law on ‘LGBT propaganda’ – used to open an investigation against LGBTQI+ activist Yan Dvorkin – is also, among other things, a restriction on freedom of expression.
The regime continues to take repressive measures against the right of association, in particular human rights organisations, as shown this week by the closure of the Moscow-based Sova Centre and the investigation launched against Team Against Torture, based in Nizhny Novgorod. And of course targeting Oleg Orlov also continues the persecution of Memorial, closed down by the authorities earlier this year, and its staff.
A key role in prosecutions for expressing dissent has been the introduction of Article 20.3.3 into the Russian Code of Administrative Offences on ‘discrediting the Russian army,’ now the subject of a legal challenge at the Constitutional Court launched by three human rights groups – OVD-Info, Memorial and Russia Behind Bars. It is of course virtually inconceivable that such a challenge might be successful. No doubt its purpose is more to lay down a marker for a future, post-Putin government.
Meanwhle, OVD-Info’s report on the use of violence used with impunity by law enforcement officials against defendants in ‘anti-war’ prosecutions is also a warning sign and an indicator that the regime’s lawlessness does not stop with unconstitutional laws, arbitrary prosecutions or the fabrication of evidence. The authorities’ arbitrary use of legal pretexts and the physical abuse of those in their hands are perhaps most evident in the regime’s treatment of its high profile political opponents. The torturous and disgraceful treatment of Aleksei Navalny continues. This week an arrest warrant for Christov Grozev who has worked closely with Navalny, was arbitrarily issued on the nonsensical pretext that Grozev ‘illegally crossed the Russian border.’ Fortunately for Grozev, he remains on the other side of that border – currently beyond the regime’s reach.
With regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this week RSF highlighted the killing of Ukrainian journalist Bohdan Bitik by a Russian sniper and Amnesty International issued a powerful condemnation of the latest Russian attacks on residential areas in Ukraine, calling for ‘truth, justice and reparations’ for the victims of Russian aggression. Meanwhile, a lower profile but insidious repression of civil society in Crimea continues: the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders condemned the jailing of Crimean Tatar activist Abdureshit Dzhepparov and Amnesty International spoke out against the disbarring of Crimean human rights lawyer Lilia Hemedzhy.