14 May 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 Article 19 and the International Justice Clinic at the University of California submitted an amicus brief to the Russian Constitutional Court calling for the legislation banning criticism of the Russian military to be declared unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Nikita Tushkanov, a teacher from Komi, has been sentenced to five and a half years in a penal colony on charges of ‘justifying terrorism’ and ‘repeatedly discrediting the Russian army’; Nikolai Daineko was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for ‘incitement to hatred and anti-state activities’ following an ‘anti-mobilisation’ poetry reading in Moscow; in a village in Bryansk region a villager is being prosecuted for ‘desecrating’ a St. George’s Ribbon by tearing it from the clothing of another person; police officials from the department for combating extremism (Centre E) have been conducting raids on the Crew Against Torture and its associates in Krasnodar, Nizhny Novgorod and Pyatigorsk; human rights defender Yan Dvorkin has been fined 100,000 roubles by a Moscow court for ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations and/or preferences, and sex change,’ under the Russian law on ‘Gay Propaganda’; and two new bills are being considered by the State Duma introducing liability for ‘helping’ those designated as ‘foreign agents.’
Article 19 and the International Justice Clinic at the University of California, Irvine School of Law have jointly submitted an amicus brief to the Russian Constitutional Court urging the Court to declare that prohibiting criticism of the use of the armed forces is unconstitutional and illegal, in accordance with the international legal rule that people may not be penalised for or restricted for criticising public institutions.
In March of 2022, the Russian Parliament adopted two federal laws imposing administrative and criminal liability for ‘discrediting’ the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the name of protecting ‘[…] the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens [and] maintaining international peace and security’. In particular, Article 20.3.3 of the Russian Federation Code of Administrative Offences prescribes a variety of administrative fines. Repeated violations entail criminal punishment, including forced labour or imprisonment. This restriction is a clear violation of the right to free expression. […] Even if Article 20.3.3 fulfilled the legality and legitimacy requirements, the punishments it entails are unnecessary and disproportionate to its (illegitimate) aims. The law has been used to punish people for the smallest of actions, including liking an anti-war video on a social networking site. It is inconceivable that preventing an individual from liking an anti-war video would be necessary under any national security reasons. The Russian state is using vague national security concerns as an excuse to shield itself from criticism and accountability. ARTICLE 19 urges the Russian Constitutional Court to declare Article 20.3.3 unconstitutional and illegal, in line with international free expression standards.Article 19
Nikolai Daineko, a defendant in the ‘Mayakovsky readings’ case, has been sentenced to four years in a penal colony on charges of incitement to hatred and anti-state activities, OVD-Info reported. Two other defendants in the case, Artem Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba, remain in custody.
The young men were prosecuted because of Kamardin’s call at the Mayakovsky readings to ‘observe the rules’, specifically ‘not to take’ summonses from the hands of military recruitment officials, ‘not to sign’ documents confirming receipt of the summonses and ‘not to appear’ in response to the summonses. Shtovba and Daineko were considered by investigators to be his ‘accomplices’ because they repeated his words. Simply because of this kind of advice the young men will be deprived of their freedom for years, because in Russia, according to the authorities, every man should go to war.OVD-Info
Two new bills on ‘foreign agents’ have been introduced in the State Duma introducing liability for ‘helping’ those designated as ‘foreign agents’, OVD-Info reported. The fines would vary from 30,000 to 50,000 roubles for citizens, from 70,000 to 100,000 roubles for officials, and from 200,000 to 300,000 roubles for legal entities.
So far it’s not clear from the wording of the bill what exactly ‘assisting a foreign agent’ and ‘contributing to the violation of the law’ mean. If there are no clear criteria in the text of the law, it will be possible to impose liability for failing to eliminate violations in time. Thus the law on ‘foreign agents’, already aimed at repressing journalists, activists and anti-war activists, could lead to the prosecution of even more Russian citizens considered undesirable by the government.OVD-Info
In Bryansk region a resident of the village of Netinka is being prosecuted for the offence of ‘desecration of symbols of Russia’s military glory,’ OVD-Info reported. According to police, the person in question tore a St George’s ribbon from the clothing of a fellow villager and ‘desecrated’ it.
These days, for many Russians the St George ribbon has turned from a symbol of the memory of fallen forebears into a symbol of military aggression, so actions like those of the Bryansk region resident are not surprising. In December 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a law clarifying the legal status of the St George ribbon: from that moment it became formally a ‘symbol of military glory’. The number of such criminal cases will probably increase now – although ‘desecration’ of this symbol has already led to convictions under the article on the rehabilitation of Naziism.OVD-Info
Nikita Tushkanov, a teacher from Komi, has been sentenced to five and a half years in a penal colony on charges of ‘justifying terrorism’ and ‘repeatedly discrediting the Russian army’ for comments he made about the explosion on the Kerch bridge, OVD-Info reported. In comments on VKontakte, he had called the explosion on the Crimean bridge a ‘birthday present for Putler’. The investigation also alleged Tushkanov used the phrase ‘annexation of occupied territories’ in his posts.
Unfortunately, prison sentences for statements made online have long since become commonplace. Tushkanov’s criminal case was heard in one day – obviously the court had no doubt that a person should be deprived of his liberty for such words. The teacher was subjected to pressure while still in custody – it was reported that officers chopped into small pieces the food his family had brought for him, and cut up his jacket. Also, the man has not been allowed to see his relatives or to marry his girlfriend.OVD-Info
Front Line Defenders reported on 8 May 2023 that, on 28 April 2023, police officials from the department for combating extremism (Centre E) in Nizhny Novgorod raided the apartment of human rights defender Olga Sadovskaya and the human rights group Crew against Torture’s office in Nizhny Novgorod, as well as the apartments of two other representatives of the informal association.
Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned about the raid in Crew against Torture office in Nizhniy Novgorod as well as the targeting of its representatives with house raids and seizure of equipment. Front Line Defenders recognises that this attack is motivated by Crew against Torture’s legitimate and peaceful human rights work. Front Line Defenders condemns continued targeting of human rights defenders in Russia, as well as the Russian Federation’s continuous effort to dismantle human rights work in the country and further isolate human rights defenders and it urges the Russian Authorities to ensure that human rights defenders and lawyers from Crew against Torture can continue their legitimate and non-violent work without fear of reprisals.Front Line Defenders
On 11 May 2023, Front Line Defenders reported that, on 4 May 2023, police officials from the department for combating extremism (Center ‘E’) raided the office of Crew against Torture in Krasnodar, a third raid on Crew against Torture’s regional offices since 14 April 2023 (similar raids have taken place in Pyatigorsk and Nizhny Novgorod).
Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned about the raid on Crew against Torture’s office in Krasnodar as well as the targeting of its representatives with house raids and equipment seizure in Krasnodar, Pyatigorsk and Nizhniy Novgorod. Front Line Defenders believes that this harrassment is motivated by Crew against Torture’s legitimate and peaceful human rights work. Front Line Defenders condemns the continued targeting of human rights defenders in the Russian Federation, as well as the state’s continuous effort to dismantle human rights work in the country and further isolate human rights defenders. Front Line Defenders urges the Russian authorities to ensure that human rights defenders and lawyers from Crew against Torture can continue their legitimate and peaceful work without fear of reprisals.Front Line Defenders
On Front Line Defenders condemned the imposition of a fine of RUR 100,000 on human rights defender Yan Dvorkin by Ostankino district court in Moscow for ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations and/or preferences, and sex change,’ as under Article 6.21, Part 3, of the Russian Code of Administrative Offences. Yan Dvorkin stated he considers the so-called ‘LGBT propaganda law’ discriminatory. Yan Dvorkin is the founder and the Head of Centre T, a Russian human rights group, that provides various types of assistance to transgender and nonbinary persons all across the country.
Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned about the charges against Yan Dvorkin within the framework of 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 without fear of reprisals. Front Line Defenders calls upon the Russian authorities to repeal the so-called “LGBT propaganda law” as it disproportionately targets and limits the rights of LGBTIQ+ rights defenders in Russia.Front Line Defenders
After 23 years in power, the Putin regime has now reached the stage where it hands down a four-year prison sentence for reading out poems in a public square. This may be something of an unfitting and whimsical observation, given that the regime – leaving to one side its illegal military adventures and probable war crimes – has almost certainly engaged in actual and attempted extrajudicial killings, continues to torture Aleksei Navalny in prison and has recently given Vladimir Kara-Murza a 25-year sentence on trumped up charges and taken hostage the US journalist Evan Gershkovich on the same. Yet the four year sentence is serious enough for the poet in question – Nikolai Daineko. Two of his fellow poets – Artem Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba – await their sentences. The tradition of punishing poets in Russia (and writers more generally) is of course a long one – Pushkin and Brodsky are just two names that would come to most people’s minds. This is evidently a tradition that Putin seeks to follow, but it was not what was in the minds of the reformers of the 1980s and 1990s who genuinely wanted to see a new kind of freer Russia.
As it well known, it is not just poetry to which the regime objects, but also prose. The history teacher Nikita Tushkanov from Komi has been given a five-and-a-half year sentence in a penal colony for online comments he made about the Kerch bridge attack and Russian war crimes. At the same time, as is well known, the military symbols of the regime, such as the St. George’s ribbon, have been given a special legal status and hence this week a villager in Bryansk region is being prosecuted for ‘desecrating’ a ribbon when he pulled it off (or it came off in his hand?) from someone else’s clothing.
In sum, while the regime engages in terrorism and illegal wars, speaking the truth in Russia is Animal-Farm-wise prosecuted as ‘justifying terrorism’ and ‘discrediting the Russian army.’ It is this law on ‘discrediting’ the constitutionality of which is currently being challenged before the Constitutional Court and for which purpose Article 19 and the International Justice Clinic at the University of California have submitted an amicus brief. There can be little hope that the Constitutional Court will decide in the litigators’ favour.
The right of association has a longer history of repression under Putin than freedom of expression (if one doesn’t take into account Putin’s take over of independent TV stations soon after coming to power, perhaps). The law on ‘foreign agents’ dates back to July 2012 and that on ‘undesirable foreign organisations’ to May 2015. Both laws are associated with Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. Although these laws have been regularly ‘updated’ and made more restrictive since, the legislation introducing Article 20.3.3 into the Russian Code of Administrative Offences and imposing administrative liability for ‘discrediting’ the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation – and criminal liability for ‘repeated discrediting’ – is far more recent, being only adopted in March 2022 immediately following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, reluctant to prove lagging on the ‘right of association’ front, the regime is in the process of yet further tightening the ‘foreign agent’ legislation, adopting new laws that would penalise ‘helping’ individuals or organisations designated as ‘foreign agents’…
Meanwhile, then, if the repression of civil society organisations is nothing new, the severity with which in recent weeks the offices of Crew Against Torture in Krasnodar, Nizhny Novgorod and Pyatigorsk and the homes of its associates has been subjected to raids and interrogations by police from the department for combating extremism (Centre E) nonetheless marks a new escalation. Crew Against Torture dates from 2000 when it was originally founded as a non-profit (the Committee Against Torture), and has gone through several permutations as it adapted to the increasingly restrictive legislation on civil society. Most recently it has existed as an informal association of lawyers. It seems that in this form too, the authorities will no longer tolerate it.
Indeed, the Putin regime has a very low threshold of tolerance in a great variety of matters. Its intolerance, as is well known, also extends to the realm of gender and sex and this week another law from the early period of Putin’s ‘return’ to the presidency, the law against ‘Gay Propaganda’ dating from June 2013, was used to penalise human rights defender Yan Dvorkin, fined 100,000 roubles by a Moscow court for ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations and/or preferences, and sex change.’
While human rights groups commented mostly on internal developments in the Russian Federation this week, the events catalogued above are also of relevance to Russia’s ongoing illegal invasion of Ukraine. So long as Russia engages in such forms of domestic repression, it is unlikely to be a peaceable, still less a good, neighbour for other states in the region – or the world.