21 August 2020
A look back at the week by Simon Cosgrove. Simon is chair of trustees of Rights in Russia, but writes this blog in a personal capacity.
In retrospect, the relatively ‘quiet’ previous week, when so much attention was apparently fixed on developments in Belarus, proved ominous for Russia itself. This week the appalling attempt on the life of political opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (or ‘blogger’ as the Russian official media call him) was surely a moment for the authorities to demonstrate their commitment to ending and punishing this kind of violence. Yet what the world witnessed was unfortunate delay and obfuscation on the part of doctors in Omsk, who denied there was evidence of poisoning, amid a heavy presence of Russian security personnel who did not seem to be engaged in any kind of investigation. It was most likely pressure exerted by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, together with the rapid granting of a request for interim measures by the European Court of Human Rights, that enabled the removal of Navalny to Berlin for treatment. There, doctors quickly announced he had indeed been a victim of poisoning. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were among those that called for a swift and impartial investigation into the poisoning. Natalia Zvyagina, head of Amnesty’s Moscow office, pointed to similarities with other cases: ‘What has happened to Aleksei Navalny is undeniably similar to incidents involving other hardline critics of the Russian authorities, including the politician Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. and Pussy Riot punk band producer Pyotr Verzilov. Aleksei Navalny himself became seriously ill previously during his administrative arrest a year ago. None of these incidents were investigated.’
Against this background, the general situation in Russia remains highly repressive. This week Amnesty International highlighted the plight of Jehovah’s Witnesses, designated an ‘extremist organisation’ in Russia, one of whose members (Gennady Shpakovsky) had an extraodinary six and a half year sentence in prison commuted to a two years’ suspended sentence. At the same time, 11 Muslims are currently being prosecuted in Crimea and face long prison terms for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation banned and designated as terrorist in Russia despite there being no evidence its members have been engaged in crimes of violence. The sentencing in Perm of a young man, Aleksandr Shabarchin, to two years’ imprisonment for a peaceful protest using an effigy of President Putin highlights the draconian restrictions on peaceful assembly. The suppression of freedom of expression was evident in the ongoing case of the blogger Andrei Pyzh, remanded in custody until 6 October on charges of disclosing a state secret under Article 283 of the Russian Criminal Code, while Memorial Human Rights Centre declared Ivan Liubshin a political prisoner following his sentencing to five years and two months’ imprisonment for justifying terrrorism on the basis of deleted social media comments he made over the case of Mikhal Zhlobitsky (the same case for which the journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva was convicted and fined).
In the absence of independent and impartial investigations into crimes of violence against leading human rights, civil society and political activists in Russia, involvement in these acts by political authorities is often asserted but remains a matter of supposition. However, we see that the Russian authorities continue to demonstrate their readiness to use draconian laws to prevent the exercise of fundamental freedoms such as those of assembly, association, conscience and expression. Against this background, ongoing events in Khabarovsk and Belarus are unlikely to be welcomed by these same authorities as signs of a democratic awakening of civil society. The apparent attempted assassination of Aleksei Navalny not only highlights the extraordinary courage of Russia’s most high profile independent politician and civil society activist, but also the extraordinary weight of the dead hand of a political system that apparently sees exercise of the most fundamental human rights as a threat to its legitimacy.