Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia

4 September 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.

This week the German authorities said that Aleksei Navalny had been poisoned by a nerve agent from the Novichok family and German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded answers from Russia over Navalny’s ‘attempted murder’. Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia called on the Russian authorities to investigate the apparent use of a banned chemical weapon to poison an opposition leader and in a powerful statement said failure to conduct such an investigation would ‘heighten suspicions that top-level Russian officials were involved in this crime or its cover-up.’ She went on to say that either the Russian authorities have lost control over nerve agents on their soil, which they claim in any case to have destroyed, or they still possess them and ‘use them to eliminate political rivals.’ No criminal investigation has been launched into the poisoning as of this date.

In Kemerovo, Siberia, two Jehovah’s Witnesses – Sergei Britvin and Vadim Levchuk – were both sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for being members of an ‘extremist organisation.’ In 2017 Jehovah’s Witnesses groups were banned as ‘extremist’ and since then anyone who is a member of the faith or a participant in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities is at risk of prosecution. This is in breach of the right to freedom of conscience and a flagrant violation of Article 28 of the Russian Constitution which states: ‘Everyone shall be guaranteed freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, including the right to profess, individually or together with others, any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, profess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them.’ 

A range of elections are set to take place in Russia on 11-13 September. This will be the first time (after the vote on constitutional amendments in July) that there will be three days of voting instead of one, which critics say facilitates falsification of election results. This makes the great work done by the independent election monitor Golos all the more important. In Krasnodar region there will be elections for governor, and this week David Kankiya, Golos’ coordinator in the Kuban, was running training sessions for election observers. On one occasion, Kankiya was the victim of casual harassment by law enforcement officers who stopped him in the street and demanded he give them his mobile phone, while threatening him with arrest.

This week Amnesty International has also highlighted the case of artist and activist Yulia Tsvetkova from Komsomolsk-on-Amur whose trial for an alleged offence under Article 242 of the Russian Criminal Code – ‘Illegal Production or Trafficking of Pornographic Materials or Items’ – is to begin shortly. Amnesty International calls the charges – for drawings of the female body – absurd. If found guilty, Tsvetkova faces up to six years’ imprisonment. The intention of the trial seems to be to prevent Tsvetkova exercising her right to freedom of expression as an artist and activist.

This week marked the 16th anniversary of the horrific events in Beslan, North Ossetia, in September 2004 in which over 330 people, including more than 180 children, lost their lives. It is a timely moment to recall the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Tagayeva and others v Russia (2017) which found, among other things, that the authorities had indiscriminately used weapons on the school, increasing the number of casualties, and said that the subsequent investigation into the events had been inadquate. The 409 applicants were awarded almost 3 million euros in compensation.

End note

The implications of the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny by a nerve agent are farreaching and have been swiftly and approriately summed up by Amnesty International in a remarkable statement. Meanwhile Russia continues to violate its international obligations to ensure freedom of conscience by the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses; in the run up to elections there has been casual intimidation by police of the staff of the non-profit election monitor, Golos; and the trial is soon to begin of Yulia Tsvetkova for nothing else than artistic self-expresion. The ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of the Beslan atrocity is a reminder of how important the Court is in establishing truth and justice for Russian citizens.

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