11 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 Aleksei Navalny remained the focus of news attention on Russia, following his poisoning by a version of Novichok. His condition was reported by the Charité hospital in Berlin, that has been treating him since 22 August, to be improving as he emerged from the induced coma and responded to speech. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, called on the Russian government ‘to fully investigate who was responsible for this crime – a very serious crime that was committed on Russian soil.’ She also noted that prior to his reported poisoning, Alexei Navalny had been repeatedly harassed, arrested and assaulted, either by the authorities or by unknown assailants. Meanwhile Navalny’s colleagues who were campaigning in the regional and local elections to be held on 11-13 September were attacked in Novosibirsk and Chelyabinsk.
Another case that has attracted international attention this week is that of Salman Tepsurkaev, a 19-year-old Chechen who is a chat moderator on 1ADAT, a news channel on Telegram that has been highlighting human rights violations and criticising the Chechen authorities. Tepsurkaev was apparently abducted by law enforcement officers in Krasnodar region and subjected to sexual violence and torture. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, issued a statement describing his abduction as ‘a serious human rights violation that cannot go unpunished.’ She called on the Russian authorities to ‘take immediate action to ensure his safety.’
Further evidence of the failure of Russia’s courts to hold the police to account this week has been a ruling on appeal in the extraordinary case of the Media-Zona journalist, David Frenkel. Frenkel’s collarbone was broken by a police officer while being taken into custody at a polling station, from where he was reporting, during the voting on the constitutional amendments. The court upheld his fine of 2,500 roubles for refusing to follow a police officer’s instruction, meddling in the work of a polling station, and violating coronavirus restrictions.
Two examples of Russia’s notorious law against ‘gay propaganda’ – Article 6.21 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offences – and the harassment and discrimination to which it subjects LGBT people were reported this week. In Ekaterinburg dozens of men in Cossack military uniforms patrolled the streets during a Pride Week organised by the local LGBT Resource Centre, intimidating individuals they believed to be gay and violating the ‘gay propaganda’ law. Meanwhile teachers in St. Petersburg were instructed to monitor their students’ social media profiles for the presence of ‘LGBT symbols.’
The ever important role of the European Court of Human Rights in upholding fundamental rights was to be seen this week in two judgments concerning freedom of expression. Finally, some Muscovites remembered this week the victims of the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk, in particular the explosion on Gurianov Street on 8 September 1999.
Both the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet Jeria and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, in statements this week highlighted the Russian authorities’ failure to investigate crimes that may be politically motivated (whether this suspected motivation derives from highly placed federal officials or from officials in regions such as Chechnya). Notably, both international human rights officials insisted there was a wider context to the particular failures they addressed. Michelle Bachelet Jeria noted: ‘The number of cases of poisoning, or other forms of targeted assassination, of current or former Russian citizens, either within Russia itself or on foreign soil, over the past two decades is profoundly disturbing.’ For her part, Dunja Mijatović described Mr Tepsurkaev’s treatment as ‘a further illustration of the tendency to crack down on critical voices that has been prevalent in Chechnya for decades now.’ At the same time there was more evidence this week of the manner in which the courts routinely fail to ensure the effective investigation of, and the defence of citizens from, abuses by law enforcement officers. We also see discrimination against minorities that is often brutal backed up by discriminatory law. A long-term observer of Russia might note this week that the very beginning of the Putin era was marked by a failure to investigate – for many the 1999 apartment bombings have never received due investigation. And this week there was a further reminder that for some reason violations that are clearly seen from Strasbourg are not visible to law enforcment bodies or the courts on the ground in Russia.