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

18 September 2020

A look back at the past week by Simon Cosgrove. Simon is chair of trustees of Rights in Russia, but writes this blog in a personal capacity.

This week doctors at Berlin’s Charité hospital treating Aleksei Navalny for novichok poisoning said Navalny’s condition ‘continues to improve.’ Navalny was taken off a ventilator and able to leave his bed for short periods. Meanwhile extraordinary statements continued to flow from top officials and close associates of President Putin. The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, insisted Navalny had left Russia with ‘no toxins in his system’ while State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin was reported as saying German intelligence agents may have poisoned Navalny.

This week draconian laws and their harsh implementation were both highlighted with regard to the rights of association and of assembly by the treatment meted out to Open Russia executive director Andrei Pivovarov. On Pivovarov’s release from a Moscow detention centre, where he had been serving a 10-day sentence for breaking protest laws, he was immediately rearrested. He was subsequently sentenced to a further 10 days in jail.

The harshness of the Russian justice system was demonstrated yet more vividly by the sentences handed down to seven Crimean Tatars at the end of their trial for involvement in the Islamic organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir under Article 205.5 of the Russian Criminal Code (organisation of, or involvement in, the activities of a terrorist organisation). The trial, held in the Southern Military Regional court in the city of Rostov-on-Don sentenced the seven men to lengthy prison terms ranging from 13 to 19 years on charges of being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The justification in Russian law for such harsh sentences is that Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned by the Russian Supreme Court in 2003 as a ‘terrorist’ organisation, a ban which Memorial Human Rights Centre considers unlawful because Hizb ut-Tahrir does not engage in any acts of violence (it should be noted Hizb ut-Tahrir functions legally in Ukraine).

This week, however, something of the variety and vibrancy of Russian civil society was reflected at a Festival in Ekaterinburg dedicated to what the organisers called ‘traditional family values.’ Anton Belyaev, lead singer of the group Therr Maitz, made an outspoken statement from the stage in support of LGBT people: “Among my friends, I count more than a few people with LGBT pride, and many of these people have influenced my life.” This was a remarkable public statement in a country where official policy towards LGBT people is repressive.

The European Court of Human Rights this week handed down a judgment in the case of Belova v. Russia concerning respect for property and due process (notification of an appeal hearing), finding a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Two other cases concerned the European Court of Human Rights. In one, the presidium of the Russian Supreme Court refused to review sentences passed on opposition activists Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev related to the 2012 Bolotnaya Square trials when the European Court had found violation Article 6 violations in their cases (right to a fair trial). In the second case, the Russian NGO the Committee Against Torture reported that the European Court of Human Rights is considering special security measures (Rule 39) to ensure the safety of Movsar Umarov, a resident of Chechnya whose escape during a special operation was announced by law enforcement authorities.

Finally this week, as last, marks the anniversary of bombings that shook Russia in September 1999. On 13 September that year a bomb exploded in an apartment building on Kashirskoe Highway in south Moscow killing 119 people and injuring 200. On 15 September another explosion outside an apartment building in Volgodonsk, Rostov region, killed 17 and injured 69. These bombings followed the explosion the previous week (just before midnight on 8 September 1999) of an apartment building at 19 Guryanova Street in south-east Moscow that killed 94 people and injured 249.

End note

The tragic bombings of 21 years ago, in the view of many, were never fully investigated. This week the authorities again failed to commit themselves to investigate violence committed against the country’s leading opposition activist, Aleksei Navalny. Instead, in a bizarre demonsration of the incongruence that can exist between apparent reality and the words of political leaders, top officials denied that such violence had been committed on Russian soil. At the same time Muslims (members of Hizb ut-Tahrir) who, according to Memorial Human Rights Centre, have not themselves been involved in crimes of violence were incarcerated for lengthy terms; and in Moscow one man (Pivovarov) has been repeatedly jailed for merely excercising his right to peaceful protest. Possibly, the refusal of the Supreme Court to review the convictions of protesters Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev shows a new resolve by the Russian authorities, following the summer’s amendments to the Constitution, not to comply with the European Court of Human Rights. On a more upbeat note, the courageous remarks of one man on a stage in Ekaterinburg (Anton Belyaev), who condemned discrimination against LGBT people, indicates that in the battle for public opinion, especially among young people, the authorities do not have it all their own way.

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