Simon Cosgrove: A Look Back at the Past Week in Russia

25 September 2020

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, Rights in Russia

This week saw the good news that Aleksei Navalny has been discharged from Berlin’s Charité hospital where he has been treated for Novichok poisoning. He published hisfirst blogpost since emerging from a coma. However, the Russian authorities have still not launched a criminal investigation into his poisoning. Moreover, it became known that, in Moscow, Navalny’s bank accounts have been frozen and his Moscow apartment and other assets seized in connection with a lawsuit linked to Evgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of President Putin.  

The recent conviction of seven activists of Crimean Solidarity, a civil society initiative set up in 2016 to support Crimean Tatars arrested or jailed on politically motivated grounds, in a trial at the Southern District Military Court in Rostov, has continued to resonate. One such moment was the publication of an English-language version of the journalist Timur Ibragimov’s final speech at his trial in which he insisted he was being prosecuted for his religious faith: “I have myself become a victim of repression merely because I practised my religion. I am facing a sentence of up to 21 years for a conversation in a mosque.“ Ibragimov was sentenced to a long term (in his case 17.5 years) in a strict regime penal colony along with two others for organising a cell of the Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic party, an organisation banned as terrorist in Russia (Article 205.5, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code) despite the fact that the organisation does not support acts of violence. Another of those convicted at the trial was human rights defender Server Mustafayev, coordinator of Crimean Solidarity, who was sentenced along with three others to terms only slightly less (in his case 14 years’ imprisonment in a strict regime penal colony) for ‘membership’ of a cell of Hizb ut-Tahrir (under Article 205.5, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code). Front Line Defenders this week joined Memorial Human Rights Centre and Amnesty International who have already condemned Mustafeyev’s conviction and called for his release. Human Rights Watch has also condemned the convictions of the seven men.

The ongoing clampdown on the right of association in Russia was seen in the case of Semyon Simonov, former head of the Southern Human Rights Centre (an NGO based in Sochi which provided free legal assistance on human rights violations, organized educational events and facilitated civic initiatives in collaboration with other NGOs until it effectively ceased to function in 2017 because of fines imposed under the ‘foreign agent’ law). This week Memorial Human Centre said the prosecution of Simonov on the grounds of ‘malicious failure’ to pay a 300,000 rouble fine imposed on the Southern Human Rights Centre is unlawful and politically motivated. Dunja Mijatović, the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, Human Rights Watch and Front Line Defenders have all called for the charges to be dropped against Simonov.

Unjustified restrictions on the right of assembly were also prominent this week when an appeal court upheld the 18-month sentence handed down for an offence under Article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code (‘Repeated violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting an assembly, rally, demonstration, march or picket’) to Konstantin Kotov for taking part in peaceful protests. Amnesty International has declared Konstantin Kotov a prisoner of conscience. Meanwhile a criminal investigation was reported to have been completed into alleged ‘repeated violations’ of the regulations regarding public assembly by Moscow municipal councillor Yulia Galyamina who will therefore also face charges under the notorious Article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code. 

This week the European Court of Human Rights handed down five judgments in relation to Russia on issues of critical importance for human rights, not least in Chechnya: the right to fair trial and the prohibition on torture. The cases concerned, namely: excessive length of criminal proceedings (Article 6 § 1); using a confession in court obtained in absence of a lawyer (Article 6 §§ 1 and 3 (c) of the Convention); torture and failure to investigate torture (Article 3); unrecorded detention (Article 5); failure to permit appropriate examination of witnesses in a trial (Article 6 §§ 1 and 3 (d));and lack of due reparation under domestic law (Article 41). The specific cases were: Balbashev v. Russia, Chudalovy v. Russia, Vasilyev and Others v. Russia, Lvin v. Russia, and X and Y v. Russia.

The 22 September saw the anniversary of the attempted bombing of an apartment building in Ryazan that took place that day in 1999. According to the account published by Wikipedia, when a local man found sacks of an unknown substance in the basement of the building, local police tested the material on-site and obtained a positive reading for Hexogen (also known as RDX). On 23 September, Vladimir Putin praised the vigilance of the inhabitants of Ryazan and ordered the air bombing of Grozny, which marked the beginning of the Second Chechen War. Meanwhile, three FSB agents identified as having planted the devices in Ryazan had been arrested by local police but were subsequently taken to Moscow. On 24 September 1999, head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev announced the incident in Ryazan had been a training exercise, the device found had contained only sugar and there would be no further investigation.

End note

This week’s good news concerning Aleksei Navalny also saw the continued failure of the authorities to begin a criminal investigation into his poisoning. The convictions and harsh sentences handed down to Crimean Solidarity activists illustrated Russian repressive intentions in Crimea but also demonstrated the authorities’ repressive attitude to civil society associations in general. Involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation whose designation as ‘terrorist’ has been condemned by Memorial Human Rights Centre, was apparently used as an instrument to convict civil society activists working with Crimean Solidarity. The severe restrictions imposed on the rights of association and assembly were seen in the cases of Semyon Simonov and the Southern Human Rights Centre, Konstantin Kotov and Yulia Galyamina. Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights focused attention on other critical issues in the Russian justice system: namely fair trial and police abuse and torture. Finally, in retrospect, the ‘Ryazan incident’ seems to have marked not only the beginning of the Second Chechen War but was also a crucial test at the very beginning of what was to become the ‘Putin era’ of government transparency and trust between civil society and the post-Soviet authorities. It was a test that the authorities failed in 1999 with regard to the ‘Ryazan incident’ and, in the sense that an essential element of such trust is the establishment of effective human rights guarantees, it was a test that the Russian authorities have largely continued to fail in the years since, as events this week well illustrate.

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