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

2 October 2020

By Simon Cosgrove

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.

In July this year when Yury Dmitriev, Gulag historian and head of the Karelian branch of Memorial, was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of three and a half years (meaning he would have been released this coming November), many observers saw this as tantamount to an acquittal and wondered what this meant for the direction of human rights in Russia. The answer came this week when the Supreme Court of Karelia on appeal increased Dmitriev’s term of imprisonment to 13 years. In retrospect it might seem as though the July ‘soft’ judgment was intended to weaken the effectiveness of the international campaign in support of Dmitriev: the campaign reached its peak in the summer and many assumed its goals had been achieved.

The tragic death of Irina Slavina, a journalist in Nizhny Novgorod and chief editor at the Koza Press news website, highlights the ruthless and intrusive actions of investigative authorities in politically motivated cases irrespective of their impact on the individuals concerned.

In Russia today not only individuals but whole groups of people are subject to judicial persecution. The use of Article 282.2 § 1 of the Russian Criminal Code (‘organising the work of an extremist organization’) to restrict freedom of religion was seen this week in the decision to remand in custody four Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sevastopol on charges under this article. Jehovah’s Witnesses organisations were banned in Russia as extremist in 2017.

Chechnya has been a focus of attention in the week that marks the 21st anniversary of the beginning of the Second Chechen War. On 26 September nine Russian and international human rights organisations published a joint statement condemning the abduction and torture of Salman Tepsurkaev, moderator of the chat telegram-channel 1ADAT which publishes critical information about developments in Chechnya, whose whereabouts remains unknown. This week the European Court of Human Rights issued two judgments concerning Russia. However, of perhaps greater import was Russia’s response to questions asked by the Court in the case of Movsar Umarov. On September 25, Mikhail Galperin, Representative of the Russian Federation at the Court, baldly stated that Umarov had not been detained by Chechen law enforcement officers and had not been taken to the offices of any law enforcement agencies. The Russian human rights organisation Committee Against Torture believes otherwise.  

Meanwhile in Ingushetia a representative of the republic’s leading human rights organisation Mashr condemned moves to abolish the republic’s Constitutional Court that would surely weaken the judicial system in the republic. Mashr, an NGO created in April 2005 by relatives of those kidnapped or otherwise missing in Ingushetia, monitors human rights abuses in the region.

End note

This week has seen the two stances of the Russian authorities with regard to human rights abuses: active and inactive. The ruling in the case of Yury Dmitriev indicates the authorities seem intent on actively pushing the clock back beyond 1989, when Memorial was founded. The enormous personal cost of the actions of the Russian justice machinery today can also be seen in the death of the journalist Irina Slavina who reacted to what is surely a politically motivated investigation by her self-immolation and words she intended us all to hear: “I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death.” Meanwhile peaceful believers are actively prosecuted under Russian discriminatory law that brands them as belonging to an ‘extremist organisation.’

In a week that marked the 21st anniversary of the beginning of the Second Chechen War it was in Chechnya that the inaction of the Russian authorities was most evident. On the basis of the Russian authorities’ failure to investigate the apparent torture and disappearance of Salman Tepsurkaev, one can surmise the Chechen authorities have been given an absolute free hand for lawless actions. Additional evidence for this is the bland response of the Russian authorities to the European Court of Human Rights in simply denying Movsar Umarov had been detained by Chechen law enforcement officers. Meanwhile in Ingushetia it has been a representative of the republic’s leading human rights organisation Mashr, rather than any official body, that condemned moves to abolish the republic’s Constitutional Court.

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