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

9 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

This week the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons issued a statement saying Aleksei Navalny was poisoned by a substance from the Novichok group. OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias called the results ‘a matter of grave concern’ and urged members to uphold the international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons. Russia’s representative at the OPCW in immoderate language called the findings ‘an unbridled propaganda campaign of lies.’

The extreme forms of pressure which many journalists and civil society activists are subject to in Russia was tragically highlighted by the funeral of the journalist Irina Slavina who before her death by self-immolation in Nizhny Novgorod directly attributed her suicide to pressure from the authorities. There have been calls for an investigation into what drove her to suicide (a criminal offence under Russian law).

Repressive measures, restricting freedom of conscience, against Jehovah’s Witnesses continued with the conviction, on 8 October 2020 in the city of Ulyanovsk, of six individuals for membership of an ‘extremist organisation.’ They were given suspended sentences ranging from two and a half to four years, with additional restrictions imposed on them after release.

Repression of the right of assembly in Russia, and the use of the law in the form of  Article 212, Part 1 of the Russian Criminal Code  (‘organisation of riots’), to prosecute peaceful assembly was evident in the dismissal by a Moscow court of Sergei Udaltsov’s appeal against the probation, which includes a ban on attending rallies, imposed on him in 2018 (after his release from prison) with effect until 2021. In 2014 Sergei Udaltsov (along with Leonid Razvozzhayev) had been sentenced to four and a half years’ imprisonment on the charge of ‘organising riots’ on 6 May 2012 on Bolotnaya Square, a demonstration international observers classed as ‘peaceful’ but marred by police violence.

This week there were 13 new judgments of the European Court of Human Rights concerning Russia that present a catalogue of the failures of Russia’s justice system. The applicant in one of these cases was again Udaltsov and concerned a series of jail terms under administrative law to which the activist had been subjected. In his case the court found violations of Article 5 (security and liberty of person) and Article 6 (right to fair trial). Two weeks ago, the Russian Representative at the European Court of Human Rights, Mark Galperin, had baldly responded to questions posed by the Court concerning Movsar Umarov, who had gone missing in Chechnya, that he had not been detained by Chechen law enforcement officers. This week Galperin, in response to the European Court’s request to provide information about the whereabouts of Salman Tepsurkaev, a native of Chechnya who has been subjected to torture, stated Tepsurkaev was not detained by law enforcement officers and had not been subjected to ill-treatment.

Pussy Riot activists highlighted discrimination against LGBT by putting up rainbow flags on government buildings in Moscow on President Putin’s birthday, 7 October 2020, announcing on Facebook: ‘We give this rainbow to everyone as a symbol of the missing love and freedom.’

That day, 7 October, marked the 14th anniversary of the killing of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in the lift of her Moscow apartment building. Other notable dates that fell this week were the climax of the constitutional crisis on 3 – 4 October 1993  between president and parliament that brought Russia to the brink of civil war and 8 October, the 30th anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1970.

End Note

Seventeen years ago this week a profound constitutional crisis shook Russia from which emerged a powerful presidency and a new ‘democratic’ constitution that embodied key human rights and formally placed international law above domestic legislation. This week observers could reflect on the current weakness of the rule of law in the country as increasing domestic repression has resulted in deteriorating relations with international treaty bodies, demonstrated by Russia’s hostile reaction to the statement by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on the Navalny poisoning and by the ever-increasing number of judgments against Russia of the European Court of Human Rights.

While the self-immolation of the journalist Irina Slavina highlighted the extreme pressure under which many journalists and civil society activists work, calls for an impartial, effective and thorough investigation into what drove her to suicide (a criminal offence under Russian law) seem unlikely to be successful given the recent failures to investigate the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny, the disappearance of Movsar Umarov or the torture and disappearance of Salman Tepsurkaev. Meanwhile continuing repressive measures against freedom of conscience were seen in the convictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses and against freedom of assembly in the on-going imposition of restrictions of liberty on Sergei Udaltsov.

If there are grounds for optimism it is surely to be found in the persistence of Russia’s human rights defenders and civil society activists, illustrated this week by the audacity of Pussy Riot, and more profoundly by the ability of Russian society to give birth to enduring voices for justice and freedom, articulated by two very different writers with different fates, both remembered this week, each of whom is a powerful voice that resonates in today’s Russia: Anna Politkovskaya and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

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