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

23 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 Amnesty International has highlighted the plight of two individuals, both jailed for peaceful activism and declared prisoners of conscience. Yan Sidorov, a prisoner of conscience who together with his friend Vladislav Mordasov was found guilty of ‘attempted organization of mass disturbances’ and sentenced to over six years in a penal colony simply for having organized a peaceful protest in November 2017 in Rostov-on-Don, faced a hearing on his request for early release on parole.  On 21 October, Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director said Sidorov “should have never been imprisoned in the first place, and nothing will make up for the years he has spent behind bars. But tomorrow there is a chance to begin to rectify this injustice by ordering his release.” The next day (22 October) the court in Dmitrovgrad refused to release Sidorov on parole because, according to the prison authorities, he had not shown he was willing to ‘reform himself.’ Amnesty International also called for the release of prisoner of conscience Aleksandr Shabarchin, sentenced in Perm to two years’ imprisonment for peaceful activism that involved a mannequin of Vladimir Putin dressed in a prisoner’s uniform. An appeal against his conviction is to be heard next week.

In the week that saw the 26th anniversary of the 1994 killing of the journalist Dmitry Kholodov, the dangers still facing independent journalists in Russia were highlighted by the abduction and beating of Sergei Plotnikov, a journalist working for the YouTube-based news outlet RusNews in Khabarovsk, a region that has seen continuous protests since the summer over the removal of the regional governor, Sergei Furgal. Meanwhile, in Penza, appeals by defendants in the high profile prosecution of seven young anti-fascist activists for involvement in ‘Network’, an organisation which is allegedly terrorist but has been claimed to have been created by a police operative, were dismissed by Russia’s Military Court of Appeal, despite allegations of the use of torture by investigators against the defendants in the case.

Not unexpectedly, the State Duma approved in second reading a bill to reform the Constitutional Court by, among other things, reducing the number of judges from 19 to 11, banning the judges from criticising decisions of the Court and effectively giving the President the power to dismiss the Court’s judges. This same week another court, the European Court of Human Rights, demonstrated its independence of the Russian authorities by issuing five rulings that highlight persistent human rights violations in the country, namely violations of Articles 3 (Prohibition on torture); 5 (Right to liberty and security); 6 (Right to fair trial); 10 (Freedom of expression); and 11 (Freedom of assembly and association).

End note

The lack of protection for the rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression was seen this week in the cases of prisoners of conscience Yan Sidorov and Aleksandr Shabarchin. The attack on a journalist for the independent RusNews outlet highlighted the dangers to which independent journalists can be exposed. The dismissal of the appeals in the ‘Network’ trial showed the lack of independence of the Russian courts. Despite this, the bill on the Constitutional Court would, once adopted, only reduce further the independence of this highest court in the land. And if one aim of the reform is to ’empower’ the Constitutional Court to resist the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, this week the latter in five judgments continued to point to systemic human rights violations in Russia.

In addition to the anniversary of the 1994 killing of the young journalist Dmitry Kholodov, noted above, this week fell the 18th anniversary of the 2002 Dubrovka Theatre tragedy in which up to 204 hostages and 40 of the terrorists were killed. A third anniversary that fell this week was of the awarding of the 1987 Nobel Prize for Literature to Joseph Brodsky whose life reflected the struggle between authority and individual rights in Soviet and Russian society, as the following famous courtroom exchange from his 1964 trial for ‘social parasitism’ so well illustrates:

Judge: And what is your occupation in general?
Brodsky: Poet, poet-translator.
Judge: And who recognized you to be a poet? Who put you in the ranks of poet?
Brodsky: No one. (Unprovoked) And who put me in the ranks of humanity?

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