13 November 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
This week saw the anniversary of the start of the 1917 October Revolution (7 November New Style, 25 October Old Style), an event that marked one of the most critical moments of pivotal change in Russian history. It might be thought that, by contrast, in terms of human rights, this week offered merely ‘more of the same.’ Certainly there have been no indication of changes for the better.
On 19 November a bill was introduced into the State Duma that would impose additional restrictions on civil society organisations designated as ‘foreign agents,’ increasing reporting requirements and giving the Ministry of Justice additional powers to ban specific activities and close organisations down. The issue of torture in Russian prisons (and in particular the vulnerability of ethnic Chechen prisoners serving sentences outside Chechnya) was highlighted by the case of Sultan Israilov who had died in a penal colony in Chelyabinsk in 2015 as a result of torture by prison officers. This week a court in Grozny ruled that the Federal Penitentiary Service pay 2m roubles (about 22,000 euros) in compensation to his family (who had asked for 15m rouble). On 12 November police and staff of the Rospotrebnadzor, the government consumer watchdog, refused to allow the opening of the annual LGBT film festival run by Side by Side in St. Petersburg to go ahead. In Nizhny Novgorod journalist Aleksandr Pichugin, administrator of the Telegram channel ‘Sorokin Khvost’ and chief editor of the new website Reporyor-NN,’ received a criminal conviction and a fine of 300,000 roubles for distributing allegedly ‘fake news’ about the coronavirus. The Committee to Protect Journalists had called for all charges against Pichugin to be dropped. As the amendments to the law on the Constitutional Court were signed into force, Sergei Golubok, a leading human rights lawyer from St. Petersburg, reminds us that the Constitutional Court has long since ceased to perform its proper function, in his words: “The Constitutional Court’s fear of recognising laws as inconsistent with the Constitution is a longstanding problem.” Finally, there were two rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to Russia. The first, that of Navalnyy and Gunko v. Russia, found a range of violations that go to the very heart of the poor protections for human rights in Russia today, namely violations of Articles 3 (torture), 5 (security and liberty of person), 6 (fair trial), 11 (freedom of assembly).
Russian society has passed through a great many changes since the chaotic collapse of the Tsarist regime that culminated in the October Revolution, ushering in both hopes for a better life for some, but grim realities of political violence and repression for the many. Yet more than a century on, repression of basic human rights in Russia seems systemic. As prominent examples this week have shown, this applies to the right of association, freedom of expression, the widespread use of torture, discriminatory laws and the lack of independence of the judicial system. And this week the European Court of Human Rights pointed out in its usual concise manner that Aleksei Navalny, who has since been the victim of poisoning by, as many now believe, the Russian state itself, in connection with the so-called Bolotnaya Square in 2012 was already the victim of violations by the authorities of Articles 3 (torture), 5 (security and liberty of person), 6 (fair trial) and 11 (freedom of assembly) of the European Convention on Human Rights.