20 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 marked the 11th anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky in pre-trial detention in Moscow (16 November 2009) where he had been denied medical care and reportedly beaten. It also saw the 22nd anniversary of the killing of Galina Starovoitova (20 November 1998). No one was prosecuted for the death of Sergei Magnitsky; three men have been jailed for the killing of Starovoitova, though it is thought the person or persons who ordered her killing are still at large.
The apparent lack of independence and effectiveness of Russian law enforcement with regard to certain high profile crimes seems to have changed little over the years. This was emphasised this week by two cases at the European Court of Human Rights. Lawyers acting on behalf of Marina Litvinenko, whose husband Aleksandr was murdered by polonium radiation in London in 2016, filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights seeking €3.5m in compensation from the Russian government, including punitive damages and payment for lost income. This same week the European Court of Human Rights communicated an application made in the interests of Salman Tepsurkaev, a resident of Chechnya who has been the victim of a forcible disappearance having been kidnapped in Gelendjik and subsequently tortured, but whose disappearance and torture the Russian authorities have denied. The application in the case of Tepurkaev was filed by the Committee Against Torture, one of Russia’s bravest and most effective NGO’s that was founded in 2000 and is based in Nizhny Novgorod. For many years the group has done great work highlighting abuses throughout Russia, including in Chechnya.
The apparent lack of independence of the justice system was further on display this week when new charges of producing child pornography were laid against the Gulag historian Yury Dmitriev shortly before an appeal is to be heard against the recent extension of his sentence to thirteen years in a penal colony. To an impartial observer, the sudden decision to bring fresh charges would seem as though the prosecutors are putting pressure on the court to keep Dmitriev behind bars, or to put it another way, as an insurance policy to ensure he is given a long sentence.
If law enforcement and the judiciary lack independence in Russia, the authorities are doing their best to ensure civil society organisations – such as the brillliant Committee Against Torture mentioned above – are deprived of it. The parlous state of the right of assocation in Russia was highlighted this week by a new bill expanding the ‘foreign agent’ legislation. Amnesty International criticised the bill, that imposes new restrictions on so-called ‘foreign agent’ NGOs and extends the scope of the law to individuals. Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher, said: “The bill signals a new witch hunt of civil society groups and human rights defenders standing up for justice and dignity. It exposes the Russian authorities’ belief that civil society actors are destructive ‘agents of the West’ bent on destabilizing the government – not as key allies to address challenges and seek to bring positive change.”
Meanwhile, a package of bills has been introduced to the State Duma intended to bring Russia’s law codes in line with the newly amended Russian Constitution. These amendments are primarily intended to assert the supremacy of the Russian Constitution over international law. Put another way, they are intended to insulate the Russian justice system – with all its flaws and lack of independence – from international courts. Also this week the State Duma approved a bill in first reading to give lifetime immunity to former presidents, intended, one assumes, to ‘insulate’ President Putin from any courts, domestic or foreign.
The anniversaries of the deaths of Sergei Magnitsky and Galina Starovoitova are powerful reminders of the failings of the Russian justice system. Unfortunately, so much new legislation such as that in the news this week, seems targetted not at overcoming these weaknesses, but at insulating Russian power structures from ‘external’ influence, be that from international law or Russia’s own civil society. Paradoxically, though, the result of this is that the less hope there is of finding justice in Russia’s courts (to which, witness the case of Yury Dmitriev), the more it becomes necessary for Russians to apply to the European Court of Human Rights, as seen this week in the actions of Marina Litvinenko and the Committee Against Torture.