4 December 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 the difficulties facing individual human rights activists in Russia has been highlighted by the authorities’ decision to end the residence permit of Vanessa Kogan, a US citizen who for many years has headed the work of Stichting Justice Initiative. Vanessa Kogan stated in an interview with The Guardian, “They saw their chance to get rid of me, essentially. I think that it’s purely connected to the work that I do and my organisation does.” Much of the Justice Initiative’s work has been conducted in the North Caucasus where the organisation has specialised in bringing cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Kogan said that since the organisation’s founding, it had secured €25,000,000 in compensation for its clients. This was not the only news of high profile violations of human rights this week, however. Violation of freedom of conscience was seen in the conviction of four Jehovah’s Witnesses for ‘extremism.’ One of their number, Sergei Polyakov, was sentenced to three years in prison for ‘organising the activities of an extremist group.’ The three others were given suspended sentences for ‘participation’ in such a group. Restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression were evident in the jailing for 20 days of Pussy Riot activist Rita Flores. She was charged with repeated violation of the law on public assembly for taking part in a peaceful street performance on 28 November near Red Square. This week Russian human rights activists have been speaking out against the bill that threatens to further restrict the right of association and freedom of expression by a toughening of so-called ‘foreign agent’ legislation. Meanwhile, in Strasbourg the European Court of Human Rights handed down eight new judgments that found violations of the prohibitions on torture and discrimination, the security and liberty of the person, the right to fair trial, privacy and family life, and assembly and association. This week also saw the 55th anniversary of the so-called ‘Glasnost Rally’ of 5 December 1965, a protest against the trial of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, generally considered to be the first post-war public protest that marked the beginning of the Soviet – and Russian – modern human rights movement.
Repression of human rights always has a powerful negative impact on the lives of individuals. We see that very clearly in Russia this week: the treatment of Vanessa Kogan, who has built her life and family in Russia and the impact on the working lives of her colleagues at the Stichting Justice Initiative and of all the individuals the organisation has helped and continues to help; the conviction of four Jehovah’s Witnesses for practising their faith; and the jailing for 20 days of Rita Flores for her part in a peaceful demonstration. This week the European Court of Human Rights again pointed to a number of cases of human rights violations, not least that of the high profile case of physicist Valentin Danilov, which are themselves exemplary of human rights violations in the country. Meanwhile, the country’s authorities are preparing further restrictions on the rights and freedoms of its citizens by means of the so-called ‘foreign agent’ legislation. The courage and determination of those individuals who took part in the ‘Glasnost Rally’ that December day fifty-five years ago is surely hardly any less needed in defending human rights in Russia today.