11 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 past week, that saw the 72nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Human Rights Day, also marked the 26th anniversary of the start of the First Chechen War. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum became the latest civil society group to condemn the legislative initiatives tightening restrictions on NGOs through ‘foreign agent’ legislation that passed in first reading this week. EU-Russia Civil Society Forum stated: “There is no doubt that these initiatives represent yet another coordinated attack on Russian civil society. Now the state is targeting not only non-governmental organisations as such but also individuals, representation offices of international organisations, educators and, potentially, commercial companies.” Restrictions on freedom of assembly that may well also be politically motivated could be seen in the arrest of Professor Valery Solovei in St. Petersburg as he took part in a peaceful rally organised by Change, a group he founded inspired by public protests in Belarus. Police reportedly claimed he was arrested for not wearing a coronavirus mask. The issue of the legitimacy of the de facto Russian courts in Crimea was highlighted by the conviction in absentia on 10 December 2020 by the Supreme Court of Crimea of Lenur Islyamov, owner of ATR Crimean Tatar Television and vice-president of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars on charges of organising sabotage, creating an illegal armed group and publicly calling for Russia’s territorial integrity to be violated. The court sentenced Islyamov, who does not recognise the legitimacy of the court, to 19 years in prison and in a parallel civil law suit ordered him to pay 50 million roubles in damages. In more positive news, this week the work of the Gulag History Museum, which publicises the history of the GULAG and is run by the Moscow City government, together with the Memory Foundation, applied to the government of Magadan region to develop what remains of the Dneprovsky labour camp into an open-air museum. Given the fate of GULAG historian Yury Dmitriev, recently jailed for 13 years, it will be interesting to follow the fate of this initiative. In its latest judgments the European Court of Human Rights found violations of Article 8 (respect for private and family life) and Article 1 of Protocol 1 (protection of property). Perhaps more significantly, the Court accepted an application by Memorial Human Rights Centre and Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the board of the NGO, over fines imposed under the ‘foreign agent’ law after an inspection by FSB officers in Ingushetia.
The protection of human rights is something that knows no boundaries, as Human Rights Day and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us. The anniversary of the start of the First Chechen War is also a reminder of the extent to which violations can occur when the world forgets this fact – and a country abandons its international obligations. Meanwhile, Russian authorities continue to seek to put up barriers between its civil society and the rest of the world. At the same time, the alleged threats posed by this external world are used to suppress freedoms within Russia. There was evidence also of the probable politically motivated use of law enforcement and the the judicial system this week in such various instances as the arrest of Professor Valery Solovei in St. Petersburg as he took part in a peaceful opposition rally in St. Petersburg and the conviction and sentencing in absentia of Lenur Islyamov, the owner of the ATR Crimean Tatar Television and vice-president of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, in Crimea. Nevertheless, despite this repressive background activists continue to work to maintain human rights in the public eye and combat violations: this week the Gulag History Museum (that works under the umbrella of the Moscow city government) announced plans for a new GULAG museum in Magadan and Memorial Human Rights Centre learned that the European Court of Human Rights has accepted its application against fines imposed under the repressive ‘foreign agent’ law.