Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia

18 December 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 Bellingcat and The Insider, in cooperation with Der Spiegel and CNN, published the outcome of a joint investigation implicating the FSB in an operation apparently organised by the Russian state to poison its citizen Aleksei Navalny. The investigation identified at least eight FSB operatives allegedly behind the August attempt on the life of Navalny. If the right to life is the most important of all human rights, the freedoms of conscience and assembly are also profoundly important. With regard to the former, this week a  court in Novosibirsk sentenced another Russian citizen, Yury Savelyev, a Jehovah’s Witness, to six years in prison for ‘organising an extremist group’ which effectively was nothing more than practising his religion. With regard to the latter, as Konstantin Kotov, designated a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, was released from prison after serving 18 months for ‘repeated violations’ of Russia’s draconian laws of assembly – Article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code – prosecutors at the trial of opposition municipal deputy Yulia Galyamina demanded she be imprisoned for three years for allegedly violating the same law.

Perhaps the stage has been reached at which Russia’s brave human rights defenders receive due recognition only abroad. This week it was announced that Yury Dmitriev is one of the laureates of the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law. The citation praised him for ‘his exceptional commitment to addressing historical crimes in the former Soviet Union and preserving the memory of the Stalinist Terror despite sometimes significant opposition, not least from official Russian policy on the country’s past.’ Another international institution, the European Court of Human Rights, this week handed down six rulings against Russia, all finding various violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. Meanwhile, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, announced there are reasonable grounds for believing war crimes and crimes against humanity have been ‘committed in the context of the situation in Ukraine.’

This week saw the anniversaries of the deaths of two outstanding figures in the Soviet and Russian human rights movement – Andrei Sakharov, who died on 14 December 1989, and Arseny Roginsky, who died on 18 December 2020. Another anniversary concerned the Constitution of the Russian Federation, adopted by a national referendum on 12 December 1993.

End note

The astonishing detail uncovered this week about the attempt to murder Aleksei Navalny raises questions about the nature of certain state institutions will no doubt reverberate for years in Russia, if not decades. It is the same state that imprisons its citizens for peaceful exercise of freedom of conscience and for peaceful assembly and, it would certainly seem, for investigating, publicising and commemorating the crimes of Stalinism. In this context the work of International judicial bodies such as the International Criminal Court and the European Court of Human Rights assumes an ever greater importance. Many will have recalled this week the work and lives of two outstanding Russians – Andrei Sakharov and Arseny Roginsky They will also remember the Constitution of the Russian Federation, born this week in 1993, that may have seemed at the time to offer hope of providing a sure and permanent foundiation for human rights protection in the new Russian state. Perhaps not for nothing in Russian do they say that ‘hope dies last.’

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