22 January 2021
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 12th anniversary of the shooting dead on a Moscow street of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova (it was on the first anniversary of this tragic killing that Rights in Russia was established in 2010 in their memory). In a series of extraordinary events this week, Aleksei Navalny, after surviving what almost certainly seems to have been a state-sponsored attempt on his life, returned to Moscow from Berlin only to be arrested and summarily remanded in custody for 30 days pending a review of his alleged breach of parole. The European Court of Human Rights has already declared that sentence to have been the outcome of an unfair trial. In any case, it would certainly have been reasonable for the authorities to take into account that Navalny had, with government permission, been airlifted to Germany to recuperate from the attack upon him. Moreover, he had returned to Russia, so there would seem little justification to remand him in custody pending trial. Navalny has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and a political prisoner by Memorial Human Rights Centre. On 18 January, the day after Navalny’s return to Moscow, a court in the city sentenced Azat Miftakhov, a postgraduate student of mathematics, to six years in prison on charges of hooliganism for allegedly breaking a window and throwing a smoke bomb into an empty office of the United Russia political party. As Human Rights Watch stated, Miftakhov’s trial was ‘marred by allegations of torture, and reliance on unfair “secret witnesses”.’
Journalists are also frequently victims of arbitrary actions by the authorities. This week the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement in defence of journalist Dmitry Timoshenko who has been repeatedly arrested and fined for his coverage of protests in Khabarovsk. Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme coordinator, in a statement said: “Russian authorities should immediately release journalist Dmitry Timoshenko, drop all charges against him, and stop detaining journalists on trumped-up charges in order to keep them from covering protests in Khabarovsk.”
Independent organisations are also under attack in Russia, even those associated with the Council of Europe, the body that promotes democracy on the continent and of which Russia is a member. The School of Civic Education, formerly the Moscow School of Political Studies, an independent educational project founded in 1992 by Elena Nemirovskaya and Yury Senokosov that has done extraordinary work advancing democratic values among young people in Russia, was branded a ‘foreign agent’ NGO in 2014. Now the Council of Europe’s Association of the Schools of Political Studies, to which the School of Civic Education belongs, has been declared an ‘undesirable’ foreign organisation – making Russian citizens or organisations that advance the Association’s purposes potentially subject to the criminal law.
Against this background, potentially positive steps by Russian official bodies, such as the announcement this week by the Ministry of Justice that it is drafting a bill on the regulation of probation in Russia, would seem to pale into virtual insignificance.
This week the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian government was responsible for the murder of Georgian civilians and the looting and burning of their homes during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. The Court found that Russia was involved in the violation of human rights in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but was not responsible for the hostilities in August 2008. The issue came in the same week Azerbaijan marked the 31st anniversary of so-called Black January when Soviet forces engaged in a violent crackdown on the civilian population of Baku on 19–20 January 1990, killing an estimated 147 civilians and injuring 800.
In all the European Court of Human Rights published 13 judgments this week with respect to Russia, finding violations of a wide range of articles of the European Convemntion on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: Aricle 2 (right to life), Aricle 3 (prohibition of torture), Article 4 (prohibition of slavery and forced labour), Aricle 5 (right to liberty and security), Article 6 (right to a fair trial), Article 7 (no punishment without law), Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life), Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) and Article 38 (examination of the case).
The violent deaths of human rights of defenders, journalists and civil society activists seems a potentially ever present threat in Russia, as the 12th anniversary this week of the murders of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova reminds us. It has been extraordinary to see the courageous return of Aleksei Navalny to Russia, following the so nearly successful assassination attempt on him using Novichok, which seems to leave little doubt the perpetrators were government operatives. His immediate arrest and incarceration has prompted calls for his release from around the world and his designation as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Many other active citizens continue to be victims of apparent politically motivated convictions or sentencing, as the cases of Azat Miftakhov and Dmitry Timoshenko show. Civil society organisations are also victims of persecution by the authorities, using either the 2012 so-called ‘foreign agent’ law (for example, the School of Civic Education) or the 2015 law on ‘undesirable’ foreign organisations (for example the Association of the Schools of Political Studies). No doubt there are officials in Russian ministries who would wish to work in accordance with the requirements of the rule of law and human rights standards. Yet, as the case law of the European Court of Human Rights regularly shows, law enforcement agencies and the courts too often fail to meet these criteria. This week the European Court also highlighted Russian responsibility for violations against a neighouring state, in this case Georgia. The anniversary of the killings by Soviet troops in Baku 31 years ago, along with other events this week, may prompt reflection on the longevity of the imperial mindset that finds expression in aggression abroad and repression at home and its devastating impact on human rights.