5 February 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 Aleksei Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison at the suit of the Federal Penitentiary Service which alleged Navalny had broken the conditions of a 2014 suspended sentence handed down in the Yves Rocher case. This judgment was extraordinary for many reasons. Apart from the fact that Navalny was the victim of an apparently state-sponsored assassination attempt (and was recuperating in Germany since the summer and returned to Russia as soon as it was possible for him), in 2017 the European Court of Human Rights had found his conviction in the case ‘arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable’ and in violation of Articles 6 (fair trial) and 7 (no punishment without law) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In the course of the brutal police crackdown that accompanied the peaceful protests over the treatment of Navalny, more than 11,000 people were arrested at the protests. Two civil society groups in particular monitored the abuses by law enforcement agencies and gave legal support to those detained: OVD-Info and Apologiya protesta (the latter a project of Agora International Human Rights Group).
Media have been a special target of the crackdown. The day after Navalny was sentenced to prison, Sergei Smirnov, editor-in-chief of the independent Mediazona news outlet, was sentenced to 25 days in prison for ‘repeated violation’ of the rules regulating public assembly for nothing more than retweeting a joke. In the assault on media freedoms, two new laws played an important role: Federal Law 511-FZ introduced fines of up to 10% of a company’s annual revenue for websites that fail to block ‘illegal’ content; Federal Law 530-FZ obliges large social media networks to take down content deemed illegal under the Russian law. Roskomnadzor announced it was fining Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, and YouTube for failing to block posts with allegedly illegal calls to take part in the protests.
Russian LGBT Network reported that two gay men had been seized in Nizhny Novgorod and forcibly taken to Chechnya. Highlighting the abuses to which they may be further subject, a spokesperson for the organisation said: ‘They are tired and frightened. All this time they were being pressured to refuse a lawyer. There have been cases when relatives brought back to Chechnya people that we had evacuated and then these people would die or, we can say, were probably murdered.’ This took place in the week that marked the 21st anniversary of the 2000 mass killing by Russian troops in the Grozny suburb of Novye Aldi, in Chechnya.
The European Court of Human Rights found the Russian government had failed to comply with an interim measure imposed with regard to the deportation to Uzbekistan of an applicant accused of politically and religiously motivated crimes. The Court also published its decision to consider an application filed by Aleksei Navalny over his poisoning.
The return of Aleksei Navalny saw Russia fall into a veritable vortex of social conflict and human rights abuses. While the authorities showed their strength in the number of black-helmeted ‘cosmonauts’ they put on the streets, the strength of self-organisation of civil society in Russia was shown not only by the number of courageous peaceful protesters but also by the extraordinary work of two civil society groups, OVD-Info and Apologiya protesta, to provide those arrested with legal support. The jailing of Mediazona editor Sergei Smirnov on absurd charges and the use of new legislation to censor social media showed the authorities hostility towards freedom of expression. In the week that saw the anniversary of the 2000 massacre at Novye Aldi by Russian troops in Chechnya, the abduction of two Chechens from Nizhny Novgorod illustrated the failure of federal laws to operate in the Chechnya of Kadyrov and the parlous situation of LGBT people there. Meanwhile, in Strasbourg, the European Court of Human Rights indicated its determination to examine Russia’s treatment of Aleksei Navalny when it communicated the latter’s application over his poisoning.