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

20 February 2021

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

Protests subsided this week, but did not cease. In response to the clampdown on street protests, on St. Valentine’s Day, 14 February, hundreds of women attended protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg under the slogan ‘Love is stronger than fear’ in support of women beaten and tortured by police during peaceful protests, prosecuted for political reasons and in solidarity with Yuliya Navalnaya. In two important trials activists were convicted and sentenced: on 16 February a St. Petersburg court of appeal upheld the 13-year prison sentence handed down to Yury Dmitriev, Gulag historian and long-time head of Memorial’s branch in Karelia, on charges of child pornography that his supporters consider fabricated; on 18 February Anastasia Shevchenko was given a four-year suspended sentence under the law that criminalises ‘organising the activity’ of foreign organisations designated as ‘undesirable.’ 

The targeted designation of the Islamic organisation Hizb-ut Tahrir as ‘terrorist’ by the Russian Supreme Court in 2003, despite the fact that the organisation renounces violence, is a severe restriction on association and freedom of conscience. On 17 February at 4am armed Russian security services and National Guard raided the homes of seven Muslim men in Crimea who were taken away and six of whom were that day remanded in custody until mid-April on charges of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir (which is not a crime in Ukraine, to which Crimea, under international law, belongs). Meanwhile, a primary tool for restricting freedom of association and expression in Russia remains the ‘foreign agent’ law. On 16 February 2021 the State Duma approved further amendments to a bill providing for fines to be levied against ‘foreign agents’ who fail to comply with the strict labelling requirements of the law. The European Court of Human Rights continues to provide international oversight of human rights in Russia, this week handing down three rulings that found violations of Articles 2 [right to life], 3 [prohibition on torture], 5 [liberty and security of person] and 6 [fair trial] of the European Convention. Moreover, on 16 February the ECtHR indicated to the Government of Russia, under Rule 39 of the Rules of Court, it should release Aleksei Navalny to safeguard the applicant’s life.

The week saw anniversaries of two significant dates in Soviet history: the deportation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Union to West Germany on 13 February 1974,which marked the Soviet regime’s intolerance of freedom of expression, even by a great writer; and the withdrawal of the last contingent of Soviet combatant forces from Afghanistan on 15 February 1989, which marked the move towards a rejection of the use of force in Soviet foreign policy.

End note

As peaceful protests took a new form this week, the use of the judicial system to clamp down on fundamental freedoms of expression, association and religion cotinued in its accustomed manner in the convictions of Yury Dmitriev and Anastasia Shevchenko and the detaining of yet more members of Hizb-ut Tahrir. The Russian legislature continued to provide more grounds for repressive prosecutions, while the European Court of Human Rights pointed to the most fundamental violations of human rights in the Russian law enforcement and justice systems. It provides pause for thought that in the week that Gulag historian Yury Dmitriev lost his appeal against a 13-year prison term, 47 years ago Gulag chronicler Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was deported from the Soviet Union. And 32 years since the last Soviet combatant forces left Afghanistan, Muslims are being arrested and jailed in the illegally annexed Crimea.

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