26 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 on 20 February 2021 a Moscow court upheld on appeal the imposition of a prison term on Aleksei Navalny in the Yves Rocher embezzlement case despite the order by the European Court of Human Rights to immediately release him on grounds of danger to his life. The same day Navalny was convicted of defaming a World War II veteran and fined 850,000 roubles ($11,500). In a surprise move, Amnesty International announced it no longer considered Navalny a prisoner of conscience because of previous statements he has made that the organisation considers hate speech. Novaya gazeta publicised a video obtained by the Public Verdict Foundation, a leading Russian human rights organisation providing legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses by law enforcement officers, showing prisoners being tortured in Penal Colony No. 1 in Yaroslavl region. One of the victims of torture subsequently died but his death was never investigated by the authorities. A court in Abakan, Khakassia, sentenced two Jehovah’s Witnesses to prison terms (of six years and two years) on account of their faith. The Russian LGBT Network reported that the legal grounds for the arrest of the two LGBT men in Nizhny Novgorod remain unknown and that, now in Chechnya, the two men, who have not had access to independent lawyers or doctors, have been charged with complicity with illegal armed groups. President Putin, meanwhile, signed into force a number of laws that, among other things, increase fines imposed on protesters for disobeying police officers, on persons and organisations designated ‘foreign agents’ that fail to comply with labelling requirements, and on social media companies that ‘discriminate’ against Russian media. This week the European Court of Human Rights in Belskiy and Others v. Russia, found violations of Article 3 (prohibition of torture), Article 5 (excessive length of pre-trial detention and excessive length of judicial review of detention) and Article 13 (lack of an effective remedy in domestic law). Seventy-seven years ago this week, on 23 February 1944, the Soviet authorities deported the Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia. It is estimated that of the 500,000 people deported, at least a quarter died.
This week as the current phase of the politically motivated judicial proceedings against Aleksei Navalny drew to a close and he began his journey to a penal colony to serve a two and a half year sentence, in an extraordinary move that deprives Navalny of a significant degree of international support, Amnesty International withdrew his status as a prisoner of conscience. In further actions demonstrating Russia’s disregard of its human rights obligations, in Khakassia two Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced to prison terms for their faith and in Chechnya the apparently lawless treatment of two LGBT men abducted in Nizhny Novgorod continues. The same week, Public Verdict Foundation further exposed the appalling practice of torture in Russia’s prison system and the European Court of Human Rights condemned violations concerning torture and abuse of pre-trial detention in the Russian justice system. Yet the Russian authorities, instead of seeking to remedy these matters, adopt new laws that in practice only increase the restrictions on the exercise of fundamental rights by Russian citizens, targeting peaceful assembly, freedom of association and freedom of expression. The 77th anniversary of the deportation of the Chechens and Ingush peoples to Central Asia this week serves to illustrate all too glaringly the tragic consequences that can follow when political authorities show contempt for human rights.