24 April 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
Week-ending 23 April 2021
The extraordinary actions by the Russian government in persecuting Aleksei Navalny were highlighted this week by a group of four UN human rights experts – Special Rapporteurs – who stated they consider Navalny’s life to be in ‘serious danger’ and called for his urgent medical evacuation from Russia. They also pointed out that the Russian authorities have yet to effectively investigate last summer’s attempt on Navalny’s life with the nerve agent Novichok and pointed to ‘a deliberate pattern of retaliation against him for his criticism of the Russian Government.’ Meanwhile Aleksei Navalny’s well-being continued to deteriorate as independent doctors warned of a potential rapid further deterioration in his health. Only after the peaceful protests across Russia against his imprisonment on 21 April that the Russian authorities declared ‘illegal’, at which at least 1,700 protesters and 10 journalists were arrested, did Navalny announce he was ending his hunger strike. Events seem to show there is apparently no longer any attempt to mask the ongoing clampdown on political opposition to the government. This week the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office formally asked the Moscow City Court to designate Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as ‘extremist’ and ban it altogether. At the same time the ‘foreign agent’ law has been expanded to require electoral candidates who receive financial support from abroad – or who are in some way ‘affiliated’ with organisations that have been labelled as ‘foreign agents’ – to label themselves as such in any election campaigning or publicity. Meanwhile, ‘thinking differently’ in another realm, that of the Islamic religion, continues to be subject to criminal prosecution. This week in Kemerovo and Novosibirsk the FSB arrested an unnamed number of alleged supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned in Russia as ‘terrorist’ despite never having engaged in or encouraged acts of violence. The European Court of Human Rights, in three rulings concerning Russia, found violations of Article 6 (fair trial), Article 8 (private and family life) and Article 13 (effective remedy). The Court also made recommendations under Article 46 in terms of General Measures with regard to violations of Article 6 (fair trial).
The current regime in Russia has long had a reputation for the ‘smart’ and ‘selective’ use of repressive measures to combat opposition and dissent. However, some might now argue the regime seems to have lost its nerve. If so, the turning point may have been the amendments to the Constitution introduced last summer that were no doubt intended to enable Vladimir Putin to remain in power beyond 2024 when his term in office would formally expire. The subsequent attempt to kill the leading oppositionist – Aleksei Navalny – as highlighted this week by UN human rights experts’ – and now the imminent ban on his Anti-Corruption Foundation indicate a new approach to the problem of how the regime can maintain itself in power. At the same time the regime’s relatively old and familiar tools, such as the ‘foreign agent’ law, continue to be used in ever new ways, no doubt in the continuing belief that the label – which means ‘spy’ in Russian and was widely used to send innocent people to their deaths in the Stalin era – serves to persuade public opinion that political opponents of Vladimir Putin are opponents of Russia. Yet it should never be forgotten that this broader and intensive use of repressive measures has been used against certain minorities for much longer – as exemplified by the treatment of those suspected of association with Hizb ut-Tahrir, new victims of which were arrested in Siberia this week. In this increasingly difficult environment it would probably be an exaggeration to say the European Court of Human Rights remains a beacon of hope for human rights defenders in Russia. Nevertheless, the Court continues to put down invaluable markers, both for the Russian legal community and for civil society activists, that define human rights violations in Russia in an objectively impartial and internationally recognised manner.