8 May 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 Amnesty International announced it had decided to re-designate Aleksei Navalny as a ‘Prisoner of Conscience,’ describing the decision to remove the POC designation as ‘wrong’. Amnesty apologised for the ‘negative impacts’ this decision has had on Navalny personally and on ‘the activists in Russia and around the world who tirelessly campaign for his freedom.’ The organisation noted that Navalny ‘has not been imprisoned for any recognizable crime, but for demanding the right to equal participation in public life for himself and his supporters, and for demanding a government that is free from corruption. These are acts of conscience and should be recognised as such.’ In the same statement, Amnesty International criticised President Putin and the Russian government for ‘restricting political freedom and acting in a brutal repression of anyone who seeks accountability and justice’ and ‘deliberately choosing to act without any trace of conscience.’ In another high profile case, this week more than 80 Russian journalists, writers, historians and translators published an open letter in support of human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who heads the Team 29 human rights group. Pavlov was detained on 30 April and charged with disclosing classified information about the preliminary investigation in the case of Ivan Safronov, whom he is representing. Senior human rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko described Pavlov’s arrest as marking ‘a real state of emergency.’ The International Commission of Jurists condemned Pavlov’s detention and interrogation and the searches of his premises. The trial of Olga Misik, Ivan Vorobevsky and Igor Basharimov continued in Moscow on charges of vandalism (Article 214, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code) for a protest on 8 August 2020 against the verdict in the New Greatness case (the three hung banners on a railing outside a Moscow district court and splattered red paint on a security booth outside the Prosecutor General’s Office). Memorial Human Rights Centre has declared their prosecution politically motivated. Following the designation of Meduza, as a ‘foreign agent’ last week, the Russian-language media outlet, which is based in Riga, has been rapidly losing advertising revenue and is in crisis. Reporters Without Borders described the designation as ‘a serious violation of media pluralism’ and urged the repeal of draconian ‘foreign agent’ laws. This week President Putin signed into law a bill providing for those republishing information from media designated as ‘foreign agents’ without mentioning that fact to be fined.
The momentum of the Russian authorities’ repressive measures brings about ever new violations of human rights. Indeed, the authorities’ decision to prosecute leading human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov is an attack on the very foundations of the rule of law. The ‘foreign agent’ law,as seen in the case of Meduza, is becoming a favoured instrument of this repression, with regard to both freedom of expression and right of association. This is also shown by the new law signed into force by President Putin this week that further increases the impact of the ‘foreign agent’ legislation obliging all those who republish information from ‘foreign agent’ media to mention that designation, or face fines. In political terms, one may wonder whether these are the actions of a strong, self-confident regime, or one that is weak and seeks to ensure by these means its own continuation. Yet for its immediate victims, this may matter little. The trial of three young people – Olga Misik, Ivan Vorobyevsky and Igor Basharimov – on charges of vandalism is a case in point. On the one hand it shows the authorities concerned about opposition among the younger generation which may threaten the regime in the future. For the young people concerned, prosecution may have a devastating impact on their lives. Against this background, the one piece of positive news came from Amnesty International who made the excellent decision to restore the ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ designation to Aleksei Navalny. Navalny, Amnesty stated, has been imprisoned ‘for demanding the right to equal participation in public life for himself and his supporters, and for demanding a government that is free from corruption.’ A public life in which members of the public can participate and one that is free form corruption seems, on current evidence, to be the very thing those in power in Russia today are set to prevent.