15 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 the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a partnership of the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organisation Against Torture) kept the case of the St. Petersburg human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov in the public eye by issuing a statement that condemned the judicial harassment of Pavlov as ‘only aimed at punishing him for his legitimate human rights activities’ and urging the Russian authorities ‘to immediately drop all charges against Ivan Pavlov, and to put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against him.’ This same week a Moscow court sentenced Olga Misik, a prominent young pro-democracy activist, to two and a half years of ‘restricted liberty’ on charges of vandalism for a protest against the sentences handed down in the New Greatness trial. The sentence imposes an effective curfew on Misik for that period. In an outspoken and moving speech during her trial Misik said, among other things: ‘You cannot forbid me to love, you cannot forbid youth, and you will never forbid freedom. You will not forbid the truth.’ The former mayor of Ekaterinburg, Evgeny Roizman, was sentenced to nine days in jail for ‘organising an unsanctioned event’ on 31 January and 21 April by posting on Twitter. The next day a court reduced his sentence to one day on appeal. No reason for the reduction in sentence was given. The authorities declared VTimes, an online media outlet launched last year by former editors and journalists from Vedomosti, a ‘foreign agent.’ The result, as with Meduza previously so designated, will be to severely curtail the outlet’s viability as it will no longer be able to attract advertising to the same extent. Members of the State Duma introduced a bill banning lawyers from recording meetings with their convicted clients inside prisons. The European Court of Human Rights handed down eight judgments with regard to Russia, finding violations of Article 3 (prohibition on torture), Article 5 (liberty and security of person), Article 6 (fair trial) and Article 10 (freedom of expression).
While concern about the judicial harassment of human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov remains high, the convictions this week of Olga Misik and Evgeny Roizman show both the vindictiveness of the current wave of repressions and, in these cases at least, their unpredictability. Despite the severity of Misik’s punishment, many may have considered she would be given a yet worse penalty in terms of time in prison – just as Roizman would serve out his whole nine days. Are these judicial decisions in any sense lenient and how should they be interpreted? Can it be argued that judges in some cases can have some degree of leeway in terms of sentencing, if not in terms of convicting? Or can it be argued that the authorities were concerned about the public reaction had the sentences been more severe? Whatever the case, it must not be forgotten that the very facts of prosecution, trial and conviction were in themselves acts of repression and as such were either wildly disproportionate or downright wrong. On another matter, the authorities showed no such ‘leniency’ in branding the independent media outlet VTimes a ‘foreign agent’ this week. And in its turn, the bill to ban lawyers from recording meetings with clients inside prisons – known for injustice and brutality – would, if adopted, as it most probably will be, be a further step towards isolating prisons and prisoners from the rest of society. Significantly, of the eight judgments handed down by the European Court of Human Rights with regard to Russia this week, four of the cases involved torture, five involved fair-trial rights, one involved unlawful detention and the other freedom of expression.