6 June 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 Aleksei Navalny lost his legal suit to end the hourly nighttime checks on him in the penal colony to which he is being subjected and which he alleges is tantamount to torture. The court, in rejecting his suit, argued that the imprisoned Navalny was a ‘flight risk.’ Andrei Pivovarov, the former executive director of the now disbanded Russian pro-democracy movement Open Russia, was arrested on a plane on the runway at St. Petersburg airport as it prepared for take off to Warsaw. He has been remanded in custody on charges of ‘repeated violations’ of the law on ‘undesirable organisations’ and taken to Krasnodar. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for his immediate release. Opposition politician and former State Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov was arrested and his dacha was searched, only to be released 48 hours later without charge (Gudkov has since left Russia). Five Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced to prison terms for organising the activities of an ‘extremist organisation’ (of the five, Andrei Stupnikov was given the longest term of six years). Two other Jehovah’s Witnesses received suspended sentences and one was fined. A new law on educational activities and cooperation with foreign academics giving the authorities powers to permit or forbid all educational activities outside a formal academic setting came into force. President Putin signed into law a bill that bans supporters and members of organizations deemed ‘extremist’ from standing as candidates in elections.
The week ending on 4 June 2021 was an extraordinary one, even by Russian standards. Not content with imprisoning Aleksei Navalny the authorities seem bent on mistreating him. One can imagine that those who organised the arrest of former executive director of Open Russia, Andrei Pivovarov while on a plane taxiing on the runway on a flight to Warsaw, if they were not panicking at having failed to detain him earlier, may have relished the parallel with the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, also on a plane, at Novosibirsk airport in 2003. The arrest of opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov and search of his dacha was also presumably intended as an act of intimidation, although the selectivity of the repressive machine is shown by the fact that unlike Pivovarov, Gudkov was released (and subsequently allowed to leave the country). The persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses continues, with the jailing of five of their members in gross violation of the right to freedom of conscience. As though the arsenal of repressive legislation were not enough, two new repressive laws were adopted this week. The law on education (perhaps ‘against education’ might be a better description) curtails still further the activities of educational institutions and of those civil society organisations in the country that yet survive and increases the country’s international isolation. The law banning supporters and members of organisations deemed ‘extremist’ from standing as candidates in elections is clearly aimed primarily at Aleksei Navalny, his colleagues and supporters, indeed all those associated with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, and is nothing less than the outlawing of a peaceful political opposition. The authorities’ clampdown on civil society, so vividly in evidence this week, is presumably motivated by fear that public opposition and agitation for a more open and democratic politics could, potentially, bring about political change. Yet the authorities’ actions this week seem so extreme in the manner in which they trample on fundamental rights that they evince not confidence in their power but something closer to a sense of panic.