19 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 Khalimat Taramova, who had fled Chechnya on 4 June to escape abuse by her family, was forcibly removed by police from a shelter for battered women in Makhachkala, Dagestan, and taken to Chechnya where she is believed to be at risk of so-called “honour killing.” A court in Krasnoyarsk region sentenced a Jehovah’s Witness (unnamed in the reports) to six years in prison for organising the activities of an ‘extremist’ group. The St. Petersburg-based civil society group Coming Out this month launched its third annual report on the situation for LGBTI+ persons living in Russia’s second largest city, finding they have been victims of increased threats, greater harassment and discrimination and have suffered psychologically during the pandemic. The State Duma approved in a third and final reading a bill amending the law on ‘undesirable foreign organisations’ facilitating criminalisation of participation in the activities of such organisations, amendments that Human Rights Watch pointed out would, if adopted, ‘expose a wide range of activists to a high risk of criminal prosecution.’ The European Court of Human Rights handed down 16 judgments in relation to Russia finding violations of a whole swathe of Articles: 2 (right to life), 3 (prohibition on torture), 5 (liberty and security of person), 6 (fair trial), 8 (private and family life), 10 (freedom of expression), 11 (freedom of assembly and association) and 13 (effective remedy). In an interview with The Moscow Times, Pavel Chikov, head of Agora International Human Rights Group that provides legal support to victims of human rights violations, described the current situation in the country: “It’s been a busy few days…months. […] In almost all the big cases you read, our team is somehow involved. […] Cases that we won back in the day seem absolutely impossible now. Sometimes it feels like we live in a different country. […] I am always checking the news, looking for little signals that can tell me what chances our clients have. Deciding what our strategy will be.”
Pavel Chikov‘s statement that it ‘feels like we live in a different country’ is apposite. During the last twenty years of Putin’s effective rule (without looking back even further, say, over the last 40 years) there have been a series of relatively distinct periods in terms of the human rights situation in the country. By general consent, after Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 the human rights situation significantly worsened. In the last two years, going back at least to the campaign to amend the Constitution, there has been a further sharp deterioration. This past week the events that best illustrate this downward trajectory in terms of human rights have included the sentencing of yet another Jehovah’s Witness to six years in prison for professing their faith; the seizure and forcible return of Khalimat Taramova who had fled her family; a report by Coming Out showing the deterioration in the situation for LGBTI+ persons in St. Petersburg; and the State Duma’s approval of legislation making criminal prosecution for association with ‘undesirable’ foreign organisations easier. Taken together, the 16 judgments handed down by the European Court of Human Rights this week identifying human rights violations are also a significant indicator. As Pavel Chikov noted with understatement: “It’s been a busy few days…months.” There seems no indication that the lawyers from his group, or from other similar associations in the Russian human rights community, will be any less busy any time soon.