3 July 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 on 26 June 2021 police officers searched the home of Ernest Mezak, a prominent human rights defender and lawyer from Syktyvkar in the Komi Republic, and that of his mother as part of an investigation against him for ‘insulting a judge’. Front Line Defenders condemned the move, saying the human rights defender was ‘targeted solely as a result of his legitimate and peaceful human rights work.’ On 28 June 2021 Proekt.Media announced the publication of its investigation into the financial affairs of the family of Interior Minister, Vladimir Kolokoltsev. Early next morning police and Investigative Committee officers searched the homes of Proekt.Media’s editor-in-chief Roman Badanin, his deputy and a reporter, confiscating computers and digital devices. Badanin was then named a criminal suspect in a libel case. Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director, denounced the action as ‘another brazen attack on independent media and freedom of expression in Russia.’ The same day, Russia issued an arrest warrant for Ivan Zhdanov, director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation founded by Aleksei Navalny, who currently lives in Lithuania, placing his name on a wanted list. On 30 June 2021 Blagoveshchensk City Court in Amur region sentenced two Jehovah’s Witnesses, Dmitry Golik and Aleksei Berchuk, to prison terms of seven and eight years respectively. On 1 July Moscow police searched the election campaign offices of Oleg Stepanov, a close associate of Aleksei Navalny in connection with charges of creating a non-profit organisation that ‘violates citizens’ rights, although Stepanov did not work for the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Three days earlier, on 28 June 2021, President Putin signed into law a bill further criminalising participation in the activities of ‘undesirable’ foreign nongovernmental organisations. The bill provides for up to six years in prison for those found guilty of ‘organising the activities’ of foreign organisations designated as undesirable on Russian territory and up to four years for taking part in the activities of ‘undesirable’ organisations in any country of the world. Meanwhile the Public Prosecutor’s Office added five more international organisations to the list of ‘undesirable organisations’ for ‘posing a threat to the foundations of the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation.’ On 29 June 2021 the European Court of Human Rights issued five judgments with regard to Russia, finding violations of Convention articles 2 (right to life), 3 (prohibition of torture), 5 (liberty and security of person), 6 (fair trial), 8 (private and family life) and 10 (freedom of expression).
All the evidence suggests that, within Russia, the severity of repressive measures continues to mount. Among victims of politically motivated judicial and law enforcement proceedings this week have been a human rights defender, independent journalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and civil society activists. At the same time, the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (witness the five judgments this week) continues to point to the human rights violations endemic in the workings of the Russian law enforcement and judicial systems even where there is no political motivation. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities are increasing measures to isolate Russian citizens from the outside world, creating barriers to people-to-people contact through the law on ‘undesirable foreign nongovernmental organisations’ (adding five more foreign groups to the list this week and adopting a new restrictive law. There seems no doubt civil society is under attack from the state in a kind of ‘civil war’ that can only be self-destructive for Russia, its institutions, its civic life and its citizens. The country needs not this kind of ‘civil war’ but ‘civil peace’, the ground rules for which have already been written (and the institutions to implement which already exist): human rights.