24 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 Amnesty International issued a statement in relation to prisoner of conscience Aleksei Navalny, noting that his life was ‘no longer at immediate risk’ since he started receiving the medical care. However, Amnesty International also noted that the Russian authorities ‘refuse to release [Navalny] despite the unlawfulness of his detention, established by the European Court of Human Rights and other international bodies’ and said the organisation would ‘continue demanding Aleksei Navalny’s immediate and unconditional release and justice for him and other victims of politically motivated persecutions in Russia.’ The authorities jailed Pussy Riot member Rita Flores for 15 days on charges of disobeying police. Two other members of the group – Veronika NIkulshina and Aleksandr Sofeyev, announced this week they have left Russia. A court in Kirov fined three Jehovah’s Witnesses – Andrei Shchepin, Aleksandr Shamov, and Yevgeny Udintsev – sums ranging from 200,000 roubles to 500,000 roubles for organising and financing an extremist group (the Russian Supreme Court designated Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist organisation in 2017). Amnesty International urged the Russian authorities to release Dennis Christensen, a Danish Jehovah’s Witness jailed for six years in 2019. Team 29, an association of human rights lawyers, journalists and activists headed by prominent St. Petersburg lawyer Ivan Pavlov, announced it was disbanding . This followed last week’s news that the group’s website had been blocked at the request of prosecutors who accused the group of disseminating content from a Czech non-governmental organisation, Společnost Svobody Informace recently declared ‘undesirable.’ The impact of the law on ‘undesirable foreign organisations’ continued to be felt not only in relation to Team 29. Courts extended the pre-trial detention of two prominent activists, Andrei Pivovarov and Mikhail Iosilevich, who have been charged with ‘participating in the activities of an undesirable group’, a ‘crime’ punishable by up to six years’ imprisonment. Both Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Russian authorities to rescind last week’s designation of the Proekt media outlet as ‘undesirable’. In two judgments the European Court of Human Rights found violations of Article 10 (freedom of expression) and Article 2 of Protocol No.7 (right of appeal in criminal matters). In addition, the Court ruled that Russia should not extradite Aleksei Kudin to Belarus, where he is at risk of torture. The Russian authorities proceeded to deport Kudin to Belarus.
The authorities are now clearly using the laws on ‘undesirable foreign organisations’ and ‘extremist organisations’ to prosecute, pressurise and otherwise intimidate not only the designated organisations and their members but also, in a kind of ‘domino’ effect, other organisations and individuals who may have only tangential connections with the designated organisations. We see this in the decision by Team 29, which is not a registered organisation but merely an informal grouping, to disband in an effort to protect its members and supporters from possible criminal prosecution. Other notable examples are the treatment of the Proekt media outlet and individual activists such as Andrei Pivovarov and Mikhail Iosilevich. The designation of Aleksei Navalny’s organisations as ‘extremist’ has a similar run-on effect, now used to prosecute and intimidate the politician’s colleagues and supporters. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, designated as ‘extremist’ in 2017, can be seen in some ways as a forerunner of the current state of affairs: as though the authorities decided to test this method out on a religion before using it on secular civil society. Meanwhile Pussy Riot and its members provide more traditional examples of arbitrary law enforcement, where individuals are charged with offences such as ‘disobeying a police officer’ against which it seems there can be no defence in a Russian court. Finally this week the Russian authorities demonstratively showed their disregard for the European Court of Human Rights – not of course for the first time, as notably in the case of Aleksei Navalny – by extraditing Aleksei Kudin to Belarus, where he is at risk of torture.