31 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 the trial of Yury Dmitriev, a third attempt to convict him on the flawed ‘child pornography’ charges, continued in Petrozavodsk City Court. As Halya Coynash writes, “It is thanks to Yury Dmitriev and his Memorial colleagues that thousands of Ukrainians, Russians and representatives of other nationalities have learned the fate of their parents or grandparents. It was they who discovered the mass graves at the Sandarmokh Clearing in Karelia where the last remains lie of nine thousand victims of the Terror. There are strong grounds for linking the persecution of Dmitriev […] with attempts by the current Russian regime to whitewash the darkest pages of Soviet history.” In other courts around the country other trials have been taking place: in Yakutsk Aleksandr Gabyshev, a shaman, was compulsorily confined to a psychiatric hospital on the grounds he poses an ‘extreme danger’ to society for attempting to walk to Moscow to ‘drive Putin from the Kremlin’; in Rostov-on-Don three Jehovah’s Witnesses – Aleksandr Parkov, Arsen Avanesov and Vilen Avanesov – were sentenced to long terms in prison for their faith (the former two to six and a half years, the latter to six years). The ‘foreign agent’ laws have been used to punish and intimidate journalists: police raided the apartment of Roman Dobrokhotov, chief editor of The Insider website, soon after the outlet’s designation as a ‘foreign agent’; the chief editor of Proekt media, Roman Badanin, also designated a ‘foreign agent’, said he would not return to Russia (Proekt is now an ‘undesirable’ foreign organisation). Meanwhile, an extrajudicial body, Roskomnadzor, blocked 49 websites linked to Aleksei Navalny on the grounds, following the designation of the Anti-Corruption Foundation as extremist, they spread ‘propaganda and banned extremist activity’. Roskomnadzor subsequently said social media accounts linked to Navalny and the latter’s YouTube channel should also be blocked. The fact that Navalny closed down the Anti-Corruption Foundation a year ago seems not to trouble them. This week the European Court of Human Rights handed down one ruling with regard to Russia, finding violations of Article 3 of the European Convention (prohibition of torture) in the case of Minin and Others v. Russia.
It is interesting to consider the kinds of people being put on trial, imprisoned or subjected to repressive laws in Russia this week: the historian and human rights activist Yury Dmitriev, an idiosyncratic shaman with apparently strong political views Aleksandr Gabyshev, three Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse to give up their faith, a number of investigative journalists including notably Roman Dobrokhotov and Roman Badanin, and the independent politician Aleksei Navalny and those associated with him and his now closed Anti-Corruption Foundation. In these examples we see the use of the justice system and other government bodies to selectively persecute individuals whose behaviour the authorities consider undesirable. The authorities, indeed, seem to wish to hold up these individuals as examples to discourage the rest of the population from similar behaviour. One might imagine, in a happier Russia of the future, that the authorities would leave such people alone, or rather encourage such individual energy, determination and talent, and devote more attention to remedying the injustices committed by public officials as identified by the European Court of Human Rights.