Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 3 September 2021]

5 September 2021

By Simon Cosgrove

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

Week-ending 3 September 2021

This week the European Court of Human Rights handed down a long-awaited judgment in the case of Estemirova v. Russia. While the ruling held that Russia had failed to properly investigate Natalia Estemirova’s 2009 murder, it found there was insufficient evidence to conclude that state agents were responsible. Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia acting director, said: “This judgment exposes the impunity surrounding the murder of Natalia Estemirova and the cynical inaction of the Russian authorities. In the twelve years since Natalia was killed, not only have they failed to identify and bring the perpetrators to account, but they have also remained silent and complacent as other human rights defenders in Chechnya were exposed to the same perils, attacked, threatened, and prosecuted.” Amnesty International called on the Russian authorities to fully, effectively, and impartially investigate the case and to bring those responsible to justice. Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia, quoted the words of Natalia Estemirova’s daughter Lana, 15 at the time of the murder: “I had very high hopes and it would be an understatement to say that I’m disappointed.” Lokshina concluded that “The lack of sufficient evidence the court cited is a direct result of Russia’s brazen determination to protect the perpetrators of this outrageous murder. Natasha was killed for fearlessly exposing abuses by Chechen authorities. An effective investigation would leave no doubt about official involvement in her murder.” Civil Rights Defenders in a statement also quoted the words of Lana Estemirova in an interview given to the Russian independent TV channel Dozhd: “For my mom and for me the European Court of Human Rights has always been the last refuge of justice, […] therefore when you receive the verdict where it says written black on white that the Russian authorities are not responsible for mom’s murder it is of course very bitter.”  

In other news this week the stand-up comedian, Idrak Mirzalizade from Azerbaijan was banned from Russia for life on account of a joke he told the Russian authorities consider insulting to ethnic Russians. The independent media outlet Readovka was blocked by a ruling of a Moscow court at the suit of State Duma deputy Dmitry Sablin, despite the fact that Readovka had complied with an earlier court ruling to remove material related to Sablin’s alleged ownership of a yacht. The sentencing of Moscow municipal lawmaker Dmitry Baranovsky to 18 months of ‘restricted freedom’ under Article 236 of the Russian Criminal Code (‘Violation of sanitary and epidemiological rules’) for publicly calling for people to take part in unsanctioned rallies to support Aleksei Navalny in January highlights the use of this article of the Criminal Code against civil society and political activists. Other examples of such prosecutions are those of Liusya Shtein, also a municipal lawmaker, Anastasia Vasilieva, the doctor-turned-activist and Navalny supporter, and Navalny’s brother, Oleg, along with Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh and his Moscow team coordinator Oleg Stepanov. In the run-up to the elections on 17-19 September, the independent election monitor Golos has continued to do all it can to bring public and expert attention to the degree of Russia’s compliance with international standards for free and fair elections, despite being increasingly shackled by the authorities .

End note

The week highlighted the importance of the European Court of Human Rights in delivering an important judgment in the case of the brutal 2009 murder of human rights defender Natalia Estemirova. The judgment also showed the problems with the functioning and scope of the Court’s jurisdiction: the judgment came 12 years after the human rights defender’s murder and has been widely criticised for failing to find state agents responsible for the murder, an Amnesty International spokesperson calling the judgment “a step short of the justice and truth that Natalia Estemirova and her family are entitled to.” Increasing restrictions on freedom of expression were shown by the banning of comedian Idrak Mirzalizade from Russia for life and the blocking of the independent media outlet Readovka. The former showed the authorities flirting cynically with a populist racism; the second their intolerance of independent investigations into alleged corruption by officials. This year Article 236 of the Russian Criminal Code (‘Violation of sanitary and epidemiological rules’) has become one of the main weapons used by the authorities to crack down on public dissent. It is characteristic in that it shows the authorities’ preference to use apparently non-repressive legislation against those who seek to exercise their civil rights. Meanwhile, as many commentators continue to explain the current crackdown by reference to official anxieties over the coming elections (17-19 September), the work of independent election monitor Golos illustrates the extraordinary determination and resilience of Russian civil society activists in the face of repression.

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