Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 17 September 2021]

19 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 17 September 2021

As is well-known, Aleksei Navalny was the victim last summer of an apparent State-ordered assassination attempt that the authorities have refused to investigate and he has since been imprisoned on trumped up charges and designated by Amnesty International as a  prisoner of conscience. In the run up to the three days of voting on 17-19 September 2021 in State Duma elections, Aleksei Navalny, in a social media post written from prison, called on Russians to vote tactically in line with what he and his supporters call ‘smart voting’ to maximise the vote against candidates from the United Russia party. The same day, police arrested four persons on Red Square who were protesting in support of Aleksei Navalny (as well as a journalist). Russian mobile network providers began blocking Google Docs, used by Navalny’s team to disseminate its voting advice, and Google and Apple deleted the Navalny team’s tactical voting app from their online stores. 

Meanwhile, five other events deserve particular attention. First, in a significant move, more than 150 media outlets and NGOs launched a public campaign for the repeal of the repressive ‘foreign agent’ law. Second, Amnesty International highlighted the dangers of punitive psychiatry in post-Soviet Russia and the plight of Aleksandr Gabyshev, a resident of Yakutsk and peaceful protester against President Putin, whose appeal against his confinement in a psychiatric institution is to be heard on 23 September [the issue of punitive psychiatry in post-Soviet Russia is discussed in this week’s podcast on Rights in Russia with Viktor Davydov, a victim of Soviet-era punitive psychiatry]. Third, harsh repression in Crimea was exemplified by the trial of veteran of the Crimean Tatar national movement Azamat Eyupov, who faces a 15-20-year sentence on charges of ‘organising the activities of a terrorist organisation’ (Article 205.5, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code) for involvement Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation banned as terrorist even though, as Memorial Human Rights Centre points out, the group does not advocate violence of any kind. Fourth, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the issue of the expanding and unregulated use of facial recognition technology in Russia, made possible by federal law (No. 123-FZ) adopted in April 2020 entitled “On Experimenting with Artificial Intelligence” which has allowed Moscow authorities to test facial recognition, and other new technologies, free of most personal data legislation restrictions. Fifth, this week the European Court of Human Rights handed down three judgments in relation to Russia concerning the issue of expulsions to Syria (articles 2 [right to life], 3 [prohibition of torture] and 5 [liberty and security]), the right of association of a political group – the National Bolsheviks [article 11 [assembly and association]) and failure to protect from domestic violence (article 8 [private and family life]).

End note

The persecution by the Russian authorities of political opponents, who advocate not violence but free and fair elections, such as Aleksei Navalny retrenches the repressive environment in a country already rife with violations of human rights. Another egregious example of the government’s repressive measures is the ‘foreign agent’ legislation that in recent months has been used aggressively against media outlets and journalists, prompting the start of a public campaign by media outlets and journalists this week for the repeal of ‘foreign agent’ legislation. One of the most heinous abuses of human rights in the Soviet Union was that of punitive psychiatry, and the case of Aleksandr Gabyshev seems to indicate a return to this very worst of Soviet repressive practices. The case of veteran Crimean Tatar activist Azamat Eyupov indicates not only the extent of repression in Crimea but also the lack of freedoms of conscience, expression and association in Russia in general when a peaceful religious group is branded as ‘terrorist’ for political reasons. If Moscow tends in some areas to escape the worst of repressive measures, the capital has been the focus for the introduction of the unregulated use of facial recognition technology, condemned this week by Human Rights Watch. Despite Russia’s disregard of the European Court of Human Rights‘ instruction to release Navalny, the Court continues to hand down important rulings against Russia. Some observers quite reasonably take the view that the Court’s judgments have little hope of being effectively implemented in Russia today. Perhaps the role of the Court could in this context be compared in some way to that of many writers in Soviet times who wrote not in hope of being published or read in the Soviet Union but ‘for the desk drawer.’ Or in the Court’s case possibly for what Navalny and his supporters term the ‘happy Russia of the future.’

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