Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 24 September 2021]

26 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

This week, following the three-day voting widely considered to be fraught with electoral violations, Amnesty International issued a statement calling for urgent action by the Russian authorities to curtail ‘relentless attacks on human rights in Russia’ and urging the newly elected deputies to ‘seize this opportunity to reverse the damage done to human rights in Russia.’ A court decision came into force indefinitely confining Siberian shaman, Aleksandr Gabyshev, to a psychiatric ward for ‘intensive treatment’ on the grounds he vowed in 2019 ‘to purge’ President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin. Amnesty International said, ‘Once again, the authorities are using ‘psychiatric care’ as a punishment – a method tried and tested during Soviet times. […] The use of punitive psychiatry as a method to silence dissent must stop now.’ The same day a district court in Volgograd sentenced four Jehovah’s Witnesses to six or more six years in prison each on charges of extremism. Valery Rogozin, Igor Yegozaryan, Sergei Melnik and Denis Peresunko were convicted on the basis of the 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an extremist organisation. The law against ‘undesirable foreign organisations’ was applied in two cases. A district court in Nizhny Novgorod (at the very end of the previous week) fined human rights defender Igor Kalyapin, head of the Committee Against Torture, for ‘participation in the activities of an undesirable organization.’ According to the judgment, the Committee Against Torture had referred on its website to the work of the Czech organization, People in Need (Člověk v tísni o.p.s.). However, these references were apparently before People in Need was declared ‘undesirable’ in November 2019. In another move the Church of Scientology was also branded as ‘undesirable.’ This week the European Court of Human Rights handed down one judgment in relation to Russia in the high profile case of Carter v. Russia concerning the 2006 murder by polonium radiation poisoning of Aleksandr Litvinenko. The Court found Russia failed to comply with its obligations under Convention Article 38 (compliance with procedural obligations) and violated Convention Article 2 (right to life) in its substantive and procedural limbs. A few phrases from the Court’s ruling may outline the extraordinary nature of this case:

  • The court ‘finds it established that the assassination was carried out by Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun.’
  • ‘The Court considers that the identification of the perpetrators of the killing and the indication of their connection with the authorities of the respondent State established a strong prima facie case that, in killing Mr Litvinenko, Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun were acting on the direction or control of the Russian authorities.
  • ‘[…] the Russian authorities failed to carry out an effective investigation themselves.’
  • ‘[…] the Court considers that adverse inferences may be drawn from the respondent State’s refusal to disclose any documents relating to the domestic investigation. […] the Court cannot but conclude that Mr Litvinenko was poisoned by Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun acting as agents of the respondent State. The act complained of is attributable to that State.’

Meanwhile, the Swedish organisation Civil Rights Defenders announced that the civil society organisation OVD-Info had won its Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award. Civil Rights Defenders stated: OVD-Info is a lifeline for the thousands of people who suffer from political persecution in Russia. […] OVD-Info receives the prize for their courage to speak up against human rights violations in Russia – a country where the space for dissidence is shrinking at a rapid pace.

End note

The past week may come to be seen as a symbolic moment in Russia’s post-Soviet authoritarian trajectory, the week in which an electoral façade may have been replaced by an electoral charade. It was, however, also a pertinent moment for Amnesty International to urge the importance of Russia talking steps to ‘reverse the damage done to human rights in Russia.’ Three events in particular indicate that this is unlikely to happen under the current regime : the revival of punitive psychiatry to punish the Siberian shaman, Aleksandr Gabyshev; the sentencing of four Jehovah’s Witnesses each to terms of six years and more in prison; and the fining of the outstanding human rights defender Igor Kalyapin under the ‘undesirable foreign organisation law.’ In this increasingly sombre context of a deepening authoritarianism, the making by Civil Rights Defenders of its Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award to OVD-Info was an excellent choice. Over the past 12 months, as in previous years, OVD-Info has harnessed the energies of many people committed to human rights to publicise injustices and provide legal assistance to the victims of human rights violations, in particular in relation to the clamp down on freedom of assembly in Russia. Finally, the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights handed down in Carter v. Russia provides further extraordinary evidence of the nature of the current regime in Russia – a regime that, it would seem, in the course of this week’s flawed elections, has further entrenched itself in power.

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