17 October 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 Supreme Court of the Russian Federation refused to hear an appeal by human rights activist and historian of the Gulag Yury Dmitriev, sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges of child sexual abuse that are widely considered to be fabricated. Prisoner of conscience Aleksei Navalny was removed from the ‘flight list’ category, which means he won’t be woken every hour in the night, but he has been categorised as someone who ‘espouses an extremist and terrorist ideology.’ The former executive director of the pro-democracy Open Russia movement, Andrei Pivovarov, currently in custody, has been charged with heading an ‘undesirable’ organization despite the fact that Open Russia was dissolved in May. In an attack on one of Russia’s most prominent civil society organisations, apparently coordinated by the authorities, on the evening of 14 October a group of masked men stormed the Moscow building of the International Memorial Society, interrupting a public screening of a film about the Holodomor, and the police, when they arrived, unlawfully detained members of staff and the audience for several hours. The first lawsuits have been brought against individual journalists and human rights activists for failing to comply with the requirements of the ‘foreign agent’ law, namely Lev Ponomarev and Stepan Petrov. The European Court of Human Rights handed down five judgments in relation to Russia, most notably finding violations of the right to life and fair trial.
For many observers the European Court of Human Rights represents a source of independent, impartial justice with respect to Russia that today is to be found nowhere else domestically. The extent of apparent political control by the current authorities over institutions in Russia is indeed quite extraordinary, as can be seen this week from a number of examples: the courts (see the case of Yury Dmitriev), the prison service (the case of prisoner of conscience Aleksei Navalny), the Investigative Committee (the case of Andrei Pivovarov), the police (see the incident at International Memorial Society) and the legislature (which adopted the ‘foreign agent’ laws). Before the recent elections some commentators argued that the latest round of restrictions was a result of official concern (or paranoia?) about the outcomes of the elections. Yet in the longer perspective the crackdown on civil society in its current form has been on-going since, if not President Putin’s accession in 2000, then at least since Putin’s return to the presidential role in 2012. The current trend towards every increasing authoritarianism is identified with one individual, which is not to say that the individual in question caused it. Yet it is hard to imagine these days that there will be any relaxation in the political atmosphere in Russia, or any improvement in the protection of human rights in the country, so long as Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin remains in the highest office of the land.