31 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 2021 Memorial Human Rights Centre published its annual report on the numbers of political prisoners in Russia. As Sergei Davidis, head of the Programme for the Support of Political Prisoners at Memorial Human Rights Centre noted, “Unfortunately, the numbers [of political prisoners] have been steadily growing every year” Today, there are at least 420 political prisoners in the country known to Memorial.
Clearly, in this regard the Russian authorities have no intention to rest on their laurels. On 23 October 2021 Russia issued an arrest warrant for Syarhey Savelyeu [Sergei Savelyev], a Belarus national and brave individual who released video evidence of torture in a prison in Saratov region. He is currently seeking asylum in France. Instead of focusing on eradicating torture in the prisons within their domain, the Russian authorities seem intent on arresting and punishing the whistleblower (the authorities did not specify what crime Savelyeu is suspected of committing). Two days later in Crimea, on 25 October, the authorities arrested the lawyer Edem Semedlyaev, one of the few lawyers still working on sensitive cases in the region, in Simferopol. In this instance, at the time of his arrest he had been advising clients who had been detained when peacefully gathering outside a military court.
However, as Memorial Human Rights Centre points out, the largest numbers of individuals it classifies as political prisoners are those imprisoned for peacefully practising their faith. Again, it was in Crimea, which seems to have succeeded Chechnya as a polygon for federal lawlessness, where this has been most in evidence this week. Four members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a peaceful Islamic religious group designated as terrorist in Russia, were sentenced to terms in prison ranging from 12 to 17 years. However, not far away in the region of Astrakhan, members of another faith – the Jehovah’s Witnesses – were also sentenced to long terms in prison on the grounds of belonging to an organisation designated as ‘extremist’. Four members of the faith were sentenced to four-year terms in prison and one to three and a half years.
The practice of arbitrarily designating an organisation as ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ seems to have been adopted by the Russian authorities as a relatively simple means of exercising arbitrary repression against members of certain groups. This has also been seem in the way Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was designated as ‘extremist’. It is to be hoped that sooner rather than later all these cases will be given an impartial judicial assessment by the European Court of Human Rights.
In the meantime it is interesting to reflect upon why in particular these religious groups are singled out for such repression. Could it be that they have been singled out for bad treatment because they lack support among the majority population? Or because such discriminatory treatment against minorities may enjoy some level of support among the majority? Or because members of such religious groups tend to be less susceptible to the kind of ideological nationalism on which the Putin regime to some extent relies? Or is their persecution motivated by the idea of teaching a lesson to others, to stop them stepping out of line? Whatever the true motive – and their will most likely be several motives rather than one – the number of persons subject to arbitrary imprisonment in Russia continues to rise and this has become one of the defining characteristics of the current phase of the Putin regime.