14 November 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
The Putin regime this week took the momentous step of moving to ban the Memorial organisation. The creation of Memorial at the end of the 1980s had symbolized a world of new rights and freedoms for then-Soviet citizens and the hopes of Soviet, and later Russian, society to move to a freer and more democratic future. Its demise would be a key moment in the history of post-Soviet civil society and mark the entry into a new phase of an ever more authoritarian and intolerant form of political regime.
In a move that what would seem to have been prepared well in advance, Memorial International Society and Memorial Human Rights Centre received notifications that prosecutors were seeking to close them down for violations of the ‘foreign agent’ legislation and, in the case of Memorial Human Rights Centre, in addition justifying the activities of extremist and terrorist organisations (related to the Centre’s classification of individuals who do not advocate or participate in violence but are convicted on charges of extremism and terrorism as ‘political prisoners’). In a joint statement, 11 Russian and international human rights organisations described the legal suits as ‘a political act of retaliation against human rights defenders’. Along with the Council of Europe, which described the moves as ‘very regrettable’ and a ‘devastating blow to civil society,’ the 11 groups also called for the repeal of the repressive ‘foreign agent’ legislation.
In this context, it is highly regrettable that European Court of Human Rights has yet to deliver a ruling in the application brought by Russian NGOs against the ‘foreign agent’ law.
The use of anti-extremist legislation to close down legitimate peaceful campaigning or political activity was also in evidence this week as the authorities remanded in custody Liliya Chanysheva, a former head of Aleksei Navalny’s support group in Bashkortostan. Chanysheva, who is pregnant, was remanded in custody until 9 January 2021.
Meanwhile, just as some observers welcomed the decision by the authorities to close the criminal case against Sergei Savelyev, the former prison inmate who was instrumental in making public videos of torture in a Russian prison, the authorities opened an investigation against Vladimir Osechkin, the head of Gulagu.net, the NGO which published the leaked videos. This apparent refusal to recognise the beneficial role of whistelblowers happened in the week that marked the 12th anniversary of the death in pre-trial detention of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblower who was denied medical treatment and tortured before his death. Magnitsky had exposed government corruption. No one has been prosecuted for his death.
Observing the ever-increasing severity of restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms within Russia, it makes sense to consider these developments in the context of what is happening in terms of foreign relations. Russian troops continue to muster on the border with Ukraine, while the migrant crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus – the latter something of a Russian puppet-state, albeit at times an obstreperous one – becomes ever more severe. The Putin regime seems to be waging hostilities on two fronts: external and internal. Perhaps political scientists can diagnose this state of affairs. Whatever the causes, the current situation bodes ill for the immediate future of human rights in Russia and, perhaps of more immediate consequence, for those brave activists who stand up for them.