Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 19 November 2021]

21 November 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 the official moves to close down Memorial (both the International Memorial Society and the Memorial Human Rights Centre are facing lawsuits brought by prosecutors to shut them down) have remained the centre of attention, with continued expressions of support for the Memorial organisations coming from Russian civil society and abroad. More than 60 Russian scholars issued a statement in support of Memorial, as did the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre and, in a joint appeal, the two Nobel Peace Prize laureates Mikhail Gorbachev and the editor in chief of Novaya gazeta, Dmitry Muratov. Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, called on the Russian authorities to ‘discontinue the liquidation proceedings against International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Centre.’

The attack on Memorial is only the most high profile instance in a general offensive along a broad front. Nine Russian and international human rights groups issued a statement this week condemning the ‘escalating attacks against Russian LGBT Network, its leadership and partners’ while Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov and the newspaper Novaya gazeta were fined for failing to label ‘foreign agents’ mentioned in their news reporting. The deputy head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Nariman Dzhelyal, currently held in pre-trial detention, has been subject to further charges of ‘smuggling an explosive device, as part of an organized group’ (that carries a sentence ranging from seven to 12 years’ imprisonment). Legislation on extremism prompted Fedor Telin, a former lawyer for one of Navalny’s regional organisations, to leave the country for fear of prosecution.

The only development that seems to go against current trends has been the banning by the Supreme Court of the criminal prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses for taking part in joint worship, despite their organisations being designated ‘extremist’ in 2017. It is as yet difficult to know what this will mean in practice.

Meanwhile, this week the European Court of Human Rights issued a judgment in favour of Golos, finding the government had violated Article 10 (freedom of expression), The Court found the state had been guilty of unjustified sanctioning of the NGO for ‘disseminating election-monitoring material’ in relation to elections in 2011 and had exercised an unjustified ‘chilling effect’ on the NGO as a civil society ‘watchdog.’  The NGO had been closed down by the authorities in 2016 (after having been registered as a ‘foreign agent’ in 2014) but the Court still proceeded with judgment in the case.

All well and good , perhaps, one might think, but why has the Court still not responded to the applications by civil society groups against the ‘foreign agent’ law that is now threatening Memorial? If there is still hope for a ruling in the case, ‘better late than never’ is not a maxim that has much weight with regard to civil society groups that may no longer be in existence by the time a ruling is delivered. The tragic case of Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was murdered 15 years ago this week by polonium poisoning, may serve as a vivid and poignant metaphor to illustrate this point.

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