28 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 pressure on civil society in Russia – the enforced or threatened closure of NGOs, prosecutions of lawyers, activists and protesters – is resulting in activists facing ever greater risks and in the departure of many individuals from the country.
This week the state of justice in the Russian Federation was exemplified by five rulings handed down by the European Court of Human Rights that found a whole ‘bouquet,’ as a Russian speaker might say, of various violations: the prohibition of torture, liberty and security of person, fair trial, private and family life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, assembly and association, prohibition of discrimination, protection of property, freedom of movement and procedural safeguards relating to expulsion of aliens. One more human rights lawyer working on the Ivan Safronov case – Evgeny Smirnov – announced he had left Russia. At the same time, a number of those engaged in peaceful opposition politics have been leaving the country for fear of prosecution under ‘extremism’ laws. After Liliya Chanysheva, the ex-head of the Navalny organisation in Ufa, had been remanded in custody, two other Navalny associates, Irina Fatyanova (St. Petersburg) and Sergei Boyko (Novosibirsk) said they had left Russia. Amnesty International in a statement made plain that Lilia Chanysheva has ‘committed no crime’ and called for her immediate release. Twenty-one Crimean Tatars, including five civic journalists, were detained and jailed for terms of up to 14 days as they sought to report on the release of human rights lawyer Edem Semedlyaev who had been jailed for 12 days.
Despite all these events, the focus of attention this week has remained the fate of Memorial, with the first hearings of the lawsuits brought by prosecutors seeking to close down the International Memorial Society and the Memorial Human Rights Centre (in both cases, the hearings were adjourned until later dates). Protesters holding single-person pickets in Moscow in support of Memorial were detained and two prominent individuals – Victoria Ivleva and Yury Samodurov – received heavy fines.
Perhaps the one bright moment in the week was the ruling by a court in Vladivostok to acquit Dmitry Barmakin, a Jehovah’s Witness, of charges of extremism in the first such acquittal for a member of the faith since the group was banned and designated ‘extremist’ in 2017. It is to be hoped that this ruling will stick and will be followed by further acquittals – and the quashing of verdicts of those Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been sentenced to terms in prison for their faith.
Looking ahead, if Memorial is closed down there can be little ground for optimism with regard to fundamental human rights in Russia. The organisation was formally set up in 1989 in a move that marked a recognition that memory and accurate knowledge of the past, allied with a commitment to human rights, is essential for a society as it finds its way in the present and into the future. Memorial’s very creation was an acknowledgement by the authorities of basic rights, not least those of association and freedom of expression, and symbolized a profound change for the better in Soviet and Russian politics and society. Memorial’s enforced closure would symbolize a change as profound, only for the worse.