Human Rights Day: Appeal of Human Rights Defenders to President Putin
Pictured: co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Valery Borshchev​

8 December 2020

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Ekho Moskvy]

Mr President!

We, the human rights defenders who have signed this letter, are forced to address you directly as the Guarantor of human rights because the dialogue with you through regular meetings of the Human Rights Council does not lead to solutions to the problems that we raise and the situation is only getting worse every day.

We are talking about the most serious, dangerous, and often shocking human rights violations in Russia.

Recently, it has become increasingly difficult for us to do our job because we are receiving ever more complaints of violations of citizens’ rights by public officials: by officials, and even by the courts, but primarily by law enforcement agencies. We face the fact that security forces not only abuse their power and go unpunished, but actually direct the internal politics of the country, and the Federal Security Service plays a key role in this. We cannot stem the wave of abuses that have befallen the citizens of Russia by helping specific individuals.

In connection with Human Rights Day, which falls very soon on 10 December, and assuming that the traditional meeting of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights with your participation will take place on that day, we consider it our duty to raise the issues that have already been raised with you at such meetings in recent years.

However, we are forced to note that the most acute issues raised by human rights defenders are not being resolved. Gross violations of the law and human rights are not being eliminated, those responsible for these violations are not being brought to justice. This inevitably leads to a further increase in the influence of law enforcement structures, their awareness of their impunity, and, as a result, in practice to the elimination of the independence of the courts and to the entire constitutional mechanism of separation of powers being put out of balance.

We see that a force has emerged in Russia which neither the courts nor civil society can restrain, and we consider this situation extremely dangerous for Russia and its citizens. We have intentionally limited the number of topics raised because behind each of them are systemic problems that require your intervention as the Guarantor of the Constitution and human rights in Russia.


The year 2018 was marked by at least two major cases initiated by the FSB and directed against active young people. The question of the so-called Network and New Greatness cases has been raised before you publicly but the final outcomes have been extremely discouraging.

“Network” case*

The legal proceedings in the “Network” case have now come to an end. The sentences handed down to all the defendants correspond to those requested by the Public Prosecution Office (between six and eighteen years), regardless of the many grave violations that were uncovered and disclosed during both the investigations and the trials themselves.

In public court hearings, the defendants described explicitly and in full how they had been tortured, with details of who had tortured them, where it had happened and how it had happened. You were alerted to the use of torture and problems relating to investigations into torture by the Chair of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the meeting held by that Council on 10 December 2018. Your response was what one would expect under such circumstances:

“I think this is something we should look into very closely. I’m extremely concerned by what you’ve told me – genuinely concerned. This is absolutely unacceptable, and something we should focus our attention on. We’ll look into it.”

Having familiarised yourself with the background information supplied by the law enforcement agencies, however, you did not “look into it”; a short while later, at the meeting of the same Council, you voiced something that was nothing short of a verdict and that foretold the ruling subsequently handed down by the court:

“According to the background information I have received, and I quote; ‘At the locations where the members of the “Network” gathered or resided, the following were discovered and seized;’ – I repeat, ‘seized’ – ‘constitutive and programmatic documents belonging to a terrorist organisation and clearly indicating this organisation’s unique nature; an improvised explosive device disguised as a fire extinguisher, comprising 2.5 kg in TNT equivalent of ammonium nitrate with a home-made detonator; two Makarov pistols with ammunition; RGN1 and RGD5 grenades with igniters; a Saiga carbine; precursors for explosive substances and improvised explosive devices’ – I repeat, ‘explosive substances and improved explosive devices’. You must understand that this is an extremely serious business. Do you think that we haven’t had enough terrorist attacks?”

You have received misleading information that not only sidestepped the question of torture, but also originated from the prosecution – a manifestly biased source.

During the court proceedings, however, the counsel for the defence adduced convincing evidence that the case had been fabricated, including evidence that the weapons had been planted. It was discovered that no biological traces that could be linked to the defendants were actually discovered on the weapons. The substances were not suitable for use in any kind of explosive device, and were instead designed for household purposes. The “constitutive” and “programmatic” documents had never existed; they were cobbled together by the investigators themselves using fragments from correspondence between the defendants. During the questioning of one of the Federal Security Service’s technical specialists during the trial, it emerged that the files containing “constitutive documents” that had been “discovered” had been created after the defendants had been arrested, and that the author of the files had exactly the same surname as a Federal Security Service employee. The single most important issue, however, was that the acts of torture perpetrated by law enforcement agents were not investigated. The recordings from the cells were not requested and the victims of torture were not questioned. The judge decided not to use the evidence obtained under torture as a basis for the verdict that was eventually handed down. Instead, it was based solely on the testimonies of agents and “secret witnesses” who repeated the content of the evidence extracted through torture on a word-for-word basis. No compelling reasons were given for granting these witnesses anonymity, and the evidence they gave corresponded exactly to the text of the charges – one of the witnesses even made a mistake when describing the appearance of the defendant against whom he was testifying. The final charges referred to in the verdict are vague, consisting predominantly of abstract and unsubstantiated claims without any references to real terrorist acts or preparations for them. At most we are talking about “intentions” or in other words thought crimes, and no convincing evidence of any such intentions was provided.

We are faced with a situation in which the court has sided with the Federal Security Service and the prosecution, and ignored both the direct provisions of the law and the arguments of the defence. This is a very serious matter, because the tens of thousands of young people who have been following the developments in these proceedings are well aware that the outcomes of the investigations were falsified and that the court is biased, and they are appalled by these facts. Proceedings of this kind are in themselves a good way to foment hatred of the authorities in general and the law enforcement agencies in particular, and to radicalise young people.

The ‘New Greatness’ case

The sentence has been handed down to the persons involved in the “New Greatness” case, which was first reported to you at the same meeting two years ago. The appeal proceedings for this case are currently ongoing. Young people accused of participating in an extremist organization received a first instance sentence of up to seven years in prison. You were not convinced by the words of the Council members, who stated that a provocateur had infiltrated the community of young people involved in a chat discussing political issues and the situation within the country. This provocateur deliberately cobbled together an ‘extremist’ organization out of this communication, wrote a charter for it, assigned roles within it, rented facilities for it and insisted on holding regular events.

What turned to be more convincing for you was some information in a folder belonging to security officials, which you read aloud as early as 2019 in a meeting with the HRC members:

‘I remember you contacted me about this “New Greatness.” I asked the prosecutor’s office to look into it, they sent me materials. Here’s what’s in these materials. According to the prosecutor’s office – this is not the investigative authorities, but the prosecutor’s office, our prosecutor’s office, as you know, does not conduct investigations, but oversees the work of the investigative organs – they note that it’s “an organization whose goal is — this is in their documents – the unconstitutional overthrow of the current government through violent means. To this end, they held training camps and various other events, prepared for armed conflict, as they themselves wrote in their documents, preparing, among other things, to carry out terrorist attacks against the authorities … Furthermore, they have cold arms and rifles, grenades or a few grenades – these are serious things.’

All these words – ‘overthrow of the government,’ ‘through violent means,’ ‘prepared for armed conflict,’ ‘carry out terrorist attacks against the authorities’, ‘cold arms and rifles, grenades’ – were not convincingly confirmed in court. They were communicated to you by representatives of the department, which not only oversees, but also represents the prosecution in this case, and by definition has an interest in its success. You actually publicly supported the position of the prosecution in your reply. Another important thing is that in reality, there were no references made in court to actual violent actions, or to planning and preparation for these actions. Furthermore, the very existence of a stable organization was called into question in court, as the alleged ‘participants’ stopped attending meetings and discussed the cessation of all activity, which in particular, oddly enough, served as the impetus for their immediate detention: apparently, the provocateur realized that his victims had stopped taking the bait.

But the same provocateur became a key witness in the case, his data was classified, and he himself did not bear any responsibility for his actions, despite the fact that he was the one who did the actual organizing. While deciding the fate of the young people – eventually sentencing them to seven years in prison – the court did not rely on convincing evidence, but on the testimony of a secret provocateur and officers who had infiltrated the group. It ignored the testimony given in defence of the accused, contrary to the presumption of innocence that is enshrined in the Constitution.

The lawyers are perfectly aware that there is a significant difference between conversations and real criminal intent. You can’t go to jail for talking. But with today’s court verdicts, this difference is being erased, and we have a situation where any conversation or joke could be used as evidence in a case of criminal prosecution.

Many thousands of people all over the country followed the trial for the ‘New Greatness’ case. What kind of opinion should they have now about the authorities and the law enforcement system, after several active law enforcement officers and one provocateur infiltrated a group of young people and didn’t even try to dissuade them from reckless actions, to warn them about the danger they were facing, but instead testified against them in court?


Among the thorny issues that were brought before you in 2018 and 2019, there remains the prosecution of citizens for participating in and ‘organizing activities’ for extremist and terrorist communities with a religious affiliation. In most cases, these are so-called ‘nominal groups,’ where it is sufficient that an investigation suspects a person who is a member of an organization recognized in Russia as extremist or terrorist.

Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 This Christian community legally exists in 240 countries and has more than 8 million followers, including more than 150,000 in Russia. Jehovah’s Witnesses have some differences of dogma with the main Christian denominations. However, you were right when you stated at a meeting of the Human Rights Council in 2018: 

“We should treat representatives of all religions equally – it is true, but it is also necessary to take into account the country and society in which we live. However, this does not mean that we should consider representatives of religious communities as organizations which might be destructive, even though not necessarily terrorist. Of course, this is complete nonsense, and on this point I agree with you: it is necessary to deal with it carefully. Jehovah’s Witnesses are also Christians, and, I do not really understand why they should be persecuted either.  Therefore, we simply must examine this situation and we must act on it. I will talk to Vyacheslav Mikhailovich, and we will try to do it.” 

It is not surprising that you don’t fully understand the reasons and grounds for their persecution. They are perfectly peaceful people. 

Pacifism, the inadmissibility of violence and the prohibition to take up arms are their fundamental religious beliefs. Their organizations operate legally in most developed countries. 

But soon after your meeting with the members of the Council, in Orla a Danish citizen Dennis Christensen, was sentenced to an actual term of imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witness, which was the first such sentence in Russia: he was imprisoned for six years for organizing an extremist community.  A similar threat hung over dozens of believers who were under investigation and going for trial. And in 2020 we had already seen searches in twenty regions of Russia, conducted simultaneously, when on 24th November more than 80 criminal cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses were launched overnight. The forces of the Investigative Committee, the FSB and the Russian National Guard participated in this operation. The Investigative Committee has released a video showing masked men breaking down the door and breaking into the apartment, and we are shown unmade beds. We have  read the statement of the official representative of the Russian Investigative Committee as published in the media:

“Conspiratorial gatherings of people took place in one of the apartments on Chelyuskinskaya Street. They studied religious literature and other sources of information promoting the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses and “performed other activities characteristic of this association.”

 We read such lines in their verdicts: “Criminal conspiracy” to “explore and discuss religious material on the topic of Jehovah”, “Practicing worship, introducing people to the Scriptures, biblical teachings, principles and norms”, and  “After the Supreme Court’s decision to ban activities… they have not given up on their religious views.” 

How could the decisions of the courts containing such accusations have any authority when their very wording runs contrary to the Constitution? The critical nature of the situation is obvious, judicial control does not work, the FSB directly participates in the prosecution (why?), and the sole question that arises: does the FSB plan to imprison all 150,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, or only those ” not giving up their religious views”, holding meetings or joint prayers, which are part of their religious tradition?

“Hizb ut-Tahrir” *

Civilians with no connections to terrorist activity, be it in relation to financing, preparation or planning, are given huge prison sentences. These are often up to 24 years, purely on the basis of their affiliation with the Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was previously recognised in Russia as a terrorist organisation.

This issue was raised at a meeting with the Human Rights Council in 2019, where you said:

“This organisation was created in 1953 in Jerusalem ostensibly by one of your colleagues – a Sharia court judge. The organisation directly proclaims the need to create a world caliphate through seizing power and promoting its ideas around the world. Russia is no exception. This organisation operates legally in many countries. In all member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, it is banned. It is also banned in many Islamic states: including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Tunisia.

However, this isn’t a black and white issue, and it is a problem of critical importance. People who have not committed or planned any violent actions, often people of productive age, 25-30 years old, receive colossal prison sentences. There is no question of their involvement in any terrorist activity, nor is there any investigation into their alleged intent to commit any violence. We are talking about simply holding membership in a prohibited organisation. What about the punishment fitting the crime? What about the presumption of innocence and the very principle of guilt, according to which a person is responsible only for their own actions, and not for others? The prosecutors openly express their position in the courts: that there is no need to prove the social danger of specific acts, just holding membership in a banned community is sufficient.

In response to the message of the council members, you spoke about the ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir, about the promotion of these ideas, but you did not give a single example of the real activities of the members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir party which would actually be associated with terrorism or violence. In reality, this party has chosen to pursue a non-violent way of promoting its ideas.

You can be wary of ideas, you can refuse to share them and even recognise them as dangerous; but you cannot put people, who have not committed any crime, in prison for 10 or 20 years. This does not happen in any civilised country in the world, including Germany, which has banned the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir on its territory.

By this measure, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation can be recognised as terrorist, because its predecessors hoped to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat through the implementation of a world-wide revolution. Those involved in other left wing groups holding meetings should be recognised as organisers and participants, and therefore imprisoned for periods of up to 20 years or more. It is obvious that state policy in the field of crime prevention cannot be built on these principles, otherwise it will only provoke radicalism and incite hatred.

Mr President!

We have listed just a few of the egregious cases of human rights violations. It was not by chance that they were brought to your attention at the meeting with the Council on Human Rights. They are united by the disproportionate violence of the state’s reaction and the absence of independent judicial control over the actions of the security forces. These problems are extremely important for the country and the mechanisms for resolving them haven’t been worked out. This will lead to increased tension and the risk of destabilising the situation in the country. Brief meetings with you won’t lead to a detailed analysis of the situation and the resolution of the contradictions between the positions of human rights defenders and law enforcement agencies.

As a Guarantor of human rights, you swore an oath on the Constitution, and have broad constitutional powers and the tools to begin to solve the problems we’ve posed.

We need your intervention and appeal to you as human rights defenders and Russian citizens, not claiming any authority and not promoting anyone’s self-interests or political ambitions.

Lev Ponomarev, chair of the NGO For Human Rights

Valery Borshchev, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Sergei Krivenko, coordinator of Human Rights Defenders Coalition

Boris Altshuler, chair of the board of the organisation Right of the Child

Aleksei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation

Svetlana Gannushkina, chair of the Civic Assistance Committee 

Stepan Petrov, Yakutia, organisation Yakutia – Our Opinion

Mark Kuperman, NGO For Human Rights, Sakhalin

Valeria Pikhodko, NGO For Human Right”, Chelyabinsk

Andrei Rashevskii, NGO For Human Rights, Voronezh

Sergei Valkov, NGO For Human Rights, Ivanovo

Leonid Krikun, NGO For Human Rights, St Petersburg

Tatiana Kotlyar, NGO For Human Rights, Kaluga 

* An organisation banned in Russia

Translated by Simon Cosgrove, Joanne Reynolds, Tyler Langendorfer, Graham Jones, James Lofthouse and Mercedes Malcomson

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