Rights in Russia week-ending 1 January 2021

Our round-up of the week’s news

Other news of the week:

26 December 2020

RFE/RL: Police in the Russian Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk have detained at least 19 people who were participating in a demonstration in support of the region’s jailed former governor, activists say. The OVD-Info group, which monitors police activity, said on December 26 that the protesters were detained during a small demonstration against the July arrest of former Governor Sergei Furgal on charges connected with several murders from more than a decade ago. Several dozen protesters braved temperatures far below freezing to gather in front of the regional government office in Khabarovsk and then march through the center of the city. It was the 169th day of protests since Furgal’s arrest and his transfer to Moscow.

27 December 2020

RFE/RL: A court in the Russian North Caucasus city of Nalchik has banned four archive videos by the AP news agency from the wars in Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s for allegedly “propagandizing cruelty.” One of the videos banned by the Nalchik court on December 27 shows Russian soldiers who were being held prisoner by Chechen fighters in 1995. In the video, which has been viewed nearly 2 million times, a Russian officer says he has been treated “very surprisingly” and criticizes Russian tactics in the war.

RFE/RL: The Kremlin has announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not participate in the traditional end-of-the-year meeting with business leaders. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on December 27 that the meeting, which is normally held each year in the days before New Year’s, would not be held. He did not give a reason. Earlier this month, Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs head Aleksandr Shokhin said the meeting would take place sometime after December 25. This year Putin also cancelled his annual Direct Line question-and-answer session, an annual televised event at which the president spends several hours fielding carefully chosen questions from people across Russia.

28 December 2020

RFE/RL: At least three people are dead, including two law enforcement officers, after a shoot-out in the capital of Russia’s North Caucasus region of Chechnya. Unknown assailants initiated the assault on police on December 28, local media quoted sources as saying. Interfax and TASS said the attackers opened fire on police, while other media said they attacked the officers with knives as they tried to disarm the law enforcement officials. Interfax reported that two attackers were killed when police fired on them, while TASS said one was killed. A search operation is now under way in the area as police investigate the attack. Chechnya and Russia’s other mostly Muslim-populated North Caucasus regions are the site of frequent fighting between government forces and militants whose insurgency stems from two post-Soviet separatist wars in Chechnya.

29 December 2020

RFE/RL: The Moscow City Court has found Karina Tsurkan, an executive with energy holding company Inter RAO, guilty on charges of spying for Moldova, which she denies, and sentenced her to 15 years in prison. After a hearing held behind closed doors because the case is classified, Tsurkan’s defense lawyers, part of the Team 29 rights group, said on December 29 that it will appeal the decision. “This day will undoubtedly go down in history as a black page of Russian justice. An innocent person — and I am responsible for my words — was given 15 years in prison,” Ivan Pavlov, one of Tsurkan’s lawyers, said. “We disagree with the conviction and will appeal it…. We will do our best to get this unjust sentence overturned.” Pavlov said that Team 29 had carried out a “thorough analysis” of the evidence against Tsurkan and determined that some of it was forged. Tsurkan was arrested in June 2019 by Russia’s main security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and charged with spying for an unnamed foreign country. Tsurkan has called the charges “absurd.”

Caucasian Knot: The leaders of the Ingush protest movement, accused of creating an extremist community, have committed no crimes – they are prosecuted for their high authority among people, Sergey Davidis and Lev Ponomaryov, rights defenders, have stated. The “Caucasian Knot” has reported that the case of seven Ingush protest leaders is considered at court since November 24. On December 17, witnesses positively characterized the defendants and stated that they had not heard any calls for illegal actions from them. The trial of the Ingush oppositionists is the largest politically motivated prosecution in Russia, Sergey Davidis, the head of the programme for the recognition of political prisoners at the Human Rights Centre (HRC) “Memorial”, believes. According to his story, at least 48 people have been prosecuted in total. Lev Ponomaryov, the head of the movement “For Human Rights”, believes that in Ingushetia, as in other regions of Russia, the police often become a source of violence at rallies. The relative “softness” of the judge and the refusal of the prosecution witnesses to testify against the defendants indicate the groundlessness of the accusation, said Karina Moskalenko, a lawyer.

Meduza: In the early hours of December 29, a SWAT team stormed the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery outside of Yekaterinburg and arrested Sergii Romanov — one of the region’s most well-known priests, who was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church earlier this year. Romanov was taken to Moscow where a district court remanded him in custody for the next two months on charges of inciting minors to suicide, violating freedom of conscience and religion, and arbitrariness. Following Romanov’s arrest, his supporters have been gathering outside of the monastery and refusing to allow anyone to enter the grounds, for fear that the Yekaterinburg diocese will take back control of the convent. Defrocked Russian Orthodox priest Sergii Romanov was arrested at a women’s monastery outside of Yekaterinburg that he took control of back in June. In the early hours of December 29, officers from the riot police (OMON) and the Russian Guard arrived at the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery in full uniform and, according to parishionersoccupied “even the smallest paths.” Many of Romanov’s supporters came to the defense of the former Schema-Hegumen. A few hours beforehand, they had placed the monastery under round-the-clock protection, after being tipped off that a SWAT team made up of security forces from Moscow was on their way to arrest Romanov. 

30 December 2020

Caucasian Knot: At the monument in Elista, residents of Kalmykia have commemorated those who perished during the Stalinist deportation. The authorities have actually ignored the date by failing to offer a programme of events, and also failed to ensure the sanitary and epidemiological safety in the territory of the memorial, activists report. On December 28, residents of Kalmykia traditionally laid flowers at the memorial and lit lampads, the “Caucasian Knot” correspondent reports. Monks held prayers for deportation victims. Due to restrictions introduced due to the pandemic, most notable cultural events were held in social networks. On the eve of the 77th anniversary of Kalmyks’ deportation, activists of the “Kalmyk Women Abroad” community posted videos dedicated to the tragic date on their YouTube channel. Tseren Basangov, an activist of the “Elista is Our City” movement, has noted that the risk of getting infected with coronavirus did not frighten residents of Kalmykia, since the deportation was “a matter of life and death of the entire nation.” When the deportation of Kalmyks began, Svetlana Byurchieva was two years old. She knows about the events of December 28, 1943, from the stories of her mother. Svetlana’s first childhood memories about Siberia are associated with the feeling of hunger and the death of her brother. Elena Korsaeva, who was born in the Urals in 1951, did not understand in her childhood that she had to do with the deported nation. She has admitted that moving back to Kalmykia was a difficult test for the family.

Human Rights in Ukraine: 65-year-old Halyna Dovhopola has been moved to another cell in Moscow after being beaten several times by her cellmate.  Her transfer was solely thanks to civic activists who learned of the attacks, which the prison administration may well have been aware of.  As Russian lawyer Nikolai Polozov notes, it is common practice in the Russian penitentiary system for cellmates to be used to put pressure on prisoners.  It is fortunate that the public monitoring group were able to intervene as the opportunities for communicating with detainees are particularly restricted at the Lefortovo Prison.  Russia’s FSB have on many occasions used such restrictions to put heavy pressure on Ukrainian political prisoners.

Caucasian Knot: Armed attacks in Chechnya are held amid glorification of rioters like Abdullakh Anzorov, dissatisfaction with the local authorities and the expansion of a new network associated with the “Islamic State” (IS), a terrorist organization banned in Russia by the court, analysts believe, adding that, however, the poor effect from such attacks indicates that they are committed by non-professional groupings. The “Caucasian Knot” has reported that on December 28, in Grozny, an attack was committed on inspectors of the patrol-and-post service. The attackers – two brothers who had moved to Chechnya from Ingushetia – were shot dead. A network is being established in Northern Caucasus that will communicate with the IS, Akhmet Yarlykapov, a Caucasian expert, believes. Such incidents occur even amid potential repressions against attackers’ relatives, the expert has noted, at the same time not singling Chechnya out of other “hot regions” in terms of the increased terrorist activity. The increase in the number of armed attacks in Chechnya may have to do with the heroization of Abdullakh Anzorov, Vera Mironova, a researcher at the Harvard University, has not excluded. She has marked the weak organizational level and zero effect of such actions, and also pointed to the emotional component, which is likely to prevail in such actions. The sudden growth in the number of attacks may have to do with the economic situation in the republic amid the pandemic, since authorities’ measures were tougher in Chechnya than in other Russian regions, Neil Hauer, a Canadian analyst, believes. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as dissatisfaction with the authorities, could have a great influence on the growth in the number of attacks on law enforcers, said Sergey Goncharov, the president of the International Association of Veterans of the “Alpha” Antiterrorist Unit.

31 December 2020

Human Rights in Ukraine: Russia has begun its most overtly repressive mass trial of Crimean Tatar civic journalists and activists three days before New Year.  The timing is clearly aimed at minimizing publicity for ‘trials’ that are overtly aimed at crushing the Crimean Tatar human rights movement and silencing those who tell the world about its rights abuses in occupied Crimea.  This follows the extraordinary decision to divide one ‘trial’ into five identical ‘clones’, with the same dodgy ‘secret witnesses’, FSB-loyal ‘experts’, etc. in each.  A trial involving 25 political prisoners certainly presents logical problems, but so do five identical clones.  The latter, however, make it less likely that international rights and media NGOs will closely follow the proceedings, although they undoubtedly should. The mass operation on 27 March 2019, with armed searches and the arrests of 23 Crimean Tatar civic journalists and activists around international condemnation and demands for the men’s release, from, among others, the US State Department, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Civil Rights Defenders.  Russia has not only ignored these, but imprisoned many other activists, including two, bringing the number of this ‘Second Simferopol case’ to 25, divided into five groups.  All have been recognized by the Memorial Human Rights Centre as political prisoners.

1 January 2020

RFE/RL: In a year marked by tightened restrictions and unrest, Telegram sent a clear message to authoritarian governments who tried to keep it quiet in 2020. But as the app, which has earned a reputation as a free-speech platform, looks to spread the word in Iran and China, its popularity among messengers of violence and hate remains a concern. Telegram has emerged as an essential tool for opposition movements in places like Belarus and Iran and won a huge victory when the Russian authorities gave up on their effort to ban the app after two fruitless years during which senior officials continued to use it themselves. But protesters and open media are not the only ones who find sanctuary in a tool like Telegram. Terrorists, hate groups, and purveyors of gore also see the benefits of encrypted group chats that can reach large audiences without censorship.

Meduza: In the late evening hours of Tuesday, December 29, Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee announced felony fraud charges against Anti-Corruption Foundation founder Alexey Navalny and “other individuals.” The opposition figure and his colleagues are suspected of embezzling hundreds of millions of rubles in donations to their organizations “to buy property and valuables” for themselves. Pro-Kremlin bloggers have circulated these same allegations for years without ever presenting convincing evidence. Meduza examines the biggest questions about the Russian authorities’ new case against Navalny, which comes just weeks after he accused President Putin of personally ordering his assassination. 

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