Review of the week
compiled by Simon Cosgrove
On 1 July the vote on the amendments to the Constitution took place, which the International Federation for Human Rights described as a ‘sham referendum,’ urging France, the European Union and the international community not to recognise the results. FIDH stated: ‘there is no doubt that Russian citizens have been deprived of their right to take part in the vote in accordance with international standards.’ The vote may mark the start of a new wave of repressive measures, particularly against journalists (see below). It was also the week in which prosecutors called for human rights defender Yury Dmitriev to be jailed for 15 years.
Human rights – remembering the past
On Tuesday, 7 July 2020, prosecutors in the trial of historian and human rights activist Yury Dmitriev asked for the defendant to be sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of sexually assaulting his adopted daughter. Observers widely believe the charges to be fabricated to prevent the historian coninuing his investigations into the crimes of the Stalin era.
On Saturday, 4 July, a memorial to the victims of Stalin in Taishet, Irkutsk region, was vandalised.
Freedom of expression
On Monday, 6 July, the judgment in the trial of Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva, a Pskov journalist working for Radio Liberty and Ekho Moskvy, was announced. Prokopyeva was convicted of ‘justifying terrorism’ and, while she was not sent to prison (the prosecutor had asked for her to be sentenced to serve six years) she was fined 500,000 roubles. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists all condemned her conviction. Earlier, more than 30 Russian journalists had issued statements in her support, published on 4 July in the online journal Kholod. The day following the verdict (7 July), law-enforcement officials in Moscow raided the apartment of journalist Taisiya Bekbulatova who is the editor-in-chief of Kholod Media. Prokopyeva’s lawyers said she would appeal the conviction.
On Wednesday, 8 July, Ivan Safronov, a former journalist currently working as an adviser to the head of the space agency Roskosmos, was arrested and remanded in custody by a court until 6 September on charges of high treason. Meduza reported that according to the FSB, Safronov ‘allegedly collaborated with an intelligence agency in a NATO member state to collect and transmit classified information about Russian military-technical cooperation and national defense and security.’ Safronov’s lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, said prosecutors had accused his client of passing information to the Czech Republic in 2017 about the sale of Russian arms to the Middle East and Africa, charges which Safronov denies. Pavlov drew parallels with the Yeltsin era case of Grigory Pasko. Safronov’s lawyers have appealed against the decision to remand Safronov in custody.
Kommersant, Safronov’s former employer, published a statement in his support that warned of the more general dangers of the current situation: ‘The experience of the last few years shows that any citizen of Russia whose work is connected with public activities — whether it is a human rights defender, scientist, journalist, or employee of a state corporation — can face a serious charge at any time.’ Other media outlets publishing editorials in solidarity with Safronov included Vedomosti, Meduza, RBK, Proyekt, Mediazona, The Bell, Bumaga, and the Russian version of Forbes magazine.
Human Rights Watch described the arrest of Safronov as a ‘dangerous develoment.’ RSF said it was ‘deeply disturbed’ while the Committee to Protect Journalists said the Russian authorities should release Safronov immediately and drop the charges against him.
Human Rights Watch reported that Taisiya Bekbulatova, the raid on whose home by the FSB was noted above, was a friend of Safronov and was being interrogated as a case witness in the case.
On 10 July 2020 RAPSI reported that an unnamed resident of Russia’s Yugra, Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, is to be prosecuted for ‘fake news’ about the coronavirus. According to investigators, the person in question published a post on 22 May to the effect that the infection does not exist and urged people not to wear protective means and violate sanitary rules.
Right of assembly
On Wednesday 8 July activist and publisher of the Mediazone news website, Petr Verzilov, who had been just released from serving a 15-day jail sentence for swearing, reported on Twitter that he had been detained again, and his home searched, on account of a new investigation into ‘riots’ that allegedly took place after public rallies on 27 June last year. Verzilov also said the investigators were looking into his his failure to inform authorities he has a foreign passport.
On 8 July more than a dozen people demonstrated in Petrozavodsk in suspport of the historian and human rights activist, Yury Dmitriev, whose trial is taking place in that city. Police detained one of the picketers, journalist Viktoria Ivleva.
The same day twenty people were detained in central Moscow as they protested against the arrest of journalist Ivan Safronov. Meduza reported that at least eight journalists were arrested near the FSB headquarters in Moscow for conducting single-person pickets in support of Safronov. Those arrested included Kommersant correspondents Elena Chernenko and Kristina Dyuryagina and Proekt correspondent Olga Churakova.
Right of association
At the end of last week (on 3 July 2020) the Board of EU-Russia Civil Society Forum issued a statement condemning the attack on Man and Law, a member of the Forum, that is currently appealing a decision to liquidate it in the Supreme Court of the Republic of Mari El.
On Thusday 9 July police searched the homes of coordinators of the Open Russia opposition group, the editor in chief of the independent MBKh Media online publication, and also a number of independent municipal council members.
Freedom of conscience
The same day (9 July) authorities detained four Jehovah’s Witnesses on charges of extremism in Astrakkhan. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were not named, were aged between 38 and 47 were alleged to be the “elders” of a group of believers.
On Monday 6 July Human Rights Watch reported that a transgender woman in St. Petersburg, described in court as ‘Anna‘, finally won a case against a former employer who fired her in 2017 after she changed her legal gender. She was fired on the grounds that women were not allowed to do the job she had done for a decade (she worked at a company manufactured plating used in printing presses for candy wrappers).
On 10 July a court in Komsomolsk-on-Amur found LGBT activist and artist Yulia Tsvetkova guilty of the administrative offence of ‘promoting non-traditional sexual relationships among minors.’ She was fined 75,000 rubles (approximately $1,437). Tsvetkova was prosecuted, Meduza reported, for ‘a drawing supporting LGBTQ families, which included the words “A family is where there is love”.’ The Moscow Times reported that for weeks women had been posting expressions of support for Tsvetkova on social media.
Right to liberty and security of person
On Monday, 6 July, it became known that nine months previously, Human Rights in Ukraine reported, Ukrainian former footballer Vasyl Vasylenko had been detained in Moscow. Human Rights in Ukraine suggests that during that time Vasylenko may have been ‘held incommunicado, and tortured, or placed under enormous psychological pressure to admit to whatever charges the FSB presented him with.’
The governor of Khabarovsk region, Sergei Furgal, was arrested on 9 July 2020 on suspicion of ordering the murder of businessmen. Observers noted that two years ago Furgal won a surprise victory over the Kremlin favorite. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party Furgal belonged to, condemned the arrest. Meduza quoted him as saying: ‘Is it a constitution you need? We gave you a constitution! And in return, you put handcuffs on us!You’ve no shame! You sit there in high offices and, like under Stalin, you take action. But Bortnikov is no Beria. And you don’t have enough KGB vans.”
Privacy / Surveillance
On 8 July Human Rights Watch reported that activist Alyona Popova and politician Vladimir Milov have lodged a complaint regarding Russia’s use facial recognition technology during protests to the European Court of Human Rights. Kirill Koroteev, their lawyer, said this would be the ‘first case challenging the use of facial recognition technology to conduct mass surveillance in the court’s practice.’
On Wednesday 8 July a group of State Duma deputies proposed an expanded extremism bill that is reported to be aimed at further quelling opposition activists and politicians, as well as anyone questioning Moscow’s forcible seizure of the Crimean Peninsula. Chair of the parliamentary committee of state-building and legislation in the State Duma, Pavel Krasheninnikov, was reported as saying the bill would amend the federal law on measures against extremism, according to which a violation of Russia’s territorial integrity is considered an act of extremism, and would bring legislation in line with Russia’s newly adopted constitutional amendments.
On Saturday, 4 July, Chechen dissident and asylum seeker Mamikhan Umarov was shot dead in Viennna. That day and the next, Austrian police arrested two Russians from Chechnya over the fatal shooting. On 8 July, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, blamed ‘foreign intelligence agencies’ for the killings Chechen nationals who criticized the Russian region’s ruling elite in Europe. Caucasian Knot reported the two arrested men were refusing to cooperate with the enquiry. Caucasian Knot also reported that on 9 July a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, regarding possible involvement of the authorities of the Chechen Republic in the murder of Umarov: ‘We most resolutely reject these insinuations and treat such speculations as inappropriate and hampering an objective investigation.’ However, Caucasian Knot also reported that bloggers from the Chechen diaspora living in the countries of the European Union, who criticize Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime, claim that they regularly receive threats.
On Monday, 6 July, the UK announced sanctions against 49 individuals and organisations accused of human rights abuses from four different countries. The Guardian reported that the Russians targeted included persons alleged to be involved in the prosecution and death of Sergei Magnitsky: interior ministry officials, prison doctors and Moscow’s top prosecutor, Aleksandr Bastrykin.
On 10 July the Dutch government said it is taking Russia to the European Court of Human Rights over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said: ‘Achieving justice for the 298 victims of the downing of Flight MH17 is and will remain the government’s highest priority. By taking this step today — bringing a case before the ECHR and thus supporting the applications of the next of kin as much as we can — we are moving closer to this goal.’
At the end of the week in a statement Human Rights Watch summed up the situation, calling attention to the threats to freedom of expression and association: ‘Dozens of journalists in Russia face fines or detention for peacefully protesting in solidarity with their colleagues whom authorities are criminally prosecuting for their journalism work.’ A Human Rights Watch researcher said the new criminal prosecutions took on-going repression ‘to a new level.’ Urging the Russian authorities to quash the conviction of journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva, Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Russia Director said: ‘Using vaguely defined anti-terrorism legislation to prosecute a journalist for her comments on the radio shows the authorities’ clear intent to repress freedom of expression and further erode journalistic freedoms in Russia. After taking control of the television, printed media and lately much of the online news content, the Russian authorities are now pursuing spoken word on the radio and persecuting a reporter for freely speaking her mind.’