Rights in Russia week-ending 11 December 2020

Our selection of news from the past week.

Other news of the week:

RFE/RL, Saturday, 5 December 2020: Several protesters have been detained at a rally in Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East as locals continued for a 148th day to voice opposition to the arrest of the regional governor. Braving subfreezing temperatures, about 150 people attended the December 5 march through the city center. Six people were detained for violating protests laws, OVD-Info, a rights group, reported. Earlier in the week, a journalist was arrested for covering a protest. “Journalists are beaten and persecuted and, we, grandmothers, are dragged to the courts. It’s a shame on the police and the authorities,” one of the protesters, Galina, told RFE/RL.

RFE/RL, Monday, 7 December 2020: A Chechen teenager who was shot dead by French police in October after he beheaded a teacher near Paris has been buried in his family’s village in Russia’s North Caucasus region of Chechnya. Some 200 men, all residents of the village of Shalazhi, were allowed by local authorities to attend the December 6 burial of the 18-year-old Abdullakh Anzorov, whose body was brought to Chechnya via Turkey a day earlier. Video posted on the Telegram channel Baza showed men chanting Islamic prayers and calling out, “There is no God, but God, and Mohammad is his messenger!” and “God is great!” while bringing Anzorov’s body to the grave for burial. Several dozen police officers were deployed at the site to keep order and make sure people from other areas did not attend the ceremony.

Human Rights in Ukraine, Monday, 7 December 2020: The Russian FSB burst into the home of former political prisoner Kazim Ametov early on 4 December and turned the place upside down, before leaving “without anything of importance for their criminal case”.  The search came less than a month after the 63-year-old activist of the Crimean Tatar movement and his lawyer filed a lawsuit against Russia’s penitentiary service and police over the torture-like conditions he was held prisoner in for over two years.  10 individuals turned up at around 7 a.m on Friday morning., including two ‘official witnesses’ whom the FSB had clearly (and in breach of regulations) brought with them.

The Moscow Times, Tuesday, 8 December 2020: President Vladimir Putin has signed bills into law elevating a low-profile advisory body known as the State Council, criminalizing secession and prioritizing the Russian Constitution over international law. Putin approved the set of laws on Tuesday, 160 days after Russian voters overwhelmingly approved constitutional reforms that pave the way for him to extend his 20-year rule until 2036. The new law defines the State Council as a constitutional state body formed by the head of state to ensure the coordinated work of government, determine key domestic and foreign policy areas, as well as social and economic development priorities. The State Council is composed of regional governors and top federal officials. 

The Moscow Times, Tuesday, 8 December 2020: The United States has added Russia to its special watchlist of countries that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations” of religious freedom, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Monday. Russia appears on the U.S. watchlist alongside Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua.  It’s not the first time the U.S. has raised concerns over religious freedom in Russia. In a 2019 report, the State Department accused Russia of persecuting members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb ut-Tahrir, two religious organizations that are officially banned in Russia. 

Human Rights in Ukraine, Tuesday, 8 December 2020: A court in Moscow has sentenced Vasyl Vasylenko to 12 years’ imprisonment in a harsh regime prison colony.  The total secrecy around his trial for supposed ‘spying’ is of particular concern since his arrest was originally on different charges and was concealed by Russia’s FSB for nine months. 53-year-old Vasylenko  was a professional footballer from 1992 to 2001, playing for three different Ukrainian football clubs.  It is not clear what he was doing from 2001 until October 2019 when he was arrested in Russia and accused on smuggling dangerous substances, weapons and cultural artefacts.  Those charges were then changed to ‘spying’. 

Human Rights in Ukraine, Thursday, 10 December 2020: Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law a bill envisaging prison sentences of up to 10 years for putting an end to Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, or making calls to do so.  The document was signed on the day that an overwhelming majority of countries in the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution effectively demanding just that. 

The Moscow Times, Thursday, 10 December 2020: President Vladimir Putin misspoke Thursday by asserting that treason charges against former journalist Ivan Safronov relate to his short-lived career at Russia’s state space agency Roscosmos this year.  Putin, speaking to the presidential human rights council, claimed that Safronov is being prosecuted for passing secrets to the European special services while at Roscosmos and not during his long career as a defense reporter at leading Russian newspapers.

The Moscow Times, Thursday, 10 December 2020: A group of scientists from leading Russian universities has blasted the development process of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine as “completely unacceptable” and “ridiculous” in an open letter raising new concerns over a lack of sufficient data on its safety and effectiveness. The experts said Russia’s state-run Gamaleya Research Institute, which is developing the jab, has ignored requests to share data — despite public pledges to do so — and have raised fresh fears over political meddling and a string of alleged shortcomings in the vaccine research.

The Moscow Times, Thursday, 10 December 2020: Russian lawmakers have approved new restrictions on protests, prompting criticism from the opposition that they violate Russians’ constitutional rights. Deputies in Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, approved a pair of bills Wednesday that ban foreign funding for protest organizers as well as rallies outside law enforcement and security buildings.

The Moscow Times, Thursday, 10 December 2020: Authorities in southern Russia say they will deploy uniformed Cossacks alongside police officers on New Year’s Eve to enforce a ban on mass celebrations due to the coronavirus pandemic. Krasnodar region Governor Venyamin Kondratyev called off Christmas and New Year celebrations to slow the spread of Covid-19 as the popular domestic tourism destination saw record-breaking case numbers in November. The Krasnodar region, with a population of 5.6 million, has officially confirmed 23,636 coronavirus infections and 668 deaths as of Wednesday.

Human Rights in Ukraine, Thursday, 10 December 2020: 58-year-old Dzhemil Gafarov’s kidney disease is so severe that even Russian law should have precluded his detention, only the law and elementary decency are discarded in Russia’s treatment of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners.   Gafarov, who is not even accused of any recognizable crime, has now developed gout, which is directly linked to his kidney failure, as well as the refusal by the staff of the Simferopol SIZO [remand prison] to provide proper healthcare. Lawyer Refat Yakhin explains that there was a hearing at the Russian-controlled High Court in Simferopol on the prosecutor’s application for an extension to Gafarov’s detention.  Despite all documentation demonstrating that Gafarov has invalid status on grounds that prevent detention in Russia as well as Ukraine, and although he was brought to the court with a badly swollen leg, the ‘court’ asked no questions and provided the extension demanded. 

RAPSI, Thursday, 10 December 2020: European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ) in its report recognized Russian legal system as one of the most effective in Europe, President of Russia Vladimir Putin said during the meeting with members of the Human Rights Council on Thursday. The President believes the matter cannot rest here. If certain violations are ignored they can assume a mass character that is unacceptable, he said and proposed to work at creation of a special human rights court in Russia. Such institutions require funding and certain changes in the system, Putin stated.

RFE/RL, Thursday, 10 December 2020: The United States has imposed another set of sanctions targeting Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Russia’s North Caucasus region of Chechnya and a loyal supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. Treasury Department on December 10 announced sanctions against Kadyrov, as well as five individuals and six Russia-registered legal entities with close ties to him. The sanctioned entities include the Akhmat Kadyrov Foundation and the Akhmat Grozny soccer team. The sanctions were imposed under the so-called Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that authorizes the U.S. government to sanction suspected human rights offenders around the globe by freezing their assets and banning them from entering the United States.

The Moscow Times, Thursday, 10 December 2020: European Union leaders Thursday extended punishing economic sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine for another six months, an EU spokesman said. The sanctions, which target whole sectors of the Russian economy including its valuable oil businesses, were extended to mid-2021. The measures over Russia’s role in the conflict were first imposed after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in 2014 and have been renewed every six months ever since.

Amnesty International, Friday, 11 December 2020: Server Mustafayev, a Crimean Tatar human rights defender, was sentenced by a Russian military court on 16 September to fourteen years in a strict regime penal colony. Server Mustafayev must be immediately and unconditionally released as he is a prisoner of conscience, persecuted solely for exercising his human rights and defending the rights of others.

RFE/RL, Friday, 11 December 2020: Officials say a suicide bomber has set off a device in the North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia, killing himself and injuring six police officers. Russia’s National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAK) said on December 11 the wounded, including the deputy chief of the regional Interior Ministry’s investigative unit, Asker Abdurazakov, sustained shrapnel wounds after a man approached a police station in the village of Uchkeken and detonated a bomb at around noon local time. Some media reports said that there were two explosions, of which one took place several hours earlier near the police station, but it did not result in any casualties. When police officers and investigators gathered at the site, the man then set off a second device as he chanted “God is great!” in Arabic. The attacker died at the scene, the statement says. Rashid Temrezov, head of Karachai-Cherkessia, said later in the day that the situation was under control.

The Moscow Times, Friday, 11 December 2020: A Kremlin-initiated investigation has found the individuals who ordered the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday during a meeting of the presidential human rights council.  Nemtsov, one of Putin’s most vocal critics, was shot and killed on a bridge near the Kremlin walls in February 2015. A gunman and four accomplices were jailed for up to 20 years in 2017, but Nemtsov’s allies have criticized the investigation for failing to identify those who had ordered the killing.

Meduza, Friday, 11 December 2020: During a meeting with the Human Rights Council on Thursday, December 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the high-profile murders of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and State Duma deputy Galina Starovoitova have been solved. In particular, he said that in addition to the perpetrators, the people who ordered the killings have been found. Meduza fact-checks Putin’s comment against previous criminal convictions in connection to both killings, as well as the most recent reports from state investigators.

The Moscow Times, Friday, 11 December 2020: Russia should form its own human rights court, President Vladimir Putin said when asked by a council member on Thursday.  Analysts have said the formation of such a court is likely a response to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has ordered Russia to pay out millions of euros to plaintiffs for human rights violations over the years. “The idea seems right in itself,” Putin said during the annual meeting of the presidential human rights council, asking members to start working on clarifying legislative and funding details. The RBC news website cited sources in parliament and the expert community as saying that the idea for a Russian human rights court has never previously been discussed among lawmakers.

The Moscow Times, Friday, 11 December 2020: Russia plans to recruit prisoners sentenced to forced labor to clean up pollution in the Arctic, the state-run TASS news agency reported Thursday, citing Federal Prison Service (FSIN) official Elena Korobkova. The announcement follows a string of environmental incidents to hit the fast-warming region this year, most notably a massive fuel spill from a Norilsk Nickel storage tank in May that environmentalists called the largest-ever oil spill in the Arctic. Some 21,000 tons of diesel fuel spilled into the soil near the city of Norilsk and waterways up to 30 kilometers away.

RAPSI, Friday, 11 December 2020: The Supreme court of Russia’s Komi Republic will hear a case against a 55-year old resident of the town of Vorkuta over online denial of the Nazi crimes, the press service of the Prosecutor General’s Office reports. According to investigators, between April and May 2019, the defendant published open texts containing justification of Nazism on his social network account. The posts were related to murder of people along ethnic lines. The accused pled guilty. 

Human Rights in Ukraine, Friday, 11 December 2020: The lawyers representing Ukrainian political prisoner Oleh Prykhodko have established in court that the phone and sim-card used by Russia’s FSB as supposed proof of Prykhodko’s plan to commit an act of terrorism in Lviv are nothing of the kind.  The trial underway in Rostov (Russia) is of a Crimean who has never concealed his opposition to Russian occupation, and the outcome is essentially predetermined, but it is important that the defence is demonstrating serious grounds for believing that the evidence against Prykhodko has been fabricated. 

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