Rights in Russia week-ending 12 March 2021

Our round-up of the week’s news

Other news from the week:

6 March 2021

The Moscow Times: Russia on Saturday confirmed 11,385 new coronavirus cases and 475 deaths. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin ended mandatory stay-at-home orders for over-65s and people with chronic illnesses Friday, lifting one of the Russian capital’s last remaining coronavirus restrictions. Russia recorded more than 55,000 excess deaths in January, data from the country’s official statistics agency (Rosstat) published Friday showed. Russia’s excess death toll since the start of the pandemic now stands at more than 394,000.

RFE/RL: Denis Karagodin has spent almost a decade compiling a meticulous record of evidence about the murder of his great-grandfather by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s secret police, running a website that lists, by name, every individual he deems complicit. The Siberia-based designer has been tipped for prestigious human rights prizes, and leading Western publications have spotlighted his work and the website he runs. The people he ties to the killing of Stepan Karagodin, a peasant swept up in Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s, have passed away. But their relatives are now making sure Karagodin’s accusations don’t go unchallenged. Karagodin was interrogated this week by police in Tomsk, the city where he lives and where his great-grandfather’s murder took place on January 21, 1938. “Buckle your seatbelts, dear friends!” he wrote on Facebook after his questioning. “They’ve filed a police complaint against me.”

7 March 2021

RFE/RL : U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (Republican-Texas) says he is holding up the confirmation of the next Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief in order to pressure President Joe Biden to stop Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. “I’ll release my hold when the Biden admin meets its legal obligation to report and sanction the ships and companies building [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s pipeline,” Cruz said in a tweet on March 6 as he confirmed an earlier Bloomberg story. Biden in January picked William Burns, a career Foreign Service officer who served as ambassador to Russia in the 2000s, to be the next head of the CIA.

8 March 2021

The Moscow Times: Russian women in cities nationwide held a strike for equal rights ahead of International Women’s Day.  In cities like Moscow, Kazan and Ulyanocsk, protesters called on the authorities to abolish all “repressive, sexist and homophobic laws,” to pass anti-domestic violence legislation and to institute laws against sexual harassment in the workplace. “We planned the strike right before March 8 because International Women’s Day is a really big holiday in Russia, but it’s also very problematic. It’s a farce,” said Ayten Yakubova, one of the organizers of the strike. “It’s supposedly a holiday to be honoring women when really things are not so great for women in Russia at all.” The March 5 strike is already in its second year and is organized by two organizations: the SotsFem Alternative socialist feminist group and Socialist Alternative, a group that pushes for economic equality. Last year, hundreds joined the strike, with students from 11 universities across the country participating. 

Human Rights Watch: In late February of this year, Russia’s criminal investigative agency announced that it had referred to a court an investigation into criminal negligence by two police officers that happened on January 14, 2020 in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. Around the time when the investigation was announced, Kemerovo law enforcement issued an official video, which briefly described how, at around 5 am on Jan. 14, a police hotline registered several calls reporting “a woman’s screams” coming from a flat in the city.  The information was passed on to duty police officers, who, the authorities stated on the video, “failed to take necessary action.”

RFE/RL: The last native speaker of the so-called Bering dialect of the Aleut language, Vera Timoshenko, has died at the age of 93 in Russia’s Far Eastern Kamchatka region. Yevgeny Golovko, the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Linguistic Studies, said on March 7 that Timoshenko died in her native village of Nikolskoye on Bering Island.

9 March 2021

Human Rights in Ukraine: During the surreal ‘trial’ now underway in occupied Crimea of Mustafa Dzhemilev, it was learned that Russia had extended its ban on the veteran Crimean Tatar leader for a further 15 years, following the 5-year term it imposed after invading and annexing Dzhemilev’s homeland in 2014.  It is most unlikely that the 76-year-old Ukrainian MP and former leader of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis [representative assembly] has any wish to visit Russia, where he once spent 15 years in the Soviet political labour camps .  That, in any case, is not what Moscow fears, with this ban always about trying to minimize Dzhemilev’s moral and political influence in Crimea while it remains under Russian occupation.

Human Rights in Ukraine: It was exactly seven years ago, on 9 March 2014, that Ukrainians from all over Crimea gathered at monuments to the great Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko in effectively the last demonstrations possible against Russia’s invasion. It was also on that day, even before its ‘formal’ annexation of Crimea, that Russia seized its first Ukrainian political prisoner, Mykola Shyptur.  The timing could not have been more poignantly appropriate.  9 March 2014 marked the bicentenary of Shevchenko’s birth, 10 March – the anniversary of his death in Russian exile, in 1861, aged just 48. In the 1960s, Ukrainians began demonstrating defiance of the Soviet regime by gathering at monuments to Shevchenko on 9-10 March, reading poems, singing Ukrainian songs and laying flowers.  The gatherings then required courage and could lead to persecution.  Within a year of Russian occupation, participants in such a gathering in Simferopol were prosecuted, with the Ukrainian flag called ‘a prohibited symbol’, with the gathering itself outlawed the following year.

The Moscow Times: One of Galina Yanchikova’s earliest memories is playing with her grandfather’s feet as a three year old the last time she saw him before he left exile in Kazakhstan to try to return to Moscow.  Prominent Marxist activist and academic Friedrich Bauermeister had left Germany with his family for Stalin’s U.S.S.R. in 1934, and been given a central Moscow apartment and a teaching job, before being deported to the Kazakh steppe along with the rest of Russia’s German population seven years later when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.  Yanchikova, 65, one of around 1,500 surviving children born in internal exile to Gulag inmates imprisoned under Stalin, has spent a decade fighting for the compensation Russian law guarantees to descendents of victims of Soviet-era repressions that would allow her to leave her isolated cottage.  Now, a legislative battle in Russia’s parliament could make or break the hopes for restitution of the dwindling band of “Gulag Children.”

10 March 2021

RFE/RL: The Russian medical professional organization Alliance of Doctors will appeal a decision by the Justice Ministry to put it on “foreign agent” list, as the nongovernmental group vows to continue operations. The trade union will legally challenge the controversial label and does not plan to shut down, the press secretary for the Alliance of Doctors, Alexandra Zakharova, told the website Open Media on March 9. “No liquidation. We continue to work,” she said. The Justice Ministry on March 3 added the Alliance of Doctors to a growing list of organizations it says are fulfilling the functions of a “foreign agent.”

Human Rights Watch: Today, Russian authorities claimed they slowed down access to Twitter in Russia in response to the social media site’s failure to take down allegedly illegal content. Russian authorities have listed Twitter as a “threat” and have said they might block it altogether if it does not censor such content. Earlier this year, the government pressured Twitter and other major tech companies to censor calls for participation in peaceful unsanctioned protests against corruption and in support of the jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny. The authorities fined social media platforms and threatened to block them if they failed to censor posts on protests. Roskomnadzor, the state body for media oversight, said the forced slowdown targets only video and image files on Twitter, rather than the tweets themselves. Internet service providers reported an overall slowdown in access to Twitter.

RFE/RL: Russian metallurgical giant Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel) has fully paid off more than 146 billion rubles ($1.97 billion) in damages for a spill that dumped thousands of tons of diesel fuel into the Russian Arctic last year. The company — owned by Russia’s richest man, Vladimir Potanin — said in a statement on March 10 that its subsidiary, Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company (NTEK), had received the sum from Nornickel and paid all fees that were due in full. Last month, the Krasnoyarsk City Court of Arbitration ruled that almost all of the sum, the largest legal award in Russian history, must go to the federal treasury, while around 1.3 billion rubles ($17.5 million) must go the budget of the city of Norilsk, where more than 21,000 tons of diesel leaked into the environment from a tank at NTEK’s thermal power plant in May last year.

RFE/RL: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has assured members of Congress that the Biden administration opposes the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and said the administration continues to review further sanctions. Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that President Joe Biden thinks the nearly completed pipeline was a “bad idea” and had “been clear on this for some time.” He added that the United States, which has already placed sanctions on companies involved in building the pipeline, was “making clear that we stand against its completion…and we continue to review other possibilities for sanctions going forward.” Nord Stream 2 is designed to reroute Russian natural-gas exports to Europe under the Baltic Sea, circumventing Ukraine.

11 March 2021

RFE/RL: The Moscow City Court has upheld the two-year suspended sentence for an opposition politician who was convicted in December over her involvement in anti-Kremlin protest rallies. After the court handed down the ruling on March 11, municipal lawmaker Yulia Galyamina said that it was very likely now that Moscow’s city council would remove her of status as a lawmaker. On December 28, before the Tver district court judge found her guilty of repeatedly violating the law on mass gatherings and pronounced her sentence, the outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin said at the trial that the proceedings against her had proven that Putin, investigators, security officials, and police saw her as a “real threat.”

RFE/RL: On March 7, 37-year-old Russian convict Yevgeny Rylsky died in a prison hospital in Irkutsk, to which he had been transferred a few days earlier from the notorious prison IK-15 outside Angarsk. “His spleen had been ruptured,” said Vladimir Osechkin, founder of the prisoners’ rights NGO Gulagu.net, citing several confidential sources among both prisoners and prison staff. “His collarbone was broken, and other internal organs were injured. The doctors also found bedsores. That is, Rylsky had been beaten and had been lying in bed in life-threatening condition for at least three or four days at IK-15, during the time that an inspection commission from Moscow was there.”

The Moscow Times: Russian movie distributors have self-censored a gay sex scene from “Supernova,” a British love story starring Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth that was released in Russia on Thursday, media reported. Citing viewers who had also watched the original edit, the DTF culture and tech platform said “at least one scene where the characters try to have sex after a dramatic dialogue has disappeared from the story.”

RFE/RL: Russian parliament’s lower chamber, the State Duma, has approved the first reading of a bill allowing for “accidental” corruption. According to the bill, officials, judges, prosecutors, military personnel, and other individuals cannot be held responsible for corrupt actions in cases when they could not control the circumstances in which such actions took place. Among such circumstances, the bill cites natural disasters, including earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, fires, pandemics, strikes, military conflicts, and terrorist acts. The bill also says that “accidental” corruption might happen when restrictions are imposed by authorities due to circumstances they couldn’t control.

12 March 2021

The Moscow Times: Russians’ life expectancy plummeted in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted President Vladimir Putin’s goal to increase lifespans, according to state figures cited by the RBC news website Thursday. Annual life expectancy dropped for the first time in 17 years from a record of 73.3 years in 2019 to 71.1 years last year, according to the cited preliminary figures. Russia’s state statistics agency recently announced 323,000 excess deaths in 2020, the highest in a decade and a half.

RFE/RL: The chief of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary System (FSIN) may use convicts to help clean a contaminated zone of the Arctic following a massive diesel spill. “I have asked leaders of [FSIN] branches in the regions located in the Arctic zone to continue working [on the issue of using inmates in clean-up operations],” FSIN head Aleksandr Kalashnikov said in Moscow on March 12, adding that the matter had been agreed upon with the authorities of the Krasnoyarsk Krai region and the city of Norilsk. Last May, more than 21,000 tons of diesel leaked into the Norilsk environment from the tank of a thermal power plant belonging to a subsidiary of Russian metallurgical giant Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), owned by Russia’s richest man, Vladimir Potanin. The spill sparked an outcry and led to the dismissal in October of Norilsk Mayor Rinat Akhmetchin, who was also sentenced to six months of correctional work for negligence.

The Moscow Times: Over 6,300 surveillance cameras in Russia are not secure, making them vulnerable to cybercriminals, experts told the Kommersant business daily Friday. Dark web users can easily access footage and private data from the CCTV cameras installed at places like industrial plants, businesses and smart home systems as they have public IP addresses, Kommersant cited experts from the Avast cybersecurity software company as saying.

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