Review of the week
Compiled by Simon Cosgrove
In the second ‘post-constitutional-amendments’ week, repressive measures continued to seem to be gaining force in Russia. Of particular note are the prosecutions of journalists, (the charging of Ivan Safronov and the aftermath of the conviction of Svetlana Prokopyeva), the arrests of protestors (including many journalists protesting over the prosecution of Ivan Safronov), the raids on the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses and various judicial proceedings including those against human rights defender and historian Yury Dmitriev, members of the New Greatness group, the human rights defender from Sochi Semyon Simonov and the elected governor of Khabarovsk, Sergei Furgal. It was also a week that saw, on Wednesday 15 July 2020, the 11th anniversary of the unsolved murder of human rights defender Natalia Estemirova.
Freedom of expression
On Monday, 13 July 2020, FSB investigators formally charged Ivan Safronov, an aide to the head of the Roskosmos space agency, with high treason. Ivan Pavlov, the lawyer acting for Safronov, said his client had pleaded not guilty. On 16 July Moscow City Court dismissed the appeal against Safronov being remanded in custody until 6 September 2020.
On Monday 13 July the Committee to Protect Journalists announced that Svetlana Prokopyeva, a journalist from Pskov recently convicted of ‘justifying terrorism’ in a trial condemned by leading human rights organisations would be one of the journalists to receive an International Press Freedom Award. The awards are to be presented on 19 November 2020. On 16 July lawyers acting for Prokopyeva filed an appeal against her conviction on the grounds the judge at the trial did not take into consideration portions of the linguistic analysis favourable to their client.
On Thursday, 16 July 2020, new charges were laid against Konstantin Antonets and Antonina Zimina, who were detained in July 2018 in Kaliningrad and whose clsoed trial on charges of high treason for photos taken at their wedding five years ago began in May this year. Allegedly, the photos in question, that were published online, revealed the identity of an FSB officer. The new charges concern travelling to Latvia and allegedly passing classified information to a Latvian intelligence operative.
On Friday, 17 July, RAPSI reported that two more criminal cases have been opened against Vladimir Vorontsov, creator of the ‘Police Ombudsman’ Telegram channel. In total, there are seven criminal investigations against Vorontsov, who is suspected of insulting a public official. However, charges have been laid with regard to only one of them, over alleged extortion.
Freedom of assembly
On Monday, 13 July, police in Moscow arrested about 20 protestors expressing support for Safronov near the FSB’s Lefortovo remand prison where Safronov is held. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, citing Mediazona, OVD Info and Kommersant, those arrested included: Taisiya Bekbulatova, chief editor of Kholod, Mariya Karpenko, a Kholod reporter, Kommersant FM correspondents Petr Parkhomenko, Liliya Galyavieva, and Alla Pugacheva, Kommersant reporters Olga Allenova, Aleksandr Rassokhin, Viktoriya Feofanova, Aleksander Chernykh, and Anna Vasilieva, freelance journalist Sofya Rusova, and Mariya Sherstiukova, a reporter with state news outlet RT, Anna Povago, an editor with Kommersant and reporter with Takie Dela; Arina Borodina, a reporter with Echo Moskvy; and Maksim Kondratyev, a reporter with Avtozak Live, and journalists of unidentified affiliations Tatyana Morozova, Yuliya Gallyamova and Olga Bolotova.
On Wednesday, 15 July, police detained almost 150 people in Moscow protesting against recently approved constitutional changes allowing, among other things, Vladimir Putin to serve two more terms as president (2024-2036). OVD-Info reported at least 147 protesters detained, some of whom were later released.
On Thursday, 16 July, Meduza reported that Moscow police arrested protesters for holding single-person pickets outside the FSB headquarters on Lubyanka square. At least six people were detained, including literary critic Anna Narinskaya.
Freedom of religion
Authorities in Voronezh region said they had raided more than 100 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Moscow Times reported that ‘joint searches by investigators, police and National Guard troops led to two criminal cases being opened against 10 worshippers aged between 24-56.’
On Monday, 13 July 2020, the board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum issued a statement expressing dismay at ‘numerous violations prior and during the nation-wide voting on the amendments to the Russian Constitution.’ The statement demanded that the Russian authorities duly investigate all alleged violations, end a crackdown on independent voices in Russia and to adhere to Russia’s international obligations. The statement cited the conclusions of the Golos movement that ‘identified violations of the procedure and citizens’ rights related to the disregard of the law, a high diversity of the amendments, the absence of the necessary conditions for the provision of pluralism of opinion in the public discussion, the enforced participation in the voting, multiple falsifications of the votes and the limited control of the fairness of the voting and the vote count.’
In an interview with Meduza published on 13 July 2020, Italian scholar of the Gulag Andrea Gullotta lamented the ongoing trial of historian Yury Dmitriev, in which the verdict is to be announced on 22 July: ‘The authorities target people like Yury Dmitriev who don’t conform to the narrative that the bad past is over and it’s now time to focus on the bright future, says Gullotta. “There’s now an attempt to occupy the places of memory and grab the historical memory of the Soviet repressions from the hands of NGOs and independent researchers,” he says, warning that the Dmitriev case is “the most important moment in this war”.’
On Tuesday, 14 July 2020, in the New Greatness trial in which seven young defendants face charges of creating an extremist group with the intention of overthrowing the government of President Putin, prosecutors asked for Ruslan Kostylenkov to be sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison, Petr Karamzin to 6 1/2 years and Vyacheslav Kryukov to 6 years. Prosecutors asked for four other defendants – Maria Dubovik, Anna Pavlikova, Dmitry Poletayev, and Maksim Roshchin – to be given suspended sentences of between 4 and 6 1/2 years. Human rights campaigners say the case has been fabricated by security services. Memorial Human Rights Centre has recognised the defendants as political prisoners.
On Wednesday, 15 July 2020, Human Rights Watch urged the authorities to drop a criminal investigation against human rights defender Semyon Simonov, who is currently under a travel ban, and repeal the abusive ‘foreign agents’ law. Human Rights Watch expressed concerns criminal charges may be laid against Simonov, who heads the Sochi-based Southern Human Rights Centre, for unpaid fines imposed on the Centre under the ‘foreign agents’ law that if he were convicted could see him sentenced to two years in prison. Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “This attack against a human rights defender demonstrates how the Russian authorities continue to use the repressive foreign agents law to criminalize the important work of independent groups. Not only should the case against Semyon Simonov be dropped immediately, but the foreign agents law needs to go.”
On Thursday, 16 July 2020, Moscow City Court in a closed-door hearing dismissed an appeal by Sergei Furgal, governor of the Far Eastern Khabarovsk region charged with attempted murder and ordering two murders in 2004-2005, against the decision to remand him in custody for two months. Furgal is being held at the FSB’s Lefortovo detention centre in Moscow.
On 16 July Human Rights Ombudsperson Tatiana Moskalkova said she would establish a working group to deal with violations of the rights of suspects and convicts.
On Thursday, 16 July, Agora International Human Rights Group published a report that surveillance measures introduced by the authorities during the coronavirus pandemic could remain in place in the future to continue monitoring civilians. Damir Gainutdinov, co-author of the report, was quoted by The Moscow Times as describing methods used by the authorities as ‘immers[ing] us in a “brave new world” of total surveillance.’
On Thursday, 16 July 2020, the Open Democracy advocacy group said Russia was among dozens of countries that violated women’s rights during childbirth amid restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Monday, 13 July 2020, RAPSI reported that blogger Aleksei Zhirukhin has filed a 230,000-rouble ($3,300) claim against Aleksei Navalny over allegedly illegal use of a photo of the town Khiva in Uzbekistan posted in a video on YouTube.
On Tuesday, 14 July, Aleksei Navalny said he had been summoned for questioning by the Investigative Committee regarding a case against him of alleged libel. In June the Investigative Committee had said Navalny had been accused of libeling a World War II veteran who took part in a video expressing support for proposed constitutional amendments.
On 14 July the State Duma approved in first reading a bill on extremism aimed at further quelling opposition activists and politicians as well as anyone questioning Moscow’s forcible seizure of the Crimean Peninsula, RFE/RL reported, commenting that the bill ‘is primarily aimed at targeting any discussion or criticism of Russia taking Crimea from Ukraine.’ Among other things, the legislation outlines fines and criminal liability for “public appeals” using the media, the Internet, or any other information channel. Duma chair Vyacheslav Volodin said the bill would amend the law on extremism bringing it in line with the recent constitutional amendments.
On Tuesday 14 July seven senators submitted a draft bill to amend the Family Code and legally ban gay marriage and adoptions, including, according to its authors, by transgender people. The move is intended to bring Russian legislation into line with the new constitutional amendments that include a provision defining marriage as a ‘union between a man and a woman.’
On Friday, 17 July, the board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum issued a statement expressing deep concern about proposed amendments to the Russian Family Code and Law No. 143-FZ “On Civil Status Acts” that ‘would result in a drastic worsening of transgender persons’ life conditions and undue restriction of their rights.’ The statement said that ‘The new bill would prevent persons who have changed their gender from amending the sex designation on their birth certificate and thus will have an enormously negative impact on the lives of thousands of people in Russia and will aggravate the discrimination already suffered by this vulnerable group. If adopted, this bill will effectively deny a large part of Russian citizens the right to marry and start a family. Moreover, the bill provides that new birth certificates already issued to transgender persons must be withdrawn and the old ones reissued, which would invalidate their existing marriages and destroy families, because the state does not recognise same-sex marriages. This totally unfounded legislative proposal targets the most vulnerable group of Russians, limiting their access to basic human rights.’
This week, 13 human rights organisations called on the Russian authorities to solve the 2009 murder of Natalia Estemirova, the human rights defender the eleventh anniversary of whose unsolved killing fell on 15 July. Caucasian Knot reported that since Estemirova’s murder the human rights situation in Chechnya has deteriorated and there is an ‘atmosphere of fear’ in the republic. Marina Dubrovina, a human rights lawyer, was quoted as saying: ‘A person can be seized and taken away. People are beaten and tortured in the most horrible way until they break.’
On Thursday, 16 July 2020, Caucasian Knot reported that Russia has used the agreement on exchange of intelligence information with the USA to search for residents of Chechnya who fled to Europe, sources in European security and intelligence structures have stated. Earlier Caucasian Knot had reported that the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, had accused Western security services of organizing the murders of bloggers Mamikhan Umarov and Imran Aliev.
Meanwhile, in Moscow on Sunday, 12 July 2020, Moscow blogger, Svyatoslav Kovalenko, stated that he had been beaten up by a group of people after his conflict with a Chechen blogger, Zelimkhan Zelimkhanov, apparently well known for compelling apologies from those with whom he has conflicts. Observers including Svetlana Gannushkina noted that whether Zelimkhanov would be convicted of any offence would depend on the view Ramzan Kadyrov takes of the matter.
On Wednesday, 15 July 2020, Human Rights in Ukraine reported that Lutfiye Zudiyeva, a journalist and coordinator of the Crimean Solidarity civic initiative, has lodged important legal challenges against a ‘warning’ she was issued by the Russian-controlled prosecutor and police for supposed ‘extremist activities’. Around 60 ‘warnings’ were delivered to various Crimean Tatar activists and public figures at the beginning of May in a move that is believed to have been aimed at intimidation. Human Rights in Ukraine says the steps demonstrated the occupation regime’s discrimination against Crimean Tatars and all civic activists.
Writing in The Moscow Times, Andrei Soldatov pointed out that the amended version of the law on treason (Article 275 of the Russian Criminal Code) adopted in 2012 in reaction to the political turbulence of that year ‘does not require the FSB to catch someone spying for a foreign government and identify the intelligence service with which the suspect was allegedly collaborating. Now, it is enough simply to show that the person had been in communication with an “international or foreign organization” to be suspected of high treason.’ Mark Galeotti, writing in the same paper concurred, argued that Safronov’s arrest was evidence the Kremlin had decided to ‘unleash’ the FSB ‘against critical voices in the media and cultural spheres.’ Andrea Gullotta, in the interview cited above with Meduza about the trial of Yury Dmitriev, noted: ‘The history of the Gulag and Soviet repressions, Dmitriev has argued in his writings, is the story of the state deciding what to do with its citizens. In a healthy society, he says, this relationship should be reversed.’ As we have seen this week, the conflict over ‘who decides what to do’ (state or citizens), which is quintessentially a confict about human rights, continues in Russia and currently seems to be escalating.