Rights in Russia week-ending 18 December 2020

Our review of the week’s news.

Other news of the week:

12 December 2020

RFE/RL: Russia has begun questioning witnesses to the monumental Battle of Stalingrad as part of a criminal investigation into what authorities term the “genocide” of Soviet citizens by invading Nazi forces in World War II. Officials have cast a series of investigations into events that occurred in wartime more than 75 years ago as part of an effort to establish facts and pursue justice. But they have also indicated that the probes are part of a continuing push by President Vladimir Putin’s government to enshrine a positive narrative of the country’s history, and counter what it claims are efforts abroad to equate the Soviet Union’s wartime role with that of Nazi Germany. News of the summonses sent to Stalingrad witnesses was first reported by the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta. It cited the grandson of a 94-year-old man who was identified only as Vasily N. and lives in Volgograd, as the city of Stalingrad is now known, as saying that the family had received a letter on November 28 instructing Vasily N. to appear for questioning on December 1. “Surely they don’t have to summon him to be interrogated by an investigator if they want to question him, a [former] camp inmate, about Stalingrad?” said the grandson, Denis Chistyakov. “I think this work could be done by historians and archivists.” Chistyakov said he didn’t show the letter to his grandfather, who he said had been taken prisoner by German forces at age 15 or 16 and sent to a labor camp in eastern Germany. When he contacted the investigator, he said, he was told that such summonses are being sent out across Russia.

13 December 2020

RFE/RL: Umar Kremlev of Russia has been elected president of the troubled International Boxing Association (AIBA), vowing to restore the body’s Olympic status. Kremlev won 57 percent of the vote in a five-candidate contest on December 12 involving 155 national federations to become the new head of the sports body that represents amateur boxing worldwide. His selection came despite the concerns of Olympic officials about his candidacy. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) last year stripped AIBA of its right to run boxing at the Tokyo Games, postponed by a year to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, amid concerns over the integrity of Olympic bouts, governance, and finance. The boxing competition at the Tokyo Olympics is instead being organized by the IOC Boxing Task Force.

14 December 2020

RFE/RL: The Moscow City Court has postponed the high-profile trial of several former police officers suspected in the illegal apprehension of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov last year after the lawyer of one of the defendants said he had lost his legal license. Aleksei Kovrizhkin, the lawyer of the former chief of the Moscow police’s illegal-drugs department, Igor Lyakhovets, told the court at the start of the trial on December 14 that the Moscow Chamber of Attorneys revoked his license to practice for unspecified reasons in October.

Human Rights in Ukraine: A Russian-occupation ‘court’ has found Venera Mustafayeva guilty of infringing regulations during the pandemic over her solitary picket on the day that her prisoner of conscience son, Server Mustafafayev was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment.  The ‘Bakhchysarai district court hearing’ on 11 December took place without the ‘accused’ or her lawyer, Lilya Hemedzhi, although both were present in the building. Venera Mustafayeva stood outside alone on 15 September 2020, with a placard reading “Conversations in a mosque are not a crime – bring back my son”.  She was nowhere near others, and even the repressive legislation that Russia is illegally imposing in occupied Crimea allows single-person pickets. 

RAPSI: Russian investigators brought charges against 3 Lithuanian judges with issuance of unjust ruling in a case over clashes in Vilnius in January 1991, the Investigative Committee’s spokesperson told RAPSI on Monday. The charges were laid in absentia. In late March, a panel of judges of the Vilnius District Court convicted and sentenced over 50 Russian citizens including those arrested in Lithuania as part of the case. Russian investigators believe that the 1991 events resulting in the death of 13 civilians and injuring of more than 700 people occurred with the participation of Soviet servicemen who carried out their duties and acted for safety in accordance with the USSR legislation. Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990.

15 December 2020

HRW: Last week, Russian media reported a major personal data leak of Covid-19 patients admitted to Moscow hospitals, as well as Muscovites who had been ordered to self-quarantine, or fined over violating the self-quarantine regulations. According to the online news outlet Readovka, the leaked data included names, home addresses, insurance numbers, phone numbers and medical data of up to 300,000 people. Most of the information, collected by Moscow authorities, dates to spring 2020, but some is as recent as November. The data, which is stored on online spreadsheets, were circulated via Telegram, a popular messaging app, and can be downloaded without any special authorization. According to the outlet, the leaked spreadsheets got deleted from Telegram.  Moscow Department of Information Technology confirmed the personal data leak alleging that unidentified staff leaked the information. Authorities promised to take action and an official inquiry is on-going.

The Moscow Times: Russians have some of the world’s most conservative attitudes toward gender roles, according to a multinational survey spanning 10 countries. The GlobalNR research network and its Russian partner ROMIR found that 82% of Chinese respondents, 71% of Russians and 69% of Indians agreed with the statement that traditional gender roles are best suited for society. The global average stood at 47%.

RAPSI:  A bill introducing prison sentence as punishment for online defamation has reached the State Duma. The draft law envisages imprisonment for up to 2 years for folk leasing.  Current legislation stipulates fines of up to 1 million rubles (about $14,000 at the current exchange rate) or community service for up to 40 hours for defamation in media or public speech.

RAPSI: Chairman of Russia’s Presidential Council for Human Rights Valery Fadeyev believes that authors of defaming publications on the Internet must be punished with a fine but not with imprisonment. According to Fadeyev, prison sentence in such cases is an excessive measure. Earlier, a bill introducing prison sentence as punishment for online defamation was submitted to the State Duma. The draft law envisages imprisonment for up to 2 years for folk leasing. 

RAPSI:  Prosecutors have filed a motion seeking an 18-year jail sentence for ex-board member of Inter RAO energy holding Karina Tsurkan charged with spying, the Moscow City Court’s press service has told RAPSI. Investigators believe that in August 2004 Tsurkan became an agent involved in confidential and unofficial cooperation with a Moldovan secret service.

16 December 2020

RAPSI: The Second Cassation Court of General Jurisdiction has dismissed a defense appeal against a 10-year prison sentence of Yukos oil company’s former lawyer Pavel Ivlev convicted of embezzlement and money laundering in absentia. In late May 2019, the Khamovnichesky District Court of Moscow found Ivlev guilty. Additionally, the lawyer residing in the United States was prohibited from practicing law for 3 years. In December of the same year, the Moscow City Court upheld the sentence and it came into force.

RFE/RL: Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, sentenced in June in Russia to 16 years on espionage charges that he rejects, has complained to his family members about the conditions at the prison where he is incarcerated. The 50-year-old Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and sentenced on June 15 after prosecutors claimed that a flash memory stick found in Whelan’s possession contained classified information. He is serving his sentence at Correctional Colony No. 17 in the region of Mordovia, some 350 kilometers east of Moscow, in a region historically known as the location of some of Russia’s toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners. In an interview with Interfax published on December 16, David Whelan said his brother had complained during a phone call that the detention facility was “practically unheated” and that the temperature in the barracks was 5 degrees Celsius.

HRW: In Russia, working to prevent and combat domestic violence can be considered a “political activity.” And that means risking state harassment and intimidation. The authorities are now targeting Nasiliu.net center, an awareness-raising group that assists domestic violence survivors. The group’s director, Anna Rivina, told me that earlier this month the Justice Ministry notified Nasiliu.net of an unscheduled inspection, prompted by an anonymous tip from a “concerned citizen.” Two days ago, the ministry clarified that the reason for the inspection was the center’s alleged failure to register as a “foreign agent.” In the context of Russian authorities’ ongoing battle against civil society groups, such news can only be viewed as menacing. Russian authorities have long used the restrictive “foreign agents” law against independent groups that accept foreign funding and engage in public advocacy, to discredit civil society organizations as “traitors” acting in foreign interests. The current “foreign agents” registry includes 76 groups. Many of them work on human rights, the environment, LGBT issues, health issues, and domestic violence.

The Moscow Times: Residents of Russia’s heavily polluted industrial city of Chelyabinsk are calling on U.S. President-elect Joe Biden to help them avoid “ecological genocide.” In a video appeal, residents said Russian authorities routinely ignore their complaints that industrial emissions are getting worse every year, causing rising cases of cancer and suffocating the city in smoke. “They’re taking away our natural right — the right to breathe clean air,” Chelyabinsk environmental activist Valentina Volkova said.

RAPSI: The upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, on Wednesday approved a bill on immunity guarantees for former Presidents of Russia. Earlier, it was adopted by the State Duma. The document envisages adjustment of certain provisions of the Federal Law on Guarantees for Outgoing President of the Russian Federation and Members of his Family in accordance with the Constitution.

RFE/RL: A Russian couple that is on trial for high treason for photographs taken at their wedding five years ago which revealed the identity of a security operative when published online could face lengthy prison terms. Prosecutors in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad have asked the court to sentence Konstantin Antonets to 13 years in prison and his wife, Antonina Zimina, to 14 years, according to media reports. A verdict in the trial is expected on December 24, reports said. Antonets and Zimina were detained in July 2018 in Kaliningrad and went on trial behind closed doors in May. The couple maintains they are innocent. In July, there were additionally charged with passing classified information to Latvia, which the couple also rejected. Zimina’s parents told RFE/RL in February that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) suspected their daughter and her husband of providing the intelligence agency in the Baltic state of Latvia with information about a Kaliningrad FSB officer.

17 December 2020

RFE/RL: A court in Moscow on December 17 upheld pretrial detention for a Russian physicist specializing in hypersonic aircraft who was arrested earlier this month on suspicion of high treason. The Moscow City Court rejected Anatoly Gubanov’s appeal against a lower court’s decision to keep him in custody until at least February 2. Russian officials have portrayed hypersonic aircraft and missiles as a strategically important military opportunity in the face of mounting tension with the West and Washington’s recent decisions to abandon decades-old strategic arms agreements.

Human Rights in Ukraine: The Russian prosecution has demanded an 11-year harsh regime sentence against 63-year-old Oleh Prykhodko although the charges against him were consistently demolished in court, and shown to be flagrantly falsified.  Prykhodko has never concealed his pro-Ukrainian views, and there are very strong grounds for believing that these are the reason he has been imprisoned since 9 October 2019.  Prykhodko’s ‘trial’ on terrorism charges has been taking place at the same Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don (Russia) that earlier passed horrific sentences against Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, Crimean Tatar human rights activist Emir-Usein Kuku and very many other Ukrainian political prisoners.  Claiming that Prykhodko’s ‘guilt’ had been proven,  prosecutor, Sergei Aidinov, asked that the first three years of the sentence be in a ‘prison’, the harshest of all Russia’s penitentiary institutions, followed by another 8 years in a prison colony.  He also asked for a prohibitive 200 thousand rouble ‘fine’

18 December 2020

Human Rights in Ukraine: It may be unclear who ordered the recent surge in ‘police raids, visitations and ‘prophylactic chats’ in Russian-occupied Crimea, but there is certainly no doubt as to who is being targeted and why.  This is a deliberate offensive against Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians married to Crimean Tatars with a particular focus on Crimean Tatar activists who have taken part in peaceful protests in defence of political prisoners.  The scale of the visitations suggests that this is not just some local police department trying to improve its statistics on ‘countering extremism’ before the end of the year, but aimed at maximum intimidation.  Many imprisoned Crimean Tatar civic journalists and activists were, after all, first subjected to varying forms of administrative prosecution and harassment before the FSB decided to ensure their silence through arrests and ‘terrorism’ charges.

RFE/RL: Notorious organized crime boss Levan Abuladze — known in the criminal underworld by the nickname Levan Sukhumsky — has reportedly escaped from a Russian court building where he had been brought for a pretrial hearing. Russian media reports quote police sources in the city of Vladimir, about 200 kilometers east of Moscow, as saying that Abuladze’s handcuffs were removed inside the Oktyabr District Court building shortly before his December 16 hearing so that he could use a toilet. The police sources said Abuladze went missing after going into the toilet and that guards have been unable to find him.

The Moscow Times: European home improvement stores continued to sell illegally logged wood from the Russian taiga after the alleged smuggler’s arrest back home, the British environmental nonprofit Earthsight said in a report Wednesday. More than 20 European companies were said to have bought 30 million euros ($36.7 million) worth of suspect wood from companies associated with timber magnate Alexander Pudovkin between January 2015 and April 2020. 

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