Rights in Russia week-ending 19 March 2021

Our round-up of the week’s news

Other news this week:

14 March 2021

The Moscow Times: Russia has confirmed 4,380,525 cases of coronavirus and 91,695 deaths, according to the national coronavirus information center. According to figures published by state statistics agency Rosstat, Russia’s real coronavirus death toll stands at 131,118, with the virus present in another 69,314 deaths. Russia on Saturday [on 13 March 2021] confirmed 9,908 new coronavirus cases and 475 deaths.

15 March 2021

RFE/RL:  Journalists in Russia’s Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, where demonstrations in support of the region’s jailed former governor have been held since July last year, have started so-called “silent broadcasts” to avoid prosecution. Many journalists in Khabarovsk were detained while covering the protests in recent months, although they say they had all of the documents needed to prove that they were doing their jobs. Some were either fined or jailed for several days for what local courts judged as the “participation in unsanctioned rallies.” Tatyana Khlestunova, a reporter at Prosto Gazeta (Just A Newspaper) who spent several days in jail over her coverage of the rallies, told RFE/RL over the weekend that the silent broadcast entails coverage of rallies without any commentary from reporters.

RFE/RL: Three nongovernmental organizations based in France, Syria, and Russia have announced a legal case in Moscow against the Vagner Group, a Russian military contractor with indirect ties to the country’s political elite, over the 2017 torture of a detainee in Syria. “This litigation is a first-ever attempt by the family of a Syrian victim to hold Russian suspects accountable for serious crimes committed in Syria,” the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center said in a joint statement on March 15.

16 March 2021

RFE/RL: The authorities in Crimea have arrested a man for allegedly spying on behalf of Ukraine, a move Kyiv characterized as propaganda ahead of the seventh anniversary of Moscow’s forcible annexation of the region. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said on March 16 that Vladislav Yesypenko, who holds dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship and is a freelance contributor to Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, was arrested on suspicion of collecting information for Ukrainian intelligence. According to the FSB, an object “looking like an explosive device” was found in Yesypenko’s automobile during his apprehension. It also said he confessed to collecting data for the Ukrainian Security Service. Yesypenko, along with a resident of the Crimean city of Alushta, Yelizaveta Pavlenko, was detained on March 10 after the two took part in an event marking the 207th anniversary of the Ukrainian poet and thinker Taras Shevchenko the day before in Crimea. Pavlenko was later released. Yesypenko’s lawyer, Emil Kuberdinov, said on March 15 that he had not been allowed to meet with his client since his arrest.

RFE/RL: Russia’s state communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has threatened to block Twitter in a month’s time if the social-media network doesn’t begin removing banned content. Roskomnadzor last week announced a slowing down, or throttling, of Twitter’s speed across the country for its “failure” to remove what it said was banned content that encouraged suicide among children and information about drugs and child pornography. On March 16, Roskomnadzor’s deputy head, Vadim Subbotin, said the company still wasn’t complying with the demands of the Russian authorities. “Twitter doesn’t react to our requests appropriately, and if things go on like this, then in a month it will be blocked, on an out-of-court basis,” Subbotin was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.

RSF: Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the exorbitant fines imposed on Radio Svoboda, the Russian branch of the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for refusing to label itself as a “foreign agent” in the content it broadcasts. The absurd law requiring this self-labelling violates media pluralism and is designed to silence independent and opposition media, RSF says.

Human Rights in Ukraine: A Russian-controlled court in Simferopol has placed 42-year-old Ukrainian Taras Kuzio under house arrest following mass armed searches of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes in occupied Yalta.  The occupation regime has slightly varied the charge this time, although Kuzio is facing the same persecution as other believers for practising his faith. The hearing on 12 March at the ‘Kievsky District Court’ took place behind closed doors, and with a lawyer appointed by the ‘investigators’.  Crimean Solidarity civic journalists were therefore unable to attend the hearing, but cite their own source in reporting that Kuzio is charged with ‘financing an extremist organization’ under Article 282.3 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code. The ‘court’ took into account Kuzio’s two underage children; his state of health and his social ties with Yalta, and ordered house arrest, rather than full detention, as demanded by the ‘investigators’.  Kuzio has also been ordered to have no contact with others involved in the ‘case’ and has been prohibited from using the Internet, sending or receiving mail. Kuzio’s family plan to appeal against the ruling.

17 March 2021

Human Rights in Ukraine: The first day of Russia’s ‘trial’ of Crimean Tatar journalist Remzi Bekirov and four other civic and human rights activists ended with all five recognized political prisoners being expelled from the court for insisting on their right to speak Crimean Tatar.  This, however, was after Rayim Aivazov described in harrowing detail how FSB officers had taken him to a forest and tortured him, including by staging a mock execution, in order to force him to give false testimony against himself and other political prisoners.  

RFE/RL: MBK Media says Russia’s state media-monitoring agency, Roskomnadzor, has demanded Twitter delete the news outlet’s account for alleged violations of Russian law. MBK Media, a news website critical of the Kremlin, on March 17 quoted a message it says came from Roskomnadzor as saying the social-network operator had received an official request regarding content on the @MBKhMedia account. Twitter has not commented on the report.

RFE/RL: The lower house of Russia’s parliament has adopted legislation that would introduce sentences of up to five years in prison for insulting World War II veterans. The proposed amendments to the Criminal and Administrative Codes, which were passed in the State Duma on March 17, also envisage fines of up to 5 million rubles ($68,000) for entities or individuals convicted of the “public dissemination of knowingly false information” about WWII veterans. The chamber said that publicly humiliating the dignity or honor of veterans would be “equated with the rehabilitation of Nazism,” which would also carry a punishment of up to five years in prison.

RFE/RL: Journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned Russia for imposing “exorbitant” fines on several Russian-language services of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, saying the country’s “foreign agent” law was “absurd” and “designed to silence” independent and opposition media in the country. Russia’s state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor has opened 260 cases against RFE/RL Russian-language news services for failing to mark written and broadcast materials in accordance with the onerous regulations. A Moscow court has already levied fines totaling some $1 million in 142 cases. The string of cases against RFE/RL means that, pending appeals, it must pay the fines and come into compliance with regulations or face the potential closure of its operations inside Russia.

18 March 2021

RFE/RL: The Moscow City Court has upheld a lower court decision to extend the pretrial detention of former journalist Ivan Safronov, who is charged with high treason, until May 7. The appeal of a March 2 ruling by Moscow’s Lefortovo district court to extend Safronov’s detention was held on March 18 behind closed doors, as the case is classified. The 30-year-old Safronov, who has worked since May as an adviser to the head of Russia’s space agency Roskosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, is a prominent journalist who covered the military-industrial complex for the newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti. He was arrested on July 7, 2020, amid allegations that he had passed secret information to the Czech Republic in 2017 about Russian arms sales in the Middle East.

Human Rights in Ukraine: Almost a week after Vladislav Yesypenko was seized in Russian-occupied Crimea, the FSB are preventing the freelance journalist from seeing an independent lawyer. Changes in the FSB’s story, as well as the involvement of a ‘lawyer’ used in other political cases, make it likely that illegal methods, including torture, are being used to force Yesypenko to provide the ‘confessions’ demanded of him. The FSB’s story as per an official statement on 16 March differs significantly from that heard after Yesypenko first disappeared, together with Yelizaveta Pavlenko, from Alushta soon after they took part in laying flowers at the monument to the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko on 9 March, the 2007th anniversary of Shevchenko’s birth. Contact with them was lost the following day and it soon became clear that both had been detained by masked FSB officers.  The latter carried out a search, lasting many hours, of Pavlenko’s home and took away various pieces of technology and other others, but did not arrest her.

CPJ: Russian authorities should immediately release journalist Vladislav Yesypenko and drop all charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. On March 10, Federal Security Service officers in Russian-occupied Crimea detained Yesypenko, a freelance journalist, according to news reports and a lawyer hired by his family, Emil Kurbedinov, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview but who has been prevented from meeting his client.

The Moscow Times: Russian investigators said Thursday they will examine the lyrics of the country’s entry to this year’s Eurovision song contest after it angered conservative groups. Manizha Sangin, known as Manizha, is set to perform the song “Russian Woman” at the annual competition in The Netherlands during May. It praises the strength of Russian women, urging them to be more independent and to resist sexist views on beauty, age and bearing children.  The 29-year-old singer, who was born in ex-Soviet Tajikistan but now lives in Russia, is also an activist for women’s and refugees’ rights.

RFE/RL: The G7 group of nations has marked the seventh anniversary of Russia’s forcible annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula by reaffirming their “unwavering support” for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders. In a joint statement on March 18, the foreign ministers of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States, as well as the EU’s foreign policy chief, “unequivocally denounce Russia’s temporary occupation” of Crimea and its “violations of human rights on the peninsula, particularly of Crimean Tatars.” They said they also “firmly oppose Russia’s continued destabilization of Ukraine,” especially in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.

RFE/RL: The United States and European Union have reiterated their condemnation of Russia’s increasing repression of independent media, including RFE/RL. Courtney Austrian, the U.S. charge d’ affaires to the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said in a March 18 statement that Russia’s new requirements for outlets branded “foreign media agents” were in some cases technically impossible and were being “used against entities and individuals associated, sometimes only tangentially, with U.S. Agency for Global Media, or USAGM, funded programming in Russia.” The assault on USAGM outlets, including RFE/RL, “reflects a broader crackdown on independent voices and civil society,” Austrian wrote in the statement on behalf of both the United States and Canada.

19 March 2021

The Moscow Times: Russian security agents raided the Moscow offices of the opposition news website MBKh Media and the blacklisted Open Russia pro-democracy group, the outlet reported early Friday. The raids came two days after Russia’s state communications regulator asked Twitter to delete MBKh Media’s account for allegedly posting tweets containing materials from Open Russia. “There are more than four of them and they have a support group, men in balaclavas, and they’re waiting for someone to arrive at the office,” editor-in-chief Veronika Kutsyllo told the RBC news website.

RFE/RL: A shaman in the Siberian region of Yakutia who has had several attempts to march to Moscow by foot “to drive President Vladimir Putin out of the Kremlin” stopped by authorities, has been officially found by a court to be “mentally unfit” and can be placed in a psychiatric clinic. Aleksei Pryanishnikov, the legal coordinator of the opposition group Open Russia, told RFE/RL on March 18 that the court ruled that Aleksandr Gabyshev cannot be held accountable for allegedly “attacking a police officer” because of his mental state.

RFE/RL: In 2017, Sergei Krasikov won a national competition for best young forest ranger in Russia. “It was a contest among all rangers under the age of 30,” said one of Sergei’s colleagues at the Altacheisky State Nature Preserve in the Siberian region of Buryatia who asked that his name be withheld. “They looked at everyone’s work in its entirety — how many cases had been filed, how many weapons had been confiscated, how many criminal and administrative cases were sent to the courts. And Sergei took first place in the whole country.” Now Krasikov is the target of a criminal case on charges that he exceeded his authority during the October 2020 arrest of five alleged poachers in the protected area, which is part of the ecosystem of Russia’s world-famous Lake Baikal.

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