Rights in Russia week-ending 20 November 2020

Other news of the week includes:

Aleksei Navalny

The Guardian, Monday, 16 November 2020: Western security agencies believe the Kremlin intended to kill the opposition leader Alexei Navalny and only failed to achieve the deadly goal because of quick thinking by first responders when he suddenly fell ill in August. The conclusion from lab tests is that Navalny was poisoned using a potentially milder strain of novichok than the one used in the Salisbury attack, pointing to an active chemical weapons programme in Russia capable of producing different variants of the poison. Diplomats from Britain, France and Germany are now working together to try to get the OPCW chemical weapons agency to formally declare that Russia was responsible at a plenary meeting, which starts at the end of the month. It is unclear if that effort will succeed, but European security agencies say in private there is “growing evidence” of Russian state involvement in the attack.

Meduza, Wednesday, 18 November 2020: The Investigative Department of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has refused to open a criminal case over opposition figure Alexey Navalny’s poisoning, as requested by lawyers from his non-profit, the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). The FBK’s legal department reported the refusal on Wednesday, November 18, citing an official response from the FSB. The FBK’s lawyers had asked the FSB to launch a criminal investigation on charges of developing and producing chemical weapons, due to the fact that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok-type nerve agent. Under article 335 of Russia’s Criminal Code, this is punishable with between five and ten years in prison.

Mass graves

The Guardian, Tuesday, 17 November 2020: A “road of bones” has been discovered in Siberia, where officials have opened an inquiry into how a human skull and other remains appeared on a frozen highway near Irkutsk. The remains, which may be a century old, were buried in sand that was spread over a local road to improve traction on black ice. So far, the bones of at least three people have been discovered, a Kirensk city official told Russian state television, adding that they may date back to Russia’s 1917-22 civil war. Photographs of the frozen remains first emerged on social media, where locals argued over whether the bones had come from a nearby cemetery or from a ravine rumoured to have been used as a mass grave.

Freedom of assembly

RFE/RL, Wednesday, 18 November 2020: A Russian lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party has proposed two pieces of legislation that would further restrict citizens’ rights to assembly. The bills proposed in parliament’s lower chamber, the State Duma, by Dmitry Vyatkin on November 17 seek to ban the financing of rallies by foreign sources, would make it illegal for people to line up and replace participants of single-picket protests, and introduce restrictions for journalists covering such gatherings. The bills would also ban public events and rallies near buildings housing emergency services, such as police or other security services. The change to the law on single-pickets, one of the few remaining ways to protest without a permit in Russia, immediately sparked criticism from opposition lawmakers.

Meduza, Wednesday, 18 November 2020: Lawmaker Dmitry Vyatkin from United Russia has submitted two draft laws to Russia’s State Duma on tightening the rules for holding public demonstrations. The first bill, in particular, proposes prohibiting holding mass events near the buildings of emergency operational services (for example, the police or the FSB), so as not to paralyze their work. The draft law also states that the authorities can postpone or cancel rallies in the event of “an emergency situation, terrorist act, or in the presence of a real threat of their occurence.” Vyatkin also proposes recognizing “aggregate” single-person demonstrations (solo pickets) as public events, as well as the “rotating participation of several individuals in picketing acts” (picket lines), in addition to the “mass, simultaneous presence or movement of citizens in public places.” 

The Moscow Times, Thursday, 19 November 2020: A man dressed in a Santa suit was detained on Red Square late Wednesday for staging a single-person picket against the scrapping of Moscow’s New Year celebrations due to the coronavirus, the Apologia Protesta legal aid group said. Two “elves” accompanying the protester were also reportedly detained. A photo posted by Apologia Protesta showed the man dressed in a dark blue Santa Claus costume holding the sign “Ded Moroz [Grandfather Frost] Is Against Shutting Down Christmas Trees.” Ded Moroz, the Slavic equivalent of Santa Claus, is a key figure in Russia’s New Year celebrations


RFE/RL, Monday, 16 November 2020: Russian investigators have decided not to open a criminal case into the self-immolation of a journalist who died early last month after setting herself on fire in an apparent reaction to being investigated by authorities, the family’s lawyer says. The lawyer of Irina Slavina’s family told the Kommersant daily on November 16 that the Investigative Committee refused to launch a probe into possible incitement to suicide, which her colleagues, relatives, and rights activists have demanded. The lawyer, Aleksandr Karavayev, quoted the investigators as saying there was no evidence that Slavina had been forced to commit suicide and that she “most likely had a mental condition.” Before setting herself on fire in front of the police headquarters in the city of Nizhny Novgorod on October 2, Slavina wrote on Facebook: “Blame the Russian Federation for my death.”

Freedom of expression

CPJ, Monday, 16 November 2020: Russian authorities should immediately release all journalists detained while covering recent protests, and ensure that the press can cover demonstrations freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Since November 5, police have detained at least six journalists covering protests in the eastern city of Khabarovsk, which have been ongoing since the arrest of the region’s former governor in July, according to news reports and Andrey Bityutskiy, a local lawyer who represents several of the journalists and spoke to CPJ in a phone interview. At least three journalists remain in detention, according to Bityutskiy, who described authorities’ “merry-go-round” method of detaining journalists for allegedly participating in a protest, and then upon their release, immediately re-arresting them for allegedly participating in a different demonstration. “Russian authorities should immediately release all journalists who were detained while covering recent protests in Khabarovsk, drop any charges against them, and stop their campaign of harassment against reporters for simply doing their jobs,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Journalists in Russia should be able to cover crucial political events freely, without being intimidated, fined, harassed, and silenced by the state.”

RAPSI, Monday, 16 November 2020: Moscow’s Meshchansky District Court on Monday dismissed Twitter’s challenge against institution of enforcement proceedings in a case over the 4 million-ruble (over $50,000 at the current exchange rate) fine imposed on the company for refusal to place its servers in Russia, the court’s press service told RAPSI. The court considered the civil claim of Twitter against Bailiff Maxim Dumakov and rejected it. The administrative plaintiffs claimed the Federal Bailiff Service had no competence to initiate enforcement proceedings against a legal entity not registered and not operating in Russia, the statement reads. In mid-February, a magistrate court in Moscow fined Twitter and Facebook 4 million rubles each for breaching of user data storage requirements. Twitter challenged the ruling in two Moscow courts. The Tagansky District Court dismissed the appeal in mid-March.

The Moscow Times, Thursday, 19 November 2020: Russia could block YouTube and other major U.S. social media platforms for “censoring” content from Russian state media, according to draft legislation submitted to parliament Thursday. The draft bill explains that the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Foreign Ministry would be able to identify foreign platforms they view as violating Russians’ rights by restricting content. That designation would allow Russia’s federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor to fully or partially block the platform.

The Moscow Times, Thursday, 19 November 2020: St. Petersburg police have questioned an opposition official after he tore up a portrait of President Vladimir Putin that replaced one of poet Alexander Pushkin, Russian media reported Thursday. Five officers arrived at the Smolninskoye municipal district session Wednesday to investigate reports that deputy Nikita Yuferev ripped Putin’s portrait, according to the St. Petersburg-based Fontanka.ru news website.

RAPSI, Thursday, 19 November 2020: A bill envisaging that internet resources using censorship with respect to Russian media outlets has reached the State Duma, a document published on the official website of the lower house of Russia’s parliament reads. The bill seeks to introduce a special status of an “owner of an information resource involved in violations of basic rights and liberties of citizens of the Russian Federation”; the status is to be granted by the Prosecutor General’s Office in consultation with Russia’s Foreign Ministry. The same measure may be applied to internet resources found to restrict access to information of public character on grounds of nationality, language, or in answer to the introduction of sanctions against Russia or its citizens.

RAPSI, Thursday, 19 November 2020: The Moscow City Court on Thursday upheld a lower court’s order to extend detention of blogger Andrey Pyzh charged with illegal access to the data constituting a state secret until December 5, the court’s press service told RAPSI. During last hearing, an investigator objected to mitigation of the restrictive measure as the defendant had adequate resources for obstruction of justice and escape due to his Ukrainian citizenship. The blogger runs Urbanturizm channel where he publishes video about closed and abandoned objects.

Meduza, Thursday, 19 November 2020: Kremlin-linked businessman Evgeny Prigozhin has filed a defamation lawsuit against journalist Maxim Shevchenko, Dovod chief editor Ilya Kosygin, and Meduza editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov.  According to a copy of the lawsuit at Meduza’s disposal, the claim has been forwarded to Moscow’s Savelovsky District Court. The lawsuit was filed over an interview with Shevchenko — who heads the Communist Party (KPRF) faction in the Vladimir Region’s legislative assembly — published by Dovod.  In the interview, Shevchenko commented in particular on a defamation lawsuit filed by Prigozhin, in which he is a co-defendant alongside opposition figures Alexey Navalny, Lyubov Sobol, and others.  In the Dovod article, Shevchenko’s comment on Prigozhin (“He’s a twice-convicted felon, one of the charges is for involving minors in prostitution”) was accompanied by a hyperlink to a Meduza article from June 2016 (you can read the article in English here).

RAPSI, Friday, 20 November 2020: Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) asked the Lefortovsky District Court of Moscow to arrest blogger from Tyumen Alexey Kungurov, who had been earlier convicted of justifying terrorism, as part of a new case in absentia, the court’s press service told RAPSI. The man is charged with inciting hatred and enmity and public calls for terrorist activities, justification and propagation of terrorism. In March 2017, the blogger received a 2.5-year jail sentence for online publication concerning military operation in Syria. The blogger wrote in his online post that air strikes made by Russian army in Syria were ineffective.

Meduza, Friday, 20 November 2020: Moscow’s Basmanny Court has partially satisfied billionaire businessman and senator Suleiman Kerimov’s defamation lawsuit against Vedomosti, Forbes, and Sobesednik, as well as an individual Facebook user, the court’s press service told Meduza.  Initially, Kerimov filed a lawsuit against the business newspaper Vedomostiand the weekly Forbesover articles claiming that in 2005, he acquired Moscow’s largest construction holding, SPK Razvitie, after the company’s office was seized by men armed with metal rods. He also filed a separate lawsuit against the newspaper Sobesednik over an article claiming that “the biggest scam of Mr. Kerimov’s career cost [the Russian state development corporation] VEB and the [National Wealth Fund] $8 billion.” Kerimov filed the original defamation lawsuits with Moscow’s Gagarinsky Court, which returned the claims due to a lack of jurisdiction. Then, on October 1, Facebook user Narine Davydova recounted the information contained in the disputed articles on her Facebook page — prompting Kerimov to file a unified claim with the Basmanny Court.


RFE/RL, Thursday, 19 November 2020: Eleven former prison guards in the Russian city of Yaroslavl have been convicted and handed prison terms in a high-profile case on inmate torture. The Zavolzhye district court on November 19 sentenced the 11 men to prison terms between three years and four years and three months. Six of them were released from custody, as the court said their pretrial detention had been long enough to cover their sentences. In a separate ruling, the court acquitted the former warden of Correctional Colony No. 1, Dmitry Nikolayev, and his ex-deputy, Igit Mikhailov. Prosecutors asked the court to sentence Nikolayev and Mikhailov to seven years in prison each, and sought prison terms between four years and seven years for the other defendants. Irina Biryukova, a lawyer for one plaintiff, Yevgeny Makarov, called the sentences “too mild” and said she will appeal the court ruling.

RAPSI, Friday, 20 November 2020: A prosecutor has demanded a 20-year penal colony sentence for ex-head of the Moscow Region’s Serpukhov District Alexander Shestun, according to his wife Yulia Shestun. Additionally, the prosecution sought a 50 million-ruble fine (over $650,000) and recovery of 64 million rubles (over $840,000) from the defendant, the defendant’s spouse told RAPSI on Friday. Shestun stands charged with fraud, bribery, money laundering and illegal business running. According to investigators, acting as a head of the Moscow Region’s Serpukhov District, from 2003 to 2018, Shestun created 43 commercial organizations through his trustees and ran them. Profits he used for purchasing municipal land plots at bargain prices.


RFE/RL, Thursday, 19 November 2020: A court in the Russian city of Chita in Siberia has set November 23 as the date for the trial of conscript Private Ramil Shamsutdinov, who is accused of shooting dead eight fellow servicemen last year in what he claims was the result of brutal hazing. Shamsutdinov’s lawyer Ravil Tugushev said on November 19 that the Second Military District Court had selected the jury for the high-profile case after an initial attempt in late October failed. On October 25, 2019, Shamsutdinov allegedly shot eight military servicemen, including two high-ranking officers, in the town of Gorny in the Zabaikalye region. He was arrested soon after and charged with murder.


RAPSI, Tuesday, 17 November 2020: A bill on administrative fines for public calls for the alienation of Russian territories and calls for such actions passed its second reading in the State Duma on Tuesday. The legislative proposal is to amend Russia’s Code on Administrative Offenses. First public calls for the territorial alienation would be punished with administrative fines ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 rubles for individuals, from 60,000 to 100,000 rubles for officials, from 200,000 to 300,000 rubles for legal entities. Such calls made through media or Internet would be punishable by fines varying from 70,000 to 100,000 rubles for citizens, from 100,000 to 200,000 rubles for officials and from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles ($4,000 – 6,600) for companies.

Meduza, Thursday, 19 November 2020: Volgograd’s Central District Court has jailed three local residents — all of whom deny the collapse of the USSR and do not acknowledge the Russian Federation’s statehood — on suspicion of organizing the activities of an extremist group, the press service for the regional court system reported on Thursday, November 19. The court’s statement maintained that all three suspects belong to an organization that is considered extremist in Russia, but it didn’t disclose the name of the banned group in question. According to the local newspaper Vysota 102, all three suspects are members of a group called the “Union of Slavic Forces of Rus” (otherwise known as “USSR”), which has banned in Russia since 2019. 

Meduza, Wednesday, 18 November 2020: Russian lawmakers and senators have submitted amendments to the Federal law “On Education” to the State Duma, which seek to coordinate educational activities (prosvetitelsky deyatelnosti) with the authorities to prevent interference from “anti-Russian forces.” The bill defines “educational activities” as “activities carried out outside the framework of educational programs, aimed at the dissemination of knowledge, abilities, skills, and values,” for professional, creative, or intellectual development. According to the authors of the amendments, “A lack of appropriate legal regulation is creating the preconditions for the uncontrollable implementation of a wide range of propaganda activities by anti-Russian forces in school and student environments under the guise of educational activities, including those supported from abroad and aimed at discrediting state policy pursued in the Russian Federation, revising history, and undermining the constitutional order.” 


RFE/RL, Friday, 20 November 2020: A Russian man has been sentenced to 13 years in prison for attempting to hand classified material to U.S. intelligence. The Federal Security Service (FSB) said on November 20 that the Bryansk regional court had found that Yury Yeshchenko had illegally collected secret material related to electronic equipment developed for the Russian Navy, while working for a company involved in maintaining military vessels in the northwestern city of Murmansk in 2015-2017.


Caucasian Knot, Wednesday, 18 November 2020: The terror act committed in 1996 in Kaspiysk was an extraordinary event, but later terror acts in Russia forced residents to become accustomed to such news, Dagestani journalists suggest. They doubt the official version that the terror act committed in a house where families of border guards lived was connected with the blocking of smuggling channels. The “Caucasian Knot” has reported that on November 16, 1996, the first major terror act in Dagestan took place in Kaspiysk, in a house where mainly families of border guards lived. As a result of the terror act, 68 people, including 21 children, were killed.


Caucasian Knot, Monday, 16 November 2020: Employers in Northern Caucasus often take away their workers’ passports under some plausible pretexts, the “Alternative” anti-slavery movement has stated after a complaint by a resident of Stavropol Territory about forced labour in Ingushetia. The “Caucasian Knot” has reported that on November 9, it became known that the above woman from the Stavropol Territory had turned to the police with a complaint about being forced to slave labour. She said that a 32-year-old resident of Ingushetia had tricked her out of Nevinnomyssk and was forcibly holding her.

The Constitution

RAPSI, Wednesday, 18 November 2020: The State Duma adopted a package of bills on the primacy of Russia’s Constitution over decisions and rulings of international organizations and courts in a final third reading on Wednesday, according to the website of the lower house of parliament. Amendments are proposed to Russia’s Civil Code, Commercial Procedure Code, Civil Procedure Code, Code of Administrative Judicial Procedure, Criminal Procedure Code and 115 laws.  The changes initiated by the President are to bring current legislation up to the constitutional provisions on the inadmissibility of the use of international treaties and their interpretation contradicting to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the statement reads.

The Presidency

RFE/RL, Tuesday, 17 November 2020: Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has approved the first reading of a draft bill that would grant sweeping lifetime immunity to former presidents. The legislation is part of a package of constitutional amendments approved in a referendum this summer that could potentially see President Vladimir Putin stay in power until 2036. The draft stipulates that any former head of state and their families obtain lifetime immunity from criminal or administrative charges. They also cannot be detained, arrested, searched, or interrogated. The only exception is for treason, which must first be approved by the State Duma and the Supreme and Constitutional courts. Under the current law, former presidents are only immune from prosecution for crimes committed while in office.

Meduza, Wednesday, 18 November 2020: On Tuesday, November 17, State Duma deputies approved a draft law on extending immunity for former Russian presidents in its first reading. The bill was developed to support the amendments to the constitution adopted following this summer’s nationwide vote. That being said, the proposed legislation still provoked a controversial discussion among Russian lawmakers. Deputies from the Communist Party (KPRF) in particular were adamantly opposed — prompting parliamentary chairman Vyacheslav Volodin to accuse them of “trampling” on Russia’s institutions.


Human Rights in Ukraine, Monday, 16 November 2020: 26-year-old Alim cannot return to his family in Russian-occupied Crimea because he is unwilling to do military service and swear allegiance to the aggressor state.  Call-up notices have twice been sent to his parents’ address, with this especially illegal since Alim rejected Russian citizenship and is obliged only to serve in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.  He agreed to speak on cameral only if his face was concealed since he was concerned that his parents could suffer. Russia is known to have initiated at least 145 criminal proceedings against Crimeans for avoiding military service.  While there may be very different reasons why the young men seek to avoid military service, at least some doubtless have the same motives as Alim.  They would be unable to state this in court without risking a prison sentence for supposedly ‘encroaching upon Russia’s territorial integrity’, while all are victims of Russia’s violation of international law which expressly prohibits an occupying state from conscripting into its army.  Russia is also aggressively waging a propaganda campaign, especially among children, glorifying war and the Russian armed services.

Human Rights in Ukraine, Tuesday, 17 November 2020: Hearings have begun in occupied Crimea into the lawsuit brought by Kazim Ametov against Russia’s penitentiary service and police over the inhuman conditions he was held prisoner in for over two years.  The chances of a Russian-controlled ‘court’ finding in favour of the former political prisoner are remote, but this shocking case caused the death of 83-year-old Crimean Tatar veteran activist Vedzhie Kashka, and came close to killing two other political prisoners, and Ametov’s suit is certainly well-founded. Ametov was imprisoned from 23 November 2017 until 24 January 2019, first in the temporary holding unit in Bakhchysarai and then in the Simferopol SIZO [pre-trial detention unit].  He calls the conditions there inhuman and degrading, and akin to torture.  Now 63, Ametov says that his health deteriorated as a result, with chronic illnesses being exacerbated, and points also to the psychological suffering he endured. Ametov’s lawyer, Rustem Kyamilev reports that during the hearing on 16 November, the parties presented their documents, setting out their position.  They presented the application lodged with the European Court of Human Rights back in 2019, describing the conditions in which Ametov was held.  At the next hearing, they are supposed to specify their demands in greater detail, while the police and prison service must provide logbooks indicating, for example, how many people were held in the same cell as Ametov. 

Human Rights in Ukraine, Thursday, 19 November 2020: 45-year-old Teymur Abdullayev has a high temperature and other symptoms associated with coronavirus, yet instead of being taken to hospital, he has been placed in a Russian punishment cell where the conditions are especially appalling. Russia’s consistent failure to provide Ukrainian political prisoners with proper medical care is a violation of international law, and in any case where Covid-19 is concerned, it is a direct threat to life. Ukraine’s Ombudsperson, Lyudmila Denisova has called upon her Russian counterpart to intervene over the situation, however Tatyana Moskalkova is not well-known for adequate reaction.  According to Dilyara Abdullayeva, who is herself a doctor, her son has fever; breathlessness; a cough and is experiencing general fatigue.  All of these are symptoms which should at least prompted the prison authorities to place him in the medical unit and test him for covid-19.  Instead, his family learned after the local lawyer tried to take Abdullayev the medication that his family are forced to seek for him that he had been placed in SHIZO, a punishment  cell where his health can only deteriorate still further.  Although at 45, Abdullayev is not in the highest risk group (unlike some of Russia’s other Ukrainian political prisoners), he has been imprisoned in conditions akin to torture since October 2016, and this will have taken a considerable toll on his state of health.

Human Rights in Ukraine, Friday, 20 November 2020: Russia’s ‘trial’ of Mustafa Dzhemilev was always going to be absurd. The world-renowned Crimean Tatar leader was banned by the Russian invaders from entering his homeland back in April 2014, and is now being tried in his enforced absence for having endeavoured to return to his home in Simferopol on 3 May that year.  If that were not surreal enough, a Russian-controlled court in Armyansk has ordered that Ervin Ibragimov be forcibly brought to the court to give testimony, four years after the Crimean Tatar activist was abducted by men in Russian road patrol uniform and disappeared without trace.  While we can only hope that Ervin will be brought to the next hearing on 3 December, it seems likely that these ‘summonses’ are the latest brutal cruelty to the young man’s parents.

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