Rights in Russia week-ending 21 August 2020

Compiled by Simon Cosgrove

In retrospect, the relatively ‘quiet’ previous week, when so much attention was apparently fixed on developments in Belarus, proved ominous for Russia itself. This week the appalling attempt on the life of political opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (or ‘blogger’ as the Russian official media call him) was surely a moment for the authorities to demonstrate their commitment to ending and punishing this kind of violence. Yet what the world witnessed was unfortunate delay and obfuscation on the part of doctors in Omsk, who denied there was evidence of poisoning, amid a heavy presence of Russian security personnel who did not seem to be engaged in any kind of investigation. It was most likely pressure exerted by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, together with the rapid granting of a request for interim measures by the European Court of Human Rights, that enabled the removal of Navalny to Berlin for treatment. There, doctors quickly announced he had indeed been a victim of poisoning. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were among those that called for a swift and impartial investigation into the poisoning. Natalia Zvyagina, head of Amnesty’s Moscow office, pointed to similarities with other cases: ‘What has happened to Aleksei Navalny is undeniably similar to incidents involving other hardline critics of the Russian authorities, including the politician Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. and Pussy Riot punk band producer Pyotr Verzilov. Aleksei Navalny himself became seriously ill previously during his administrative arrest a year ago. None of these incidents were investigated.’

Against this background, the general situation in Russia remains highly repressive. This week Amnesty International highlighted the plight of Jehovah’s Witnesses, designated an ‘extremist organisation’ in Russia, one of whose members (Gennady Shpakovsky) had an extraodinary six and a half year sentence in prison commuted to a two years’ suspended sentence. At the same time, 11 Muslims are currently being prosecuted in Crimea and face long prison terms for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation banned and designated as terrorist in Russia despite there being no evidence its members have been engaged in crimes of violence. The sentencing in Perm of a young man, Aleksandr Shabarchin, to two years’ imprisonment for a peaceful protest using an effigy of President Putin highlights the draconian restrictions on peaceful assembly. The suppression of freedom of expression was evident in the ongoing case of the blogger Andrei Pyzh, remanded in custody until 6 October on charges of disclosing a state secret under Article 283 of the Russian Criminal Code, while Memorial Human Rights Centre declared Ivan Liubshin a political prisoner following his sentencing to five years and two months’ imprisonment for justifying terrrorism on the basis of deleted social media comments he made over the case of Mikhal Zhlobitsky (the same case for which the journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva was convicted and fined).

Independent political activism

On Thursday, 20 August 2020, The Guardian reported opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was in a coma and on a ventilator in a hospital intensive care unit after a suspected poisoning his supporters believe is tied to his anti-Kremlin activism. Navalny was returning to Moscow by plane from Siberia when he fell ill, prompting the captain to make an emergency landing in Omsk, where he was taken to hospital. The 44-year-old’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh told the Echo of Moscow radio station that Navalny had begun sweating and then lost consciousness shortly after take-off. “I am sure this was deliberate poisoning,” she said, added that she suspected a cup of black tea he drank at an airport cafe was the source. She tied the alleged poisoning to upcoming elections in the Siberian regions they had visited. Navalny’s personal doctor also said he had been poisoned.

On Friday, 21 August 2020, doctors treating Navalny refused to allow him to be taken out of the country for treatment, saying he is too sick to be moved, The Guardian reported. The decision was announced by doctors just an hour before a plane was due to arrive to evacuate Navalny to a hospital in Germany. Navalny is currently in a coma in a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk. “The plane we have organised for Alexei’s evacuation should land in an hour,” wrote Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s press secretary, who is currently at the hospital. “The ban on transporting Navalny is an attempt on his life.” The Moscow Times reported that local police had said a poison was found in the Navalny’s body “that is dangerous to others,”, citing a lose aide to Navalny.

On Thursday, 20 August 2020, Meduza reported that Aleksei Navalny had flown to Novosibirsk on 13 August to help organise his campaigning for the Novosibirsk and Tomsk city council elections next month in which Navalny and his supporters have endorsed several independent candidates: “The trip’s main purpose was to support the ‘Smart Vote’ system. These are key regions,” said a source in one of Navalny’s local offices, referring to the strategic voting initiative Navalny launched last year, designed to rally support for the registered candidates in races with the best chance of defeating United Russia’s picks. 

On Thursday, 20 August 2020, Amnesty International demanded that the Russian authorities fully investigate the circumstances of the unexpected and critical deterioration of the health of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and allow him to immediately be diagnosed by and receive treatment from doctors that his family trusts. “The administration of the hospital must provide full access to information about his treatment to his family and doctors of his or their choice. There have already been reports that his chosen doctor was not allowed to see the test results and was not informed of the course of treatment. In light of assumptions about possible poisoning, this only adds to suspicions,” said Natalia Zvyagina, Director of Amnesty International’s Moscow office. “Given the grave allegations that have been suggested as the cause of Aleksei Navalny’s illness, there must be a prompt and independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding his hospitalization. If criminal intent is proven, those who ordered and perpetrated this crime must be brought to justice. What has happened to Aleksei Navalny is undeniably similar to incidents involving other hardline critics of the Russian authorities, including the politician Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. and Pussy Riot punk band producer Pyotr Verzilov. Aleksei Navalny himself became seriously ill previously during his administrative arrest a year ago. None of these incidents were investigated.”

On Friday, 21 August 2020, Human Rights Watch reported that, according to media reports, on that evening, Russian doctors in Omsk gave permission for Navalny to be medevaced to Germany for treatment. This followed a time when Yulia Navalnaya, who had rushed to Omsk, had not been allowed to see him. News reports say that after some delay, doctors flown in from Germany have been allowed to see him. Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, wrote: “The authorities should immediately ensure that the doctors the family wants can treat Navalny and medevac him if they determine that is in his best interest. And to address the questions swirling about whether Navalny was poisoned, and if the authorities were involved, they should allow a prompt, effective, independent investigation, with public findings.”

Human Rights Watch also said: Navalny, one of the most prominent critics of the Kremlin, leads a nationwide anti-corruption movement and has presidential ambitions. His YouTube videos – exposing alleged high-level, eye-popping corruption and lavish spending by political elites – draw millions of views. He’s been arrested multiple times. His brother was imprisoned for three years on dubious fraud charges, almost certainly retaliation against Navalny. He’s been physically attacked, nearly losing sight in an eye. The offices of his anti-corruption organization have been raided and fined, eventually closed.

Freedom of conscience

On Tuesday, 18 July 2020, Amnesty International reported that on 3 August, the Pskov Regional Court, in western Russia, commuted Gennadiy Shpakovsky’s six-and-a-half-years’ prison sentence to a suspended sentence of the same duration including two years on probation. The 61-year-old Jehovah’s Witness was released from detention on the same day. Gennadiy Shpakovsky was prosecuted solely for exercising his right to freedom of religion. He and other Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, where practicing their faith is a crime, remain at risk of imprisonment.

On Tuesday, 18 August 2020, judges in the trial of eight Ukrainian civic journalists and activists on charges relating to involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group banned in Russia, filed a formal complaint against one of the defence lawyers on unwarranted grounds, Human Rights in Ukraine reports: ‘Neither in the records of the hearing on 17 August, nor in those on 11 and 12 August, is there anything to indicate that lawyer Lilya Hemedzhi did anything except uphold the interests of her client, Server Mustafayev.’

On Thursday, 20 August 2020, Human Rights in Ukraine, reported that on 19 August in the trial of three men for membership of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic organisation – Enver Omerov, his son Riza Omerov and Aider Dzhapparov (all recognized by Memorial Human Rights Centre as political prisoners) – a ‘secret witness’ under the pseudonym ‘Rustem Ablayev’ refused to reveal his identity because he “just” didn’t want to.  The defence disputedthe need for his secrecy but the prosecutor Yevgeny Kolpikov reminded ‘Ablayev’ that he “feared for his safety”.  This was one of multiple prompts from the prosecutor which the court turned a blind eye to despite the defence’s repeated objection that the ‘witness’ seemed to be reading from a script and sometimes turning off the microphone, almost certainly in order to be told the answer. Human Rights in Ukraine notes that the concept of a ‘protected witness’ has a quite different meaning for Russian courts, especially when the aim is to imprison Crimean Tatar political prisoners for up to 20 years without any crime.  Anonymity and physical distance from the court are guaranteed so that the ‘witness’ testimony cannot be verified, and, as was dramatically clear on 19 August, so that the ‘witness’ can be prompted when he doesn’t know what to say.

Secrecy laws

On Wednesday, 19 July 2020, The Moscow Times reported that the popular urban exploration YouTuber Andrei Pyzh is suspected of sending secret information about the Moscow metro to Ukraine. Pyzh was remanded in custody on 6 August on charges of obtaining and spreading state secrets. “He’s charged with transporting data related to metro lines in Moscow to Ukraine,” TASS reported Wednesday, citing an unnamed law enforcement source. Pyzh is also suspected of taking information related to Metro-2, an alleged secret underground metro system, the source said. Pyzh faces between three and eight years in jail if found guilty of illegally obtaining and disseminating state secrets.

Right of assembly

On Saturday, 15 August 2020, Meduza reported that, for the sixth consecutive Saturday, a large crowd of people marched through the center of the Khabarovsk toward the regional government’s office in Lenin Square (locals call it the White House). City officials reported a “significant decline” in the number of protesters. “Ten times fewer people came out today than for the first rally. […] This is the sixth straight week we’ve seen less and less activity from the public,” said spokespeople for the mayor’s office. According to the news agency Baikal 24, however, the crowd was just as big as it’s ever been, stretching nearly a mile and comprising roughly 30,000 people.

On Monday, 17 August 2020, Caucasian Knot reported that residents of Astrakhan held solo pickets and a gathering in support of Belarusian citizens to protest against the outcome of the presidential election and to support protesters in Khabarovsk. In the evening of 16 August about 10-12 people came to the Naberezhnaya (Embankment). Of them, four stood in solo pickets. Blogger Oleg Shporin told the “Caucasian Knot” correspondent that he learned from the Facebook social network about the planned action on Naberezhnaya to be dedicated to the events in Khabarovsk and Belarus. “I have come to support the people who take part in the action here and, possibly, to take part in a discussion,” the blogger said. Magripa Serikova, a participant of the action, stood in a picket. In her hand, the activist was holding a poster reading: “Khabarovsk, Astrakhan supports you.” “I support Khabarovsk, because its residents have shown the whole country and even the whole world that we should fight for our rights and not be afraid to take to the streets. We should support residents of Khabarovsk, because the situation like they [have] is everywhere, throughout the country,” Magripa Serikova told the “Caucasian Knot” correspondent.

On Tuesday, 18 August 2020, Meduza reported that the Leninsky district court in Perm has handed out sentences to the three defendants in a hooliganism case launched over a protest action involving a Putin effigy dressed in a prisoner’s uniform. The court sentenced Aleksandr Shabarchin — an activist from opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s headquarters in Perm, — to two years in prison. Activist Danil Vasilyev received one year of probation. Both were found guilty of ‘hooliganism by prior agreement.’ A third defendant, libertarian Aleksndr Etkin was acquitted. Lawyers for the defence intend to appeal the judgment – and to go as far as the European Court of Human Rights.

On Saturday, 15 August 2020, dozens of people were detained at Kushtau Hill in Russia’s Bashkortostan region following clashes between environmental activists and workers of the Bashkir Soda Company (BSK), RFE/RL reports. According to the report, police detained some 50 people on 15 August. Defense lawyer Garifulla Yapparov told RFE/RL that police said they intended to hold the detainees for 48 hours. The incident arose after a representing chemical workers in Bashkortostan, including BSK employees, called a “flash mob” near an encampment set up by environmentalists to block mining on the hill, which is a protected nature reserve.

On Thursday, 20 August 2020, RAPSI reported that a court in Nizhny Tagil has refused to release activist Kirill Zhukov, who had committed an assault on a National Guard officer during an unauthorized rally in Moscow on 27 July 2019, on parole, his lawyer Alexey Bushmakov said. A prosecutor also objected to parole basing on the convict’s characteristics from a penal colony. On 4 September 2019, Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court convicted Zhukov of the use of force against a representative of authority. The court found that the defendant knocked down an officer by butting him in the face. Zhukov pleaded not guilty.


On Tuesday, 18 August 2020, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption council urged Russia to boost efforts against graft among members of its parliament, judges and prosecutors, The Moscow Times reported. GRECO, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, said there had been some progress, but “work is still needed.” In its latest report, GRECO said: “The transparency of the legislative process still needs strengthening, with public consultations on bills becoming the general rule rather than an option. […] the executive power still has the possibility of initiating its own control of MPs’ asset declarations, which remains a concern for the separation of powers.”


On Tuesday, 18 August 2020, RAPSI reported that the chair of Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council Valery Fadeyev has sent a letter to the U.S. Google office asking to clarify the reasons behind blockings of YouTube channels run by Russian mass media outlets, according to a statement on the body’s official website. The Council explains that the letter was written due to complaints of the blocked channels owners, who allege that YouTube administrators acted in violation of law, whereas the civic activists view unjustified blockings as a manifestation of censorship and attempts to influence freedom of speech and expression. According to the Council, about 200 Russian channels have been blacklisted by YouTube administrators in the last few years.

Right to life

On Tuesday, 18 August 2020, while searching for militants in the Sunzha District of Ingushetia, law enforcers killed two persons who offered armed resistance, Caucasian Knot reported. On the evening of August 17, in the forest near the village of Galashki in the Sunzha District of Ingushetia, law enforcers reportedly found a hiding with ammunition and were shelled after their discovery.

On Tuesday, 18 August 20020, the Chief Investigating Department for the North-Caucasian Federal District recommended that the refusal to institute an investigation into the death of Madina Umaeva, a resident of Gudermes, be reviewed, Caucasian Knot reported. Earlier, Caucasian Knot reported that the sudden death of the young woman in Gudermes and her funeral held at night provoked a wide public response in Chechnya. In social networks, users disseminated versions stating that Madina Umaeva fell victim to domestic violence. The mother of Madina Umaeva succeeded in seeking the exhumation of her daughter’s body. However, the leader of Chechnya did not wait for the results of the forensic examination, met relatives of the deceased young woman, and her mother apologized for the claim about the violent death of her daughter. In early July, human rights defenders from Russia and other countries appealed to Alexander Bastrykin, the chief of the Investigating Committee of the Russian Federation (ICRF) with a request to transfer case materials about the Madina Umaeva’s death from the jurisdiction of the Chechen investigators and take the case under personal control.

End note

In the absence of independent and impartial investigations into crimes of violence against leading human rights, civil society and political activists in Russia, involvement in these acts by political authorities is often asserted but remains a matter of supposition. However, we see that the Russian authorities continue to demonstrate their readiness to use draconian laws to prevent the exercise of fundamental freedoms such as those of assembly, association, conscience and expression. Against this background, ongoing events in Khabarovsk and Belarus are unlikely to be welcomed by these same authorities as signs of a democratic awakening of civil society. The apparent attempted assassination of Aleksei Navalny not only highlights the extraordinary courage of Russia’s most high profile independent politician and civil society activist, but also the extraordinary weight of the deadhand of a political system that apparently sees exercise of the most fundamental human rights as a threat to its legitimacy.

The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of Rights in Russia

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