Review of the week
Compiled by Simon Cosgrove
This week Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, criticised the legal framework for civil society organisations in Russia as unduly restrictive. She described the indictment of Sochi human rights defender Semyon Simonov for failing to comply with the so-called ‘foreign agent’ law as ‘alarming’ and said it would have ‘a massive chilling effect on the entire human rights community in Russia.’ Commentators on human rights in Russia this week find, not for the first time, an abundance of instances where they are called upon to assess both an individual incident in itself and at the same time judge what that incident means for the present and future direction of Russian domestic affairs, and human rights in particular. Recently, the journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva was found guilty of ‘justifying terrorism’ but was sentenced not to a term in prison but a fine. This week Gulag historian and researcher Yury Dmitriev was convicted of violent acts of a sexual nature against a minor, but was sentenced to a term in prison that will see him released in November (prosecutors had asked for Dmitriev to be sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment). While some have seen in this sentence an effective ‘acquittal,’ in the context of a whole range of events and legal cases from this week listed below, the current trend remains one of ‘tightening screws.’ These events include the continuing trial in the New Greatness case, in which this week one other defendant, Ruslan Kostylenkov, alleged he had been subjected to torture; Aleksei Navalny‘s decision to close down his Anti-Corruption Foundation because of a lawsuit against it brought by Evgeny Prigozhin, a powerful official close to Vladimir Putin, and a new law introducing multiday voting, which will increase the opportunities for manipulation of the outcomes of elections. Moreover, it should be remembered that in Dmitriev’s case there has been a great amount of international interest, which may explain the relative leniency in his sentence. Nevertheless, for many, the conviction in Dmitriev’s case itself is an unconscionable act of injustice.
High profile trials
On Wednesday, 22 July 2020, historian and human rights defender Yury Dmitriev, former head of the Memorial organisation in Karelia who discovered mass graves of political prisoners executed during the Stalin era, was found guilty of ‘violent acts of a sexual nature committed against a person under 14 years of age’ [his adopted daughter], charges that Dmitriev and his supporters reject. While prosecutors had asked for him to be sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, he was sentenced to a term of three and a half years. The court dismissed other charges of making pornographic materials, sexual misconduct, and illegal weapon possession against Dmitriev. Taking into account time held on remand, Dmitriev should be released in November.
On Tuesday, 21 July 2020, the eve of the announcement of the verdict in a Petrozavodsk court in the trial of historian and human rights defender Yury Dmitriev, Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying that ‘the circumstances surrounding criminal charges’ against Yury Dmitriev ‘strongly suggest that they are spurious and target him for his human rights work.’ The same day, the International Federation For Human Rights issued a statement urging the Russian authorities to quash the ‘wrongful accusations’ against Yury Dmitriev: ‘The Observatory and HRC Memorial are deeply concerned about the criminal case against Mr. Dmitriev, which is taking place alongside attempts by the Russian Military Historical Society to rewrite the history of the Sandarmoh Memorial Cemetery. The human rights defender’s work to restore the historical truth about Stalinist terror goes against authorities’ efforts to rehabilitate Stalinism. “The wrongful accusations against Yuri Dmitriev must be quashed. Mr. Dmitriev and all other arbitrarily detained human rights defenders in Russia should be immediately and unconditionally released”, concluded the two organisations.’
On Tuesday, 21 July, Meduza published Dmitriev‘s closing statement to the court that had been delivered on 8 July 2020 but not published until now. In part it reads: ‘I don’t know if it’s for better or worse, but my path is to return from oblivion those people who perished because of our state. They were unjustly accused, shot, and buried in the woods like stray animals. There’s nothing indicating that people are buried here. The Lord gave me this cross to bear, maybe, but the Lord also gave me this knowledge. I have managed, not often but sometimes, to find the locations of mass human tragedies. I match them to names and I try to make room for memory in this space because memory is what makes a person a person.’
On Friday, 24 July, Ruslan Kostylenkov, a defendant in the controversial New Greatness case, accused police of beating and sexually assaulting him in order to obtain a confession. The Guardian reported that Kostylenkov, who faces a possible sentence of up to seven and a half years if convicted, ‘accused five police officers of tying him to a chair, beating him in the kidneys, and then sodomising him with the handle of a kitchen mallet so that he would confess on camera to belonging to an anarchist organisation.’ He is charged with involvement in an extremist youth organisation that allegedly plotted to overthrow the Russian government.
Freedom of expression
On Thursday, 23 July, Dmitry Nizovtsev, the host of the YouTube channel “Navalny’s headquarters in Khabarovsk,” was beaten after covering a march in support of jailed former governor Sergei Furgal. Nizovtsev wrote about the attack on Twitter. The Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement said the Russian authorities should conduct a swift and transparent investigation into the assault of journalist Dmitriy Nizovtsev and hold the perpetrators to account.
On Thursday, 23 July, a court ordered a man charged with insulting judges of Russia’s Constitutional Court on the Internet to be jailed for seven days. Fedor Krasheninnikov has been found guilty of repeated contempt, according to his attorney for publishing, on 14 March 2020, an insulting statement against the Constitutional Court judges on his Telegram channel. Krasheninnikov is also a commentator on Russian affairs for Deutsche Welle.
On Thursday, 23 July, acting RFE/RL President Daisy Sindelar said that a draft of a proposed order posted by the Russian state media regulator on 16 July is intended to further restrict the media in Russia and to instill fear in their audiences, RFE/RL reported. Under the draft instruction, media outlets that have been registered as “foreign agents” must identify that fact in published or broadcast materials. The draft order is open for comment until July 30.
On Thursday, 23 July, Human Rights Watch reported that apparently the authorities are prioritizing charging the MediaZona journalist, David Frenkel, whose arm was broken by a police officer on 30 June at a polling station, with three administrative offenses. At the time of the incident Frenkel was attempting to report on the voting on constitutional amendments. He could face up to 15 days in jail if convicted. His court hearing is scheduled for 27 July.
Right of assembly
On Monday, 20 July, a Moscow court found Polina Simonenko guilty of repeatedly violating protest rules and sentenced her to 14 days in jail. The Moscow Times reported that Simonenko, a transgender activist, was jailed along with about 30 other activists at the weekend for staging single-person pickets against a bill banning gay and transgender marriage and adoption and now faces humiliation and possible rape in the men’s cell she’s been placed in.
On Thursday, 23 July, Moscow police detained four demonstrators who were holding single-person pickets outside the Supreme Court to demand the immediate release of Yan Sidorov and Vladislav Mordasov, two activists convicted for ‘attempted organization of riots’ and sentenced to 6 1/2 years and 6 years and 7 months, respectively, in a prison colony over protests in Rostov-on-Don. Amnesty International has recognised Sidorov and Mordasov as prisoners of conscience. The Supreme Court is currently hearing their appeals. Among those detained were members of the Other Russia opposition grouping, Mikhail Galyashkin, Andrei Plygach, Timofei Filin, and Natalya Krivolapova.
On Thursday, 23 July, Khabarovsk police summoned local activist Artem Mozgov for questioning on suspicion of organizing an unsanctioned mass rally on July 11 in support of Governor Sergei Furgal, who was arrested days before on charges of murder and attempted murder.
Right of association
On Monday, 20 July, the Prosecutor General’s Office declared seven foreign organizations that support the followers of the Chinese Falun Gong and Falun Dafa faiths undesirable in the Russian Federation. They include America’s Global Organization for Falun Gong Prosecution Investigations, Coalition on the Investigation into Prosecution of Falun Gong in China, the World Council for Protection of Prosecuted Falun Gong adepts, Friends of Falun Gong, British Falun Dafa.
On Tuesday, 21 July, the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović, issued a statement describing the indictment of Semyen Simonov, a Russian human rights defender in Sochi, ‘for not complying with the legislation on non-commercial organisations’ as ‘alarming’ and said it would have ‘a massive chilling effect on the entire human rights community in Russia.’
“Mr Simonov’s NGO has been sanctioned for carrying out human rights activities and, as a result, it has been compelled to cease its activities. The same thing has happened to several dozen other NGOs across the Russian Federation in the last seven years.
The existing legal framework unduly restricts the work of civil society organisations in the country and interferes with the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression of many non-commercial organisations and human rights defenders.
I urge the authorities of the Russian Federation to drop the charges against Mr Simonov and to urgently review the current legal framework in order to bring it in line with the Council of Europe human rights standards which require states to establish an enabling environment for human rights defenders to carry out their work.”
On Wednesday, 22 July, Aleksandr Gabyshev, a shaman in the Siberian region of Yakutia, who claimed to have a plan to remove President Putin from power, was released from a psychiatric clinic where he had been forcibly placed on 12 May 2020.
On Tuesday, 21 July 2020, the State Duma, approved in its final reading a bill that would allow voting over as many as three days during elections. Multiday voting was first used in the vote on the constitutional amendments from 25 June to 1 July. Critics say multiday voting gives power holders more control over elections and more opportunities to rig results. The bill was approved by the Parliament’s upper chamber on 24 July.
On Friday, 24 July, Central Election Commission Chair Ella Pamfilova said the elections set for 13 September would take place over three days, from 11 to 13 September, with early voting held on 11 and 12 September and 13 September chosen as the main polling day.
Oon Wednesday, 22 July, the State Duma adopted in second and third readings legislation in line with the new Constitution that provides for 10 year prison sentences for calling to cede territory from the Russian Federation. As The Moscow Times, points out, the current law, ‘adopted after Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, jails Russians for similar calls to relinquish territory for up to five years.’
On Tuesday, 21 July, a bill mitigating punishment for pregnant women and women with children under the age of three years convicted of non-serious crimes passed second and third readings in the State Duma, RAPSI reported. The bill ‘stipulates a possibility of release on parole for convicted pregnant women and mothers of kids under the age of three years living in the penitentiary facilities’ orphanages.’
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.’
On Tuesday 21 July, the newly appointed governor Mikhail Degtyarov (appointed by President Putin on Monday, 20 July) arrived in Khabarovsk as demonsrators continued for an 11th day to protest agains the arrest and dismissal of the elected governor, Sergei Furgal.
On Monday, 20 July 2020, the U.S. State Department placed the head of the republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, on its blacklist of human rights violators for alleged torture, extrajudicial killings and other violations over the previous decade. Kadyrov’s spouse Medni Kadyrova, and his two daughters have been banned from travelling to the US.
On Wednesday, 22 July, Vladimir Putin awarded Ramzan Kadyrov the military rank of Major General.
On Friday, 24 July, Zarema Umarova, the widow of Mamikhan Umarov, a Chechen man shot dead earlier this month in Vienna, said her husband had been an informant for Austrian security agencies and that police were examining his cell phone. The previous day, relatives of her slain husband had issued an unusual video claimingresponsibility for his killing.
On Monday, 20 July, Aleksei Navalny announced he was closing the Anti-Corruption Foundation which he heads. The Foundation is currently facing a lawsuit under which Evgeny Prigozhin, known to be close to the Kremlin and often nicknamed ‘Putin’s chef’, is seeking 88 million rubles ($1.2 million) in compensation from Navalny and his colleague Liubov Sobol for a video alleging a company he controls that provides food to schools and kindergartens did not meet sanitary standards. Navalny said the Foundation, which was listed as a ‘foreign agent’ NGO in October 2019, would be closed but its work would continue under another organisation. The authorities have previously also frozen the Foundation’s bank accounts and raided his nationwide political network, The Moscow Times reports.
On Wednesday, 22 July, the Investigative Committee confirmed that about four militants were killed in the Chegem district of Kabardino-Balkaria when the authorities sought to detain them. The FSB reported that the suspects plotting a terror act.
On Wednesday, 22 July, Human Rights in Ukraine reported that ‘Vladimir Shypytsin could face a 5-year prison sentence after his Ukrainian flag knocked the cap off the police officer who was roughly trying to detain him for a perfectly peaceful picket on 18 July in support of Crimean Tatar political prisoners. It is claimed that this was ‘violence against a representative of the authorities’, falling under Article 318 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code and carrying a possible sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment.’
On Wednesday, 22 July, a court in Russia-annexed Crimea sentenced Nariman Mezhmedinov, a local Tatar man, to eight years in prison after finding him guilty of being a member of an “illegal armed group” that resists Moscow’s control of the peninsula.
Among the events listed above, the key outcome of the week has surely been the conviction of Yury Dmitriev in a court in Petrozavodsk. For many he symbolises the essence of what it takes to fight for human rights in Russia, as in other countries. Dmitriev’s chosen field of endeavour has been to investigate the killings of the victims of Stalinist repression. It seems fitting to conclude with words he spoke in court that exemplify his modesty, the heinous nature of the crimes he has been investigating, the vast amoung of work entailed and, above all, what it means to be a human rights defender: to focus on the lives of individuals who suffered injustice, and what their suffering means for the rest of society:
‘I don’t know if it’s for better or worse, but my path is to return from oblivion those people who perished because of our state. They were unjustly accused, shot, and buried in the woods like stray animals… I have managed, not often but sometimes, to find the locations of mass human tragedies. I match them to names and I try to make room for memory in this space because memory is what makes a person a person.’