Rights in Russia week-ending 26 February 2021

Our weekly round up of the news

Other news:

20 February 2021

RFE/RL: A Russian political researcher has been arrested in Moscow on a charge of high treason. Moscow’s Lefortovo district court disclosed on February 20 that Demuri Voronin will remain in pretrial detention until at least April 13. Media reports cited sources close to the investigation as saying that Voronin was suspected of sharing classified material to a Western intelligence agency. If convicted, Voronin faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,759). Russia’s Investigative Committee has not commented on the arrest.

22 February 2021

Amnesty International: Prisoner of conscience Konstantin Kotov, who was convicted for “repeated violations of regulations of public assemblies”, left prison on 16 December after having spent one year and four months behind bars. Konstantin Kotov was arrested on 10 August 2019 for intending to participate in an “unsanctioned” peaceful rally and was subsequently sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for similar “offences”. In April 2020, his sentence was reduced to 18 months.

23 February 2021

The Moscow Times: Ukraine has accused Russia of targeted assassinations of “perceived opponents” in a case lodged at the European Court of Human Rights, the latest salvo by Kiev in a barrage of legal complaints against Moscow. The case, which was filed last week, accuses Russia of carrying out “state-authorized” assassinations “in Russia and on the territory of other states… outside a situation of armed conflict,” the court said Tuesday.

RFE/RL: “Sign up quickly,” read an announcement that appeared on a closed social-media chat group for university students in this oil-rich Siberian city earlier this month. “11,000 rubles aren’t just lying around on the road. This is a good opportunity to earn references.” Several students studying at Nizhnevartovsk State University, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, have told RFE/RL they have been offered money and academic benefits in exchange for helping to promote the ruling United Russia party through scripted social-media posts and other activities.

The Guardian: Alisa Meissner is paying to this day for the Soviet Union’s decision to exile her whole family from Moscow for their German heritage. She still lives in a town just 30 miles from the gulag village where her family were sent in the 1940s after the outbreak of the second world war. […] Now she and 1,500 other descendants of exiles under Stalin, the “children of the gulag”, are closely following a legislative battle that could decide whether or not they are given some small compensation for the lives that were taken away from them. [… ] There was little hope for the children of gulag prisoners until they won a 2019 constitutional court case in a surprise decision that would help them fast-track housing applications. But that victory could be undermined by new legislation that could put them in decades-long queues for housing and shift the financial burden away from Russia’s federal budget. […] The Memorial NGO, a human rights organisation researching crimes under the Soviet Union, and civil activists have presented alternative legislation that they say will provide relief now. A decision is likely to be made by Russia’s State Duma lower house in the next month. Grigory Vaipan, a lawyer who represented Meissner and other claimants in the constitution court, says many politicians do not want to discuss the problems facing the victims of Soviet repressions.

24 February 2021

The Moscow Times: Moscow police have blocked supporters of slain opposition politician Boris Nemtsov from laying flowers at the site of his death on a bridge steps away from the Kremlin. Nemtsov’s supporters have maintained and guarded a makeshift memorial at the site where he was shot dead on Feb. 27, 2015, day and night for nearly six years. Organizers of the annual march in Nemtsov’s memory announced that this year’s event would be canceled due to the pandemic, calling on supporters to lay flowers at his memorial instead and asking city authorities not to interfere. Over the long holiday weekend, police removed the memorial and detained several activists, citing a local order to keep the site clear, according to the Nemtsov Most (Nemtsov Bridge) volunteer organization. 

RFE/RL: Prosecutors have asked a court in the city of Samara in Russia to sentence civil rights activist Karim Yamadayev from Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan to six years and seven months in prison for mocking President Vladimir Putin and two of his close associates in a YouTube video. Pavel Chikov, the chief of the Agora nongovernmental legal-aid organization, quoted Yamadayev’s lawyer, Vladimir Krasikov, on February 24 as saying that the prosecutor had asked the court to find the defendant guilty of promoting terrorism and insulting authorities.

RFE/RL: Executives of U.S. technology companies told lawmakers on February 23 that a recent breach of corporate and government networks was so sophisticated that a nation had to be behind it and said all the evidence points to Russia. The hearing was the first to examine the hack, which was discovered by private security company FireEye in December. It was later revealed that hackers slipped malicious code into updates of network-management software made by the U.S. company SolarWinds, which was then downloaded by several branches of the U.S. government and several U.S. and European corporations. U.S. intelligence officials and industry sources had previously blamed the intrusion on Russian hackers. Moscow has denied any involvement.

25 February 2021

Human Rights in Ukraine: The trial has begun in Russian-occupied Sevastopol of Halyna Dovhopola who will be 66 in March, and has spent well over a year imprisoned in Moscow on mystery charges of ‘spying’ for Ukraine.  The country which invaded and annexed Ukrainian Crimea is illegally applying the norm in its criminal code on ‘state treason’ in its trial of the elderly Ukrainian. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, the proceedings were registered with the Russian-controlled Sevastopol City Court on 4 February 2021, with the preliminary hearing taking place on 17 February. Such preliminary hearings are always behind closed doors, however it seems likely that the entire ‘trial’ will be hidden from the public.  Russia’s FSB have been seizing Ukrainians either in occupied Crimea or in Russia and charging them with ‘spying’ since mid-2014, with the secrecy behind all of these cases making it very easy to fabricate evidence and to use illegal methods to extract ‘confessions’ and obtain sentences of 12 years or more.   It was typical in this respect that the Crimean Human Rights Group was only able to identify the woman whom the FSB arrested in November 2019 when the first 2-month detention period was extended in January 2020.

RFE/RL: A shaman in the Siberian region of Yakutia, who has had several attempts to march to Moscow on foot “to drive President Vladimir Putin out of the Kremlin” stopped by the authorities, has been accused of attacking a police officer. Aleksei Pryanishnikov, legal coordinator for the opposition group Open Russia, said on February 24 that police in Yakutia’s capital, Yakutsk, had launched a probe against Aleksandr Gabyshev, accusing him of a “violent act against a police officer” when he was forcibly taken from his home to a psychiatric clinic in late January. No further details were immediately available.

The Moscow Times: Moscow authorities have allocated more than $10 million to purchase and install across the city’s sprawling metro system high-definition cameras that can recognize faces and track fast movements, Russian media reported Thursday. Russia’s capital Moscow in recent years has developed a vast network of some 100,000 facial recognition cameras, sparking concerns from activists over state surveillance.  Those concerns were heightened in the wake of protests in January and early February over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny after demonstrators and activists claimed police had tracked down people present at the rallies using facial recognition technology. On Thursday, the Kommersant business daily reported that Moscow city officials have allocated another $12.5 million to expand that system.

The Moscow Times: On the night of Aug. 23 1991, as a coup attempt by communist hardliners bent on preserving the dissolving Soviet Union collapsed, Sergei Stankevich rushed to the KGB headquarters on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square. With victorious anti-coup Muscovites preparing to pull down the statue of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzherzinsky outside the building, Stankevich — then a lawmaker in the Moscow City Soviet — had been appointed by his colleagues to ensure that the eleven ton statue was toppled without damaging the Metro station below. “I told people that we shouldn’t leave ourselves open to accusations of lawlessness or vandalism,” Stankevich told The Moscow Times. “It was history and it had to be done strictly according to the law.” Almost thirty years after the statue fell — for many symbolising the end of the U.S.S.R. — Russian opinion is deeply split on remembrance of the country’s Soviet past and a government-backed vote on whether to restore “Iron Felix” to his former place has become a flashpoint in Russia’s controversial memory politics.

The Moscow Times: A Russian national has been sentenced to 8 years in prison for treason by handing state secrets to China, a court in Siberia announced Thursday. Vladimir Vasilyev, 52, had pleaded guilty to passing state secrets to China’s intelligence services, the state-run TASS news agency quoted an unnamed law enforcement source as saying. He is at least the third Russian citizen to be convicted of state treason this year and the 10th in the past two years. The Zabaikalsky region court in a closed-door trial found Vasilyev guilty of high treason and sentenced him to 8 years in a maximum-security penal colony.

26 February 2021

The Moscow Times: Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin halted a vote Friday on whether to restore a statue of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky outside the domestic intelligence headquarters in the Russian capital.  The vote, which kicked off Thursday and was set to last a week, offered Muscovites a choice between a statue of Dzerzhinsky, who is seen as a symbol of the KGB’s control over society in the Soviet Union, and Alexander Nevsky, a 13th century prince and Orthodox saint.  But with nearly 320,000 ballots cast two days later, with Nevsky leading Dzerzhinsky by 55% to 45%, Sobyanin decided to scrap the vote — and the new statue — altogether.  Writing on his official blog, the Moscow mayor said that the vote was “increasingly turning into a confrontation between people holding different views.”

Human Rights in Ukraine: 63-year-old Oleh Prykhodko gave his final address to the court in Russia which is due to hand down a verdict on 3 March.  The defence demonstrated over and over again that the charges against Prykhodko were absurd and the evidence falsified. This, however, is the court which has been issuing huge sentences against Ukrainian political prisoners since the trial of Oleg Sentsov, and the chances for justice here do not seem high. According to his lawyer, Nazim Sheikhmambet, Prykhodko’s final address was emotional, but to the point.  He said that he is “an ordinary Christian, and blacksmith, who opposed “Crimea being joined to Russia” and openly said so. He expressed his certainty that this opposition was the reason for the FSB’s “attention”.   The defence also addressed the court, pointing out the failings in the prosecution’s evidence and all the many discrepancies in the case. Prykhodko has been held in the appalling conditions first of the SIZO [remand prison] in Simferopol, then in a Rostov SIZO since October 2019.  Such conditions are difficult even for a young man, and are positively dangerous for a 63-year-old in poor health.  The only good thing is that the prison administration have finally begun giving Prykhodko the medication that his wife and adult daughter obtain for him.

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