compiled by Simon Cosgrove
This week there has been continuing concern for the well-being of the politician and civil soicety activist Aleksei Navalny following his poisoning, and what it means for the future of already restricted civic freedoms in Russia. Not long after his arrival at a hospital in Berlin, doctors there confirmed he had been poisoned; at the same time, top officials in Russia expressed scepticism that Navalny had been poisoned at all and some even suggested he may have been poisoned by foreign powers.
Restrictions on freedom of expression and political campaigning were also evident in the conviction this week of Airat Dilmukhametov, sentenced to nine years in a penal colony for a 2018 video in which he called for the creation of a ‘real’ federation in Russia with greater autonomy for ethnic republics and regions. Despite the fact that he does not advocate violence, Dilmukhametov was prosecuted under Article 280.1 of the Russian Criminal Code (Public calls for actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation).
Right of assembly is also a key focus for civil liberties campaigners and this week 14 people in Rostov were charged with offences under administrative law for violating the regulations governing public assemblies when they held peaceful pickets and laid flowers in support of protesters in Belarus. We highlight a women’s group from Rostov, FEM IZBA, who the week before had held a flash-mob in support of Belarus protesters.
An important legal case concerning the right of assembly and, furthermore, the status of international human rights law in Russia following the summer’s constitutional amendements, also made news this week. It was reported that on 16 September 2020 the Presidium of the Supreme Court will consider a request to vacate the convictions of two political activists, Sergei Uldaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhaev, who were both sentenced to four and a half years for conspiracy to cause mass disorder in connection with the 6 May 2012 Bolotnaya Square rally. This follows last November’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that found numerous violations in their convictions.
Finally, the fate of Chechens extradited to Russia was highlighted when earlier this month Khusen Gadamauri, extradited from Germany in 2017 under Russia’s guarantees, was killed in a counter-terrorism operation. According to Ekkehard Maas, head of the German-Caucasian Friendship Society, Gadamauri had not engaged in terrorist activity but had avoided joining the ranks of Kadyrov’s forces.
On Monday, 24 August 2020, The Guardian reported that tests indicated Aleksei Navalny was the victim of a poisoning and he was being treated with atropine, the same antidote used after the 2018 nerve agent attack in Salisbury, according to the German clinic where the Kremlin critic is a patient said.
On Tuesday, 25 August 2020, The Guardian reported that the Kremlin has rejected accusations that Vladimir Putin was involved in the suspected poisoning of opposition critic Aleksei Navalny, who is in a coma in a German hospital. However, Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said no criminal investigation would be opened in Russia unless doctors identified the specific substance with which Navalny had been poisoned, suggesting it would stonewall such a move.
On Tuesday, 25 August 2020, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) expressed deep concern over the probable poisoning of lawyer, prominent anti-corruption activist and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation State, Alexei Navalny. The IBAHRI calls for an open, impartial and independent investigation into the situation following comment from the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, a hospital in Germany’s capital, that ‘the clinical findings indicate intoxication by a substance from the group of active substances called cholinesterase inhibitors.’ Mr Navalny remains in an induced coma.
On Wednesday, 26 August 2020, The Moscow Times reported that Kremlin-linked businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin has vowed to ruin Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is in a coma in a Berlin hospital, with a court-ordered penalty of around $1.2 million. Media reports have said he funds Wagner, a private army of mercenaries, which he denies. On Tuesday evening Prigozhin was quoted as saying he intended to enforce a court decision last year that Navalny and his associates must pay him almost 88 million rubles ($1.2 million at the current exchange rate) in damages over a video report. “I intend to strip this group of unscrupulous people of their clothes and shoes,” Prigozhin was quoted as saying after paying off the company directly named in the court case, meaning the payment would go to him directly.
On Wednesday, 26 August 2020, The Moscow Times reported that on Monday 24 August State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s statements urging investigations into the apparent poisoning “point to the underlying cause of what happened.” He said: “Merkel and Borrel’s subsequent statements make us look at this situation in a different light and wonder whether this is a German or another EU country’s provocation designed to accuse our country of something new,” Volodin said. Volodin said he’ll instruct the Duma’s security committee to “analyze what happened to understand whether this was an attempt by foreign states to harm the health of a Russian citizen in order to create tensions within Russia.”
On Thursday, 27 August 2020, Russia said it does not intend to investigate the suspected poisoning of the opposition Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who is in a coma in a German hospital, saying there was no evidence of any crime, The Guardian reported. The prosecutor general’s office said it saw no basis to open an inquiry after a preliminary investigation. Vladimir Putin’s press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said there was little reason to act since a poisonous substance had not been discovered.
On Wednesday, 26 August 2020, RFE/RL reported that when Aleksei Navalny arrived in Novosibirsk earlier this month to meet with local opposition activists, security services in the Siberian city were already tracking his moves. After he and three colleagues left on August 18 to drive 250 kilometers south to Tomsk, a group of plainclothes officers trailed him. In Tomsk itself, every detail of his two-day visit — including the location of his rented apartment and the names of people he met — was recorded. The details of Navalny’s movements were recorded and leaked to a pro-government newspaper Moskovsky komsomolets tabloid, that wrote that “Law enforcement noted no suspicious contacts that could be linked to a poisoning.” The leaks omitted the fact that despite the blanket surveillance, security agencies failed to detect the moment when the toxin may have been ingested.
On Thursday, 27 August 2020, The Moscow Times reported that police in Siberia have said they have launched a preliminary inquiry into the suspected poisoning of prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny last week.
The Siberian transport police said it inspected Navalny’s hotel room, inspected security footage and scouted out his entire itinerary while he was in the city of Tomsk. They also seized more than 100 pieces of evidence and carried out more than 20 forensic examinations.
On Friday, 28 August 2020, The Guardian reported that Alexei Navalny remains in an induced coma at a Berlin hospital after a suspected poisoning but doctors say his condition is stable and his symptoms are improving.
On Monday, 24 August 2020, a Russian military court sentenced Airat Dilmukhametov, a prominent opposition activist from the Bashkortostan region, to nine years in a high-security prison on extremism charges, RFE/RL reported. The court in the city of Samara also banned the activist from administering websites for three years in a case he has rejected as politically motivated. Dilmukhametov, who was arrested in March 2019, was convicted of issuing public calls to violate Russia’s territorial integrity. The charge stems from a video statement he made in 2018 urging the creation of a “real” federation in Russia with more autonomous rights given to ethnic republics and regions.
Right of assembly
On Tuesday, 25 August 2020, RAPSI reported that the Supreme Court’s Presidium will consider the possibility of vacation of the sentence against opposition activists Sergey Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square riot case on 16 September. Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev asked the Supreme Court to overturn their sentence in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square riot case based on the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). According to lawyer Dmitry Agranovsky, the ECtHR has held that Russia had violated Part 1 of Article 6 of the European Convention for Human Rights (Right to a fair trial) by convicting the opposition activists based on the testimony of another defendant Konstantin Lebedev, who had signed a plea deal with investigators.
On Wednesday, 26 August 2020, Caucasian Knot reported that administrative protocols have been drawn up against 14 Rostov activists for violating the procedure for holding a picket and laying flowers in support of citizens of Belarus. The “Caucasian Knot” has reported that residents of Southern Russia held actions in support of citizens of Belarus. Thus, on August 16, in Volgograd, eight people held solo pickets in solidarity with Belarusian protesters. On the same day, activists of the feminist movement “FEM IZBA” held a flash mob in Rostov-on-Don as a sign of solidarity with the residents of Belarus who were subjected to violence by law enforcers. Most of the passers-by supported the young women; others treated the problem as far-fetched.
On Thursday, 27 August 2020, Caucasian Knot reported that a court has upheld the arrest of Vadim Cheldiev, accused of organizing riots at a rally in Vladikavkaz. The activist said that he had been kept in a solitary cell for five months and had been restricted in receiving parcels from relatives. On August 6, the advocate, Batraz Kulchiev, said that a new article appeared in Cheldiev’s case – about organization of mass riots in Vladikavkaz. The mother of the arrested activist has complained that law enforcers had prevented her from holding a picket in defence of her son. On August 13, Cheldiev’s arrest was extended for other three months.
Freedom of expression
On Friday, 28 August 2020, The Moscow Times reported that website editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine has resigned after his publication deleted an article about the daughter of a state development corporation head receiving student financial aid despite not qualifying for it. Forbes reported earlier this week that Anastasia Shuvalova, the daughter of VEB.RF chairman Igor Shuvalov, was accepted into Moscow State University’s allotted free education spots despite scoring significantly lower than other accepted students. MSU later explained that her name appeared on the list as a mistake.VEB.RF has sent out requests to a number of Russian media organizations to take down the articles on Shuvalov’s daughter. It appears that Forbes Russia was the only publication to comply with the request.
On Friday, 20 August 2020, The Moscow Times reported that authorities in Russia’s Far East have opened a criminal case against a local teen over a TikTok video that shows him lighting a cigarette with a candle inside a church, a move they qualified as a violation of Russia’s law against insulting religious feelings. Investigators in the Zabaikalsky region said Friday that the unnamed 18-year-old was caught in July “demonstrably” lighting a cigarette on an altar candle at a Russian Orthodox church in the city of Chita.
On Wednesday, 26 August 2020, Caucasian Knot reported on an inquiry into the case of a 38-year-old resident of the Khasavyurt District, accused of membership in a unit of the “At-Takfir Wal-Hijra”, a religious extremist organization banned in Russia, is over, investigators have informed. According to investigators, in 2017, in Makhachkala, the above resident of the Khasavyurt District joined a unit of the above extremist organization. “At their meetings, he and other members of the extremist organization called for the rejection of secular laws and civil society institutions, and sought to create a state with a radical form of religious rule,” the Investigating Department (ID) for Dagestan of the Investigating Committee of the Russian Federation (ICRF) has informed.
On Wednesday, 26 August 2020, Caucasian Knot reported that according to a video posted on Instagram, a resident of the Kurchaloi District was reprimanded at a police station for careless driving in 2018. Social network users were surprised that the law enforcement bodies were interested in highlighting the violation committed two years ago. The “Caucasian Knot” has reported that Chechen law enforcers regularly reprimand local residents in public, including for violating traffic rules. “An offender, who posted on social networks photos and videos of traffic violations, was invited to the police station. His post creates a negative example for other citizens,” says an explanation under the video posted on Instagram. The social network users expressed their sympathy for the young man.
On Wednesday, 26 August 2020, Caucasian Knot reported that a suspected militants had been killed in a counterterrorist operation (CTO) in the village of Ali-Yurt in the Nazran District. The CTO in Ali-Yurt was preceded by four other special operations in the Sunzha District and one in Nazran conducted in 2020. On Wednesday, a source from the law enforcement bodies reported that a special operation was underway in the village of Ali-Yurt in the Nazran District of Ingushetia and that one of the suspected militants was killed in an explosion. Earlier, on August 23, a CTO was announced in the village of Troitskoye in the Sunzha District of Ingushetia, and sources reported about three killed militants.
On Thursday, 27 August 2020, Caucasian Knot reported that after the murder in the counter-terrorist operation (CTO) held in Ingushetia of Khusen Gadamauri, a native of Chechnya, who had been extradited from Germany, it is necessary to reconsider the practice of extraditing Chechens to Russia, said Ekkehard Maas, the head of the German-Caucasian Society. The death of Gadamauri raises concern for the fate of other Chechens who have been extradited or are awaiting it, said Pascal Chaudot, the head of the Chechnya Committee in France. The statement posted on the website of the German-Caucasian Society says that Gadamauri “was one of the young people who refused to serve in Ramzan Kadyrov’s private army.” The Society has also states that Russia “is not a legal state with which to cooperate, especially when young Chechens are extradited, charges against whom were brought under the bloody dictatorship.” According to Kirill Koroteev, the head of the international practice of the “Agora” Human Rights Group and a lawyer working with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), “now Germany, most likely, can do nothing, and even if there were detailed guarantees, at most, what it could to write a note of protest to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).” According to Mr Koroteev, “the ECtHR sees no problem in extraditions to Russia, even to Northern Caucasus.”
On Wednesday, 26 August 2020, Human Rights in Ukraine reported that the trial is continuing in Rostov (Russia) of 62-year-old Crimean Oleh Prykhodko, the latest Ukrainian to be facing charges almost certainly linked with the Ukrainian flag flown proudly over his home and his unconcealed and vehement opposition to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. The implausible charges based on obviously falsified material would be comical were the likely sentence against a man with numerous health problems not huge, and the chances of a fair trial effectively nil. Prykhodko was arrested on 9 October 2019, a month after the first significant release Ukrainian political prisoners, including Volodymyr Balukh, whose case in many ways was a precursor to Prykhodko’s. Both men openly expressed their position on Russian occupation and had a Ukrainian flag over their homes. Both had experienced multiple forms of harassment before the FSB turned up and claimed to have ‘found’ either ammunition, in Balukh’s attic, or explosive devices, in Prykhodko’s garage. All such previous harassment meant that the men would have needed to be suicidally reckless to have kept anything illegal in homes just waiting for the next FSB search. Prykhodko used the garage where the FSB allegedly found inflammatory substances (Molotov cocktails) as a workshop for metalwork and the soldering equipment, etc. meant that any such substances could have caused a serious fire. It became clear during the hearing on 18 August that essentially all of the supposed ‘material evidence’ against Prykhodko was extremely suspect.
On Thursday, 27 August 2020, Human Rights in Ukraine reported that Crimean Solidarity activist and political prisoner, Rayim Aivazov has had the charges against him significantly increased , just as the Russian ‘investigators’ threatened when Aivazov retracted a confession which they had extracted through torture. The change means that Aivazov, who is not accused of any internationally recognizable crime, could now face a sentence of up to life imprisonment.
Aivazov is one of 25 Crimean Tatar civic journalists and activists whose persecution on entirely fabricated ‘terrorism’ charges has received international condemnation. Human Rights Watch stated that “the sweeping arrests in Crimea aim to portray politically active Crimean Tatars as terrorists as a way to silence them”, and the men’s release has been demanded by, among others, the European Parliament. Russia’s most brazen attack to date on Crimean Tatar civic activists began with the arrests of 23 men on 27 March 2019.
Some would argue that the bizarre reaction by Russian political leaders and spokespersons to the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny is best explained in terms of their adherence to a world view that gives little value to individual human lives in the context of their perception of the country’s geopolitical interests. This may also explain the draconian legislation and its implementation concerning the ‘integrity of the Russian Federation.’ Commentators noted that the summer’s constitutional amendments pointed the way for Russia to move further away from observance of international human rights norms; events in Belarus may lead to a yet further raft of repressive legislation – and some would argue possibly even extra-judicial measures – against those viewed as political opponents. Nevertheless, there remains a strong and courageous community of activists in Russia determined to maintain and protect human rights. It may be that a future collision between the Russian authorities and the European Court of Human Rights will see these activists become increasingly isolated from the international community. Yet, as the example of Belarus might show, on their own terms these activists may find a growing support among public opinion that will not only challenge the geopolitical views of those in power, but also generate a new and powerful commitment to human rights.