Rights in Russia week-ending 31 December 2021

Our round-up of the week’s news

25 December 2021

RFE/RL: Russia’s communications regulator has blocked the website of OVD-Info, a prominent human rights monitor that tracks political persecution and anti-Kremlin protests, the group said on December 25. OVD-Info, which also provides support to victims of political persecution, said Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor had blocked its website earlier this week.

RFE/RL: Two jailed members of the Pussy Riot protest group in Russia have begun a hunger strike at the prison near Moscow where they are currently serving sentences for online posts they made several years ago, Russian media said.

26 December 2021

RFE/RL: A lawyer at the North Caucasus branch of the Russian human rights organization Committee Against Torture says 21 of his relatives have been “abducted” in Chechnya. Over the past few days, a total of six opposition activists, who have been critical of the Chechen authorities, and human rights defenders have reported the detention or disappearance of dozens of relatives.

RFE/RL: Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Russian authorities have “redoubled their efforts” over the past year to repress online freedoms, citing the blocking of tools used to circumvent censorship, expanding “oppressive” Internet laws, and pressure on tech companies to comply with “increasingly stifling regulations.” “This past year’s dramatic crackdown on Internet freedoms is the culmination of many years’ efforts by the authorities to restrict the rights and freedoms of Russians online,” Anastasiia Kruope, assistant Europe and Central Asia researcher at HRW, said in a statement on December 24.

27 December 2021

The Moscow Times: Russia on Monday confirmed 23,210 Covid-19 infections and 937 deaths.

The Guardian: A Russian court has increased a jail sentence for the Gulag historian Yury Dmitriyev to a total of 15 years on charges his supporters say are punishment for his work exposing Stalin-era crimes. Supporters say Dmitriyev, 65, is being targeted because of his efforts to expose the horrors of the Soviet era under Joseph Stalin.

RFE/RL: An investigative reporter for the BBC’s Russian-language service in Moscow says he has left Russia for London after noticing that he had been placed under “rather unprecedented surveillance” by the authorities. Andrei Zakharov made the announcement in a video released on December 27.

28 December 2021

International Memorial: On 28 December 2021 Russia’s Supreme Court ruled to close International Memorial. The lawsuit, filed by the Prosecutor General’s Office, referred to a missing ‘foreign agent’ designation on some of the materials produced by International Memorial. This is only a formal pretext, though, and the court hearings showed that these allegations were groundless. It was today when the real reason was revealed in the court. Prosecutor General’s Office representatives have stated that we are treating Russia’s Soviet-period history in a wrong way, ‘creating a falsified image of the USSR as a terrorist state’ and ‘levelling criticism against the state authorities.’ It appears that our opponents see the state as being exempt from all criticism. The decision of the Supreme Court has confirmed once again that the history of political terror organised and driven by the state has not remained a matter of a purely academic interest in Russia. Instead, it is a heated issue of immediate concern. Our country needs to make sense, in an honest and fair manner, of its Soviet past; this is a necessary requirement for Russia’ s future. It seems absurd to believe that the shutdown of International Memorial removes this issue from the agenda. Memory of the tragedies of the past is necessary for the entire society in Russia and beyond. Remembrance of state terror unites all the former Soviet republics. We will certainly appeal against the Supreme Court decision using all means available to us. We will also find legal ways of continuing our work. Memorial is more than an organisation, even more than a just public movement. Memorial is the need felt by Russians to know the truth about our country’s tragic past and the fate of millions of victims. There is no-one who is capable of liquidating that need.

Amnesty International: Reacting to the news that the Russian Supreme Court today ordered the closure of civil society organization International Memorial for allegedly violating “foreign agent” legislation, Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director, said: “International Memorial is a highly respected human rights organization that has worked tirelessly to document the atrocities and political repression carried out under the rule of Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders. By closing down the organization, Russian authorities trample on the memory of millions of victims lost to the Gulag. The closure of International Memorial represents a direct assault on the rights to freedom of expression and association. The authorities’ use of the ‘foreign agents’ law to dissolve the organization is a blatant attack on civil society that seeks to blur the national memory of state repression. The decision to shut down International Memorial is a grave insult to victims of the Russian Gulag and must be immediately overturned.

Civil Rights Defenders: In today’s unprecedented decision, the Russian Supreme Court has shut down the country’s most prominent human rights organisation – International Memorial Society. The organisation has been on trial since 25 November for allegedly violating the ‘foreign agents’ law, a law designed by authorities to silence critical voices and stifle civil society.

The Guardian: In a terrible year for human rights in Russia, beginning with the imprisonment of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the closure of International Memorial stands out for its ruthlessness.

The Guardian: The daughter of Natalya Estemirova, a former Memorial board member murdered in Chechnya for her human rights work in 2009, wrote in response to the verdict: “My mother always used to say: ‘It can’t get any worse than this.’ Turns out it can.”

RFE/RL: Russia’s Supreme Court has ordered the closure of Memorial International, one of the country’s oldest and most respected human rights organizations, capping a year of what critics called the state’s systematic dismantling of the country’s civil society.

The Moscow Times: Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the shuttering of Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights watchdog, for repeatedly violating the country’s foreign agent law.

The Moscow Times: Memorial, dissolved by Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday, was the country’s most respected human rights organization whose closure signals the tightening authoritarian tendencies under President Vladimir Putin.

Meduza: In a ruling on Tuesday, Russia’s Supreme Court dissolved the “Memorial” International Historical Educational Charitable and Human Rights Society, granting a petition by the Attorney General’s Office, which argues that the organization repeatedly violated Russia’s laws on “foreign agents” by failing to disclose its “agent” status in content shared on social media.

Meduza: [Yan Rachinsky] “Memorial will exist in Russia. Memorial isn’t limited to the two organizations [International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Center] that the Attorney General’s Office has come out against.  We will continue our activity without any fundamental changes. We have 60 organizations in Russia alone, they are all independent legal entities and they will continue their work calmly, even if today’s ruling, which runs counter to the law, is upheld in the court of appeal. In addition to Memorial, there are a great number of people who work on this topic [studying Soviet-era repressions] and, in any case, history won’t go unnoticed.” 

RFE/RL: Russian police have taken three former regional coordinators of Aleksei Navalny’s campaign team in for questioning amid continued pressure against the imprisoned opposition leader’s associates. The home of Zakhar Sarapulov, who headed the Irkutsk headquarters of Navalny’s network of regional campaign groups, was searched early on the morning of December 28 and Sarapulov was detained by Russia’s Investigative Committee. The same morning, the offices of the banned Navalny movement’s Tomsk headquarters were raided and its former head, Kseniya Fadeyeva, was detained at her cottage and taken in for questioning.

Meduza: Russian police reportedly detained as many as five former activists from Alexey Navalny’s disbanded political network on Tuesday, December 28. According to various reports, arrests were carried out in the cities of Tomsk, Irkutsk, Arkhangelsk, Barnaul, and Saratov (though not all of the detentions have been confirmed). Following interrogations, investigators brought criminal charges against two of the detained activists — former regional coordinators Ksenia Fadeeva and Zakhar Sarapulov — for involvement in an extremist group and participation in a nonprofit organization that infringes on the rights of citizens. Both Fadeeva and Sarapulov were arraigned on Tuesday and placed under restrictions pending trial. 

RFE/RL: A Russian inmate who complained to a watchdog group about being tortured, raped, and humiliated by prison guards said he was retaliated against, and went on a 22-day hunger strike in protest, according to his lawyer and relatives. The claims by Marsel Amirov, who is serving a 14-year sentence on a murder conviction, were the latest in a series of revelations and allegations pointing to widespread abuse of inmates in Russia’s sprawling prison system.

RFE/RL: The former inmate of a Russian jail who publicized shocking videos of torture said numerous officials from various agencies were aware of the abuse of prisoners but chose to cover it up rather than expose it. Syarhey Savelyeu, a 31-year-old Belarusian national who copied the videos while serving a sentence in Saratov in Russia’s Volga region, said in an interview with RFE/RL that he was “astonished” by the number of officials who knew of the torture.

Human Rights in Ukraine: It has taken five years, two acquittals and flagrant violations of the right to a fair trial, for those seeking a long sentence against renowned historian of the Soviet Terror and head of the Karelia branch of Memorial, Yury Dmitriev to get their way.  Acquittals in Russia are very uncommon, and an unprecedented two such cases should have meant that the prosecution was simply abandoned.  Instead, they made a third attempt, with judge Yekaterina Khomyakova from the Petrozavodsk City Court in Karelia proving more compliant.  On 27 December 2021, she found the historian ‘guilty’ as charged and provided the sentence demanded by the prosecutor – 15 years (in fact, a 9-year sentence, but with this this adding two years to the sentence already in force).  With Dmitriev turning 66 in January 2022, even the shorter period in a harsh regime prison is likely to be a death sentence, but the ‘conviction’ was presumably required since the charges were those used to justify his arrest and imprisonment back in December 2016.

29 December 2021

The Moscow Times: Russia on Tuesday confirmed 21,922 Covid-19 infections and 935 deaths.

Meduza: The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has issued an interim measure telling Russia to suspend the dissolution of the International Memorial Society and the Memorial Human Rights Center, Interfax reported on Wednesday, December 29.

EHRAC: In response to the decisions today and yesterday taken by courts in Russia to liquidate International Memorial and Memorial Human Rights Center (MHRC), the European Court of Human Rights has today granted an application made by MHRC and EHRAC for the enforcement of the proceedings to be suspended. […] The European Court’s order that these measures be suspended (under Rules 39 of the Court Rules) is legally binding on Russia and will remain in force pending the Court’s judgment in the cases relating to the ‘foreign agents’ law, which were lodged back in 2013.

Council of Europe: “The Russian courts decisions yesterday and today to shut down two prominent human rights groups – International Memorial and Human Rights Centre Memorial – on the grounds of the so-called “foreign agents” law is a deplorable move that will have significant negative consequences for human rights protection in Russia”, said today the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović.

Amnesty International: Responding to the news that Moscow City Court has ordered the closure of prominent Russian NGO Human Rights Center Memorial for allegedly violating “foreign agent” legislation and “justifying terrorism and extremism,” Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director, said:  “The Russian authorities’ heartless closure of Human Rights Center Memorial, an organization that has assisted thousands of individuals in times of crisis both at home and abroad for 30 years, represents yet another blow to Russia’s civil society movement after years of relentless attacks.  “Human Rights Center Memorial has been shuttered following spurious accusations that the organization failed to observe the repressive ‘foreign agents’ legislation and that its lawful human rights work justifies ‘terrorism and extremism’. These sham charges serve as little more than a pretext for silencing dissent and blocking people’s ability to come together to defend human rights, and they must be immediately dropped.  “The authorities’ dismantling of this outstanding human rights organization fits a broader pattern of repression that seeks to outlaw Russia’s civil society networks. The decision to close Human Rights Center Memorial must be overturned immediately.” 

Civil Rights Defenders: In an unprecedented and appalling move, the Russian authorities forced the closure of Memorial, a leading human rights watchdog. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled to shut down International Memorial Society, the organisation’s entity that, for over 30 years, has researched and documented repressions from the Soviet era. Today, Moscow City Court has ruled to liquidate Memorial Human Rights Centre, International Memorial’s sister organisation that has been providing support to current victims of political persecution in today’s Russia.

FIDH: Over the past two days, Russia’s courts have dealt two excruciating blows to the country’s civil society by liquidating two of its oldest and most prominent non-profits International Memorial and Human Rights Center “Memorial” for alleged violations of the notorious “Foreign Agents” law. These political decisions signal the regime’s determination to control the historical narrative of the soviet past and mark a new milestone of political repression in modern Russia. FIDH denounces these prosecutions and calls for the strongest condemnation, solidarity and legal responses from the international community.

EU-Russia Civil Society Forum: The Board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum condemns the decision to liquidate two important Russian civil society organisations, International Memorial and the Human Rights Centre (HRC) Memorial.

Human Rights in Ukraine: The official excuse for forcibly dissolving Russia’s oldest and most respected human rights NGOs was supposed to be its alleged violations of Russia’s notorious ‘foreign agent’ legislation.  In fact, the real reasons were presented, in highly distorted fashion, during the hearings before the Supreme Court and are those being pushed by the Russian state media.  Memorial and its branches have ensured that the truth is learned and discussed about the darkest pages of Soviet history, as well as about recent developments, political repression, etc. in Russia, and that is presented by the current regime as “distorting historical memory” and “creating a false image of the USSR”. 

RFE/RL: On December 28 and 29, Russian courts ordered the closure of International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Center, pushing ahead with an intense clampdown on civil society by seeking to shutter an organization that has worked with dogged determination to expose the Soviet state’s crimes against the people and shine a light on abuses in Russia today.

RFE/RL: Some of the photos compiled over decades of work by Russia’s Memorial International, which was ordered to be “liquidated” by the country Supreme Court on December 28.

The Moscow Times: At least five former coordinators of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s network have been detained nationwide on charges of organizing an extremist group, media reported Tuesday. The raids and arrests in the cities of Tomsk and Irkutsk come one month after a court in central Russia jailed another ex-Navalny coordinator who faces up to 10 years in jail if retroactively convicted for creating an “extremist” group.

RFE/RL: Three of the five associates of imprisoned Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny who were detained by police in raids across the country on December 28 have been released. The five former directors of headquarters for Navalny’s network of regional campaign groups were detained and interrogated in relation to possibly abusing their official position in the organization of an extremist group, infringing on the rights of citizens, or both. Each charge, if applied, would carry a possible prison sentence.

The Moscow Times: An exiled top associate of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny says Russian authorities have rearrested his elderly father just days after he was handed a suspended sentence for corruption charges his son says are politically motivated. In an Instagram post Wednesday, Ivan Zhdanov said that his father Yury had been re-arrested and sent to pre-trial detention for allegedly breaking the terms of his suspended sentence.

RSF: Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accuses the Russian authorities of violating the rights of Andrei Pyzh, a YouTuber based in Saint Petersburg who was sentenced to five years in prison on a charge of obtaining and sharing state secrets at the end of an opaque and unfair trial amid heightened tension with Ukraine. He must be freed at once, RSF says.

Meduza: In the final weeks of 2021, at least six Chechen oppositionists reported that their relatives had gone missing. All of these opposition figures live outside of Chechnya and have condemned regional head Ramzan Kadyrov and his cronies for human rights abuses. Several of them have faced threats in the past or even survived assassination attempts. Though their family members living in Chechnya have come under pressure before, they are now being abducted en masse — and not only in Chechnya, but also in other parts of Russia. Though some have been released, many remain missing at the time of this writing. For Meduza, journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky spoke with three Chechen dissidents whose relatives were targeted in the latest wave of repression.

The Moscow Times: Russia’s state media watchdog will require Netflix to offer state television channels to its Russian customers after it added the U.S.-based streaming service to its register of “audio-visual services” Tuesday. Roskomnadzor’s register, which was created in late 2020, applies to online streaming services with over 100,000 daily users and requires them to comply with Russian law and register a Russian company.

Human Rights in Ukraine: A Russian court has refused to call in a key ‘witness’ in the trial of 64-year-old Zekirya Muratov, with the only possible reason being that the judges are as well aware as the prosecutor that this individual is an FSB agent implicated in the persecution of at least five political prisoners. 

RFE/RL: The deputy director of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) has been dismissed in the latest firing of senior officials amid a growing prison-abuse scandal. Anatoly Yakunin, who has worked in the FSIN since 2019 and was appointed its deputy director in August 2020, was dismissed by President Vladimir Putin on December 28.

30 December 2021

The Moscow Times: Russia on Thursday confirmed 21,073 Covid-19 infections and 926 deaths. Cases in Moscow rose from 1,798 on Wednesday to 2,661 on Thursday, a nearly 50% increase.

RFE/RL: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Veronika Nikulshina, two members of the Pussy Riot protest group, have been added to Russia’s controversial “foreign agents” list, which is used by the government to label what it says are foreign-funded organizations that are engaged in political activity, as well as people linked to them.

The Moscow Times: Russia has added members of the Pussy Riot art activist collective, a prominent satirist and an independent journalist its registry of “foreign agents” Thursday. The designations close a year in which Russia labeled nearly every major independent domestic news outlet, as well as dozens of individual journalists and activists, a “foreign agent.”  Founding Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and fellow member Nika Nikulshina have been added to the Justice Ministry’s “foreign agents” registry. Tolokonnikova, 32, was among the Pussy Riot members who were sentenced to prison for their 2012 protest performance in central Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral that criticized the Russian Orthodox Church’s close ties with President Vladimir Putin. Anti-Kremlin satirist Viktor Shenderovich; Taisiya Bekbulatova, chief editor of the independent Holod news website; and art collector and former Kremlin advisor Marat Gelman have also been added to the list. “These people systematically distribute materials to an indefinite circle of persons, while receiving foreign funds,” the Justice Ministry’s statement said.

Meduza: The Russian Justice Ministry made yet another round of additions to its “foreign-agent media” registry on Thursday, December 30, blacklisting a number of cultural figures, including two Pussy Riot activists and three journalists. The Justice Ministry designated Pussy Riot activists Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Veronika Nikulshina as “foreign agents,” along with writer and publicist Viktor Shenderovich, gallery owner Marat Gelman, and the founder of the Yaroslavl film club “Neft” Andrey Alekseyev. 

Human Rights in Ukraine: On 29 December, the European Court of Human Rights applied Rule No. 39, halting Russia’s implementation of the rulings on 28 and 29 December which order the closure of the Memorial Society and the Memorial Human Rights Centre, pending the Court’s consideration of Application 9988/13 over the law on ‘foreign agents’.   This, in theory, should not be only a temporary stay of execution, given the use of this particular law as the pretext for closing Russia’s most vital human rights NGOs.  In fact, there would be no guarantee that Russia would comply with a ruling from ECHR regarding the ‘foreign agent’ law, but it would now be in breach of Article 34 of the European Convention were it to flout Rule 39. 

Venice Commission: On 28 December 2021, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ordered the closure of Memorial International. Memorial International is an non-commercial organization which has operated in the Russian Federation since 1992 with a view to “studying political repressions in the USSR and in present-day Russia and promoting moral and legal rehabilitation of persons subjected to political repressions”. It is one of the most prominent civil society organisations active in the field of human rights protection in the Russian Federation. The closure of Memorial International appears to have been ordered, upon a request by the Prosecutor General’s Office, under the legislation on “foreign agents” and “undesirable activities of foreign and international NGOs”.

Human Rights Watch: In two days, Russian courts have delivered a one-two punch to Russia’s human rights movement. Just a few days after the 30-year anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, courts ruled to close Memorial, Russia’s top human rights group.  Yesterday the Supreme Court granted the Prosecutor General’s request to “liquidate” Memorial International, which for 32 years has worked to commemorate victims of Soviet repression, preserve the facts about The Great Terror, and provide a platform for open debate. And today the Moscow City Court ruled in favor of the Moscow City Prosecutor’s Office lawsuit to liquidate the Memorial Human Rights Center, Memorial International’s sister organization, which documents a wide range of abuses in Russia, particularly in the North Caucasus, maintains a list of political prisoners and documents human rights violations in neighboring countries. […] Memorial is appealing both rulings, and has indicated that they will go to the European Court of Human Rights if need be. However, the authorities have the power to take steps to reverse course. They could annul the rulings, revoke the slew of laws aimed at silencing free expression, and release Navalny and his affiliates.  Try as it may, Russia can’t wipe out historical memory or force people to stop working to protect their rights. 

FIDH: The Observatory strongly condemns the dissolution of International Memorial and HRC Memorial, which seems to be only aimed at sanctioning the two organisations for their legitimate human rights activities and their exercise of the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression. The Observatory urges the Russian authorities to immediately repeal these decisions and to put an end to any act of harassment against both NGOs, as well as against all organisations defending human rights in the country.

RFE/RL: The year in Russia is winding down with a spate of events that have alarmed many observers about the intentions of President Vladimir Putin and his government. First, the state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor blocked the website of OVD-Info, which among other things has served as a clearinghouse connecting detained protesters with defense attorneys. Then, a court in the northern city of Petrozavodsk sentenced prominent historian Yury Dmitriyev to 15 years in prison on indecency charges that supporters say were fabricated in retribution for his research into the crimes of dictator Josef Stalin and the Soviet government. Next, the Russian Supreme Court ordered the shutdown of Memorial International, an umbrella human rights and historical research NGO that has played a prominent civil society role since the days of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness.

31 December 2021

The Moscow Times: Russia on Friday confirmed 20,638 Covid-19 infections and 912 deaths.

RFE/RL: The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe has repeated its “very strong criticism” of Russia’s laws on so-called “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations” in the wake of a December 28 Russian Supreme Court decision ordering the closure of the venerable Memorial International nongovernmental organization. The commission’s statement on December 30 criticized the “vague and overly broad terminology” of the laws, adding that “the penalty of liquidation of an NGO should be reserved as a last resort measure for extreme cases of serious violations threatening democracy.”

Human Rights in Ukraine: Prominent US political scientist Francis Fukuyama has written a powerful letter* expressing admiration and support for imprisoned Crimean Tatar journalist Osman Arifmemetov.  Such statements are particularly important since Russia is not only using grotesque ‘terrorism’ charges as a weapon against Crimean Tatar journalists and civic activists, but is also claiming that those who speak out in their defence are ‘justifying terrorism’.  Fukuyama’s letter makes it abundantly clear that he is speaking out in support of courageous journalists who have refused to remain silent about repression in occupied Crimea, and have paid a terrible price for their bravery.

RFE/RL: The head of the North Caucasus region of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, long accused of grave human rights abuses, has been named “distinguished human rights defenders” by the regional human rights ombudsman.

RFE/RL: The Russian government has extended a decree to allow a domestic pharmaceutical company to produce a generic version of a U.S. biotech company’s COVID-19 drug without consent. The government on December 30 approved the extension for one year of a decree originally issued last year to grant Russian drugmaker Pharmasyntez permission to produce and sell the antiviral drug remdesivir, citing the need to protect its citizens. Pharmasyntez asked the Kremlin to allow it to produce a generic version of remdesivir in November 2020 without consent from Gilead Sciences, which holds the patent. Russia granted the license a month later. The U.S. company filed suit challenging the decision, but the Russia’s Supreme Court in May rejected its claim.

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