Our selection of news from the past week.
Other news from the past week:
RFE/RL, Friday, 4 December 2020: A Russian military appeals court has upheld the sentence of Airat Dilmukhametov, a prominent opposition activist from the Republic of Bashkortostan who was sentenced to nine years in prison on extremism charges. The court in the town of Vlasikha near Moscow on December 4 rejected the appeal filed by Dilmukhametov, who has insisted that the case against him is politically motivated. The charge against Dilmukhametov 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.`
Human Rights Watch, Tuesday, 1 December 2020: Shortly before 6 a.m. on Nov. 18, a large group of heavily armed masked men buzzed the door of a house in Krasnodar in southwestern Russia. The house serves as an informal office for Environmental Watch for Northern Caucasus (EWNC), a prominent independent environmental group. For years the group had monitored environmental issues in that region, including sensitive topics such as the impact of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games and other questionable construction and infrastructure projects. Andrey Rudomakha, EWNC’s head, called to the men outside that he was coming to open the door. But they broke down the door and grabbed Rudomakha and put him and another activist there face down on the floor. The intruders turned out to be a special police unit who took away computers, hard drives, flashcards from cameras and the environmentalists’ personal phones. The search lasted five hours. Rudomakha managed to call his lawyer, but the police refused to allow the lawyer to enter the office. When Rudomakha was taken away by police for questioning, his lawyer was not allowed to accompany him. What happened to EWNC is a prime example of the pressure facing environmental rights groups in Russia today, as they come under severe harassment from authorities and their staff and supporters are targeted. The problems seem to be particularly acute in the Krasnodar region.
Right of assembly
Caucasian Knot, Monday, 30 November 2020: Ingush elders have turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking to release the activists accused of organizing riots in Magas in 2019. The “Caucasian Knot” has reported that the Russian Supreme Court (SC) had prescribed to consider the case of seven protest leaders, who, unlike ordinary rally participants, are accused of creating an extremist community, in the Stavropol Territory. On November 19, the court extended their arrest by six months. Ingush elders have asked Putin to help to stop the criminal case against Akhmed Barakhoev, Barakh Chemurziev, Musa Malsagov, Malsag Uzhakhov, Zarifa Sautieva, Bagautdin Khautiev and Islam Nalgiev, the “Kommersant” writes.
Freedom of expression
RFE/RL, Monday, 1 December 2020: Russia’s Investigative Committee has rejected reports saying a probe has been launched into opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station.
The committee said on December 1 that media reports about the alleged probe were false and called on news outlets not to distribute unconfirmed reports based on anonymous sources. The comments came after the official TASS news agency quoted unnamed sources as saying that Moscow investigators alleged Navalny called for the forcible change of Russia’s constitutional order during the April 27 interview with Ekho Moskvy.
“Due to the statements (in the interview), a probe was launched on November 30 to check if there were elements of calls to conduct extremist activities,” the source was quoted by TASS as saying. The Russian Criminal Code lays out a punishment of up to five year in prison for such a crime. Talking to Ekho Moskvy on April 27, Navalny criticized the Kremlin for rejecting his team’s proposal to provide Russian families and small businesses with financial support during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and said that the authorities in Russia “must be overthrown right now…most likely by force” for neglecting the needs of citizens.
The Moscow Times, Tuesday, 1 December 2020: Russian authorities are probing opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s comments during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic for inciting extremism, news agencies quoted law enforcement sources as saying Tuesday. Moscow investigators are reportedly examining whether Navalny’s April 27 interview with the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station contained calls for a violent overthrow of the Russian government. Charges of “public calls for terrorism” carry a prison sentence of five years. In the interview where Navalny proposed coronavirus support measures, a host quipped that the Kremlin would decide against these measures “out of spite.” “If our regime would rather leave 60 million people hungry in order to not please me, then this regime should be overthrown right now, quite possibly even by force,” Navalny retorted.
The Moscow Times, Friday, 4 December 2020: The rapid spread of mobile internet around the world over the last decade has directly contributed to falling levels of trust in government and a surge in populism, according to a recent paper by a group of Russian economists. The research shows that as 3G internet spreads, millions of people gain access to new sources of information, leading to growing skepticism toward authorities and the establishment — phenomena which have characterized the global political economy since the 2008 financial crisis. The effect is particularly pronounced in countries with unbalanced censorship models — like Russia — where traditional media is heavily controlled while online space and the flow of information is comparatively freer.
RFE/RL, Monday, 30 November 2020: A court in Moscow has extended the pretrial detention of former journalist Ivan Safronov, who is charged with high treason. The Lefortovo district court on November 30 ruled that Safronov must be held at least until March 7, 2021. Only Safronov’s girlfriend, Ksenia Mironova, and his sister Irina were allowed to be present in the courtroom when the court handed down its decision. The hearing took place behind closed doors as the case is classified. The 30-year-old Safronov, who has worked since May as an adviser to the head of Russia’s Space Agency (Roskosmos), Dmitry Rogozin, is a prominent journalist who covered the military-industrial complex for the newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti.
The Moscow Times, 4 December 2020: The Netherlands’ top court ruled Friday that shareholders in dismantled oil giant Yukos can continue to pursue Russia for $50 billion (41 billion euros) in compensation pending a final judgement in a long legal saga. Russia was ordered to make the payout in 2014 by the Hague-based international Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), but has been challenging the case ever since through Dutch courts. In a fresh blow to Moscow, the Dutch Supreme Court “dismissed the Russian Federation’s application to suspend enforcement” of the payout while the court deals with the case, it said in a statement.
RFE/RL, Friday, 4 December 2020: A Russian court has ordered the arrest of a physicist specializing in hypersonic aircraft on suspicion of high treason. Anatoly Gubanov took part in international conferences and projects involving hydrogen-powered hypersonic aircraft, the Interfax news agency reported on December 3, citing unnamed sources. “According to the investigation, Gubanov handed over secret aviation development data abroad,” the TASS news agency reported, citing another source.
RFE/RL, Wednesday, 2 December 2020: European Union ambassadors on December 2 gave their green light to establish a sanctions regime that would target human rights violators worldwide. The EU’s 27 foreign ministers are set to rubber-stamp the decision when they meet on December 7, and the new mechanism is expected to officially enter into force on Human Rights Day on December 10. Several EU officials familiar with the matter said no individuals or entities will be sanctioned immediately, but names could be put on the blacklist as early as the beginning of 2021. The sanctions, which will consist of asset freezes and visa bans and can be applied to both governments and individuals, are similar to measures of the Magnitsky Act passed by the United States in 2012. The sanctions will consist of asset freezes and visa bans and can be applied to both state and non-state actors.
RFE/RL, Sunday, 29 November 2020: Russian police have fined more than 1 million people for violating COVID-19 restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic, the Interior Ministry said. “Law enforcement officers filed over 1.1 million administrative offense protocols over noncompliance with regimes of heightened readiness, quarantine, or self-isolation,” the Interior Ministry told the TASS news agency on November 28. Most infractions — more than 976,000 people — were for violating health protocols during an emergency. Under this article, the minimum fine is 1,000 rubles ($13). Russia has the world’s fourth highest number of confirmed infections at more than 2.2 million, as well as 39,000 deaths linked to the virus. Real metrics are believed to be higher.
The Moscow Times, 4 December 2020: Russian authorities have said they want to relocate all prisons out of major cities, sparking concerns from activists that the move could violate prisoners’ rights and complicate visits by lawyers and relatives. Justice Minister Konstantin Chuichenko told state television that the mass prison relocation is part of the Federal Prison Service’s “transformation” toward “effective and reasonable” management. Russia’s penitentiary system has been rocked by a series of torture and death scandals in recent years.
RFE/RL, Saturday, 28 November 2020: The indigenous peoples of Russia’s Far North are sounding the alarm as climate change encroaches on their traditional lifestyle. But the message from the “guardians of the Arctic” isn’t reaching Moscow, which sees gold and other economic benefits in the melting of the ice. The record warming of Russia’s Arctic, Siberian, and Far East territories poses an existential threat to the indigenous peoples whose lives and livelihoods have been intrinsically wedded to the climate for centuries. Ominous signs have already emerged from the thaw: thinning reindeer herds and fish stocks, drying lakes, and forest fires. And with the Kremlin’s long-term strategy to take advantage of newly opened waters and develop the resource-rich tundra come new dangers.
Human Rights in Ukraine, Tuesday, 1 December 2020: The European Court of Human Rights’ Grand Chamber has decided to combine Ukraine’s interstate case against the Russian Federation over its actions in eastern Ukraine with two other cases, most importantly, that brought by the Netherlands against Russia over the downing by a Russian BUK missile of Malaysian airliner MH17. This will drag out still further proceedings that are already anything but speedy, however Ukraine’s Deputy Justice Minister Ivan Lishchytsa, Is convinced that the advantages to the move outweigh this significant ‘minus’. The new case, following the merger announced by the Grand Chamber on 30 November, will be referred to as Ukraine and the Netherlands v. Russia (under No. 43800/14, 8019/16 and 28525/2043).
Human Rights in Ukraine, Monday, 30 November 2020: Plain-clothed ‘officers’ turned up at the home of Anna Bogacheva on 28 November, demanding that she write ‘an explanation’ , probably regarding her religious views, and threatening her with worse treatment when she refused. This new visitation only confirms the suspicion that Bogacheva’s husband, Vadim Siruk, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, was targeted by the occupation regime as an ethnic Ukrainian convert to Islam. Bogacheva told Crimean Solidarity that the man and woman, who did not identify themselves and were not in uniform (or in masks, despite the pandemic), turned up on 28 November. They did not conceal the outrageous reason for their appearance, telling Bogacheva that there was a ‘Crimean Interior Ministry’ order to work on ‘converts’. They told her not to worry, that this was just ‘questions’, and demanded that she get in the back of their car, asking at the same time if she were in any religious organizations.
Human Rights in Ukraine, Monday, 30 November 2020: A Russian court has sentenced Oleksandr Marchenko to 10 years’ imprisonment, despite the evidently flawed nature of the charges against him and his consistent account of torture inflicted by Russian-controlled militants in eastern Ukraine before being abducted to Russia. In reporting the verdict, Marchenko’s wife, Kateryna, wrote that they had, of course, known that an acquittal was not to be expected, but could not help hoping for some kind of miracle. Acquittals in Russia’s political trials of Ukrainians are, indeed, virtually unheard of, especially in cases like this where there was flagrant collaboration between militants from the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR] and Russia’s FSB. There was no suggestion that the court was unaware of the circumstances by which Marchenko came to be held prisoner in Russia. In October 2020, Marchenko had described in detail the torture he faced from the DPR militants and the fact that he had only signed the ‘confession’ forced out of him later, without a lawyer being present, because the Krasnodar FSB threatened, if he didn’t, to send him back to Donbas for more torture. As reported, the court had even ordered ‘a check’ to be carried out into these allegations, before the hearing on 26 November.
Human Rights in Ukraine, Thursday, 3 December 2020: The prosecutor in Russian-occupied Crimea has asked for a 19-year sentence against Crimean Tatar businessman and TV ATR General Director Lenur Islyamov for what Russia is claiming was ‘sabotage, separatism and the creation of an illegal armed formation’. The ‘separatism’ was in demanding, as do all democratic states, that Russia end its illegal occupation of Crimea and the formation in question is both located and legal in mainland Ukraine, and is also not armed. Islyamov’s ‘trial’ is one of three, all in absentia, started after Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Mejlis leader Refat Chubarov, together with Islyamov, announced plans for a March of Dignity from mainland Ukraine to Crimea. This was a major initiative, with representatives of international organizations and structures invited to join Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians in affirming that Crimea is Ukraine. The Russian occupation regime and Moscow generally were clearly rattled by these plans, and despite the postponement, due to the pandemic, came up with grotesque criminal charges and ‘trials’ against all three exiled Crimean Tatar initiators of the March.
Human Rights in Ukraine, Wednesday, 2 December 2020: After Russia’s most flagrant offensive against 25 Crimean Tatar civic journalists and activists in March 2019 elicited huge international condemnation, Moscow is clearly trying to minimize publicity for the puppet trials expected to rubberstamp 15-20 year sentences. Not only is one ‘trial’ being split up into five separate clones, but the political prisoners themselves, and even their lawyers, have been prevented from properly studying the case material. Such material includes the supposed testimony of secret witnesses whose claims cannot be verified; taped conversations about religion, etc. and ‘assessments’ of such conversations by FSB-loyal ‘experts’ who can claim that a word, common in Crimean Tatar, is ‘proof’ of the charges against the men. All of this material clearly needs to be properly studied, yet the men have consistently been denied the opportunity to do so.