Rights in Russia week-ending 4 June 2021

Our news round-up of the week

Other news of the week:

29 May 2021

RFE/RL: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says he thinks it is likely that Belarusian authorities organized the diversion last week of an Irish airliner to Minsk with ally Russia. The military alliance leader was speaking to Sky News on May 28 aboard a British aircraft carrier during NATO’s largest military exercises of the year. “We know the very close relationship between Russia and Belarus, and therefore it’s hard to believe that the regime in Minsk could do something like this without any kind of coordination with Russia,” Stoltenberg said.

The Moscow Times: Russia has confirmed 5,053,748 cases of coronavirus and 120,807 deaths, according to the national coronavirus information center. Russia’s total excess fatality count since the start of the coronavirus pandemic is above 460,000.

30 May 2021

The Moscow Times: U.S. President Joe Biden pledged Sunday to press Russian leader Vladimir Putin to uphold human rights when they meet in Geneva next month for their first summit. The face-to-face meeting with the Kremlin leader comes amid levels of tension not seen for years, with Washington now dialing back its ambitions to little more than establishing a relationship in which both sides understand each other and can work together in specific areas. “I’ll be meeting with President Putin in a couple of weeks in Geneva, making it clear that we will not — we will not stand by and let him abuse those rights,” Biden said in a speech referring to the summit, which is set for June 16.

31 May 2021

The Moscow Times: Russia has confirmed 5,063,442 cases of coronavirus and 121,162 deaths, according to the national coronavirus information center. Russia’s total excess fatality count since the start of the coronavirus pandemic is above 460,000.

The Moscow Times: The Russian online media outlet NEWSru has announced its closure, blaming the country’s current “political situation,” which has made it economically impossible to function, as advertisers shun independent sources of information. NEWSru, which has functioned primarily as a news aggregator in recent years, said in a statement on May 31 that regulations requiring media in Russia to label anyone the state regards as “extremists” or “foreign agents” when referencing them in their articles was increasingly impacting its bottom line.

Human Rights in Ukraine: Russian prison authorities are preventing Ukrainian political prisoner Oleksandr Marchenko from regularly receiving thyroid hormone medication, needed to compensate for a removed thyroid and to prevent the cancer he once survived from returning. Team29, whose lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov is representing Marchenko, reports that the situation has become extremely serious.  If he is prevented from regularly taking thyroid hormones, Marchenko’s legs give out, and he cannot stand.  Instead of understanding this, and preventing the recent month-long period without any medication, the Krasnodar prison colony staff have placed him in a SHIZO or punishment cell.  His ‘transgression’ was that, after being deprived of medication and gravely weakened, he lay down during the day in his cell.

1 June 2021

The Moscow Times: Russian lawmakers on Tuesday backed a bill that would force foreign internet companies to set up local offices or face harsh penalties, including an outright ban. The bill was passed on the first of its three required readings, parliament’s lower house said in a statement. The legislation concerns online companies whose daily users in Russia tops 500,000. 

The Moscow Times: Seven out of 10 Russians support government plans to revive the Stalin-era practice reminiscent of the gulag labor camps that would use prisoners for major construction projects, according to a state-backed survey released Tuesday. Several cabinet ministers, the state railway monopoly and the head of Russia’s penitentiary system have in recent weeks proposed dispatching around 188,000 inmates to fill part of the shortage created by a coronavirus-driven exodus of Central Asian migrant workers. 

2 June 2021

RSF: The “editor-in-chief” of the Russian state-funded media outlets Rossiya Segodnya, RT and Sputnik has publicly congratulated Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on the hijacking of an airliner to Minsk and the arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich last month. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deplores her comments, which amount to open support for the crackdown by the Belarusian government on independent media.

RFE/RL; The Russian parliament’s lower chamber, the State Duma, has approved in its third and final reading a controversial bill that would allow the government to regulate the basic pillars of minority languages in the country, including indigenous ethnic groups from Siberia and the Far East. Lawmakers say the bill, approved on June 1, will help save some languages from extinction by speeding up the process for approving orthography norms, but many groups promoting indigenous languages, culture, and history in the Russian Federation see it as part of move to increase control over the teaching of such subjects in Russia’s many ethnic republics and regions.

RFE/RL: A pagan forest ritual was held in Russia’s Mari El region after a local official called for “radical followers” of the Mari religion to be prevented from worshipping on government land.

RFE/RL: In late April, a court in Arkhangelsk sentenced a former coordinator of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s local office in the northern city to 2 1/2 years in prison for sharing a music video in 2014 that the Russian government later deemed to be pornographic. “It is astonishing that cases like this even make it to court,” defense attorney Natalia Zvyagina said shortly before defendant Andrei Borovikov heard his sentence. What seemed astonishing just a few weeks ago, however, now looks like a trend, as the government prepares for elections to the State Duma, the lower house of the legislature, that must be held by September 19. On June 1, the authorities detained former Duma Deputy and prominent liberal opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov near the town of Kolomna, about 120 kilometers southwest of Moscow, following searches at 10 different locations. According to the Investigative Committee, some 140 law enforcement officers participated in the operation.

The Moscow Times: The exhibition was almost ready when the order to cancel came from above. Set to take place on central Moscow’s trendy Chistoprudny bulvar, the open-air exhibition, part of an ambitious program of celebrations for the centenary of the birth of Andrei Sakharov, was to commemorate the nuclear physicist and Soviet dissident’s campaigns for human rights and world peace. But on 30 April, only weeks before the displays were due to go up, a terse phone call from the Moscow city government changed everything. The authorities would not approve the content of the exhibits. The exhibition was off.

3 June 2021

The Guardian: A Russian business newspaper that has been targeted as a foreign agent has said it is shutting down because of fears that its journalists could be prosecuted, writing that the Russian government “does not need professional and uncontrolled media”. VTimes, founded by reporters fleeing censorship in Russia’s business media, said it would close down three weeks after it was put on a list of foreign agents that critics have called a death sentence for independent media outlets.

RFE/RL: Russia’s media regulator has notified RFE/RL that it plans to draft another set of 130 protocols for violations of the country’s controversial “foreign agent” law requiring the labeling of content. The violations covered under the Roskomnadzor summons on June 2 total 71.5 million rubles, or about $980,000. The charges will be drafted and issued between June 15 and July 6 and sent to court for adjudication.

RFE/RL: Activists say Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) in the Siberian region of Irkutsk has used a legal maneuver to keep lawyers from human rights groups from defending cases of alleged torture in the region’s jails and penal colonies. Rights activist Svyatoslav Khromenkov told RFE/RL on June 3 that three lawyers for the Siberia Without Torture group had received official letters from the FSIN saying they had been given the status of witnesses in high-profile torture cases, which under Russia law makes it impossible for them to defend the inmates. The group’s lawyer, Dmitry Dmitriyev, called the move “a way to deprive inmates of legal assistance.”

RFE/RL: Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has defended her country’s controversial labeling of some foreign-funded media as “foreign agents” by saying Moscow was “forced” to adopt the measure in response to actions taken by the United States. The labeling of “foreign agents” has been interpreted by many civil society activists as another tool for the Kremlin to use to intimidate Russia’s political opposition, especially with parliamentary elections looming in September and the ruling United Russia party slumping in opinion polls. “We were forced to do it to defend our journalists and our information space,” Zakharova said at a breakfast roundtable on the “foreign agent” law in St. Petersburg on June 3.

RFE/RL: Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has criticized Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of several Russian state-controlled media outlets, for making public comments that amounted to “open support” for an ongoing crackdown on independent media in Belarus. On May 23, Belarus dispatched a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair commercial flight and forced it to land in Minsk, citing a purported bomb threat. Once the plane was on the ground, journalist and opposition activist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, who were both aboard the flight, were detained. No bomb was found on the aircraft.

The Moscow Times: Russian lawmakers for the first time have passed a law that will limit private enterprises’ greenhouse gas emissions as the country looks to catch up with global climate reforms. The legislation, which was approved in its third and final reading in the lower-house State Duma on Tuesday, would create a system to regulate emissions in Russia, currently the world’s fourth-largest emitter. It also seeks to encourage Russian companies to invest in environmental restoration projects and abandon practices harmful to the climate and national economy. According to the bill, companies that emit more than 150,000 tons of CO2 (or the equivalent mass of other greenhouse gases) per year must limit their emissions from 2023. Companies emitting between 50,000 and 150,000 tons annually will have to report their emissions starting from 2024.

4 June 2021

RFE/RL: A court in Moscow has upheld the Justice Ministry’s move to designate the Latvia-based independent Meduza news outlet as a “foreign agent” — a move that requires it to label itself as such and subjects the media outlet to increased government scrutiny and regulation. Meduza said that the Zamoskvorechye district court rejected its appeal on June 4, adding that the court’s decision will also be appealed. The Justice Ministry added Meduza to the registry of “foreign agents” on April 23, without giving detailed justification for the move.

The New York Times: When the spooks started following him again, Ivan Pavlov felt at ease. “That’s our profession,” the lawyer famed for taking on Russian spies wrote on Facebook. Two days later came an early morning knock on his Moscow hotel room door, and Mr. Pavlov realized he should have been more worried. For a quarter-century, Mr. Pavlov defended scientists, journalists and others swept into the maw of what he calls Russia’s “leviathan” — the security state descended from the Soviet K.G.B. Crusading against state secrecy, Mr. Pavlov turned his legal battles into spectacles. Appealing to public opinion, he sometimes helped his clients avert the worst.

The Moscow Times: Russia recorded one of its lowest monthly jumps in fatalities since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in April, according to official statistics published Friday. Nationwide deaths from all causes during the month were 14,500 higher — or 9.6% — than during April 2019, data published by the Rosstat federal statistics service showed. 

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