Rights in Russia week-ending 9 April 2021

Our round-up of the week’s news

Other news of the week:

3 April 2021

The Moscow Times: Russia recorded almost 30,000 excess deaths during February, the country’s statistics agency announced Friday — a figure which takes Russia’s total excess fatality count since the start of the coronavirus pandemic above 422,000. Excess deaths are calculated by comparing fatalities during the pandemic with mortality rates in the same months of previous years. It is seen by demographers as the most reliable indicator of the human toll of the coronavirus. At more than 422,000 between the start of the pandemic and the end of February — the latest such data is available — Russia has recorded one of the highest excess death tolls in the world, including after adjusting for population size.

5 April 2021

Human Rights in Ukraine: Lawyers representing Yury Dmitriev, the world-renowned Russian historian and head of the Karelian branch of Memorial, have applied to the European Court of Human Rights, citing violation of four articles of the European Convention.  Dmitriev has been in custody since December 2016, despite the first charges against him leading to an unprecedented two acquittals, and the charge used to imprison him for 13 years having only emerged after the first acquittal.  His case has received international condemnation and is widely seen as linked with his work over decades in uncovering the crimes of the Soviet regime, the mass graves of its victims at Sandarmokh and in naming the perpetrators.

The Moscow Times: Russia recorded almost 30,000 excess deaths during February, the country’s statistics agency announced Friday — a figure which takes Russia’s total excess fatality count since the start of the coronavirus pandemic above 422,000. Since the start of the pandemic, Rosstat has recorded 149,000 fatalities directly related to Covid-19 and another 77,000 where the virus was present in a patient when they died from another condition. 

Human Rights in Ukraine: Rustem Sheikhaliev was first at the Rostov ‘military court’ in December 2018, reporting on the trial and horrific sentences against four recognized Crimean Tatar political prisoners.  The Crimean Solidarity freelance journalist had time to provide  coverage for the next such ‘trial’ of five other political prisoners, before the Russian FSB came for him on 27 March 2019, together with 22 other civic journalists and activists.  In a letter to his family from Russian captivity, Sheikhaliev writes of the strange feeling, entering this same court, in handcuffs, for his own ‘trial’.

RFE/RL: Russia’s state communications regulator has backed down from banning Twitter amid a dispute over content on its platform. However, it said on April 5 that it will continue to slow the speed of the U.S. social network inside the country until the middle of May. Russia has been engaged in a fight with U.S. social media, including Twitter, over content it deems prohibited, such as calls to join political protests.

The Guardian: The European Union has pledged its “unwavering” support for Ukraine’s government, with the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, expressing major worries over Russian troop movements. “Following with severe concern the Russian military activity surrounding Ukraine,” Borrell wrote online after a phone call with Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba. “Unwavering EU support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Borrell said he would hold further talks on the issue with Kiev’s top diplomat and foreign ministers from the EU’s 27 nations at a meeting later this month.

6 April 2021

RFE/RL: An RFE/RL freelance correspondent arrested in Ukraine’s Russia-annexed Crimea has told a court he was tortured with electric shocks, beaten, and threatened with death unless he “confessed” to spying on behalf of Ukraine. Vladyslav Yesypenko’s lawyer on April 6 said his client testified during a closed-door court hearing that the torture lasted two days after his arrest in March on what the defense calls false charges. “[Yesypenko] told the court that he was tortured in a basement, most likely somewhere in the area of Balaklava, from the moment of his detention until his transfer to the detention center in Simferopol,” lawyer Aleksei Ladin said after the hearing.

The Moscow Times: Moscow investigators have launched an inspection into “Russian Woman,” the country’s entry to this year’s Eurovision song contest, after a veteran’s newspaper accused it of inciting hatred, the state-run TASS news agency reported Tuesday. Written and performed by Tajik-born artist Manizha, “Russian Woman” has sparked controversy among conservative groups for its lyrics promoting female empowerment and rejection of sexist stereotypes.

RFE/RL: A Russian court has ordered a fine against the popular video-sharing application TikTok in the country’s latest major dispute with a global social platform over content allegedly related to political protests. The Moscow court ruled on April 6 that TikTok failed to delete content that it said was related to unsanctioned demonstrations, according to local reports. Russian critics of the Kremlin routinely use international social networks, including Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube, to get around state control of the media and reach tens of millions of citizens with their anti-government messages. Some local reports suggested the TikTok fine — 2.6 million roubles ($34,000) — pertained to alleged appeals to minors urging them to join political demonstrations.

The Moscow Times: Russia has confirmed 4,589,540 cases of coronavirus and 100,717 deaths, according to the national coronavirus information center. Russia’s total excess fatality count since the start of the coronavirus pandemic is above 422,000.

Human Rights in Ukraine: Century-old trees have been felled in the barbaric destruction now underway of the renowned Foros Park in Russian-occupied Crimea.  Secrecy around the construction work appears to be because the ‘owner’ of at least part of this plundered Ukrainian national park needs to hide its activities on illegally occupied territory.  22% of the shares in the Russian oil company, TatNeft are owned by the Bank of New York Mellon  If the authors of a report by the Centre for Journalist Investigations [CJI] are correct, then TatNeft should certainly be under US and other sanctions and its American shareholder is probably in violation of US legislation.

7 April 2021

Human Rights in Ukraine: It is almost a month since Vladislav Yesypenko was seized by the Russian FSB in occupied Crimea, yet he has only now been able to speak to an independent lawyer and to inform a Russian-controlled court of the torture he was subjected to, with this including electric currents attached to his earlobes and savage beating.  It was essentially clear from when the FSB released a taped ‘confession’ that this had likely been extracted through torture, but the details are truly shocking. Yesypenko also formally rejected the ‘lawyer’ foisted upon him by the FSB.  This individual, Violetta Sineglazova, is known for essentially working with the prosecution, rather than defending clients.

RFE/RL: A court in Moscow has upheld fines imposed by Russia’s media-monitoring agency against RFE/RL’s Russian-language services for alleged violations of the country’s controversial “foreign agent” laws. On April 7, the Tverskoi District Court upheld 5.5 million rubles ($70,700) in fines, rejecting RFE/RL’s appeals against them. In all, the Roskomnadzor state monitoring agency has filed 390 protocols against RFE/RL for failing to mark its materials distributed in Russia as the product of a Russian-government-designated “foreign agent.” The court has so far upheld about 260 of the protocols with total fines approaching $1 million. RFE/RL has not complied with the labeling requirements.

The Moscow Times: Russia’s media watchdog on Wednesday warned US-funded Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe it had 60 days to pay more than $70,000 in fines over non-compliance with its “foreign agent” law. The statement came after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday expressed support for Radio Liberty /Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL) and other U.S. international media.

RFE/RL: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed his support for U.S. international media amid concerns over Russian efforts to shut down and muzzle RFE/RL under its controversial “foreign agent” law. Blinken met on April 6 with the acting head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Kelu Chao, “to discuss the vital role that free and independent media play in the preservation and promotion of democratic principles worldwide,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

RFE/RL: The European Union’s drug regulator will investigate Russia’s clinical trials of the Sputnik V vaccine and whether those tests followed “good clinical practices,” the Financial Times reported. The U.K.-based paper on April 7 cited anonymous sources familiar with the European Medicines Agency’s (EMA) approval process as saying there were ethical concerns over how Sputnik V was tested before it was released for general use. Approval of the vaccine for the European Union will hinge in part on determining whether the Russian clinical trials met so-called GCP standards, the paper reported.

8 April 2021

CPJ: Russian authorities should drop all charges against journalist Daria Komarova and allow her and other members of the press to cover protests without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Yesterday, the Leninsky district court in Cheboksary, the capital of the central Russian republic of Chuvashia, held the first hearing in the trial of Komarova, a freelance correspondent for the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) regional outlet Idel.Realii, in relation to her coverage of protests, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview, and a report by her employer.

Human Rights Watch: International attention to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine had faded in recent years. Recent reports of Russia massing troops near Ukraine’s border have brought it back into focus. Monitors reported a significant uptick in hostilities in recent weeks. A key issue of the renewed international focus on the conflict in eastern Ukraine should be how civilians will be protected if there is a further escalation in hostilities. Russia has been pursuing a proxy war in eastern Ukraine since it occupied Crimea in 2014, supporting armed groups in Donetsk and Luhansk regions financially and providing them with military support. According to the United Nations’ human rights office, at least 3,077 civilians have been killed and more than 7,000 injured since the war began. On April 2, a child died from blast trauma and fragmentation wounds in the village of Oleksandrivske, Donetsk region. Wounds from explosive weapons with large area effects can be especially difficult to treat in children.

RFE/RL: Lawyers based in Russia and in parts of eastern Ukraine held by Moscow-backed separatists have flooded the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) with thousands of complaints against Kyiv for alleged rights violations in the conflict-ridden Donbas, in what appears to be a coordinated campaign to tar Ukraine, an investigation by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service has found. The investigative TV program Skhemy (Schemes) found that around 6,000 claims related to the conflict in the Donbas, out of a total of 10,000 claims Ukraine faces at the ECHR, were filed by several groups of lawyers from Russia and areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine that are under the control of the separatists.

The Moscow Times: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy traveled to the country’s eastern frontline on Thursday, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Vladimir Putin to reduce Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine. Zelenskiy’s frontline visit came as fighting between the Ukrainian army and separatists has intensified in recent weeks and Russia has built up troops along the border, raising fears of a major escalation in the long-running conflict in Ukraine’s mainly Russian-speaking east.

9 April 2021

The Moscow Times: Russia has confirmed 4,614,834 cases of coronavirus and 101,845 deaths, according to the national coronavirus information center. Russia’s total excess fatality count since the start of the coronavirus pandemic is above 422,000.

The Guardian: The prominent Kremlin critic Nikolai Glushkov was strangled at his home in south-west London by an unknown assailant who wrapped a dog lead around his neck in a crude attempt to “simulate” the appearance of suicide, an inquest heard. Glushkov’s body was discovered on 12 March 2018 at his suburban home in New Malden. His daughter Natalia Glushkova told the hearing that she and Glushkov’s partner, Denis Trushin, had called round that evening after growing concerned.

RSF: Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Russia, whose peacekeepers have controlled access to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia since the end of last autumn’s war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over this disputed territory, to stop denying entry to foreign reporters. RSF also urges the UN and Council of Europe to ensure respect for the right to the freedom to inform.

The Moscow Times: Russia’s Constitutional Court on Friday ordered stronger laws to punish repeat domestic violence offenders, saying both the penalties as well as protection for victims were insufficient. Activists have been lobbying for stricter legislation and measures to prevent domestic violence, which has been rampant in Russia for years. The ruling follows an appeal filed by a woman who was “systematically” beaten by her brother. He was found guilty of committing multiple offenses but only served 100 hours of community service in 2019.  According to activists, nearly 16.5 million women in Russia suffer domestic violence every year. 

The Guardian: The singer’s fight against domestic violence and homophobia and her body-positive posts on Instagram have led to a torrent of abuse – some from very powerful people. Russia’s 2021 Eurovision candidate breezes into a conference room, Channel One documentary film crew in tow, offering a simple tea of mint leaves brewed in hot water. “On days like today, I want something calming,” Manizha says, pouring two cups, as a boom mic hovers over us. No pressure. The Tajikistan-born singer, who will perform her feminist ballad Russian Woman next month at the much-loved, much-mocked song contest in Rotterdam, is the target of a fiery conservative backlash for her foreign roots and her lyrics attacking female stereotypes.

The Moscow Times: A pair of notorious Russian pranksters who regularly target Kremlin opponents and world leaders with prank calls have failed in their latest trick, a senior aide to jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Thursday. Vovan and Lexus, the moniker used by bloggers Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexei Stolyarov, have made international headlines for duping figures including Prince Harry, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron.  Navalny’s aide Leonid Volkov wrote on social media that the pranksters had tried using his name to organize a conference call with a key European security body. 

Caucasian Knot: The threats received by Dmitry Glukhovsky, the scriptwriter of the serial “Topi” (Moors), from Chechen Internet users have appeared amid the growth of general aggression in the society, Valery Borschov, a human rights defender, believes. The “Caucasian Knot” has reported that the “Topi” TV serial had angered social network users from Chechnya, who treated the heroine’s behaviour as immoral. Some users have expressed direct threats against Glukhovsky. Other Instagram debaters assert that the plot of serial is fictional and should not be taken so seriously. Their opponents claim that Chechens must defend their identity in every possible way. One of the plot lines in the serial is dedicated to a Chechen girl who runs away from her Chechen groom to the village named Topi. The serial shows, among other things, bed scenes with the participation of this heroine, and also touches on the theme of the Chechen Wars.

RFE/RL: “I have trouble breathing. I can’t catch my breath and have trouble understanding things,” said businessman Boris Shpigel, who is suspected of bribing the former governor of Russia’s Penza region, at a court hearing on April 6. “I’m in great pain…. My stomach hurts and I can’t catch my breath.” “I don’t have long left, a few days,” Shpigel, 68, predicted. “I haven’t slept for six days because I can’t find a comfortable position. I hurt all over and my right leg is numb…. Every day is torture for me. I can’t take anymore. I can’t stand it.” Such allegations are nothing new for Russia’s opaque prison system. For years, activists, lawyers, and former prisoners, have drawn attention to the poor quality of medical care in Russian prisons and pretrial detention centers and have alleged that, in many cases, medical treatment is withheld to pressure suspects, to extract false confessions or accusations, or simply as a form of punishment. “As for medical care overall, often a prison will only have a paramedic and no real schedule for when specialists will visit,” said Asmik Novikova, director of research at the nongovernmental legal aid organization Public Verdict. “This is, of course, a very serious problem.”

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