No let up in Russian authorities' harassment of civil society

Association

On 2nd October, the international branch of the human rights group Memorial was designated a 'foreign agent' by the Justice Ministry of the Russian Federation. Despite the designation, the group has vowed to appeal the decision in court. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, a register of 'foreign agents' forms part of the state's broader clampdown on independent civil society and is intended to starve groups of foreign aid and alienate domestic civil society from international cooperation. There were reports in September that the International Memorial Society's offices had been unexpectedly visited by Russian authorities. In a statement, Memorial's Executive Director Elena Zhemkova said: 

'This law is not legal and it's immoral. It determines in advance that if you receive foreign funding you are a foreign agent - regardless of why you received it and what the legal basis is. And it completely rejects the presumption of innocence, which is a key, basic cornerstone of the legal system.'

Reports allege that Russian authorities opened an investigation into several prominent human rights organisations after the pro-government Anti-Maidan Movement questioned their compliance with the Law on Foreign Agents. Memorial was amongst a group of NGOs accused of collaborating with the Open Society Foundations, an organisation funded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, and which is also banned as an undesirable organisation in Russia. 

As the crackdown on independent dissent expands, on 2nd November Amnesty International’s Moscow Office was unexpectedly sealed by authorities. Staff arrived at the building to find the locks and alarm system had been removed and the electricity turned off. The building, which belongs to the city's municipal authorities, said that no one could gain entrance unless accompanied by an official. While the reasoning behind this unwarranted harassment remains unclear, it is illustrative of the intimidatory tactics employed by Russian authorities against independent civil society. After over two weeks, on 18th November the office was reopened.


Peaceful Assembly

Russian authorities' decision to enhance restrictions on protest rights after the 'Snow Revolution' in 2011-13 was widely condemned as an attempt to curtail popular uprisings in Russia. In the context of a tightening of an already burdensome framework, on 4th October the European Court of Human Rights awarded compensation to a protester who was unlawfully detained by Russian authorities. Yaroslav Belousov was awarded 12,500 euros from the Russian Federation for unlawful detention, mistreatment in detention, unfair trial, and denial of freedom of peaceful assembly. Belousov's victory against the Russian state has been seen by many as a triumph over aggressive state machinery and an important landmark in the battle to improve Russia's poor human rights record.

In another positive development, on 5th October Russia's Supreme Court annulled the records of arrest, conviction, and sentence of another two activists. Ilya Gushchin and Artyom Savelov, who also demonstrated against President Vladimir Putin's reelection on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square in 2012, had their criminal convictions wiped after the court ruling. While the ruling was broadly welcomed by civil society, over 400 people were detained and several dozen prosecuted in arrests during and after the period of protest; meaning many more are still awaiting justice. The video below illustrates the intensity of the protest and the response of the security forces.

On 20th November, people in Kirov organised pickets against the war in Syria and Ukraine. The action was coordinated by the regional office of PARNAS (The People's Freedom Party, Russia). Demonstrators held placards asking Russian authorities to stop pursuing aggressive foreign policy objectives and to cease military involvement Syria and in Eastern Ukraine. Many demonstrators voiced objections to Russia's role in the killing of civilians and Russian soldiers through conflict.

In the Astrakhan region, a mass rally was organised against the economic policy of the Putin administration. On 14th November, around a thousand veterans gathered in October Square, to express dissatisfaction at the government's decision to remove their social benefits and to demand the resignation of the regional government. While the protest was sparked by access to state provisions, many have noted it was the largest anti-government gathering in the city since the Spring of 2012.

Expression

There has been a worrying increase in racially-motivated attacks in Russia of late. In October, four people in the Moscow and Omsk regions were targetted in racist attacks and one person died as a result. Racial intolerance remains a serious issue in Russia. Civic group the Data Center for Information and Analysis (SOVA) has documented that 5 people have been killed and 47 injured in racist violence in 2016 alone. In addition, at least three people have also received death threats. SOVA's work on xenophobia and racially-motivated violence has also recorded the worrying prevalence of hate speech aimed at minorities in Russia. Throughout 2016, 153 sentences have been imposed against 170 people in 60 regions of Russia for inciting racial hatred and for instigating extremist activity. 

On 5th October, Radio Free Europe (Russian Service), reported on a new document adopted by the St. Petersburg city administration. The city reportedly monitors public officials' interaction with foreign entities every three months. According to the content of this new document, officials must complete a special form which includes dates, locations, and purposes of their meetings, with representatives of foreign organisations and companies. 

At the end of September, Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko was detained and charged with espionage in  the Russian Federation. On 1st October, a Moscow court sent him to pretrial detention for two months.