Human Rights and Democracy Report 2015 - Human Rights Priority Country update report: July to December 2016 - Russia

1. Human rights in Russia

The human rights environment in Russia has continued to deteriorate over the past 6 months.

Pressure on civil society has remained high. In August, 2 more organisations, the International Republican Institute and the Media Development Investment Fund were added to the list of “undesirable organisations”. 19 NGOs were added to the “foreign agents” register in the second half of the year, bringing the total to 153. Marking the 150 milestone, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, Sir Alan Duncan, expressed his concern at the impact of the “foreign agents” law in a statement on 23 December. Those added in the past 6 months include, in September, the Levada Centre, a well reputed independent polling agency and in October, the international branch of Memorial, which is highly respected around the world for its work to preserve the memory of victims of Soviet oppression. In October, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) expressed concern at the addition of these 2 organisations to the register.

In November, the Moscow office of Amnesty International was sealed by the city authorities due to alleged ‘non-payment of rent’. Amnesty provided evidence that they were in fact up-to-date with their payments and were allowed to return after 2 weeks. Amnesty had in previous weeks been subjected to harassment by the Moscow city authorities; and TV broadcaster NTV (with a track record of attacking civil society and orchestrating smear campaigns) recently broadcast a programme designed to show Amnesty working with the US against Russia’s interests. We are in regular contact with Amnesty and continue to monitor developments.

Elections to the State Duma were held in September. A report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) International Election Observation Mission concluded that although the elections were “transparently administered,” democratic commitments continue to be challenged and there were numerous procedural irregularities. The OSCE mission observed that ‘the electoral environment was negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society.’ In September, the FCO set out UK concerns about the conduct of the elections.

The murder trial for opposition politician Boris Nemtsov began in October. Five men are facing charges of involvement in the killing.

The LGB&T community continue to face serious and widespread discrimination. In July, the LGB&T rights group “Coming Out” was repeatedly prevented from staging a rally in one of the areas of St Petersburg specially designated for public rallies. Each time the authorities claimed the space had already been taken for a mass cultural event, although the group subsequently found it to be empty at the allotted times. In contrast, the organisers of the Side by Side film festival in St Petersburg, supported by the British Consulate-General, reported a reduction in the level of harassment in comparison to previous years, although the opening night did still attract a small protest.

In July, the government introduced the so-called “Yarovaya Law” aimed at tackling religious extremism. But its vaguely defined ban on “missionary activity” means that in theory religious activity cannot take place outside registered religious buildings. Citizens face fines if they fail to report breaches. It is unclear how the law will be applied, but it influenced the recent arrest of a Hare Krishna follower for handing out religious books and of a yoga instructor, who faces legal proceedings.

Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a further threat to their existence in Russia. In October, their appeal against the Prosecutor General’s Office warning, threatening to close their Administrative Centre for ‘extremist activity’, was rejected. A representative from the Embassy attended the hearing. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are taking their case to the final judicial level but, if unsuccessful, face having their Administrative Centre added to the Federal List of Extremist Organisations and their property handed to the State. The Centre has responsibility for over 2,500 congregations across the country.

Authorities are increasingly restricting online freedoms. The “Yarovaya Law” requires phone and internet providers to store large volumes of personal data. LinkedIn was blocked in November under a 2014 law requiring Russian user data to be stored in Russia. Criminal prosecutions – often on extremism charges – for online posts have continued to grow in the latter half of 2016.

There were increased concerns about human rights standards in prisons and the independence of the public bodies responsible for monitoring them, the Public Monitoring Commissions (PMC). In October, human rights activists were denied membership to PMCs across 42 regions after elections which were marked by claims of irregularities. In November, Ildar Dadin, serving a 2 and a half year prison sentence for multiple anti-government street protests, alleged in a letter to his wife which she made public, that he had been beaten and tortured. Russia’s Ministry of Justice investigated the claims but found no evidence of any wrongdoing.

The independence of the judiciary and the rule of law remained a concern. In November, the Director of Moscow’s Ukrainian Literature Library, Natalia Sharina, was put on trial for inciting hatred, holding extremist material, embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds. There are concerns that the case against Sharina is politically motivated, related to the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine. NGO Memorial recognises her as a political prisoner and Amnesty International has described her as a prisoner of conscience. An embassy representative attended the first session of Sharina’s trial.

The embassy, together with international partners, regularly monitors high-profile cases by observing court trials and hearings where human rights are a concern. The embassy also posts communications on its social media platforms as a show of support.

Many other Ukrainian nationals remain in prison in Russia on charges that are believed to be politically motivated (further details below).

Human rights activists continue to document serious violations and abuses in the North Caucasus. In the lead up to September’s Duma and regional elections there were several cases of unlawful detention, abductions, enforced disappearances, death threats and collective punishment against critics’ families.

2. Russian actions in Ukraine

The Russian Federation’s illegal annexation of Crimea continues as does the Russian Federation’s failure to fulfil its commitments under the Minsk peace process with its continued supplying of troops and weapons to support separatist movements in eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk).

In December 2016, the UK supported a Ukrainian resolution passed by the UN General Assembly which called for the Russian Federation to uphold its obligations under applicable international law. The General Assembly also condemned the continuing human rights abuses and violations on the peninsula and called for international human rights monitoring bodies to be given access to Crimea. Approximately 30 Ukrainians opposed to Russia’s actions are known to have been sentenced, arrested or investigated under fabricated charges of extremism. The UK has publically called for those detained to be released, including Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Stanislav Klykh and Mykola Karpyuk. In some instances Ukrainian citizens have been illegally transferred to Russian prisons outside of Crimea: under international law these prisoners are entitled to consular support from Ukraine but the Russian authorities continue to refuse Ukrainian officials access. In particular, the Crimean Tatars continue to be singled out for human rights violations and abuses and the Russian authorities have raided their homes and institutions. In April 2016, the Mejlis Council, an integral part of the Crimean identity, was labelled an extremist organisation and subsequently banned. The Mejlis had objected to Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. A number of Crimean Tatars have also been detained, while leading community figure Ilmi Umerov was forcibly placed in a psychiatric hospital for 3 weeks. The UK publically called for Mr Umerov’s release. The UK has directly informed Russia we expect the authorities immediately to release Ukrainians who have been unlawfully detained for speaking out against Russia’s illegal actions.

The Russian-backed conflict in eastern Ukraine also continues to cause huge damage to communities on both sides of the line of contact. The UN estimate the conflict has cost 10,000 lives, displaced approximately 800,000 to 1 million people internally and caused over 21,000 casualties. High levels of fighting continue along the line of contact, in violation of the ceasefire laid out in the 2015 Minsk agreements. Russian-backed forces also constantly impede the work of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission responsible for monitoring the ceasefire. Meanwhile, human rights organisations have warned that Ukrainians opposed to the separatists in non-government controlled territories risk arrest, physical violence and summary executions.