Human Rights and Democracy: The 2012 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Country updates: Russia

Latest Update: 31 December 2013

There have been some welcome developments in the rule of law during the last three months, but the overall human rights situation in Russia continues to be a serious concern.

While the electoral law in Russia had been liberalised to some extent in 2012 to allow a greater degree of competition, significant barriers still remain to free and fair elections (e.g. relating to political party registration and the use of state resources). Regional elections took place across Russia on 8 September. Russia’s main independent elections watchdog Golos described the elections as freer than previous elections, but not fairer. In the Moscow mayoral election, incumbent Sergei Sobyanin won with just over 51% of the vote, narrowly avoiding a second round. Opposition figure Alexei Navalny came second with 27% and claimed there had been multiple violations. In Ekaterinburg, Civic Platform candidate Yevgeny Roizman won the mayoral election. Voter turnout averaged 25-30%.

On 16 October, an appeals court in Kirov upheld Alexei Navalny’s conviction for embezzlement from KirovLes, a state-owned timber company, but suspended the five-year prison term for a period of five years probation. In a separate and ongoing case, Navalny and his brother have been accused of defrauding the Russian operation of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher of $1.8m in 2008. Some observers have suggested that this case is politically motivated.

Since the law banning the promotion of “non-traditional” sexual relations was passed in June 2013, the LGBT community report that violence and harassment against LGBT people have increased. This law, together with the “foreign agent” law, has made the operating environment for LGBT NGOs more difficult.  The Side by Side LGBT film festival in St Petersburg in November was described by organisers as their most challenging festival ever. Screenings were disrupted by bomb alerts and guests were subjected to intimidation outside venues. The Queerfest in St Petersburg in September also encountered difficulties.

We have continued to express our strong concerns about the LGBT law, which in effect could prevent the LGBT community in Russia from fully enjoying the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The Prime Minister raised concerns about the protection of human rights for LGBT people with President Putin in a meeting in St Petersburg on 6 September. He made clear the strength of feeling about the Russian law and its impact on LGBT people. The Foreign Secretary discussed the issue again with Foreign Minister Lavrov at the UN General Assembly in New York on 25 September. The Culture Secretary raised concerns about LGBT rights with Deputy Prime Minister Golodets at a meeting in Moscow on 16 December. FCO officials in Russia continue to meet with LGBT activists to hear their concerns.

St Petersburg-based NGO, Memorial Anti-Discrimination Centre, was officially declared a “foreign agent” by a St Petersburg court in December. Though courts in Russia have previously ordered NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice as foreign agents, this is the first time an NGO has been officially labelled a foreign agent by a court.  The Culture Secretary raised concerns about the “foreign agent” law with Russian officials during a visit to Russia in December. Reports suggest that Russian authorities are considering amending the law in 2014.

On 8 October, Bolotnaya protestor Michael Kosenko was found guilty of participating in mass riots and using force against a representative of authority, and was sentenced to compulsory treatment in a psychiatric institution. Amnesty International declared Kosenko and two other Bolotnaya protesters, Artyom Savyolov and Vladimir Akimenkov, as “prisoners of conscience” in October. We have raised the Bolotnaya cases through the EU, including at the 2013 EU-Russia Human Rights consultations in November. We will continue to follow developments in the Bolotnaya cases closely.

On 19 December the Russian Duma approved a prisoner amnesty to mark the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. The amnesty covered around 25,000 people, of whom 2000 were serving custodial sentences. As part of the amnesty, charges were dropped against the former Greenpeace detainees who were on bail in St Petersburg on charges of hooliganism. On 23 December, Pussy Riot activists Nadezda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were released from prison under the amnesty. Eight of the Bolotnaya protestors were also released as part of the amnesty. Amnesty International criticised the amnesty for not covering “political prisoners”, and described the amnesty as “no substitute for an effective, independent justice system”. The Minister for Europe, David Lidington, issued a statement on 27 December welcoming the release of the Greenpeace activists, Pussy Riot members, and Bolotnaya protesters, while highlighting ongoing issues of concern with the Russian judicial system.

On 20 December, President Putin signed a decree to pardon and release Mikhail Khodorkovsky on humanitarian grounds.  Khodorkovsky was released from prison that day. Mr Lidington welcomed Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s release with a statement, and called upon the Russian authorities to strengthen the rule of law and promote independence of the judiciary. Khodorkovsky’s former business partner Platon Lebedev remains in jail and is scheduled for release in May 2014.

On 13 October, nationalist riots took place in the south eastern Moscow suburb of Biryulyovo, following the murder of a 25-year-old ethnic Russian man by an Azeri national. On 14 October police arrested 1200 migrant workers in a series of “pre-emptive raids” in Biryulyovo and a further 450 in North Eastern Moscow. In a report published on 15 October, the Council of Europe highlighted that radical nationalism was on the rise in Russia. On 4 November, Russia’s day of National Unity, nationalist rallies in St Petersburg were marked by violence and arrests. Nationalist groups were reportedly responsible for the death of an Uzbek migrant, and a violent attack on an LGBT NGO. Rallies in Moscow passed more peacefully, but arrests also took place and there was a notable anti-migrant sentiment from some participants.

Human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, including allegations of torture and other ill treatment, such as enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, remain a major concern. The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) published a report on Russia on 17 December. Amongst its recommendations, the CPT called on the Russian authorities to strengthen action to prevent ill-treatment of detainees by police and members of other agencies (including the Federal Drug Control Service and the Federal Security Service) and reiterated the importance of effective investigation into suspected cases of ill-treatment.

In December, Transparency International published its annual Perceptions of Corruption Index. The Index rates countries according to how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be.  Russia was ranked joint 127th out of the 177 countries surveyed.

Update: 30 September 2013

The last three months have seen a continuation of the negative trend for human rights in Russia.

In June the Russian government passed a law which imposes penalties on the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations among minors”. The law does not define “non-traditional”, but is widely understood to mean lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships.  Propaganda has been defined as “dissemination of information aimed at….the attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relations, or giving a distorted picture of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations”. The law prescribes differing levels of penalties for Russian citizens, officials, legal entities and foreign citizens.

We have strong concerns about this law, which in effect could prevent the LGBT community in Russia from fully enjoying the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.  The Prime Minister set out these concerns with President Putin in a meeting in St Petersburg on 6 September, making clear the strength of feeling in the UK, and that it was in Russia’s interests to tackle discrimination. British officials at all levels have been lobbying on the LGBT law since the first regional “homosexual propaganda” bill was tabled in 2011.  

In early July a law was passed which bans the adoption of Russian children by same-sex couples, and also unmarried and single people in countries where same-sex marriage is legal. The Department for Education is working to establish how the law may impact on people in the UK who want to adopt from Russia in the future.

In July a court in Kirov sentenced opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who took a lead role in the protests following the 2011 Duma elections, to five years in prison for embezzling £300,000 from timber firm KirovLes in 2009 while working as an adviser to the regional governor. The day after his conviction Navalny was released on bail pending his appeal.   The prosecutor argued that as Navalny was a candidate in the Moscow mayoral election, the custodial sentence should be postponed in order to allow Navalny the right of “equal access of candidates to work with voters and to conduct their election campaigns”.  The case is widely seen as politically motivated. The Foreign Secretary made a statement on the conviction, expressing concerns about selective justice and calling upon the Russian government to apply the rule of law in a non-discriminatory and proportionate way.

In July a Moscow Court found the late Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in pre-trial detention in 2009, guilty of tax evasion.  Magnitsky was not sentenced due to his “physical absence”. The UK government has long called for a full and transparent investigation into the tragic death of Sergei Magnitsky.  Commenting on the guilty verdict, the Minister for Europe, David Lidington, described the trial and conviction of a man who cannot defend himself as an “exceptional step” that would “add to negative perceptions of judicial process in Russia”.

In August Russia’s Supreme Court ruled not to overturn the sentences of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former business partner Platon Lebedev, but instead reduced them by two months to ten years and ten months.  This means that Lebedev is now due for release in May 2014, and Khodorkovsky in August 2014. At a parliamentary debate on the Khodorkovsky case in July, Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Warsi, said that the release of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev according to schedule would be a positive step towards demonstrating the fair application of law in Russia.

In June election monitoring, the Russian NGO Golos (which played a prominent role in uncovering fraud in the 2011 Parliamentary and 2012 Presidential elections) had its activities suspended for six months under the law which requires NGOs in receipt of foreign funding and engaged in vaguely defined “political activity” to register as a “foreign agent”. The decision further highlights concerns expressed by Mr Lidington in March regarding the NGO “foreign agents” law. We will continue to urge the Russian authorities to not prevent the work of groups advocating the protection of fundamental freedoms.

Update: 30 June 2013

The last three month period has seen a further worsening of the human rights situation in Russia. The British Prime Minister outlined our concerns with President Putin during a meeting in Downing Street in June ahead of the G8 Summit.

Following unannounced inspections on many NGOs to assess their compliance with the “foreign agents” law, those where there was evidence of past foreign funding were given warnings. Those whose work the authorities considered to fall under the law were given “notice of violations” and required to register as foreign agents within one month. Those who do not register face an administrative court case and large fines. The independent election monitoring body Golos, whose research and monitoring contributed to evidence of fraud in the 2011 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections became the first NGO to be convicted and fined in early May. Golos has said that it has not received foreign funds since the NGO law came into force in November. In June, two LGBT organisations – the Side by Side Film Festival and Coming Out – were fined in St Petersburg for not registering as foreign agents.

In a meeting with Justice Minister Konovalov in St Petersburg, Minister of State for Justice Lord McNally discussed the implementation of the NGO law. He also met NGOs and heard their concerns about the “foreign agent” label and the impact it would have on their ability to work with citizens and local authorities. In June, the Foreign Secretary raised the NGO law with the Chair of the Russian Federation Council.

On 11 June the State Duma approved a draft law to impose fines for the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations among minors”. The law builds on similar legislation passed last year in St Petersburg and other regions which prohibit “homosexual propaganda”. Freedom of expression NGO Article 19 said that they were “deeply concerned” that the State Duma approved the law as it “violates the rights of all people to free expression, and discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people”.

On 21 June, the State Duma approved a draft law banning foreign adoptions by same-sex couples and by single sex couples in countries where same-sex marriage is legal.

The Moscow authorities denied permission for a Gay Pride march in May, as they have done for a number of years. The St Petersburg authorities authorised an event in support of International Day Against Homophobia, and a sanctioned Gay Pride rally took place in Kostroma.

The 2013 UK-Russia Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue took place in Moscow in May. The meeting allowed us to have a structured discussion on human rights. Senior officials raised concerns across a wide range of issues, including the negative trends around civil society and opposition figures, the North Caucasus, the rights of minority groups and the Magnitsky and Khodorkovsky cases. We also expressed support for the positive developments on the rights of disabled people.

Update: 31 March 2013

In the first few months of 2013 respect for human rights continued to deteriorate in Russia.  Pressure on civil society has been one manifestation of this.  In March the Russian authorities conducted inspections on a number of NGOs across the country.  This followed on from a series of restrictive laws passed in 2012, notably the NGO “foreign agents” law.  In a statement the Minister for Europe David Lidington urged the Russian authorities not to place advocacy groups under special scrutiny.

The Russian Investigative Committee announced in March that it had closed its investigation into the death in pre-trial detention of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky “due to lack of evidence of a crime”.   This decision is particularly disappointing and difficult to understand, given that the Presidential Committee on Human Rights concluded in 2011 that Magnitsky’s death was likely the result of being denied medical treatment and being severely beaten.  The Foreign Secretary raised our concerns around the Russian authorities’ handling of Magnitsky’s death with Foreign Minister Lavrov in London on 13 March, as did Mr Lidington during his meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Titov in Moscow in February.  We are working with likeminded partners in the Council of Europe to make clear the need for Russia to meet its obligations as a member of a rules-based international system.

In addition to closing the investigation, Russian prosecutors re-filed tax evasion charges against Magnitsky.  A court began proceedings on 22 March after rejecting the state-appointed defence lawyer’s request to postpone the hearing until Russia’s Constitutional Court rules on the legitimacy of trying a dead person without the consent of his relatives.  Posthumous trials are rare and usually take place only to exonerate a wrongfully convicted person or to provide justice for family members of victims, so the decision to try Magnitsky against the wishes of his mother and widow is a worrying development.

In February the Russian State Duma passed a bill in the first reading which would establish penalties for “propaganda of homosexuality among minors” at the federal level.  The next reading in the Duma is due in May.  We have made clear to Russia that we believe that all individuals should enjoy the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly.  We are following this matter closely, and will take further opportunities to urge Russia to guarantee the right of non-discrimination.

Opposition figures continue to face pressure from the authorities.  In February opposition activist Sergei Udaltsov was placed under house arrest until 6 April.  The Russian Investigative Committee accused opposition politician Alexei Navalny of fraudulently obtaining his credentials as a lawyer.  Navalny was also charged of fraud in relation to the privatisation of a state-owned timber company, and is due to face trial in April.  Meanwhile, in relation to the “Bolotnaya case”, a number of activists remain in long-term detention on charges of participation in mass unrest or alleged violence against law enforcement agents,   following a political protest on the eve of the Presidential inauguration last May (which concluded in Bolotnaya Square).  Most have not yet faced trial.  Many domestic commentators have raised questions of political motivation behind these cases.