The human rights situation in Russia continued to deteriorate between July and December 2015.
The space for civil society continued to shrink. During 2015, 81 organisations were added to the “foreign agents” register, bringing the total at the end of the year to 111. As a result of the added bureaucratic and financial burden this entails, 13 of those NGOs chose to close down. In a positive development, the Ministry of Justice removed five NGOs from the register.
Following the adoption in May of a law banning “undesirable” foreign organisations, the Federation Council presented a so-called “patriotic stop-list” of 12 foreign organisations that it believed posed a threat to Russia’s national security. The Federation Council suggested these should be added to the register of “undesirable” organisations. Not all recommendations were pursued, but by end 2015 the Ministry of Justice had added four organisations to the register of “undesirable” organisations: the National Endowment for Democracy (July), the Open Society Foundation (December), the Open Society Institute’s Assistance Foundation (December), and the US-Russia Foundation for Economic Advancement and the Rule of Law (December). These organisations are now prohibited from operating in Russia. Some other organisations that featured on the Federation Council’s “patriotic stop-list” decided to cease operations in Russia. The MacArthur Foundation, for example, stopped operating in Russia in July, after 13 years and a contribution of $172m to various civil society causes.
Pressure on independent and critical voices, including online, continued. At the same time, state-controlled TV channels used inflammatory language and disinformation against those it portrayed as Russia’s enemies, including some human rights defenders (HRDs) and opposition politicians. The NGO, Reporters Without Borders, ranked Russia at 152 out of 180 countries in their 2015 World Press Freedom Index (a drop of four places on 2014), reporting that the “climate has become very oppressive for those who question the new patriotic and neo-conservative discourse”. In particular, a number of people have been charged, and in some cases convicted, after criticising Russia’s actions in Ukraine. In September, a court sentenced Rafis Kashapov, head of the NGO, The Tatar Public Centre, to three years’ imprisonment for inciting ethnic hatred. Kashapov had posted critical comments online about Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine. In December, blogger Vadim Tyumentsev was sentenced to five years in prison for inciting hatred and extremism, after criticising Russia’s actions in Ukraine and accusing local officials of corruption. The NGO, Memorial, considers Kashapov and Tyumentsev political prisoners. In December, activist Ildar Dadin was sentenced to three years’ “deprivation of liberty” for repeatedly staging protests without prior permission. He was the first person to be sentenced under legislation introduced in 2014, which punishes repeated violations of the rules on public assembly.
We remain deeply concerned about the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. The investigation into the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov continued throughout 2015. The Investigative Committee has brought charges against five suspects, who are in custody, and have named a further suspect, whose whereabouts are unknown, as the organiser. A legal appeal by Mr Nemstov’s family to follow up on further leads in the investigation failed. The trial is expected to start by summer 2016.
The trial of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko started in July 2015. The verdict is expected in early 2016. On 17 December, Savchenko re-started her hunger strike, refusing all solid foods. She has stated her intention to refuse liquids as well if she is found guilty. UK officials have observed court hearings on several occasions. We continue to call on the Russian government to fulfil their obligations under the Minsk Agreements and immediately to end Nadiya Savchenko’s illegal detention and trial in Russia. The FCO Minister for Europe, David Lidington, raised our concerns about Ms. Savchenko’s case with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs when he visited Moscow in December 2015. The UK also called for her release in multilateral organisations, including the EU and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
On 25 August, a Russian military court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced film director Oleg Sentsov and activist Oleksandr Kolchenko to 20 and 10 years’ imprisonment, respectively, for terrorist offences in Crimea. These sentences were upheld by an appeal court on 24 November. The UK, like many other countries, has serious concerns about the access of both men to a free and fair trial. We have raised these concerns with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on several occasions, including during Mr Lidington’s visit to Moscow in December. These concerns were also set out by Mr Lidington in a statement issued on the day of sentencing. Memorial considers Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko political prisoners.
On 19 August, Estonian security officer Eston Khover was sentenced to 15 years in prison for espionage, the illicit possession of and trafficking in firearms, and illegal crossing of the state border. By the time of his sentencing, he had spent almost a year in detention in Russia, having been taken illegally across the border from Estonia to Russia. In September, however, he was transferred to Estonia following a prisoner exchange between the Russian and Estonian governments.
In a welcome development, on 22 December, environmental activist Evgeny Vitishko was released from prison after 22 months in detention. For the remainder of his three-year sentence, Vitishko must notify officials if he wants to leave his home town of Tuapse.
Oleg Navalny, brother of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, remains in prison following his conviction in 2014 for fraud and money laundering. The UK remains deeply concerned that the case against Oleg Navalny is politically motivated. Memorial considers Oleg Navalny a political prisoner.
In December, President Putin signed a law granting the Russian Constitutional Court the power to overrule judgments of the European Court of Human Rights when they are considered to contradict the constitution.
Russia’s LGB&T community continued to face discrimination and harassment. In November, people attending the Side-by-Side LGBT International Film Festival in St Petersburg faced harassment from homophobes and thugs as they tried to attend events. In a positive development, however, in December the Duma rejected a draft bill which proposed the criminalisation of all public displays of affection by same-sex couples.
Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to be targeted. On 30 November, 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses were found guilty in Taganrog, southern Russia, of organising and participating in extremist activity. The community has found itself under attack in several parts of the country, often through misuse of legislation designed to combat extremism.
HRDs, lawyers and journalists operating in the North Caucasus report that they continue to come under pressure. On 6 November, armed and masked security officials raided the office of human rights organisation MASHR, in Ingushetia, and confiscated papers and electronic equipment. A court order accused the organisation’s head, Magomed Mutsolgov, of discrediting the regional authorities in online materials. The raid took place shortly after Mutsolgov, who is also a member of the Public Monitoring Commission that monitors places of detention in Ingushetia, criticised the authorities for hindering the Commission’s work. Human Rights Watch said “the allegations against Magomed Mutsolgov and his organisation are outrageous and clearly aim to intimidate and demonise him in the public eye. HRDs should be protected, not harassed and intimidated”.
Alongside the deteriorating situation for human rights and the rule of law in Russia is the problem of corruption. Although Russia was ranked 119 out of 168 countries by Transparency International in their 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index (an improvement of 17 places on last year’s report), Russia is still widely criticised for having a high level of corruption within its state institutions and judicial system.