Advisory Council (Russia)

On this page you will find statements and opinions by members of Rights in Russia's Advisory Council (Russia).

Pavel Chikov: A 'controlled thaw.’ What the review of the cases of Dadin and Chudnovets tells us [RBK]

posted 13 Mar 2017, 05:58 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 13 Mar 2017, 06:03 ]

6 March 2017 

By Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Association 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group  [original source: RBK

The number of politically motivated criminal cases in Russia is not increasing but we cannot talk of a real improvement, rather we are seeing a change of tactics by the authorities in a situation where the appetite for protest has shrunk.

The Kurgan regional court reversed Evgenia Chudovets’ sentence and freed her from the prison colony. Chudnovets had served four out of a five month sentence for, it was said, distributing child pornography though the internet. The Russian deputy prosecutor almost word for word used the arguments concerning the legality of the case put forward by her defence lawyer in the appeal. Previously the same Kurgan court, when considering an appeal, had refused to free Chudnovets despite requests from both defence lawyer and prosecutor. The court had also rejected the appeal against the legality of the sentence. Only after the Prosecutor General and the Supreme Court had intervened was the verdict overturned. Now Evgenia has the right to claim damages for an illegal criminal prosecution.

Chudnovets’ case took its course as the even more high profile case of Ildar Dadin was in the news. The Dadin case was the first criminal prosecution brought under the article in the Criminal Code on the holding of illegal rallies, with the first guilty verdict and the taking into custody in the court room. A shocking sentence of three years in a prison colony was handed down - for a first conviction for a non-serious offence, with a clear political context, carried out in Moscow in the sight of all the mass media. A slight reduction in length of sentence was granted on appeal. But then came transport to a prison colony, arrival at the infamous strict regime prison system in Karelia, the huge scandal over accounts of torture, and a sharp response from the prison authorities. There followed a demonstratively long and secret transfer of Ildar to a distant prison colony in the Altai, then an open session of the Constitutional Court and that Court’s finding that the interpretation of the relevant article of the Criminal Code in the case had been incorrect. After this, the Supreme Court intervened with unprecedented haste, the case was reviewed, and Ildar was acquitted and freed from prison.

Political releases

In both Chudnovets’ and Dadin’s cases the justice system acted with amazing speed. Chudnovets’ criminal case literally flew from Kurgan to Moscow, and then back again. In Russia that is only possible when something is micro-managed from on high and has been agreed at the appropriate level.

One is reminded of the sudden release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky from the same Karelian prison colony in December 2013, the sudden and unexpected early release of the Greenpeace activists from the Arctic Sunrise, and of Masha Alekhina and Nadia Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot two months before their term was completed. And, of course, as of today the Kirov regional court still holds the record – in the summer of 2013, in 24 hours, it reversed its verdict sentencing Aleksei Navalny to five years in prison in the Kirovles case.

In all the previous cases the reason behind the sudden softening of the system was clearly visible. ‘The thaw’ of December 2013 was connected with the forthcoming Olympics in Sochi. The amnesty for Navalny was clearly related to his participating in the election campaign for Moscow mayor. It was difficult to doubt that narrowly political, tactical reasons were responsible for the releases.

The recent ‘softening’, as seen in the sudden release of Dadin and Chudnovets, the transfer to house arrest in Moscow for the ‘last Bolotnaya Square protester’ Dmitry Buchenkov, and in Ekaterinburg for the Pokemon catcher Ruslan Sokolovsky, has been met with enthusiastic approval by the progressive public. A liberal genie seemed about to leap out of the bottle, but then came the 11-hour search of the human rights activist Zoya Svetova’s apartment, relating to the ancient ‘Yukos affair’. This is as sudden and difficult to explain as are the recent releases.

The federal authorities are making no attempt to clamp down on talk of a thaw, on the contrary they encourage it. Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, Vyacheslav Medvedev, chair of the Supreme Court, Tatyana Moskalkova, the ombudsperson, and representatives of the Ministry of Justice have spoken out publicly in favour of discussing the decriminalization of the article of the Criminal Code under which Dadin was convicted.

A brake in the decline?

Earlier we noted a halt in the increase of politically-motivated criminal cases. Twelve years of work to defend civic activists, human rights champions, journalists, and leaders of NGOs enables one to have a subtle sense of how the wind is changing. We mustn’t speak of an improvement, but perhaps a brake in the deterioration. There are still dozens of political prisoners in Russia’s jails.

Political scientists have begun to talk about the loosening of the screws, and lawyers about longed-for judicial reform. Whatever, it’s clear that what’s happening didn’t start in February, and that the changes are clearly being imposed from the top down, and quite intentionally, but without an explanation.

In view of the tactical nature of previous reviews of high-profile cases, there is good reason to suppose that all this is down to the presidential election, now looming large.

Preparation began in the spring of last year. There was upheaval in the law enforcement agencies – the redundant state drug control and migration services were abolished, and the political special armed force - Rosgvardia - set up. The influence of the Investigative Committee sharply declined; in the years 2012-2016, the committee had been the main implementer of repressive domestic policy.

The old format had gradually stopped working. Show trials became decreasingly effective. Leading opposition figures got used to working under permanent risk of criminal prosecution. Some left the country, putting themselves out of reach of the authorities, but also outside the political process. Protest meetings have long been poorly attended, and non-profits are demoralized by the law on foreign agents. Self-censorship has taken root on the Internet. Most criminal prosecutions for extremist criminal cases come about as a result of statements by marginalized Internet users in the regions and “non-traditional” Muslims.

In recent years, the state’s job of intimidation and targeting repression has been delegated to pro-government NGOs. Figures like the lawyer Aleksei Navalny are no longer hunted by Aleksandr Bastrykin, but by organisations like the National Liberation Movement and “Anti-Maidan”.

Under reliable supervision

The main task was no longer intimidation and repression, but the collection of information and the prevention of protest activity. These areas are covered by entirely different bodies. And recently the FSB has concentrated the basic function of oversight of domestic policy in its own hands. Employees of the state security department detain governors, generals and influential businessmen, destroy the reputations of businesses and government departments, and protect the Internet from harmful Western influence.

Nothing piles up work for these operatives like a controlled thaw. Daring statements, new leaders and initiatives, planned and proposed protest actions immediately attract their attention. The approaching presidential elections, the start of election campaigns, the good news from the courts as spring comes on – these cannot fail to arouse the dormant spirit of civil protest. Its gradual activation will continue until they peak in March next year. By summer 2018, the authorities will have collected and analysed the information and sent it onwards for assessment. And by autumn, the lawyers will be busy again. This scenario has to be considered.

Of course, there’s another possibility – the Kremlin may be aiming its signals of liberalism not at a domestic audience, but a foreign one. The president remains focused on foreign policy, which is in a state of upheaval. In the eyes of the Western liberal public, Vladimir Putin personifies dark forces which threaten the world order. Sudden steps towards democratisation will only add to the uncertainty, resulting in a tactical advantage for the Kremlin in its diplomatic games. Given that there are many politicians in the world who are happy to be deceived, Putin’s supporters will only increase in number.

Translated by Mary McAuley and Anna Bowles

Liudmila Alekseeva: “From the beginning they were unfairly convicted and only later acquitted.” On the reversal of the sentences against Dadin and Chudnovets and the pardoning of Sevastidi

posted 13 Mar 2017, 03:15 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 13 Mar 2017, 03:15 ]

7 March 2017

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: RIA Novosti]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pardoned Oksana Sevastidi, who was convicted of state treason and sentenced to seven years in a prison colony over a text message she sent to a Georgian acquaintance in 2008 about Russian military equipment. Evgenia Chudnovets, a teacher, who was convicted for reposting a video on social networks, was released yesterday from the Nizhny Tagil prison colony after her sentence was reversed. On 22 February, the Presidium of the Supreme Court reversed the sentence against civic activist Ildar Dadin, who was the first in Russia to be convicted for multiple infractions of the rules on holding rallies.

Liudmila Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) and a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, is pleased with the latest series of vindications and pardons and links this to the personal attention Russian President Vladimir Putin has paid to the topic but is counting on his further efforts to improve the judicial system as a whole, Alekseeva said in an interview for RIA Novosti.

“I’m pleased. The president turned his attention to this, but it shouldn’t be the president’s job. The judges should have the intelligence, conscience, and knowledge of the laws,” the human rights activist said.

The head of the Moscow Helsinki Group commented that human rights activists have drawn the president’s attention to what is going on in the courts many times, while Alekseeva reminded us that three years ago she herself spoke, in the presence of the head of state, about the failings of the judicial system. “This is hard to correct, but one thing can be done very easily. With one stroke of the president’s pen, the jury trial can have its functions restored. After all, the jury trial in our country issues more acquittals,” Alekseeva said.

“The president has given instructions, and some work has been done in this respect, but nothing noticeable has happened for three years. Maybe he [the Russian president] has turned his attention to this again. That would be good,” the human rights activist added.

At the same time, she remarked that it was essential to continue to improve the judicial system.

“You understand, of course, we have to be happy for Dadin and Chudnovets and everyone, but we must remember that from the beginning they were unfairly convicted and only afterward acquitted. Of course, we have to be happy about this, but I would like it if our judicial system worked humanely rather than in such a way that we are happy at individual corrections made to its outrageous mistakes. We have many unfairly condemned people incarcerated," Alekseeva concluded.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Lev Ponomarev: After Dadin’s release, the next task is to eliminate the torture zones

posted 13 Mar 2017, 03:04 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 13 Mar 2017, 03:04 ]

2 March 2017

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Моskovksy komsomolets]

By Lev Ponomarev, head of the “For Human Rights” movement, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Vice-Chairman of the Foundation “In Defence of the Rights of Prisoners”

Ildar Dadin’s case attracted the attention not only of leading political dissenters, but also of large segments of civil society. Many people regard Dadin’s release as the first real achievement for civil society in Putin’s reign as a whole, but this may be overstating the case.

Different people see Dadin’s release from different perspectives. Some people think that it represents a concession on the part of Putin and the authorities, and the first indication of a wider “thaw”. Others think that it is merely a temporary reprieve from which nothing good should be expected, and that the subsequent backlash will involve a harsh clampdown.

My take on the matter is somewhat different. It is an indisputable fact that the government conceded this point, but the next steps depend on the actions taken, both individually and jointly, by the human rights community, civil society and the opposition. At the very least, we must be aware of the responsibility that rests on our shoulders, since it is up to us whether the authorities will continue to ignore the opinion of civil society or make further concessions. It would be inappropriate to demean ourselves by suggesting prematurely that the authorities can do whatever they like.

The “For Human Rights” movement has been involved with Dadin’s case since the very beginning, when he took to the streets in protest. We were aware that the last of the administrative cases would be brought against him and that he would be imprisoned – we just didn’t know where he would end up.

There are several dozen more torture zones in Russia in addition to the prison colonies in Karelia. What do human rights activists understand by this term?

As I see it, a prison where violence is consistently used against the inmates merits the title of torture zone. The assembly-line violence in these zones is merely part of the daily routine.

My hope is that we will be able to settle the question of torture once and for all in Russia, because I believe that there are two or three dozen of these torture zones in the country. Elsewhere there is no system of torture and prisoners can serve their sentences without fear of violence, albeit in conditions which are likely to be as bad as they are in all of Russia’s penal institutions, and even though individual excesses may occur, up to and including the murder of a convict by prison officers or – on their own admission – other “activist” prisoners.

Elimination of the torture zones represents a perpetual challenge for the human rights community, and one which is very obviously still present today. It is a challenge faced by society as a whole, but one which only became known to the wider public following the developments in Dadin’s case.

Dadin – a reasonably well-known Moscow-based civic activist – dared to attract a huge amount of public attention to himself by dictating a letter to his lawyer which was subsequently published by the press. The public outcry was so vociferous that the President’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, was forced to respond, a fact which in itself is of enormous significance.

Dadin was released after all, so his story had a happy ending. There were a number of different contributing factors to this outcome:

Firstly, Ildar Dadin himself is a civic activist famous for his daring and his public statements.

Secondly, the lawyers involved acted with supreme professionalism by daring to secure the publication of Dadin’s letter in leading media outlets and bringing the case to a successful conclusion before the Constitutional Court.

The role of the mass media was accordingly the third key factor.

Fourthly, Moscow-based civil activists put in enormous amounts of work after the publication of Dadin’s letter by picketing the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia, demanding a response from its leadership and keeping media interest high.

This clearly put the authorities on edge, since to begin with the Federal Penitentiary Service announced that there was no evidence to confirm that prisoners had been tortured, before then announcing that the case would be re-examined and that a working group would be set up together with human rights activists. Just before New Year it was announced that this latter would be tasked with investigating torture in the Karelia prison colonies and throughout Russia, but no working group has been set up after all.

Fifth, a major role belongs to Tatyana Nikolayevna Moskalkova, the human rights ombudswoman in Russia. She was the first to go to Karelia to meet with Dadin, almost immediately, as soon as his letter was published. During her trip to Karelia she met not only with him, but also with several other prisoners who had previously filed complaints of torture. She was objective: despite the lack of visible signs of torture on Dadin’s body, she spoke of the possibility of bias on the part of the law enforcement agencies and sought to establish all the details.

After Moskalkova, members of Russia’s Council on Human Rights Igor Kalyapin and Pavel Chikov and the human rights defender Valery Borshchev visited Dadin. They spoke with Dadin himself for a long time, as well as with other prisoners, and returned wholly certain of the fact that Dadin had not lied, nor had the other prisoners.

It is also to Moskalkova’s credit that she firmly raised the question of the necessity of removing Dadin from [penal colony] No. 7. And that happened quite quickly. Dadin was transferred to another colony, and not one where torture takes place, in the Altai region. Zoya Svetova, the journalist and activist, also actively campaigned for his transfer.

The authorities considered this moment to be a watershed. They were already planning to wrap up the story with Dadin. He’d been taken to Altai, society would in time forget the issues he’d brought up. And it would also be possible to punish Dadin himself for “slander.”

In fact, before New Year’s there was a session of the Federal Penitentiary Service’s Public Council. The Council’s chairman, the well-known film director Vladimir Menshov, who in principle ought to fight against torture, made a disgraceful statement. He put the question roughly in this way: why is the Federal Penitentiary Service delaying? They need to initiate criminal proceedings against Ildar Dadin for slander, for false testimony! Why is the Penitentiary Service silent?

Clearly it also encouraged the Penitentiary Service to put the investigation on hold and wait for the public to calm down.

In this situation the task for human rights defenders, and for the movement ‘For Human Rights’ was to find an alternative focus for public opinion if Ildar Dadin was to be removed from the scene in this way. And how to replace Dadin? We sent lawyers to ask questions of prisoners and compile information about the violence flourishing in Karelian penal colonies.

Together with Ildar’s wife Anastasiya Zotova, we were able to begin a fundraising campaign for the lawyers. Their frequent trips to Karelia began, and continue to this day. Currently we have lawyers’ interviews with around 20 sentenced prisoners from several Karelian colonies. It’s clear that the torture is sophisticated; in different colonies it takes different forms. Nearly all the materials gathered are available on our website “Territory of Torture”.

Now the question of initiating criminal proceedings on all these crimes, including Dadin’s declaration, remains. That has not yet been done.

I think the large quantity of new reports of torture sent to the Prosecutor General and the Investigative Committee, based on the lawyers’ interviews, had a substantive influence on the authorities when those “on high” were reconsidering their recommendations to the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court practically recognized the application of Article 212.1 in Dadin’s case to have been unjust and, moreover, established that there were procedural violations in his criminal case. The Supreme Court freed Dadin in an extraordinarily quick time. The court’s decision and the speed of its execution are without precedent.

Very recently Tatyana Moskalkova has declared that Article 212.1 should be repealed. Lebedev, the Supreme Court’s chair, supported her, and the Kremlin reacted to her declaration.

Can we consider this to be a victory? On the one hand, yes. Maybe Article 212.1 will be repealed, maybe participants of peaceful protests won’t be subjected to criminal proceedings in future. But for now the torture zones in Karelia are getting along just fine. Nobody there has been punished. I think a new stage is beginning now in the struggle against torture, both by human rights defenders, and by society as a whole.

We hope we shall win in the end. And what might be a victory? It’s obvious: the dismissal of all the top officials and the other sadists who run these torture colonies, they should be investigated, put on trial and punished, in accordance with their deserts. If that happens in the Karelian colonies, we’ll be able to hope that we can eliminate torture in other regions of Russia as well.

Sergei Nikitin on Amnesty International’s annual report: "There are fewer freedoms now"

posted 6 Mar 2017, 03:49 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Mar 2017, 04:08 ]

22 February 2017

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda]

Rights and freedoms are still widely restricted in Russia, says Amnesty International's annual report. In particular, Amnesty notes the restrictions on freedoms as part of the 'Yarovaya Laws', the infringement of the right of assembly, freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial.

“We have been presenting an annual report for 13 years now, and, unfortunately, we have to note that year by year there are fewer freedoms in Russia”. With these words, Sergei Nikitin, head of the Russian representative office of Amnesty International, began his presentation of Amnesty's annual report on human rights.

The Yarovaya Laws were described in the report as one of the principal new negative factors. Amnesty also mentioned infringements of human rights in the following areas: freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of expression. The human rights situation in the North Caucasus was mentioned separately.

Freedom of assembly

Amnesty International highlights two striking cases of infringement of the right to freedom of assembly. "In March, legislation was enacted on the procedure for holding public events, extending it to 'unauthorised' rallies. In August, in line with the new rules, a group of farmers from Kuban (in southern Russia) were sanctioned. They had driven to Moscow on tractors and in private cars to protest against land seizures by large agricultural holdings", states the report. The leader of the 'tractor march', Aleksei Volchenko, was sentenced to 10 days' in prison under administrative law.

Amnesty also noted that four people are still serving prison sentences as 'Bolotnaya Square' protesters.

"It's now almost five years since the protest on Bolotnaya Square, but the authorities pressed charges against two further people in 2016. One of them is Dmitry Buchenkov. He says that he was, in fact, a long way from Moscow in May 2012. He is currently in detention and has serious health problems. Recently he was only allowed to get married after the authorities had procrastinated for a year", said Sergei Nikitin.

Freedom of association

Amnesty says that the main obstacle for NGOs is the law on foreign agents. The report states that, "In the course of the last year, dozens of independent NGOs have been registered as 'foreign agents' for receiving foreign funding, including the International Memorial Society".

The report recalls that fines are imposed on organisations for non-compliance with this law. "This year alone [2017], four more organisations have been registered as foreign agents. This label is applied to human rights defenders, ecologists, women's organisations and socially-oriented NGOs. We continue to argue that the law is inherently flawed. It contradicts Russia's international obligations", Nikitin said.

Freedom of expression

The chapter on freedom of expression cites the data gathered by the Sova Centre, an NGO. Sova Centre points out that 90% of all convictions in cases of alleged extremism arise because of statements and posts on social media.

Amnesty International mentions the typical and telling case of Ekaterina Vologzheninova, who was found guilty under Article 282 of the Criminal Code for publishing on the internet criticism of the annexation of Crimea. Vologzheninova had to serve 320 hours of correctional labour, and her laptop was destroyed as "a criminal weapon." 

"After appeals by Sova Centre and other NGOs, the plenary session of the Supreme Court published guidance for courts on how to implement anti-extremist legislation. The Supreme Court commented that for statements to count as inciting hatred, they must include an element of violence: calls for genocide, mass persecution, deportations or violence", says the report. "Unfortunately, these requirements are frequently ignored by the courts", added Nikitin. "Another Russian trend is punishing people who aren't public figures and, in the process, intimidating ordinary people. This sends a strong signal: 'Watch out if you participate in peaceful demonstrations, repost other people's posts, 'like' certain things on social media, and be careful about books and films. You might be next'." 

Separately, the report also mentioned infringements of people's right to a fair trial and their right to medical treatment in detention centres, infringements of human rights in the Syrian conflict zone and infringements of refugees' rights.

Translated by Suzanne Eade Roberts

Andrei Yurov: On the School of Human Rights, politics, policy and the law

posted 2 Mar 2017, 07:52 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 2 Mar 2017, 07:54 ]

21 February 2017

By Andrei Yurov, human rights activist, training specialist at the International School of Human Rights and Civic Action, expert of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and member of the Presidential Human Rights Council 

Extract. Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: hragents.org] 

Many activists come to the School of Human Rights, including people from political groups. At seminars, they realize all of a sudden that human-rights defence is not about politics. Someone once said to me at a seminar: “Oh, all of a sudden I realized that it’s possible to be a human-rights activist and be engaged in human rights and to keep politics separate.” In this person’s mind, these had always been in the same category. One of my main tasks is to draw a clear boundary between the concepts of “politics” and “policy” which are the same word in Russian – “politika” – but two different words in English. By “policy” I mean the social policy that we are actually engaged in. I always try to emphasize that we’re not part of a fight for power, that this isn’t our realm. That is just another type of activism.

However, changing the situation for the better, under any government, is precisely what we’re about. We monitor courts, prisons, police activity, and the environment – in short anything that answers to basic societal needs. We establish different relationships with government officials: our task is not to overthrow them; we are trying to forge a partnership with them and together change the world for the better. This is, of course, a rather unusual approach. People are predominately used to rallies and demonstrations: “Down with so-and-so!” and “We demand this-and-that!”. But establishing long-term partnerships is incredibly complicated, which is why we try to explain to young activists that being an active citizen is, first and foremost, about responsibility and day-to-day work. Figuratively speaking, an active citizen is a “trainer of those in power.”

The police won’t change by themselves overnight. This will happen only when we work with them every day. It’s a task not only for professionals, but also for all citizens.

Over the years, the term “social magic” has caught on in our community. It means that the police have come to be a bit more competent and act more kindly to citizens in daily practice; that is, they approach a person, politely greet them, and explain why they have approached them, without using phrases like, “Hey, you, come over here.” This is how reality is changed. It’s unusual and complicated, and it forces many people to think deeply about what they are doing. Someone said to me at a seminar: “It’s easier to go to a rally three times, so that after this everything changed.” Of course! Everything will change quickly and your conscience will be clear. In these situations, it’s very difficult to explain that the police have changed because people have been working with them for twenty years have gradually changed them. We have, as they say, a wide Slavic soul: we want everything to be done instantly and in the ideal way. However, we have a lot of intellectual and educational work to do to train constructive and engaged citizens who are ready to work for a long time to achieve the desired changes.

All proverbs to the effect that laws are only made for the poor or the simple-minded in fact are nothing more than an attempt to say that there are laws, but they exist for idiots, and real life is different. This is the separation that exists in many people’s minds between real life and the law, the idea that the law does not help us in our daily life, but rather is something that disrupts our lives. This legal nihilism is a difficult thing. It means it will take years to change people’s attitudes and change institutions. I understand that it’s difficult to trust the justice system while it’s in this state. However, it is important to understand that the system is the way it is precisely because of our attitude towards it. It’s a vicious circle. […]

Lev Ponomarev: On defending the President from insults

posted 2 Mar 2017, 01:56 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 2 Mar 2017, 01:58 ]

14 February 2017

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Rаdio Sol]

An extract from ‘Жизнь беженцев в России, Прилепин в ДНР и защита президента от оскорблений,’ Rаdio Sol, 14 February 2017

Valentina Ivakina: This is “Sunday with Lev Ponomarev.” In this program, we will be speaking with Lev Ponomarev, executive director of the Russia-wide movement For Human Rights, and also connecting with representatives of this movement in the regions. The moment has now come when we contact Lev Alexandrovich himself and discuss the latest news, what has happened, and also the cases that organization’s specialists are working on. Hello, Lev Alexandrovich!

Lev Ponomarev: Hello! […]

Valentina Ivakina: Lev Alexandrovich, let’s move on to the next news item and also to the news that people have been discussing since Monday, although this is not the first time it has come up. I’m talking about penalties for personally insulting the president. Some are jokingly calling this the “Putin law.” Today, for example, Kommersant published an article which says that State Duma Speaker Aleksandr Volodin has supported a proposal to defend the honor and dignity of the Russian president. He stated that the issue was now not all that relevant, but it was worth discussing for the future. Here is what supporters of this law’s passage are saying. They are writing that right now the president is completely unprotected from insults. Here, for example, Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s press secretary, today commented on Lenta.ru: “You know that the president himself has quite a constructive attitude toward criticism aimed at him. His attitude is especially constructive toward balanced and intelligent critical comments.” Also: “Regarding the personification of the post of president, it is essential that we seriously work through this issue, and first of all, probably, lawyers should study this initiative. They need to study international experience.” So it seems they haven’t rejected it yet but also won’t say it was going to be approved. For example, Volodin said: “People write what they want, and they say what they want. This has become an inalienable part of our culture.” Some expert say that criticism, caricatures, jokes, irony, a sarcastic tone, satire, or comparison of the president with any other person could be punishable by imprisonment because this could be considered an insult. Some people recall that a similar law was passed in the last few years of the Soviet Union’s existence but was practically not enforced, and they also draw analogies. What can you add on this subject?

Lev Ponomarev:  First of all, I want to say that I myself never express myself in a pejorative way, not only with respect to the president, but also toward the many other people in power who, I believe, are behaving improperly, as well as toward people who aren’t in power at all. That is, speaking in general, people have to learn some limitations in their statements. That is proper, I think. This is the culture of speech, and society itself has to work this out because in principle we do have a law, Article 319 of the Russian Criminal Code, “Insulting a representative of authority,” the public insult of authority, and it is punishable either by a fine--there’s a small fine of up to 40,000 rubles--or else by correctional labor. I should say that it is perfectly acceptable, this article. I think it would be wrong to impose criminal punishment for an insult, by which I mean a term in jail. But at the same time, fines are acceptable because, I believe, an elected president - and he is an elected president - should not be insulted, nor should any other citizen of Russia, either in or out of power. So I think this is enough, but in general I believe that society itself must fight this. Even when people who are close to me but more often people closer to the opposition, they, too, when they express themselves with excessive vulgarity, to put it mildly, I don’t like it, and I’m prepared to criticize that. In this sense, I am not on these people’s side. But at the same time, especially given the judicial bacchanalia going on here now, of course, any legislative proposal as it is written will be fairly moderately, and certain extreme instances will be described that require punishment. In fact, however, the law will be applied much more broadly. We have already seen what is going on now. Today I read that in Saratov a criminal case has been opened under Article 282 for insulting and 282 for extremism. The person in question wrote this: “You’re a vatnik [ an insulting term for a Russian hyperpatriot] and a katsap [an insulting term for a Russian derived from the Ukrainian scummy Russian]. What else could you call cattle? Cite all the facts you like, and he won’t believe you.” There are plenty of comments like that. This is what they’re now trying to bring criminal charges for. […]

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Aleksandr Podrabinek: Looking after the State: On the latest Russian legislation

posted 28 Feb 2017, 12:00 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 Feb 2017, 12:02 ]

22 February 2017

By Aleksandr Podrabinek, journalist and human rights defender

Source: Moscow Helinski Group [original source: Radio Svoboda

In early February, Vladimir Putin signed into law a State Duma-approved bill decriminalising domestic violence. Battery is no longer a criminal act, but rather an offence punishable by administrative penalties. Admittedly, for now, this only applies to first-time offenses.

The bill’s authors—whose names it is pointless to state given their total depersonalization—appealed to justice when defending the legal initiative. ‘Why does battery that is perpetrated by total strangers come under the administrative code,’ they complained, ‘while battery that is perpetrated by relatives comes under the criminal one?’

Things should be equalized so that all first-time offences do not count as crimes! True, they could have equalized things the other way, making all forms of battery criminal acts rather than offences punishable by administrative penalties. But that would have meant going against the tide. After all, as recently as 2016, Russia passed laws decriminalising battery, failure to pay child support, and petty theft of others’ property. Such harm to the average citizen is not criminal.

On the one hand, it seems as if the norms of criminal law are being eased, which is not a bad thing in itself. In fact, it wouldn’t be so bad if such easing became a general trend as opposed to selective instances that occur exclusively in cases concerning crimes against the person.

Meanwhile, another trend has been observed: the strengthening of laws shielding the government and civil servants. In the State Duma, Putin has introduced a bill expanding the mandate of the Federal Protection Service (FSO), the bodyguards of Russia’s most important officials. Employees of the FSO will now have permission to open fire if detainees or civilians attempt to approach them or to touch their firearms. FSO staff will also be granted the right to temporarily halt the movement of traffic and pedestrians. They will be allowed to use airports, airfields, heliports, landing strips, sea and river ports, public and private alike, without compensation. The administrative code is being amended so that noncompliance with orders or requests made by members of the security services is made punishable by a fine or fifteen days’ jail under administrative law.

Vyacheslav Lebedev, chairman of Russia’s Supreme Court, has introduced a bill of his own into the State Duma, entitled ‘On the Judicial Service of the Russian Federation.’ The document proposes allowing employees of the judicial service to decide their own benefits, extra compensation, ranks, and uniforms. Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, has suggested criminalising attacks on the honour and dignity of the office of the Russian president—on top of the criminal code’s section on ‘insulting a representative of the state,’ a crime punishable by anything from a fine to a year of corrective labour.

In a word, there are two divergent legislative processes taking place. The rights of Russian citizens are losing the protection of the law, and the rights of state institutions are being strengthened through the law. Something similar has happened in recent Russian history. In the USSR, the theft of private property, for instance, was punishable by a sentence of 2 to 10 years, while that of state property was punishable by a sentence of 3 to 15 years.

The citizen is nothing, and the government is everything. This is the path to authoritarianism, and, for an authoritarian regime, there can be no other path.

Translated by Lincoln Pigman

Lev Ponomarev on the judgment of the Constitutional Court in the Dadin case

posted 23 Feb 2017, 03:04 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 23 Feb 2017, 03:05 ]

10 February 2017

By Lev Ponomarev, executive director of For Human Rights, member of Moscow Helsinki Group 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Movement For Human Rights

The Constitutional Court has made a ruling on the appeal lodged by Ildar Dadin and many people have already wasted no time in expressing their fiercely negative opinions. But, by and large, the decision taken by the Constitutional Court is fairly reasonable. Of course, it is bad news that Article 212.1 has not been repealed altogether, but it's good that they are prepared to reconsider Dadin’s case. Moreover, in future they will not be able to imprison people in similar cases. 

The Constitutional Court did not conclude that the actions of Dadin represented a threat to the public. And at the same time, the Constitutional Court stated that Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation should only be applied in cases where administrative offences continue to be socially dangerous. Thus, it follows that, Article 212.1 should not apply in the case of Dadin or other similar cases 

What constitutes a public danger? Riots. In fact, in the Dadin case there was no evidence of any rioting. At the same time the Constitutional Court indicated that the Dadin case should be reviewed on the basis of procedural irregularities, as in the case of two administrative violations, the court's decisions had not entered into force – there had been no decision by a court of appeal. 

The question remains: will the legislature fulfil the decision of the Court in its entirety, by rewriting Article. 212.1? Will the legislature be able to twist things around so that there could be evidence of rioting in cases where people have been administratively detained simply on the basis of peaceful activism? 

I personally cannot conceive of how it would be possible to use Article 212.1 in cases where someone has never posed a threat and has been held liable under administrative law. We have to ensure that this law is repealed, because it cannot be usefully amended. 

As for the fate of the Dadin himself is concerned, an exceptionally fair decision has been made. We are expecting a review of Ildar’s case and his release in the near future. 

The decision of the Constitutional Court can be found here

Translated by Graham Jones

Damir Gainutdinov: A sentence for a repost. How RuNet users end up behind bars [Intersection]

posted 20 Feb 2017, 11:11 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 20 Feb 2017, 11:15 ]

20 February 2017

By Damir Gainutdinov, Legal analyst at the Agora International Human Rights Group

Source: Intersection

Photo: Intersection

"And we seem to be fighting it but the results are negligible. And results in this case mean jail. So where are the imprisonments?" - Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the Presidium of the Government on smuggling

Our subsequent summary report published in February 2015 indicates a sharp increase in the number of sentences for online activity: at least 18 people were sentenced to between several months and 5 years in prison, and three more individuals were put under compulsory medical treatment. We suggested that this was only the beginning, and that prison sentences for reposts and “likes” would only be an expanding practice. This is indeed what happened: our monitoring of the restrictions imposed on the freedom of Internet use in Russia last year revealed as many as 29 prison sentences and 3 cases of compulsory treatment in a mental hospital. Igor Stenin, the leader of the informal “The Russians of Astrakhan” movement, posted a comment on the VKontakte social network in support of Ukraine and was sentenced to 2 years of imprisonment for making public calls to extremist activity. His case file includes a repost of a short article about the situation in eastern Ukraine, written by a participant of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), which was posted as a comment by another VK user. The technical progress is evident: in the past, agents used to slip drugs or bullets into detainees’ belongings, whereas now they slip commentaries and screenshots. [Read more on Intersection]

Nadezhda Azhgikhina: Russian Citizens Don’t Want to Live in the Middle Ages

posted 16 Feb 2017, 03:48 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 16 Feb 2017, 04:36 ]

30 January 2017

By Nadezhda Azhgikhina, secretary of the Union of Journalists of Russia

Yet again the State Duma did not heed the voices of citizens and experts and lessened the punishment for domestic violence.

The social movement “Vesna” (Spring) held a protest in St. Petersburg. In an improvised boxing ring, the activists presented three storylines: an alcoholic grandson beating a retired relative, a husband beating a wife, and corporal punishment of a child. The St. Petersburg activists were reacting to the State Duma’s final decision on removing insignificant violence against close relatives (i.e. first offence incidents not causing physical injury or loss of ability to work) from the Criminal Code’s jurisdiction to that of administrative (i.e. civil) law. In practice the decision means that if till today one would receive up to two years in prison for beating one’s wife or child, then after the amendment’s adoption, the accused could be fined up to 30,000 rubles (500 USD), imprisoned up to 15 days or perform up to 360 hours of correctional labour. Already last year Article 116 of the Criminal Code (“beatings”) was lightened, and minor assaults on strangers removed from the code’s purview. Yet assaults on relatives remained. Now, after the proposal’s third reading, 380 members of the Russian parliament upheld the decriminalisation of beatings with three votes against.

In anticipation of the final readings, protests took place in cities throughout Russia, initiated by women’s and human rights organizations, and numerous publications appeared in national and regional news media warning against what authors and experts called a dangerous decision. Remarkably, people of different points of view and political convictions spoke out against decriminalisation of domestic violence, including practically all serious experts and even military agencies. Critics of the amendment included the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Scientific Research Institute of the Prosecutor General, the Serbskii Institute of Legal Psychiatry, the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, the President’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, “Anna” Association of Crisis Centres, Consortium of Women’s Organizations, as well as various civil society initiatives, lawyers, and policemen. Women’s organizations asked to keep criminal responsibility for beating pregnant women and children in the Criminal Code, but it did not come to pass.

Without providing statistical evidence, initiators of the amendment, in particular Olga Batalina, asserted that society had long awaited the decriminalisation of domestic violence. Senator Yelena Mizulina said not for the first time that the main problem for families is not violence in the home, but aggression from women and lack of respect for men. Police statistics tell the opposite story. The first official data on the number of victims of violence within the family, published nearly 20 years ago, were horrific: more than 10,000 women and up to 2,000 children in Russia are killed annually at the hands of husbands, partners, and other close relatives. The number is comparable to the number of Soviet soldiers killed throughout the entire [10-year] Soviet-Afghan War. In 2015 alone, 50,000 violent offences were committed within families.

Marina Pisklakova-Parker, director of the “Anna” Association of Crisis Centres, believes that number is significantly lower than reality, given that 70% of women who come to the crisis centres never make statements to the police. In her opinion the new amendment, by lessening the punishment for those who commit violence, will lead to a further decrease in official complaints, hiding the problem in the shadows. In solidarity with her is Svetlana Aivazova, a member of the President’s Council on Human Rights, who finds the Duma’s decision a highly dangerous symptom and a step backwards in protecting victims of violent acts. Sergei Shargunov, one of the few members of parliament who voted against the amendment, thinks it contradicts the Constitution, which forbids violence as such.

Lawyer Mari Davtyan calls attention to the fact that it is not about a simple slap, but rather about violence against a human being, most often against young people. In her opinion, the amendment will only make the situation for victims of domestic violence more difficult — moreover, at present there is no precise definition of “violence in the family.” A legal definition of domestic violence is offered by a bill on the prevention of such actions, currently under review in the State Duma. The necessity of such a law has long been recognized not only by experts and human rights defenders, but also by the police, who are in need of a precise set of actions to protect victims and proactively prevent domestic violence.

The understanding of domestic violence in Russian society has changed significantly over the past 25 years. In 1991 it was typically seen as a private matter. I remember well how I spent several months convincing Vitaly Korotich, editor-in-chief of the leading perestroika magazine Ogonyok, which published the real truth of the Soviet past and future, to include a text on women who had been beaten. It took him a long time to understand that it was an important topic — that’s how strong stereotypes were. Today, mostly thanks to the enormous efforts of women’s organizations and the cooperation of Russian and international initiatives, people recognize it as a crime that must be punished. Even on popular TV shows, good cops defend victims of violence and punish supposedly macho men. And one of the initiators of the law on prevention of domestic violence, alongside human rights defenders, was the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Unfortunately, yet again the Russian parliament heard neither those who suffered from violence, nor civil society representatives, nor professionals.

It’s even sadder that the poorly thought-out decision, in experts’ opinions, not only makes more difficult the acceptance of the long-awaited law on domestic violence, but also, most likely, will give a green light to ultra-nationalist groups (which unfortunately are more and more often receiving officials' support) such as Orthodox Parents or Night Wolves, who accuse external enemies and fifth columns poisoned by the liberal virus of human rights of all Russia’s woes. According to them, liberals and feminists who protect victims of violence are encroaching on that most sacred of things — the inviolability of the family, the basis of the so-called uniquely Russkii mir [Russian world]. It is these groups that welcomed Trump’s election as a sign of the victory of “normal Americans” over LGBT people, feminists, and liberals….It’s important to understand that these marginal groups, however much they shout, are not actually expressing the opinion of Russian people.

One very much wants to believe that the President will not sign such a shameful amendment. And that Russian lawmakers will learn to listen to the voices of professional and citizens who want to live in a modern, civilised society, based on respect for human beings, and not in the Middle Ages of myth as imagined by populists and conscienceless political scientists.

New protests against the State Duma’s decision and in defence of victims of domestic violence are being planned in many Russian cities.

[Editor’s note: On 7 February 2017, President Putin signed into force the law decriminalising domestic violence.]

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