Advisory Committee (International)

On this page you will find statements and opinions by members of Rights in Russia's Advisory Committee (International).
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Robert van Voren: Is Putin poisoning his opponents?

posted 1 Jun 2015, 04:55 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 1 Jun 2015, 05:07 ]

1 June 2015

By Robert van Voren

Robert van Voren is Chief Executive of Human Rights in Mental Health-FGIP and professor of political science at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas (LT) and Ilia State University in Tbilisi (GEO), and visiting professor at the Grinchenko University in Kyiv (Ukraine). He is also Vice-President for Europe of the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH).

Russian journalist and opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza remains in critical condition after having fallen ill as a result of what is feared to be poisoning. Having fallen ill in his Moscow office with what first appeared to be heart problems, he was hospitalized in a Moscow hospital. Doctors at the hospital claim it looks like a case of “double pneumonia” or “pancreatitis”, however there are sufficient indicators to believe that Kara-Murza was poisoned with an unknown toxic substance. Attempts to have blood samples taken out of the country for analysis were first blocked by the hospital, and later claimed to have been unsuccessful “for technical reasons”.

Kara-Murza, born in 1981 in a well-known Moscow family of intellectuals, graduated in history at Cambridge University and in 2012 became a senior policy advisor to the Institute of Modern Russia, an organization in the United States established by the son of Russian oligarch and then still political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky. After returning to Moscow, he represented the organization “Open Russia” established by Khodorkovsky after his release. Kara-Murza was hospitalized in serious condition during the morning of May 27, after his blood pressure unexpectedly went up to dangerous levels. In hospital his condition continued to worsen and after kidney failure he was put on artificial dialysis and respiration. Since he has been kept in artificial coma to avoid brain damage.

The case of Kaza Murza does not stand alone, and there is sufficient reason to believe there is foul play in this case. Over the past decade more opponents of the Putin regime became unexpectedly and unexplainably ill and either miraculously survived or died as a result of poisoning. Almost forgotten is the case of then opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who was poisoned in 2004 with dioxin during the Ukrainian election campaign for Presidency against Putin’s choice Viktor Yanukovich. He miraculously survived, yet not unscathed.

The most well known case is that of former KGB-officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died in 2006 in London as a result of poisoning with a radioactive substance. Litvinenko had been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, accusing him not only of corruption on a grand scale, but also of having orchestrated the bombings of Moscow apartment buildings in which hundreds of people died, only to have a pretext to start the second Chechen War.

The inquest in Litvinenko’s death started in July 2014, with the first series of public hearings haven taken place this spring and to be resumed in July this year, but already now there is overwhelming evidence Litvinenko was killed with Polonium-210 put in his tea during a meeting with two Moscow agents, one of whom is now a member of the State Duma.

The case of Yury Shchekochikhin

Three years earlier, in 2003, one of the founders of the independent newpaper "Novaya Gazeta" and member of the State Duma, Yury Shchekochikhin, died 12 days after being hospitalized in a Moscow clinic. Shchekochikhin worked for Novaya Gazeta since 1996 as deputy-editor, covering dangerous assignments such as the Chechen conflict, high-powered corruption, arms trade, and organized crime. During the years leading up to his death he published a series of detailed reports on corruption case that involved a Moscow furniture store known as Tri Kita (Three Whales). While the Tri Kita case initially seemed like a regular business fraud case, it involved high-ranking FSB officials who were found to have used the furniture business to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through the Bank of New York in the late 1990s. In February 2002 Shchekochikhin revealed evidence that the Prosecutor General's Office had received two million US dollars in bribes in order to stop the Tri Kita corruption investigation.

In April 2002 Shchekochikhin wrote President Vladimir Putin to request he take the case under his personal control. President Putin responded positively, but as of June 2003 the case had gone nowhere. On June 2, 2003, Shchekochikhin published another detailed article on the Tri Kita affair - his last one. Two weeks later, while on a business trip in the city of Ryazan, Shchekochikhin suddenly felt sick with flu-like symptoms. He returned to Moscow that day with a fever, sore throat, body aches, and a burning sensation all over his skin. Shchekochikhin's health rapidly deteriorated in the next few days and he was hospitalized on June 21. In the next 12 days, the journalist's organs failed one by one - his skin literally peeled off his body; he lost all of his hair; his lungs, liver, kidneys, and, finally, his brain stopped functioning.

The allergen that caused the reaction was never identified. Shchekochikhin's clinical test results were classified as "medical secret." All attempts to investigate his murder and, specifically, how he might have been poisoned - as seemed likely - were frustrated. In particular, the samples and medical documentation mysteriously disappeared and were unavailable for examination and analysis by a prominent UK specialist.

Failed poison attempt leads to assassination

Earlier, in 2004, the Moscow journalist Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned on a flight to Rostov on Don, when she was trying to get to Beslan after the hijacking of a school by Chechen terrorists that left more than 300 hostages including almost 200 schoolchildren dead. Politkovskaya was investigating allegations that not only the storming of the school had been seriously flawed, but also that the FSB might have been involved in the whole affair as a pretext for a further clampdown on the Chechnyan insurgence against Moscow’s rule.

Politkovskaya, a special correspondent for the same newspaper “Novaya Gazeta”, was well known for her investigative reports on human rights abuses by the Russian military in Chechnya. In seven years covering the second Chechen war, Politkovskaya's reporting repeatedly drew the wrath of Russian authorities and of Russian President Vladimir Putin personally. During her reporting in Chechnya she was repeatedly detained and threatened, yet that did not deter her from continuing her investigative work.

After drinking tea on her flight to Rostov Politkovskaya became seriously ill and was hospitalized--but the toxin was never identified because the medical staff was instructed to destroy her blood tests. However, the fact that she was immediately taken to the American Medical Center probably saved her life, albeit not for long: in 2006 she was assassinated in the doorway of her Moscow apartment.

Are there more?

With more and more oppositionists suddenly falling ill with unexplainable symptoms, people concerned have started to dig into sudden deaths in the past, and have come to information that gives a very disturbing picture. For instance, during a recent inquest in the United Kingdom it was revealed that the Russian businessman Alexander Perepilichny, who in 2012 collapsed and died outside the mansion he was renting on a luxury private estate near London, did not die of a heart failure. There was not conclusive evidence that in fact he had been poisoned, probably during a sudden and mysterious business trip to Paris shortly before his death. After his return he had felt very ill and went out jogging on the estate to recuperate, only to be found dead on the grounds later that day. Traces of “heartbreak grass”, a poisonous plant found only in China, were found in his stomach. Perepilichny appears to have been poisoned, and not for nothing. He had been given asylum in the UK after exposing Russian officials complicit in a tax scam involving some 200 million euro, in which high-up Russian officials were involved. He had been helping a Swiss investigation into this Russian money-laundering and also provided evidence against Russian officials linked to the 2009 death of anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow jail.

Among those opposing the Putin regime, either for political reasons of because of more “economic” ones, e.g. fraud, corruption and theft on a major scale, it is feared that this is not the end of it, and that more cases will appear – involving both people deceased in the past and people suddenly falling ill, like Vladimir Kara-Murza who is now fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital. 

Jens Siegert: NGOs and the Kremlin – fresh plans to tighten up the NGO law

posted 4 Sep 2014, 12:54 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 4 Sep 2014, 12:55 ]

31 July 2014

Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog

It would appear that the repressive tactics employed by the Russian state against NGOs with links abroad have been ramped up a level. It started back in early June with amendments to the NGO law which gave the Ministry of Justice the power to impose the label of “foreign agent” on any NGOs which (also) receive money from abroad, whether they agree or not. The Ministry of Justice has exercised this right on 10 occasions already. At around the same time, the tax authorities also began to scrutinise the finances of many NGOs and to demand that tax be paid on donations, contrary to previous practice (and previous case law). [Read more]

Translated by Joanne Reynolds

Jens Siegert: Interview with Zurich Tages-Anzeiger on Yukos ruling by Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague

posted 3 Sep 2014, 14:11 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 3 Sep 2014, 14:18 ]

28 July 2014

Jens Siegert

Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog

In a ruling published today, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ordered the Russian state to pay around USD 50 billion in compensation to former shareholders of the Russian oil concern Yukos, which was dissolved in 2004. They had appealed for compensation from the government on the grounds that the breaking up of the company formerly headed by the government critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky had lost them a great deal of money. Khodorkovsky himself has welcomed the ruling, but emphasised that he himself did not submit a claim and did not intend to derive any material benefits from the ruling. In an interview with the Zurich Tages-Anzeiger, I made a first attempt at analysing the consequences of the ruling.

Tages-Anzeiger: Mr Siegert, Russia has been ordered to pay a huge sum of compensation in the Yukos case. What does this ruling mean for the Kremlin?

Jens Siegert: Alarm bells will be ringing even louder among the political classes. The Kremlin is already under pressure as a result of the US and EU sanctions, and a further penalty of over USD 50 billion would be a harsh blow. [Read more]

Translated by Joanne Reynolds

Jens Siegert: What are the consequences of the downing of the Malaysian passenger plane over Ukraine? First thoughts

posted 31 Jul 2014, 08:35 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 31 Jul 2014, 08:36 ]

18 July 2014

By Jens Siegert

Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog

It was only yesterday morning that I very carefully wrote down my impression here that several signs in Russia were pointing towards a “slight relaxation” in the Ukraine conflict. In the evening the terrible news came of the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane crashing near Donetsk with almost 300 people on board. It quickly became clear that the plane had been shot down. But by who? And what comes next? Where do these new deaths leave us? (Though we must not forget the many other victims up to this point – among them also certainly a few perpetrators – from Maidan to the towns and villages of eastern Ukraine.) [Read more]

Translated by Helen Corbett

Jens Siegert: New repressive action - 5 more NGOs declared to be “foreign agents”; one required to pay tax

posted 28 Jul 2014, 02:22 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 Jul 2014, 02:25 ]

21 July 2014

By Jens Siegert

The Russian Ministry of Justice has ruled that five more NGOs are so-called “foreign agents” and has put them on the state register of “foreign agents”, against their will. The five NGOs are Memorial Human Rights CentreEcodefence (a women’s group from Kaliningrad), the police and justice watchdog Public Verdict, the Agora Human Rights Association and Lawyers for constitutional rights and freedom (Jurix). This means that these NGOs are bound to put the tagline “this organisation carries out the functions of a foreign agent” on all public statements they make, with immediate effect. If they do not comply, they will be liable to pay hefty fines, and if it happens again the organisation could be closed and its president imprisoned. [Read more]

Translated by Suzanne Eade Roberts 

Jens Siegert: Eastern Ukraine - Hazarding a guess at the Kremlin’s plans

posted 28 Jul 2014, 02:08 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 Jul 2014, 02:26 ]

17 July 2014

By Jens Siegert

Source: Heinrich Boell Foundation Russia Blog

Over the past two or three weeks, a very slight hint of détente has been sensed in the (foreign) political situation in Moscow – sensed rather than actually observed in the literal sense of the word. It relates primarily to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but also has consequences for the situation within Russia as a whole. The clearest outward sign of this “détente” – and I hesitated even longer before typing the word for a second time – is a slight shift in the rhetoric of propaganda. [Read more]

Translated by Joanne Reynolds 

Jens Siegert: On prison camps and human dignity – a review of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's “My Fellow Prisoners”

posted 21 Jul 2014, 05:28 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 21 Jul 2014, 05:32 ]

3 July 2014

By Jens Siegert

Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog

A book written by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly the Great Russian Empire’s best-known prison inmate and a free man for just six months, has been published in German. The slim volume has the programmatic title “My Fellow Prisoners”. I believe that this book is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand more about Russia, and there are two reasons why I say this. The first is that life in Russia’s prison camps is a reflection of society, perhaps more so than in any other country. The rules there differ very little from those which apply beyond the prison walls, and they are rooted not so much in the law as in the Russian notion of “zhit’ po ponyatiyam”, or “living by unwritten rules”. [Read more]

Translated by Joanne Reynolds

Jens Siegert on 'Gopniki'

posted 7 Jul 2014, 02:58 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 7 Jul 2014, 02:59 ]

19 June 2014

By Jens Siegert

Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog

Each language, indeed each society, has certain terms which, whether they are written or spoken, function as gateways to whole worlds. No explanation is needed because people understand. These key words also say a great deal about the societies in which they arose, became heavy with meaning and are still used. Only what is sufficiently significant for a given society, which explains its meaningful differences and phenomena, will be given a shorthand which is succinct, eloquent and readily understood. The Russian noun “gopnik” is exactly this type of concept. It describes someone who behaves in a particular way. [Read more]

Translated by Suzanne Eade Roberts 

Noah Birksted-Breen: "Remember, Remember… The First Of July 2014…"

posted 28 Jun 2014, 08:46 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 Jun 2014, 08:50 ]

18 June 2014

By Noah Birksted-Breen

Source: Sputnik Theatre Blog 

Since the end of communism, Russian artists have only rarely faced restrictions and persecution by the state. A law banning censorship was enshrined in the Constitution in 1993. The 2000s saw a resurgent authoritarianism under President Putin. However, even during the bad phases, it was always possible to find some rays of hope. After Putin’s re-election as President in 2012, there was a succession of laws restricting the public space for dissent. But the arts were not affected in any direct way.

And the bad news wasn’t the only story. At the same time, some theatres were booming. A far-sighted Culture Minister in Moscow, Sergei Kapkov, was providing funding for a number of daring younger directors to create work in a handful of medium-sized repertory theatres. The increasing variety and richness of the theatre landscape was a beacon of hope. As long as progressive theatre-makers were able to work freely, there was at least some room for independent thought. This was a silver-lining against a backdrop of increasingly harsh government rhetoric about ‘enemies within’ and ‘foreign agents’ and so on.

The 1st of July 2014 seems to represent a sea change. It is hard to see it as anything else but a point of no return. A new law will come into force which bans swearing in films, TV, literature and in the theatre. This is a law censoring the arts – it is the first of its kind since 1991.

The theatres which will be punished by this law are the most progressive ones. Russia’s most famous political theatre, Teatr.doc, is the only theatre which has, as far as I am aware, publicly refused to adapt its repertoire to suit the impending law. It is able to take a stance because it is an independent theatre. The vast majority of theatres rely on state funding. But Teatr.doc does not have large resources – it is run on a shoe-string budget. It is hard to imagine that the most innovative theatres will survive. The new law imposes significant fines for organisations which do not conform – around 1000 pounds, seemingly, for each time they break the law, i.e. each performance of a play which contains swearing.

This fateful date – 1st of July 2014 – could see the heavy hand of state censorship closing several key new playwriting venues. For the larger, richer repertory theatres it acts as a strong disincentive to stage new plays – at least, those works which are innovative or experimental.

This law also opens the floodgates to all sorts of other damaging changes which impinge on artistic freedom. This month, a newer law about the arts is being discussed in the Russian Parliament. Not about swearing this time. This newer law would ban positive depictions of the mafia in the cinema. It hasn’t been approved – but it gives a sense of what the future might hold, with any number of new laws introduced to ban this or that type of play or film. The point is that only the most conservative cultural products will thrive in this restricted public sphere.
Luckily, as Russian playwrights and directors face a bleak future, British theatres are stepping up to support them. I welcome Theatre 503’s initiative to commission both Russian and British playwrights to engage with the realities of Russia today. It was a quick response to a fast-changing situation. My own company, Sputnik, has been dedicated to bringing contemporary Russian playwrights to the UK since 2005 and we will continue to offer opportunities to Russian playwrights to develop their work in London, for many years to come. We are currently sourcing five new plays to present to British audiences in 2015.

This seems to be one of the moments in history which will be remembered, for all the wrong reasons. I applaud the playwrights and artistic directors in Russia who continue to follow their consciences, in spite of the consequences.

Noah Birksted-Breen
Artistic director of Sputnik Theatre Company
To join the Sputnik mailing list HERE

Jens Siegert: The hunt for “NGO agents” gathers pace – five NGOS forcibly declared “agents”

posted 22 Jun 2014, 11:55 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 22 Jun 2014, 11:58 ]

10 June 2014

By Jens Siegert

Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog 

My previous post on the hunt for “NGO agents” had barely been published when developments began to pick up speed. It was announced yesterday that the Ministry of Justice had exercised its new powers as early as last Thursday, when it entered five NGOs on its register of “NGOs which fulfil the function of a foreign agent” (to use the official title). The organisations concerned will henceforth be legally obliged to make it known that they are “an NGO fulfilling the function of a foreign agent” every time they make a public statement. Those which fail to do so will face costly fines in the first instance, and the closure of their organisations or possibly even criminal proceedings against those in charge if they commit repeated offences. [Read more]

Translated by Joanne Reynolds

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