Electoral façade looking ragged and raw

posted 12 Jul 2017, 10:32 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 13 Jul 2017, 13:39 ]
12 July 2017

By Simon Cosgrove

...a look back at the week of 1 - 7 July 2017 

It might be desirable – even comforting, to some extent - to think that human rights abuses are, by and large, the result of individual human frailty and have nothing to do with politics. That they result from the actions of individual civil servants and law enforcement officers, from ‘human nature,’ rather than from the systematic and purposeful types of actions that constitute the kind of organization we usually denote as a ‘political system.’ But when we come to consider elections in Russia we face evidence that, in this area at least, violations of rights may be both systematic and purposeful. 

What we see is something that most likely could be described as an electoral façade, rather than a system of democratic elections, a facade that fronts what Vladimir Gel’man has diagnosed as the Russian version of ‘electoral authoritarianism.’ At some times, an optimistic observer might say, this façade is in better shape [i.e. less of a façade] that at others. However, this week, the week that Aleksei Navalny was released (7 July) after serving 25 days in jail, the façade – or Potemkin village, to use a term more familiar in the Russian context – is looking ragged and raw. 

As noted in an earlier blog, the Central Electoral Commission, chaired by former federal human rights ombuds person Ella Pamfilova, announced while Navalny was still incarcerated (on 23 June) that the opposition politician would be barred from standing in the 2018 presidential election because of his suspended sentence for fraud (handed down in February in a retrial that followed a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights finding an earlier trial unfair). Navalny, who has stated his intention to make another application to the European Court of Human Rights over this second conviction, has said he believes the Russian constitution bans only those actually in prison from standing for election (Article 32 of the Russian Constitution states: “Deprived of the right to elect and be elected shall be citizens recognized by court as legally unfit, as well as citizens kept in places of confinement by a court sentence”; Article 3 of the corresponding federal law on presidential elections says the same). 

In the days prior to his release there were instances of serious intimidation against people already involved in running Navalny’s presidential campaign. In Krasnodar, for example, on 4 July a group of self-declared Putin supporters attacked the Navalny campaign office. In Moscow that same night police investigators raided Navalny’s campaign office, seizing computers and campaign literature, and sealing the premises. A volunteer in the office, Aleksandr Turovsky was hospitalized after allegedly suffering an assault by one of the officers. 

Given that effective control of the media is an essential element of ‘electoral authoritarianism,’ and Navalny’s popularity on the Web, it should come as no surprise that this week President Putin signed a law (3 July) that enables copies (mirrors) of websites containing so-called ‘illegal information’ to be blocked by the government’s media oversight agency Roskomnadzor. This law was speedily put into practice when, on 6 July, at the request of the Prosecutor’s Office, Roskomnadzor restricted access to six websites, reportedly including those of Russian Sector, Right Look, and Sputnik & Pogrom, along with any mirror websites they might have, that have been classified as ‘extremist’ (for promoting ethnic, national or religious hatred). The new law will almost certainly now be applied against independent news websites that were originally blocked (along with Navalny’s blog on LiveJournal) back in 2014, such as Grani.ruKasparov.ru and Ezhednevny zhurnal. While Navalny’s blog was unblocked 18 months later, the other news sources have remained blocked. 

An observer might be tempted to conclude on the basis of the above that what we see is a situation a) where electoral processes are closely controlled by the authorities; b) opposition to the regime is being increasingly criminalized as 'extremism;' and c) violence can in many cases apparently be used against opponents of the regime by both state and non-state actors with impunity. 

A number of other events from the past week raise in the issue of the criminal responsibility for the exercise of violence. 

In two legal cases this week individuals have been facing charges of allegedly using, planning or intending violence. On 3 July Dagestani activist Khiramagomed Magomedov was sentenced by the North Caucasus District Military Court to 9 years in jail on charges of participating in the organization Hizb ut-Tahrir al Islami, banned as terrorist in Russia (he was also convicted of attempting to involve a police officer in activities aimed at the violent seizure of power, and carrying a military pistol with three cartridges). However Memorial Human Rights Centre argues that Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a terrorist organization and is not involved in violence. Memorial believes that Hizb ut-Tahrir should not be banned, and also argues that the evidence against Magomedov on the other charges was not adequate for a conviction. On 21 April Memorial designated Magomedov a political prisoner and called for his immediate release. 

The latest moves against participants in the peaceful protests broken up by police on 12 June include, on 4 July, a ruling by Moscow City Court to uphold the ruling of a lower court that 17-year-old Mikhail Galyashkin, charged with violence against a member of the National Guard at the Moscow 12 June rally (he allegedly fired pepper spray into an officer's face), should be placed under house arrest. Whether or not the defendant in this particular case is innocent or guilty (yet to be proven either way in a court), many observers note that violence at peaceful protests has been primarily exercised by the police who broke up the rally, while not one of the police officers has been prosecuted. Moreover, court reports indicate that judges tend to accept that an alleged injury caused to a police officer by a particular individual is proven solely on the basis of the testimony of the police officer in question. 

In two instances law enforcement authorities refused to take prompt and effective action to investigate violence against members of the public. On 6 July, despite the reports of extraordinary violence against LGBT people in Chechnya, Novaya gazeta stated that the Investigative Committee had yet to respond to its call for an investigation into these reported violations. Novaya gazeta was reacting to a statement by federal human rights commissioner Tatiana Moskalkova who that day had announced she had received an “interim response” from the Investigative Committee in which the Committee stated that it had not found “any facts confirming violent actions against (such) persons.” In Dagestan, on the same day, the city's police department announced it would not be investigating attacks on journalists from the newspaper Chernovik that had taken place as they were covering the 12 June protest in Makhachkala. 

Finally, this week (1 July) new legislation that largely decriminalizes domestic violence, signed by President Putin in February 2017, came into effect. As Teresa Eder and Elena Volkava wrote in The Washington Postthe law “releases husbands from criminal responsibility — with some minor exceptions — for acts of physical violence against their spouses” and also makes Russia “one of only three countries in Europe and Central Asia (along with Armenia and Uzbekistan) that does not have specific laws addressing domestic violence.”