Relations between Russia and the Council of Europe reach a new low

posted 6 Jul 2017, 02:35 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Jul 2017, 22:51 ]
6 July 2017

By Simon Cosgrove

...a look back at the week of 24 - 30 June 2017

One very significant indicator of the direction a European country is taking is its relationship with the inter-governmental Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights organization that works to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This week the troubled history of relations between Russia and the Council of Europe (of which Russia has been a member since 1996) reached something of a new low when on 30 June foreign minister Sergei Lavrov informed the Council of Europe that Russia was suspending all financial contributions (approximately €33m annually) until the "unconditional total restoration" of the rights of Russia's delegation. Ostensibly this step was a response to the decision by the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), of 10 April 2014, to strip Russian delegates of their voting rights following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. 

This was not the first time that the PACE had suspended the authority of Russian delegates. During the Second Chechen War the PACE suspended the voting rights of the Russian delegation between April 2000 until January 2001. However, with the passing years, the gulf between the Council of Europe and Russia has grown ever wider, not least because of Russia’s persistent reluctance, or refusal, to implement the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (whose rulings have been obligatory for Russia since 1998). Indeed, as discussed in this blog last week, in 2015 Russia went so far as to empower its Constitutional Court to refuse to implement decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. Many observers saw this new law as a reaction to the Court’s decision against Russia in the Yukos case which became final in 2012, and with regard to which, in 2014, the Court made its largest ever award of compensation of €1.87bn. However, there have been a large number judgments of the European Court that signal the increasing distance between Russia and the principles and values of the European Court and the Council of Europe. Nor probably, in Russia's current straitened economic circumstances, should the purely financial side of the matter be ignored. If the €33m paid annually is not a large enough sum on its own to prompt Russian withdrawal from the Council of Europe, the drip-drip of payments on the basis of the rulings of the European Court is, no doubt, a financial irritant of which the authorities would like to be rid. 

This past week Russia’s divergence from the values and principles of the Council of Europe was most clearly demonstrated in terms of the rights of association and assembly, and freedom of expression, all of which are subject to draconian legislation and often arbitrary enforcement by law enforcement agencies. In particular, it was St. Petersburg that saw striking examples of the ‘shrinking civic space’ in terms of the right of association: the city’s Polish Community Association was suspended indefinitely for allegedly violating fire safety regulations; a court dismissed an appeal against pre-trial detention by Galina Shurinova, executive director of the city’s Church of Scientology, on charges of ‘participating in an extremist organization’; and Magomet Akhimov, an alleged member of the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization, which, like the Church of Scientology, is now banned in Russia, although as a ‘terrorist organization,’ was remanded in custody in a closed court hearing. With regard to Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Memorial Human Rights Centre has repeatedly spoken out against the banning of the organization, arguing that there is no evidence that Hizb ut-Tahrir has engaged in acts of terrorism. Meanwhile, in Nizhny Novgorod, representatives of three Italian human rights groups (Antigone, Arcigay and A Buon Diritto) were detained by police as they visited the well-known Russian NGO Committee for the Prevention of Torture and each was subsequently fined 2,000 roubles for alleged breach of visa rules. In neighbouring Kazan, meanwhile, Ilya Novikov, the deputy head of the Open Russia civic movement, was force to flee the country to avoid persecution. The London-based Open Russia organization was banned from operating in Russia as an ‘undesirable foreign organization’ back in April this year, a move Amnesty International condemned as part of the continuing crackdown against civil society, but the group’s activists have continued their work, albeit under pressure. 

As the events of 26 March and 12 June have continued to show, exercising the right of assembly in Russia often means facing not only potentially brutal police repression at the event itself, but also prosecutions and jail terms thereafter. This week one leading civic protester, Mark Galperin, who recently served a jail term for taking part in the 12 June protests, was placed under house arrest on charges of inciting extremism, on this occasion ‘calls to violate the territorial integrity of Russia’ (which could, one might speculate, be based on his refusal to recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea). Meanwhile, in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, elderly people and women with children were among those detained at a protest over a children’s camp; in Volgograd a woman was fined 10,000 roubles for the fact that her son took part in a rally in support of Aleksei Navalny on 26 March; and on 26 June the criminal investigation was announced completed in the case of Dmitry Krepkin, a participant in the 'unauthorized' 26 rally in Moscow who has been charged with attacking a police officer. The case of Krepkin is particularly significant since two other participants in the same protest, Yury Kuly and Aleksandr Shpakov, have already received jail terms of 8 and 16 months respectively on similar charges.

In the realm of freedom of expression, the authorities continue to ratchet up pressure on the Internet. The week saw the Federation Council approve a bill enabling the authorities to ban mirror websites that contain 'illegal information,' and Pavel Durov said the Telegram messenger service, which he founded, would henceforth comply with new Russian data laws that require messenger services to store all meta-data on Russian territory, though he maintained the company would not share confidential user data. This change of heart on the part of Durov was reportedly a result of pressure brought to bear against Telegram by the authorities: on 26 June the FSB had stated that the terrorists responsible for the 3 April terrorist attack in St Petersburg that killed 16 had coordinated the outrage by means of Telegram. 

A review of this week would be incomplete without mentioning the conviction by a Moscow court of five men for the 2015 murder of Boris Nemtsov. The investigation and trial in this case would seem to show that there is not always impunity for those who carry out killings of high profile individuals in Russia. However, as in the case of Anna Politkovskaya, unless some radical developments are yet to follow, it would seem that there may well be de facto impunity for those who actually ordered the murder.

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