Human Rights in Russia 2016

Human Rights in Russia

Updated September 2016

Since Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2012, the human rights situation in Russia has greatly deteriorated. During the past four years, State Duma (the Parliament) has adopted pieces of legislation that severely restricts the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, freedom of religion and conscience. The new laws facilitated further persecution and harassment of civil society activists and human rights defenders.
In December 2015 Putin has signed a law allowing Constitutional Court to decide whether or not to comply with the decisions made by international courts. Thus, Russia’s high Court is now enabled to overthrow, among others, judgments of the European Court of Human Rights if they will be found as violating the Russian Constitution’s supremacy.

With 2012 “Foreign Agents Law 2012” introducing unprecedented, nationwide inspection of NGOs and restricting their access to foreign funding, and 2014 law banning “undesirable NGOs”, even more obstacles have been put in place to shrink the space in which civil society can operate.

In July 2016, the so-called “Yarovaya’s legislation” introduced amendments to the Criminal Code with declared objective of counteracting terrorism and extremism. However, the amendments are believed to be used as a mean of putting additional pressure on a civil society, rather than as a tool to fight terrorism. The legislation infringes on several human rights, including the freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and religion, but most notably on the right to privacy. Now Russia’s telecom companies will have to store records of all calls and text messages exchanged between customers for a period of six months; and the metadata will have to be kept for the whole three years. According to another important amendment aimed at “organizers of information distribution if an online service, such as messenger apps, a social networks or email clients, encrypts its data, its owners will be required to help the Federal Security Service decipher any message sent by its users.
Starting from the end of July 2016, “the failure to report a crime” will itself become a criminal offense. Russian citizens will be required to inform the authorities about anything they know regarding preparations for terrorist attacks, armed rebellions, and several other kinds of crimes on a list that has more than half a dozen different offenses.
Government’s control over the Internet and social media has also only stifled. After the adoption of 2014 laws, number of independent web-resources has been blocked; the prosecution of critics for speaking out online has furthered with the growing number of individuals facing fines and in rare cases even criminal prosecution for online postings.

The persecution of human rights defenders, opposition leaders, and other critics of Russian policies has also increased. Prominent opposition leaders have been arrested on spuriously formulated charges.

One of the most vocal critics of Putin, politician Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead in February 2015. There are serious doubts concerning the effectiveness of the investigation and impartiality of the upcoming trial on the case. The Government was very slow in investigating the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 (the alleged perpetrators were sentenced in 2014, and those who ordered the killing have not yet been identified), and the investigation into the killing of the human rights defender Natalia Estemirova in 2009 has not yet brought any feasible results.
Torture and ill-treatment remain widespread in the penitentiary. The judicial system does not comply with international standards and is infected by corruption, political influence and a selective approach to justice.
Discrimination of the LGBTI people continued to be widely reported. Among the new laws passed in June 2016, there was allowing police to take anyone suspected of “anti-social behaviour” or “violations of socially accepted norms of morality” into preventive custody. The law is viewed to be the part of an increasing trend of harassment of Russia’s LGBTI population.

Additionally, there is a high level of discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, women and persons with disabilities because of widespread societal stigmatization of them and the lack of legal instruments to protect minority groups.
The situation in the North Caucasus, Russia’s southern region, is characterized by insecurity and volatility, where grave human rights violations are systematic and go in hand with near total impunity for the perpetrators.

The situation for human rights defenders in Russia
The environment for human rights defenders and independent journalists remains incredibly constrained. Many of them are victims of harassment, death threats, physical violence or intimidation.
Attacks against human rights defenders, press and active citizens are common in the North Caucasus.
A prominent human rights organization, The Joint Mobile Group, has faced series of violent attacks, most recently in March 2016; none of them has been properly investigated.

In September 2016, Zhalaudi Geriev, a journalist in the North Caucasus Republic of Chechnya was sentenced to three years imprisonment for possession of narcotics. According to his lawyers, the conviction was based on a forced confession, fabricated evidence, and numerous violations of legal procedures and basic human rights.

In July 2016, the first criminal case has been brought under the 2012 “Foreign Agents Law” against the director of the NGO “Women of the Don”.

Ten rights in focus

The right to life and physical integrity

Violations of the right to life and physical integrity are pervasive, especially in the North Caucasus where both authorities and local militants are reported to carry out numerous extrajudicial killings. Security forces continue to enjoy an almost blanket impunity for human rights abuses.
There has been 476 outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances in the country, according to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances 2015 report.
The LGBTI community and activists dealing with LGBTI issues have increasingly been targeted by right-wing nationalists and religious extremists, which became even more prevalent after the adoption of the propaganda law in 2014; with police often fail to respond. There were reports of killings motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation during the year 2015.
The level of domestic violence in Russia, especially against women, is alarming and on the increase.

Prisoners and detainees face human right abuses, including torture and inhuman treatment while incarcerated, indicating that torture is a systemic practice in the Russian penal system. Although complaints about ill treatment by the police are well documented by human rights defenders in different parts of Russia, they are often not properly investigated by the authorities.
The were reported cases of torture against suspects and witnesses involved in high-profile trials. The primary suspect in the Nemtsov case, Zaur Dadaev, who initially confessed of the murder, took back his statements, claiming he had been forced to give them under torture.
The 2011 Law on Police and subsequent amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code do not contain any provisions that might strengthen the accountability of the police when it comes torture and ill treatment.

The right to liberty and security of person

Violations of the right to liberty and security of person are most severe in the North Caucasus, where regular reports of arbitrary detentions are common.

In the wake of the 2011 parliamentary and subsequent 2012 presidential elections, police detained a large number of people participating in largely peaceful demonstrations against vote rigging (so-called Bolotnaya Square protests and March of Millions). In some instances police used excessive force to disperse demonstrators. Many protesters were sentenced to short administrative arrests but some faced criminal prosecution resulting in long prison sentences. Among them is Ivan Nepomnyashchikh, who has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for participating in the demonstrations and supposedly attacking police with an umbrella.

In September 2015, the ECtHR found that Russia violated the rights of three of the individuals arrested during 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests. The court found that Russia denied their rights to a timely trial and, for one defendant, the right to a speedy judicial review of his pre-trial detention.

Russia is a country of origin, transfer and destination for human trafficking, and although laws on trafficking exist, there is no successful implementation.

The right to a fair trial and an effective remedy

National law provides for an independent judiciary, however, judges remain under political influence and pressure, particularly in politically sensitive cases. The practice of selection, appointment, promotion and dismissal of judges is subject to undue influence, which undermines the right to fair trial. Furthermore, reports in many cases authorities do not provide adequate protection for witnesses when it comes to intimidation or threats. Victims of anti-LGBTI violence face huge hurdles in seeking justice, and it is almost impossible to get redress or obtain any form of protection for violation of their human rights. In the end of 2015 the list of political prisoners compiled by Human Rights Centre “Memorial” counted 50 names, an increase from the 46 persons listed in 2014.

Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who was kidnapped in Ukraine, was among high-profile political prisoners. In March 2016 she was sentenced to 22 years in jail for spurious charges of having directed artillery fire that killed two Russian state-television journalists (she was released in prisoner swap in May).

Lawyers are often subjected to attacks, threats, or even murdered. The situation is particularly grave in the North Caucasus, where, in the context of terrorism and counter-terrorism activities, lawyers who continue with their professional duties expose themselves and their families to significant danger.

Russia accounts for over a quarter of cases in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), with a significant number of cases originating from the North Caucasus. The ECtHR has repeatedly ruled in favour of thousands of victims and their families from the region. However a new law allowing the Constitutional Court of Russia to deem as unenforceable decisions from the International Courts, including ECtHR, might have far reaching consequences on those families.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Even though the right to freedom of religion is provided under the Russian Constitution, other legislation, such as 2014 Anti-Extremism Law, noticeably restrict religious freedom. These restrictions include the use of extremist charges and allegations to ban religious materials and curtail the right to assemble and can lead to detentions, raids or denial of official registration with the Ministry of Justice, denial of official building registration, and denial of visas for religious workers if breached.
The new “Yarovaya’s legislation” has also put tight restrictions on the activities of religious groups by creating a broad definition of missionary work, which will now be off limits to anyone not formally affiliated with registered organizations or groups. And any kind of missionary work will now be restricted to specially designated areas.
The limitations and constraints do not touch privileged Russian Orthodox Church, while in the first place effect the activities of Muslims and other minority religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Pentecostals and Scientologists.
Members of minority religious groups continue to experience harassment and occasional physical attacks. There is widespread harassment of Muslims practicing non-traditional Islam such as Salafism, especially in the North Caucasus. The situation is particularly alarming in the Republic of Dagestan. Over the past three years the practice of preventative pressure on the followers of Salafi Islam such asraids of mosques, repeated illegal detentions, checks of IDs, blood and DNA tests and so on has gained momentum. A substantial number of political prisoners in the list compiled by Human Rights Center Memorial are convicted on charges of membership of the Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was banned in Russia by 2003 Supreme Court decision. The majority of the Hizb ut-Tahrir convicts are from the Republic of Bashkorstan and Crimea.

Russian authorities, currently occupying Crimea, reportedly continue to take action against Crimean Tatars through raids, detentions, and prosecutions under Anti-extremism Law.

The right to the freedom of expression

The constitution protects freedom of speech and guarantees press freedom. However recently, the right to freedom of expression becomes one of the most severely restricted in Russia. Independent media and journalists who openly criticise or challenge the authorities are often endangered and subjected to harassment, persecution or even murdered. The government controls the lion share of print and broadcast media. State-controlled media often discredits human rights work and critics of the regime, as a rule reporting a one-sided view of news relating to sensitive topics such as the situation in the North Caucasus and more recently operations in the eastern Ukraine and Syria.

Several recent laws undeniably seek to curtail freedom of the media. The Law on Extremism, which allows the authorities to close down any establishment that a court determines as “extremist,” is one example. In 2012 the authorities resorted to restricting freedom of expression by re-criminalising libel, which is now punishable with a fine of up to 2 million rubles (33,000 euros) An Internet censorship bill provides for the blacklisting of websites deemed harmful to children and a vaguely defined high treason law, where communicating any information deemed by the authorities as harming Russia´s internal and external security or interested can be considered “high treason”. Regional as well the Federal laws banning propaganda of “homosexuality” impose restrictions on those advocating for LGBTI rights. In June 2013 the Russian State Duma adopted amendments to the Criminal Code banning protestors from offending believers’ religious sentiments.
In August 2014, Russia further restricted blogging and social media freedoms by making it obligatory for web site owners and social media users having more than 3000 visitors a day to register, essentially forcing them to conform to burdensome mass media regulations. The same law requires Russian blogging services and social networks to store user activity and make it readily available at the request of the authorities. Another law adopted in late June 2014 legislates for a prison term of up to five years for “extremist calls” on the Internet, including re-posts on online social networks.
In connection to the current legislation, thousands of websites have been blocked, and a number of journalists, bloggers, netizens, and whistle-blowing civil servants have been charged with extremism and other offences in what is seen as a concerted effort to control their activities.
Under 2016 “Yarovaya’s legislation”, publishing online incitements to terrorism, or simply expressing approval of terrorism on the Internet, is now regarded legally as publishing such comments in the mass media, subjecting individuals to the same strict penalties now imposed on media outlets with seven-year imprisonment as the maximum punishment.
From 2016 it is forbidden to store personal data of Russian users on foreign servers and requiring foreign sites that collect such data to store it in Russia. It is now also allowed for Russian citizens to request the removal of certain types of information regarding events that took place three or more years previously about them from search engine results without a court order.
The regime of Ramzan Kadyrov in the Republic of Chechnya, North Caucasus has been displaying an increasing crackdown on any expression of dissent or lack of loyalty to the leadership of the republic. Human rights defenders report cases of mass detentions of young men and inspection of information on their smartphones; which in some instances followed by cruel and degrading treatment and torture; cases of enforced disappearances; cases of public humiliation of residents when they had to publicly apologise to the Chechen authorities for their allegedly false claims.

The right to freedom of assembly and association

The law requires that organisers of a demonstration notify details to the authorities. It essentially works as a permit system. Frequently, the authorities deny permission to assemble, or offer sites in far out locations. Violent and unjustified dispersal of protesters are fairly frequent.
Since 2012 as a reaction to large-scale street protests against the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections, when first and additional restrictive sanctions has been put on organisers of meetings and gatherings under the Assemblies Act, the space for freedoms of assembly and association has been only shrinking. In July 2014 sanctions were intensified even further; fines for violating rules on holding public events were increased, as was the length of the prison sentence for participation in unauthorised public gatherings. The “Yarovaya’s legislation” introduces a new article to the Criminal Code that outlaws “inducing, recruiting, or otherwise involving” others in the organization of mass unrest. The maximum penalty for breaking this law is ten years, and the minimum prison sentence is five years.

“The Foreign Agents Law” adopted in 2012 obliges NGOs to register as “organizations performing the functions of foreign agents”; in case they receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities”. Failure to comply with the new law can lead to heavy fines and imprisonment. Since June 2014, Russia’s Ministry of Justice is authorized to enter NGOs into the registry of foreign agents without consent from the NGO in question and subject them to a trial process. The current legislation has resulted in the involuntary closure of numerous of NGOs, and in the addition of even greater numbers of NGOs to the register. By the end of 2015, Russia’s Ministry of Justice’s register of NGOs listed 111 organizations labelled as “foreign agents”. One of them, a prominent Russian group Committee against Torture has been forced to announce its liquidation in August 2015 and reinstall its activities giving up all foreign funding under a different name. The Human Rights Centre Memorial has faced heavy fines.

Adopted in May 2015 law on the “Undesirable NGOs” has adverse and far-reaching human rights implications. According to its provisions, a foreign NGO is considered “undesirable” if the authorities consider it to present a threat to the foundations of the constitutional system, defense capabilities of the country or national security. The law endangers both organisations and their members, but also those who participate in activities of these branded “undesirable NGOs”, by enforcing punishments through fines and imprisonment sentences up to six years.
As of August 2016, Russian authorities had declared seven organisations “undesirable” and banned Russian groups from working with them. Among them U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy and two groups affiliated with George Soros.
The “anti-propaganda” law made the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientations” among minors a criminal offence, leading to arbitrary arrests of LGBT activists during demonstrations and making it almost impossible for LGBT organisations to exercise their right to freedom of assembly.

Russian local authorities are known for denying permission to hold Pride parades, despite an ECtHR ruling, which states that the ban violates the right to freedom of assembly.

The right to political rights

Political power in Russia remains in the iron grip of President Vladimir Putin.  Opposition politicians and activists have been targeted through politically motivated criminal charges and administrative harassments to silence their criticisms and often their lives are in danger. The brother of Russian opposition activists Alexei Navalny, who got three and a half years of prison sentence on bogus fraud charges in 2014, remained behind bars in 2015. It has been widely viewed as an apparent attempt to limit Navalny’s activities.
Independent observers have frequently reported about widespread violations during local and national elections, which included restrictions on the ability of opposition parties/candidates to register, equal access in the media, ballot stuffing and manipulations of the vote count. The electoral system underwent some positive changes in 2012, when parliament adopted legislative amendments that restored the popular election of regional governors. However, these changes have been rather ineffective and superficial, since candidates are required to secure support from local legislatures, which are overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling party.
The formation of parties based on ethnicity or religion remains not permitted by law: many ethnic minority regions are carefully monitored and controlled by federal authorities.
The 2016 State Duma election campaign has been marked by OSCE as generally low-key. Most of the complaints recorded by the OSCE relate to candidate registration and campaign activities and materials, cases of misuse of administrative resources and campaign events not being permitted by local authorities at the locations and times requested.

The right to protection against discrimination

Even though the Constitution of Russia prohibits discrimination, in practice it is poorly enforced. There is societal violence and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities throughout Russia. There are numerous cases where ethnic minorities, especially people from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Roma community face discrimination from the authorities and are subjected to racially motivated violence. Illegal and repeated checks of documents are common, as are police raids of premises belonging to minority groups, at times including physical abuse. There is growing Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other racist and xenophobic acts. Indigenous peoples in northern Russia, Siberia and the Far East, face discrimination on almost every level of society.
There is no real protection of LGBTI persons in the current anti-discrimination legislation. The adoption of laws banning propaganda of “homosexuality” amongst minors reinforced the discriminatory legislative practices of the Russian government during Putin’s third tenure. Discrimination in the work place and in connection to state institutions such as health care is common. LGBTI people who are open about their sexual orientation are constantly at risk of physical attacks, being fired from their jobs, harassment and in some cases murder. These cases are almost never properly investigated. The situation for LGBTI people is especially severe in the North Caucasus.
Despite the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by Russia, this group continues to face a host of obstacles in accessing equal rights to education, employment, and social institutions.
Discrimination against women is ubiquitous. The level of domestic violence affecting women and children has also increased significantly since 2010. The situation for women in the North Caucasus is particularly severe where such practices as marriage by abduction and honour killings exist.

The role of Civil Rights Defenders in Russia
Since 1982 Civil Rights Defenders has empowered hundreds of human rights defenders in Russia. We are the only organisation with a solely civil and political rights agenda, whose main objective is to protect and empower human rights defenders. We provide financial and organisational support to human rights organisations operating in Russia.

As a small and flexible organisation, we react quickly to human rights violations; as an international human rights organisation, we provide protection and assistance to human rights defenders in cases of harassment and other problems. In the North Caucasus we play an important role as a supporter of human rights defenders working at great personal in and combating wide spread structural impunity. We currently have eight participants in the Natalia Project in Russia. The project is part of a wider security system to empower and protect human rights defenders at risk. From our extensive work in other repressive and closely- controlled countries, we have knowledge, experience, and best practices to share with human rights defenders in the region.

Categories: Country Reports.
Regions: Russia.