The absence of sustained and consistent EU engagement on human rights at the highest levels as Russia’s rights record steadily deteriorated cannot but have signaled to Russia’s leadership that the EU does not attach great weight to safeguarding human rights in its eastern neighbor.
The absence of sustained and consistent EU engagement on human rights at the highest levels as Russia’s rights record steadily deteriorated cannot but have signaled to Russia’s leadership that the EU does not attach great weight to safeguarding human rights in its eastern neighbor. We believe that the Russian government is sensitive to constructive EU criticism and cares about its image and global standing. When the EU resists robust engagement with the Russian authorities on human rights it not only forgoes an opportunity for positive change, but also unwittingly emboldens the Russian government to introduce more repressive policies. As a strong partner of the EU, Russia is capable of hearing and taking steps to address EU concerns on human rights as it does in other key aspects of the EU-Russia relationship.
We therefore hope to see the EU use every opportunity—including the EU-Russia human rights consultations and summit—to impress upon its Russian counterparts the significance it attaches to respect for human rights and rule of law as a cornerstone of its engagement. The need to convey this message in unequivocal terms has never been more urgent.
We firmly believe that the EU’s potential to promote human rights in Russia—or indeed to stop further rollback in fundamental rights and freedoms—can be realized only if it is willing to move beyond seeking agreement on general commitments to clearly articulating the kinds of specific steps it wants to see Russia take to address its concerns. Below we highlight a number of such steps falling into three of the stated priority areas for this round of consultations.
Working environment for civil society in Russia
A vibrant civil society is essential to advancing and protecting human rights. In Russia, the working environment for civil society has deteriorated significantly over the past few years. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on human rights issues, particularly abuses in Chechnya, have long faced official interference that at times has impeded their substantive work. But in early 2006 President Putin created yet another tool that significantly expands government control over NGOs in Russia—a new NGO law that imposed burdensome administrative requirements on NGOs and granted state officials overwhelming power to interfere with the work of these groups without judicial oversight.
The 2006 law allows the Registration Service to demand any document from an NGO at any time, without a warrant, and be present at all NGO events. It provides the government with unprecedented discretion in deciding what international NGO projects, or parts of projects, should be banned for not complying with Russia’s vaguely defined national interests. If a foreign NGO implements a banned project, the Registration Service can close its offices in Russia.
The law further imposes onerous reporting requirements on NGOs, especially relating to any foreign sources of funding. Offices of foreign NGOs are required to inform the Registration Service about their projects for the upcoming year, and about the money allotted for every specific project.
Imposing burdensome requirements, the law lacks a proportionate penalty system and provides only for suspension of an NGO’s activities or its exclusion from the Registry. Thus, even minor administrative infractions can result in liquidation of an organization.
Under the law, Russian NGOs are required to submit annual reports on their activities by April 15. Not submitting timely, annual reports might lead to an organization’s liquidation. According to Registration Service data, as of July 1, 2007 less than 24 percent of 216,279 non-commercial organizations (NCOs) registered with the Registration Service submitted their annual reports. Thus, according to the 2006 NGO law, the Registration Service has the right to demand liquidation of 76 percent of NCOs.
In some cases, the Registration Service demanded the liquidation of actively working organizations, arguing that they were not submitting reports on their activities. For example, on August 8, 2007 the Youth Human Rights Movement (YHRM) learned that the Sovietsky district court in Nizhni Novgorod ruled to liquidate the organization on June 13 on the grounds that it was not submitting regular reports to the Nizhni Novgorod branch of the Registration Service. The court issued its ruling in the absence of YHRM representatives. According to the YHRM, the liquidation request is groundless. The organization in 2004 re-registered from an inter-regional to an international organization and started submitting its activity reports to the Federal Registration Service in Moscow at that time as prescribed by the law. The Nizhni Novgorod branch of Registration Service was properly notified of this change.
The restrictive NGO law is not the only tool used by the government to dismantle independent civil society. In addition to facing increasingly burdensome administrative procedures, NGOs, their staff, and civil society activists continue to experience judicial harassment (including under the extremism law), and in the most extreme cases, threats and physical attacks. Also, in a number of regions, officials selectively used audits to harass groups of which they disapproved.
In the past months, the Information Center of the NGO Council (the Center), an NGO with offices in Grozny and Nazran that provides daily updates on the situation in Chechnya, faced repeated inspections by the Ingushetia Tax Service at the request of the Ingushetia procuracy. On June 13, 2007, the Ingushetia procuracy ordered an administrative investigation into the fact that the Center conducts activities in Ingushetia without registration with the Ingushetia Tax Service. These intrusive inspections forced the Center to suspend its activities for ten days in July. In August, the Center received a bill for back taxes and penalties amounting to almost $20,000.
In the past two years, the Center’s offices have been subjected to administrative harassment, threats and, on one occasion, a raid of its premises.
On August 29, 2007, officers from the department of computer crimes in the internal affairs directorate appeared at the offices of the Tolerance Support Foundation, an NGO that works to promote tolerance among various ethnic groups in the Nizhegorodskaia Province and on issues in Chechnya. The officers presented a warrant ordering a thorough inspection of the foundation’s financial, administrative and other activities. The warrant did not contain any grounds for the inspection. After the search, the police confiscated all four of the organization’s computers, claiming that the foundation could not provide licenses for the software installed in them. Seizure of the organization’s computers paralyzed its ability to work.
The next day a similar inspection was conducted at the office of Novaia Gazeta-Nizhni Novgorod, one of Russia’s few remaining independent newspapers. Similar to the raid on the Tolerance Support Foundation, police presented a warrant for an inspection of the newspaper’s financial, administrative and other activities. After the search, the police confiscated all six of the newspaper’s computers to check for illegal software. Journalists were not allowed to copy any of the information stored on the computers, which contained the newspaper’s entire archive.
In another case, criminal proceedings against the head of the Educated Media Foundation (EMF-the legal successor of Internews Russia), a prominent NGO that trained journalists and worked with many media outlets, led to its de facto liquidation. On April 18, 2007 about 20 officers from the Interior Ministry's Economic Crimes Department searched the offices of EMF for 11 hours. Police confiscated financial and accounting documents, and computer servers, making it impossible for the organization to work. Police linked the search to EMF’s director, Manana Aslamazyan, who was detained at a Moscow airport in January 2007 for failing to declare excess cash on her return to Russia. Aslamazyan carried the equivalent of $12,600 in undeclared currency, $2,600 over the legal limit for undeclared currency. On June 21, the Procuracy revealed that several days earlier Aslamazyan was criminally charged with contraband (smuggling), and that they are officially considering opening an investigation into two more criminal charges -- illegal business activities and money laundering. As a result of the April seizure of its documents, EMF was forced to suspend its activities. On July 4, 2007 EMF’s founders decided to liquidate the organization.
Recently, authorities also have resumed a harassment campaign against Stanislav Dmitrievsky, a human rights defender, who in February 2006 received a two-year suspended sentence on charges of “inciting racial hatred” for articles he had published in the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society’s newspaper, and who helped organize the Dissenter’s March in Nizhni Novgorod in April. On August 17, 2007 the Nizhegorodski district court granted a government motion to toughen the terms of Dmitrievsky’s suspended sentence. Under the new terms allowed by the court’s decision, if Dmitrievsky commits two administrative violations within a year at any time during his four-year probationary period, the government can petition to replace his suspended sentence with a two-year prison term. Administrative violations could be as minor as crossing the street in the wrong place and are routinely used against activists for participating in public demonstrations.
We urge you to raise strong concern about the plight of civil society in Russia. Concern should be expressed about both the shrinking space for the work of independent groups in general, and in particular about the destructive NGO law that empowers Registration Service officials with excessive discretion to decide on the fate of civil society groups.
We also urge you not to leave unchallenged misleading reassurances by Russian officials that the first year of the NGO law implementation did not result in a massive closure of NGOs, or otherwise obstruct their work. It is also important to challenge Russian government statements that the new restrictions on foreign and Russian NGOs are standard in democratic societies. We also hope you will underscore to your counterparts that the NGO law’s restrictions will make Russia vulnerable to litigation at the European Court of Human Rights.
It is imperative that the EU stop adhering to a “wait and see” approach, which could have irreversible, negative consequences for civil society in Russia. The NGO law follows several years of marked deterioration in the working environment for NGOs in Russia, and the developments described above are a clear indication of the authorities’ intention to silence independent, critical voices.
The EU should recommend that Russia:
- Amend the 2006 NGO law to remove the most restrictive articles, including:
- those articles of the law that grant state officials the right to excessive interference into the work of NGOs. These include articles that allow officials to order intrusive inspections and be present at all NGO events, and articles allowing the Registration Service, an agency of the Justice Ministry responsible for NGO oversight, to request liquidation of organization for not submitting reports;
- the article granting officials the authority to ban projects or parts of projects undertaken by international NGOs that officials believe violate Russia’s national interests;
- articles requiring foreign NGOs to inform the Registration Service in advance about their projects and about money allotted for each specific project;
- Uphold freedoms of expression and association by stopping arbitrary interference with the work of NGOs and civil society groups;
- End unlawful interference, harassment and intimidation of NGOs and their staff, particularly those working on human rights in the context of the Chechnya conflict;
- Stop using extremism laws to prevent or interfere with peaceful expression of dissent or religious beliefs;
- Investigate any cases of unlawful interference, harassment or intimidation of NGOs, human rights defenders, or victims;
- Publicly express support for the work of NGOs and stress the importance of such work in any democratic society; and
- Issue a standing invitation to the UN Special Representative on human rights defenders to visit the country.
Continued impunity for serious abuses in Chechnya
Chechnya continues to be the only place on the European continent where civilians are subjected to abuses such as torture, murder, enforced disappearances, and rape on a regular basis. Enforced disappearances are a hallmark of the conflict and have risen to a level that constitutes a crime against humanity. Until recently disappearances usually occurred during raids by Russian federal forces; now they are increasingly perpetrated by forces under the effective command of Ramzan Kadyrov. The Russian human rights group Memorial estimates that between 2000 and 5000 people have disappeared since the conflict began in 1999.1 Although well aware of the frequency and pattern of disappearances, the Russian government has taken few steps to stop this practice and bring to justice its perpetrators.
Credible reports of torture committed with impunity by Kadyrov’s forces and a federal law enforcement branch known as ORB-2 appear to be widespread and increasing. Human Rights Watch researchers have received detailed descriptions of at least 10 unlawful places of detention operated by Kadyrov’s forces, where torture is rampant. These forces have increased the reprehensible practice of kidnapping relatives of rebel fighters, and in some cases torturing them, to pressure the fighters to switch their allegiance to Kadyrov.
Moreover, in allowing the security structures controlled by Kadyrov to operate with effective impunity, the Russian government has abdicated its responsibility to protect the rights of Chechen citizens of the Russian Federation. Despite mounting concerns about the abusive actions of pro-Russian Chechen forces, the federal government continues to endorse their leadership and refuses to take concrete action to investigate allegations of wrongdoing.
Last October, the Russian government prevented a long-awaited visit to the region by the UN special rapporteur on torture by refusing to allow unannounced visits to places of detention and private interviews with detainees, which are among the rapporteur’s standard, long-established terms of reference for conducting visits.
Only a few cases against servicemen and police officers for abuses against Chechen civilians reach the Russian courts. In the majority of cases involving serious abuses, prosecutors fail to mount meaningful investigations, in many cases even failing to question eyewitnesses. Many of those who have sought justice have been subjected to verbal and physical threats.
Unable to secure justice in domestic courts, hundreds of victims of abuse have filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights. Russian law enforcement and military have responded by harassing and further abusing victims who have filed with the court. At least one applicant was murdered and another “disappeared.”
We firmly believe that achieving stability in the North Caucasus is not possible without a meaningful accountability process. Accountability should also be the linchpin of development efforts in the area. The EU is providing significant financial assistance toward reconstruction in the North Caucasus, but such assistance risks to be wasted as long as the civilian population has no protection or redress for rampant human rights abuses. The EU’s commitment to socio-economic recovery and reform, therefore, needs to be accompanied by robust calls for an end to human rights abuses, and the impunity with which they occur.
The near-absence of any reference to human rights abuses in Chechnya in public statements by the EU following summits and other bilateral meetings with Russia is illustrative of its disappointing record of decreased engagement on these issues in the past years. It is also unacceptable given the scale of the abuse.
We hope to see a reversal of this policy as a matter of urgent priority. Heightened engagement has not yet materialized, however. It is therefore imperative that Chechnya-related concerns be high on the agenda for the 3 October consultations and for the ensuing EU-Russia summit on 26 October.
The EU should call on Russia to:
- Stop the practice of enforced disappearances and other abuses perpetrated in particular by forces under the effective command of Ramzan Kadyrov, by federal forces, and by rebel forces;
- Publicly signal concern at the highest level about torture, enforced disappearances, and the use of unlawful detention by forces under the effective command of Ramzan Kadyrov and publicly commit to addressing the situation;
- Take immediate steps to close unlawful places of detention, such as those in Tsenteroi, where torture is routinely practiced;
- Stop the practice of harassment of Chechens who have brought cases to the European Court of Human Rights and implement the Court’s judgments in favor of applicants;
- Ensure meaningful accountability mechanisms to bring perpetrators of serious abuses to justice in Russia and ensure transparency regarding investigations/prosecutions undertaken, including their outcome;
- Ensure access to the region for international monitors, including the UN Working Group on enforced and involuntary disappearances and the Special Rapporteurs on torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, in full agreement with the requirements for conducting visits that these procedures’ terms of reference set forth.
Cooperation with the Council of Europe, including the implementation of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights
Russia has not cooperated fully with a number of the Council of Europe’s key institutions. Russia is the only Council of Europe member state that has regularly refused to authorize the publication of the CPT’s reports on Russia. Russia has also failed to ratify protocol 6, relating to the death penalty, and the European Social Charter. As well, the Russian government has not undertaken reform of the procuracy, despite it being part of the commitments which Russia entered as part of its accession to the Council of Europe. Russia is the only Council of Europe member state that has not ratified protocol 14 to the European Court of Human Rights, which would reform and simplify court procedures. Russia also does not regularly publish official translations of European Court decisions in an official publication in Russia, preventing Russian judges from applying the decisions in their courtrooms. It has paid out monetary compensation to successful applicants to the European Court of Human Rights, but has failed to otherwise fully implement the court’s decisions.
In eight final judgments, the European Court found Russia responsible for executions, torture, enforced disappearances and for failing to properly investigate these crimes, and confirmed the systematic nature of abuses in Chechnya. In four additional judgments this year, which have not yet become final, the European Court found similar violations and also expressed its great concern about “disappearances” in Chechnya.
It is our belief that these judgments present an excellent opportunity for the European Union to prevail on the Russian authorities to once and for all stop widespread human rights abuses in Chechnya and hold perpetrators accountable. Because the Russian government is obligated by the European Convention on Human Rights to fully implement the judgments of the European Court, it must now rectify abuses in individual cases by undertaking effective investigations into abuses and paying compensation to victims and their relatives. Equally important, the Russian government must adopt general measures to address the causes of the violations identified by the European Court.
We call on you to insist that Russia implement both the individual and general measures necessary to rectify ongoing human rights abuses in Chechnya. We also hope that you will press the Russian government to fully cooperate with the European Court at all times.
Specifically the EU should press Russia to:
- Respect all European Court of Human Rights decisions granting interim measures against removals;
- Cooperate with the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and authorize publication of its reports;
- Ratify Protocol 6 relating the death penalty;
- Ratify the European Social Charter;
- Undertake key reforms of the procuracy, which formed part of Russia’s commitments upon accession to the Council of Europe;
- Implement the recommendations of the Parliamentary Assembly, the Secretary General, the Committee of Ministers, and other bodies of the Council of Europe pertaining to the Chechnya conflict, with an emphasis on accountability, transparency, and access;
- Implement measures required to prevent further violations of Convention rights already found by the European Court of Human Rights to have been breached by Russia;
- Pay in full the compensation and expenses as directed by the court;
- Reopen or opening meaningful investigations to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of the violations identified by the court, particularly in cases in which the court has identified senior officers, such as Major-General Yakov Nedobitko, Major-General Vladimir Shamanov, and Colonel-General Alexander Baranov, to be responsible for human rights abuses;
- Conduct an in-depth inquiry into the conduct of investigations into abuses committed by Russian military servicemen, police and intelligence officials, and other forces in the Chechen Republic to establish why these investigations are so ineffective;
- Undertake an investigation to determine by what means secret detention has been allowed to occur routinely and on a large scale in Chechnya;
- Undertake a thorough review and revision of domestic legislation and regulations regarding the use of force by military or security forces to ensure their compliance with human rights law.
1. See also, "Worse than a War: Disappearances in Chechnya as a Crime Against Humanity," Human Rights Watch briefing paper, March 2005. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/eca/chechnya0305/index.htm.