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Universal Periodic Review: HRW Submission on Russia

16th UPR session, April - May 2013

Summary

Starting in June 2012, the Russian government reversed small, positive steps taken since the previous UPR, which had slightly loosened excessive government control over civil society organizations and aimed to improve pluralism in the political system. It launched a broad crackdown on freedom of assembly, association, and expression. Abuses in the counterinsurgency campaign in the North Caucasus continue. Several Russian regions have adopted homophobic laws, and preparations for the 2014 Olympic games in Sochi have been tainted by abuses.

Freedom of Association

During the UPR in 2009, Russia accepted the recommendations to “review the extremism and NGO laws to ensure their compatibility with international human rights obligations and standards” and to “consider a review of the NGO law taking into account, amongst others, the concerns expressed by United Nations rights bodies.” In 2009 regulations governing NGOs were amended slightly to reduce the number of inspections to which NGOs could be subjected. But in July 2012,parliament adopted a lawthat contradicts the recommendations accepted by Russia and requires NGOs that accept any foreign funding and advocate for policy changes to register with the Ministry of Justice as "foreign agents," and to clearly identify themselves as “foreign agents” in public presentations and on all publications and websites. This is clearly intended to single out these organizations and demonize them in the public eye. The law also made it possible to suspend organizations for up to six months without a court order for failing to register under the new law and sets out a maximum penalty of two years of imprisonment for organization heads who refuse to register and comply with other regulations of the new law.

In September2012 the State Duma approved in first reading a new definition of treason that could criminalize international advocacy, which many NGOs engage in in order to urge Russia’s partners to press the government for improvements. The amendments, introduced by the FSB and approved unanimously, would add to the definition of treason “providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization ... directed against Russia’s security, including its constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”

The law was adopted and entered into force in November 2012.

NGOs have also come under attack by government controlled media, with two NGOs being particularly targeted: Golos, which monitors elections, and Transparency International, which exposes corruption. Golosalso faced particularly severe pressure during the 2011-2012 electoral cycle: a court fined the group for allegedly violating the election law; its website was subjected to hacker attacks; and its activists were threatened and harassed.

In early March 2013 Russian authorities began a wave of inspections of NGOs unprecedented in its scale and scope and clearly intended to reinforce the menacing atmosphere for civil society. The Russian prosecutor’s office stated publicly that it plans to inspect between 30 and 100 nongovernmental organizations in each of Russia’s regions, which could amount to thousands of groups throughout the country. The inspections involve teams of officials from multiple agencies—variously the prosecutor’s office, the Tax Service, the Ministry of Justice, and in some cases the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Migration Service, the Federal Security Service and others—and appear to target groups that accept foreign funding and that engage in advocacy work.

On January 1, 2013 a new law 272-FZ — the “Dima Yakovlev Law” – entered into force that allows for  the suspension of nongovernmental organizations, and the freezing of their assets, if they engage in “political” activities and receive funding from US citizens or organizations or if they engage in “political” activities that “threaten Russian interests.”  Organizations can be similarly sanctioned if their leaders or members are Russian citizens who also have US passports.

Human Rights Defenders, Whistleblowers, Independent Journalists

Russia accepted recommendations made during the previous UPR in 2009 to “effectively investigate and prosecutecrimes and violations against human right defenders and journalists” and to “respect and protect the ability of human rights defenders and lawyers to work without intimidation or harassment.” But the environment for human rights work and civil society activism more broadly on issues deemed sensitive by the government remains hostile, and the government has not demonstrated political will to genuinely implement these recommendations.Authorities identified and successfully prosecuted the killers of human rights lawyer StanislavMarkelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, who were murdered in January 2009. But it has not effectively investigated the murder of Natalia Estemirova, a leading human rights researcher in Chechnya for the Memorial Human Rights Center who was abducted and shot in 2009. Nor have the investigations into the 2009 killings of Chechen civil society activists ZaremaSadulayeva and her husband, AlikDzhabrailov, led to prosecutions. The 2011 murder of GadzhimuradKamalov, founder and publisher a weekly newspaper, Chernovik, well-known for its relentless reporting on corruption and human rights abuses by law enforcement and security agencies, remains unpunished.

The authorities’ investigation into the 2009 suspicious death in custody of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky steadfastly avoided information implicating a wide circle of officials responsible for his wrongful arrest and ill-treatment in custody. The government ignored recommendations from an adhoc group of members of Russia’s presidential human rights council on the scope of the investigation issued after they conducted an independent investigation. In March 2013 Russia’s Investigative Committee closed the investigation into Magnitsky’s death due to the “lack of evidence of a crime.” Also in March 2013 a Russian court began trial hearings against Sergei Magnitsky on tax evasion charges, marking the first time in post-Soviet history that an individual was tried posthumously.

No one has been held accountable for the 2006 murder of independent journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya.

Some activists, particularly those in the North Caucasus, have faced violence or other reprisals for their work. In one egregious case, instead of holding accountable police in Dagestan who beat human rights lawyer SapiyatMagomedovain 2009, the authorities in 2010 charged Magomedova with using violence against state officials and insulting police officers. Ultimately the charges against her were dropped. The authorities have repeatedly sought to intimidate the Joint Mobile Group of Russian Human Rights Organizations in Chechnya, which investigates human rights violations in Chechnya. Since 2009 they have made its head, Igor Kalyapin, the target of criminal inquiries (a criminal inquiry is currently active). In 2012 RamzanKadyrov, Chechnya’s leader, publicly threatened the group’s staff, and in 2012 and 2010 police detained the group’s staff and in one case confiscated the staff member’s computer and memory sticks for eight months.

Alexei Sokolov, a prisoners’ rights advocate, was handed down a five-year prison term in 2010 on spurious criminal charges followingan unfair trial. The charges appear to be in retaliation for his work exposing police and prison abuse. Sokolov was released on parole in July 2011.

Freedom of Expression

Russia accepted a raft of recommendations made during the UPR in 2009 pertaining to freedom of expression, including to review the extremism law and to improve conditions for proper functioning of the media, but failed to implement them in the course of the UPR cycle. In late 2011 the State Duma adopted legislative amendments that decriminalized libel, but seven months later it reintroduced criminal sanctions for libel. The new libel law does not provide prison terms as a punishment for libel. Instead, it sets out financial penalties that are far harsher than those established in the previous legislation. The new law also includes a special provision “on libel against judges, jurors, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials” punishable by a large fine, which could restrict legitimate criticism of public officials to an extent not permitted under international standards.

In July 2012 the Duma also adopted a law requiring Internet providers to block web content deemed harmful to children or termed “extremist” by a court of law. In practice, this would force internet-hosting services to block offending websites. This is of concern because the government uses broad and vague anti-extremism legislation to stifle expression.  An example of the misuse of hate crimes legislation to punish political expression was the 2012 Pussy Riot case, in which three women were sentenced to two years of imprisonment for performing a 40-second political stunt in one of Russia’s major cathedrals. The judge rejected the women’s explanations regarding the political nature of their act and ruled that their actions were motivated by hatred for Christian Orthodox believers who as a result sustained grievous harm. The authorities notably chose not to hold the women accountable under the code of administrative offenses, which could have resulted in the appropriate sanction of a fine. In October a court paroled one of the three women.

A recent and prominent example of harassment of critics of Kremlin policies was an incident in June 2012, in which the head of Russia’s Investigation Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, brought Sergei Sokolov, the deputy chief editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, to a forest and threatened him.  The threats were retribution for Sokolov’s article accusing the Investigation Committee and its chief of “covering up” for crime bosses. Bastrykin was not dismissed from his position.

Freedom of Assembly

Russia accepted a recommendation made during the 2009 UPR to foster an “environment that promotes rather than restricts the right to freedom of assembly.” Until 2011, however, with some notable exceptions,police frequently dispersed public rallies held by civil society activists and the political opposition, using excessive force and arbitrarily detaining peaceful protesters. Courts fined protesters or sentenced them to administrative detention. In some cases, opposition demonstrations were allowed in Moscow, but not in the provinces.

Police violently dispersed one massive rally on December 5, 2011, to protest against alleged fraud in Russia’s parliamentary election.  But unprecedented, massive demonstrations that demanded political reform continued periodically in 2012, were peaceful, and free of undue police interference. However, police clashed with demonstrators at a major protest in Moscow on May 6,2012 and in response police detained over 1,000 people, many on arbitrary grounds. With regard to that incident, one individual has been convicted, and nineteen people are facing charges oforganizing and participation in “mass riots” and attacking police officials, punishable by up to 10 years in prison; at least fifteen are in pre-trial detention awaiting trial.

In June 2012 the Duma adopted amendments that increased the fines for violating rules on holding public events, essentially raising them to the level of fines for criminal offenses, and imposed various other restrictions that will make it more difficult and costly to engage in public protests.

For example, the new rules stipulate that anyone found responsible for violating the rules for public events at least twice can no longer organize demonstrations and other relevant gatherings. They also made it possible for local authorities to put together permanent lists of public-event-free locations as well as to treat mass movements of people or gatherings of people in one place as unsanctioned rallies. The parliament rushed through the adoption of these amendments and ignored a critical evaluation of the draft law by Russia’s presidential Human Rights Council.

In March 2013 Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the minimum fine for violating the new protest law must be lowered. Also in March, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe deemedthe law “a step backward for the protection of freedom of assembly in the Russian Federation” and advised Russia that implementation “may result in infringements of the fundamental right to peaceful assembly guaranteed by the Russian Constitution and by the European Convention on Human Rights”.

Sexual Identity and Discrimination

Russia rejected a recommendation to promote tolerance and nondiscrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. Since Russia’s last UPR in 2009, federal authorities have done nothing to stop discriminatory legislation banning “homosexual propaganda” from coming into effect in nine regions of Russia, and an analogous draft law is awaiting consideration by the State Duma. The measures generally use the pretext of child protection from pedophilia and “immoral behavior” and impose bans so vague and broad that they could be applied to individuals displaying a rainbow flag, wearing a T-shirt with a gay-friendly logo, or holding an LGBT-themed rally.  The St. Petersburg measure very destructively conflates homosexuality and pedophilia. 

North Caucasus

Russia accepted the recommendation to address concerns about the “use of torture in the Chechen Republic” and “consistent allegations of torture and ill-treatment committed by law enforcement personnel as well as reports of torture and ill treatment in unofficial places of detention in the North Caucasus”. But little has been done to stop ill-treatment, including torture, and forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and other abuses committed as part of the effort to counter the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus.

According to official data, the number of insurgent attacks in the North Caucasus declined slightly in 2012 as compared to 2011, but the insurgent attacks, which in many cases kill law enforcement officials and civilians alike, are still numerous, particularly in Dagestan. In that republic the authorities broadly target Salafi communities as suspected members of the insurgency.  According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, between January and August 2012, six local residents were disappeared following apparent abduction-style detentions, most of whom were Salafi Muslims, a decrease as compared to 28 in the first nine months of 2011. In 2011-2012, Dagestan’s government appeared to seek social consensus and stability, including by starting a dialogue with the republic’s Salafi communities. However,many fear that a suicide bomber’s killing of a Sufi leader in 2012 could undermine this process.

RamzanKadyrov, Chechnya’s leader, does not tolerate human rights reporting or criticism of government policies.As described above, human rights defenders face serious threats in Chechnya, and victims of human rights violations increasingly refuse to report their experiences due to fear of retribution. As a result torture, abduction-style detentions, and acts of collective punishment against the families of suspected insurgents (notably the torching of their homes) are believed to be greatly underreported.

In a letter to a Russian NGO in March 2011, federal authorities stated that police in the Chechen Republic sabotaged investigations into abductions of local residents and sometimes covered up for perpetrators. The letter marked the first public acknowledgement of the impotence of federal investigative authorities in investigating abuses in Chechnya.

Starting in 2009, the leadership of Ingushetia made rhetorical commitments to ensure counterinsurgency operations would be carried out in line with Russia's legal obligations, but local organizations continue to report that government forces commit extrajudicial executions, unlawful, abduction-style detentions, and torture and cruel or degrading treatment in counterinsurgency operations.

At this writing, the European Court of Human Rights has issued more than 210 judgments holding Russia responsible for grave human rights violations during the armed conflict and counterinsurgency campaign in Chechnya. While Russia continues to pay the required monetary compensation to victims, it fails to meaningfully implement the core of the judgments by not conducting effective investigations and holding perpetrators accountable andusing statutes of limitation and amnesty acts to evade responsibility for the perpetrators.

Abuses linked to preparations forthe 2014 Olympic Games

Authorities have expropriated property from hundreds of Sochi families for construction of Olympic venues. Most homeowners have received compensation, but in many cases amounts were unfair and the process not transparent. In September 2012, authorities forcibly evicted one family of six, including two small children, without any compensation or alternative home.

Thousands of migrant workers are working tobuild sports venues and other infrastructure for the Olympics. Some workers have reported employers' failure to provide contracts or promised wages, excessively long working hours, and few days off.

Some journalists reporting on Olympics-related concerns have faced censorship and threats of dismissal. Activists have faced harassment and arrest. For example, police detained several residents and activists peacefully voicing concerns about a proposed Olympics thermal power plant and pressed administrative charges against some of them in early fall. Authorities have failed to fully investigate alleged illegal construction at the plant site.

Recommendations:

  • Repeal the amendment under which NGOs that accept foreign funding must register and identify themselves as “foreign agents”;
  • Repeal Law 272-FZ that allows for  the suspension of nongovernmental organizations, and the freezing of their assets;
  • In the meantime, desist from implementing these laws, which contradict Russia’s international human rights obligations and immediately stop any action aimed at harassing, intimidating, and discrediting civil society groups, including the ongoing inspections of NGOs;
  • Repeal the amendments to the definition of ‘state treason’ in the Criminal Code;
  • Revise laws on public assemblies according to recommendations by the Venice Commission, ensuring in particular that any sanctions for violations are proportionate and do not create undue obstacles to freedom of assembly;
  • Amend laws regulating NGOsto eliminate administrative and legislative barriers to NGO work and foster a positive climate for NGOs and civil society;
  • Investigate and prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and journalists;
  • Facilitate the work of and issue a standing invitation to the special procedures of the Human Rights Council and agree to visits by the Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders, on extrajudicial executions, on the right to freedom of opinion and expression and on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association;
  • Repeal discriminatory, homophobic legislation;
  • Ensure access to the North Caucasus region for international monitors, including the UN Working Group on enforced disappearances and the Special Rapporteurs on torture and on extrajudicial executions, in full agreement with the requirements for conducting visits that these procedures set forth;
  • Ensure meaningful accountability mechanisms to bring perpetrators of serious abuses to justice, and ensure transparency regarding investigations and/or prosecutions undertaken, including their outcome;
  • Immediately stop the practice of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, abduction-style detentions, and other abuses in the North Caucasus;
  • Sign and ratify the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance;
  • Fully implement judgments on Chechnya handed down by the European Court of Human Rights;
  • Ensure protection for all workers employed on Olympics-related sites and also establish an independent commission to investigate and report on labor-related abuses relating to Olympics venues;
  • Ensure fair and transparent compensation for those facing resettlement in Sochi and those who have already been resettled, and insist that the government effectively respond to any complaints about compensation or resettlement, including for those who have already been resettled. 

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