(Moscow) – The Russian government in 2013 expanded the unprecedented crackdown on government critics it unleashed in 2012, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2014. The release of high-profile prisoners, including the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot, in December 2013 did not significantly lighten the crackdown.
“The cases of Khodorkovsky, the Pussy Riot women, and the Greenpeace activists are no longer casting a shadow over February’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “But many serious problems plague Russia’s human rights record.”
In the 667-page report, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa. Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.
In 2013, Russia’senforcement of the “foreign agents” law led to a nationwide inspection campaign against hundreds of nongovernmental groups and dozens of court cases. An anti-gay law adopted by the parliament coincided with homophobic rhetoric in state media and a rise in homophobic violence. A governmental campaign targeting irregular migrants was accompanied by a rise in anti-migrant hate crime. As Russia prepared to welcome the world for the Sochi games, it was opening the door to discrimination and closing space for activism, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Kremlin is treating foreign-funded independent groups, LGBT people, and migrants as though they were enemies of Russia,” Lokshina said. “Instead of portraying these groups as destructive forces alien to Russian traditions, Russian authorities should acknowledge their contributions to society.”
Adopted in in 2012, the “foreign agents” law requires Russian advocacy groups that accept foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” effectively demonizing them as spies and traitors. None have registered. In March, Russian authorities opened a punitive inspection campaign to identify “foreign agent” organizations, targeting more than 1,000 groups. Dozens received warnings or direct orders from prosecutors to register.
The authorities filed administrative suits against at least nine groups and five against leaders of these groups. As a result, the Justice Ministry suspended the activities of two election watchdog groups from the Golos network. Courts ordered at least two groups to register as foreign agents following on civil suits brought by the prosecutors. At least four groups wound up their operations to avoid further repressive legal action.
In June, Russia’s parliament adopted a law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships,” widely understood to mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) relationships, among children. The law essentially prohibits any positive information or communication about LGBT issues. Russian citizens and organizations face heavy fines and suspension of operations for violations, while foreigners can be fined, jailed for up to 15 days or deported. Media debates around the ban included homophobic rhetoric by officials.
Vigilante groups of radical nationalists emerged across the country, luring men or boys to meetings, accusing them of being gay, humiliating, and beating them, and posting videos of the proceedings on social media. Police opened only a few investigations. Attacks and harassment of LGBT activists, including through media smear campaigns, also increased.
In July, Russian authorities opened a discriminatory campaign against allegedly irregular migrants, detaining people based on their non-Slavic appearance with the stated aim of identifying alleged violations of migration and employment regulations. High-level officials used xenophobic rhetoric against migrants, and ultra-nationalist groups targeted them for violence.
Enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions persist in the campaign against the Islamist armed insurgency in the North Caucasus.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina of Pussy Riot were released in December, less than two months short of the expiration of their two-year prison term under a broad federal amnesty. The amnesty also applied to 30 Greenpeace activists and Arctic Sunrise crew disproportionately charged, and to five of the participants in a massive demonstration on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s May 2012 inauguration prosecuted for “mass rioting.” However, more than a dozen protesters remained in custody.
At the end of the year, Putin used a presidential pardon to release Khodorkovsky, who had become Russia’s best-known political prisoner over the decade of his incarceration. But several hours later, a Southern Russian court sentenced Evgenii Vitishko, an activist known for his criticism of allegedenvironmental damage from the Sochi Olympic construction, to three years in a penal colony.