Russian President Putin delivers speech during session of Civic Chamber at Kremlin in Moscow on June 23, 2015. 

(Moscow) – Russian authorities on June 22, 2015, blocked the website of a consumer protection group that had called Crimea an “occupied territory,” Human Rights Watch said today. The action and other harassment of the group violate the right to freedom of expression. The authorities should stop blocking the group’s website and end their continuing assault on free expression online.

Russia’s Office of the Prosecutor General stated on June 22 that it had ordered the federal media and communications oversight agency, Roskomnadzor, to block access to the website of a Russian nongovernmental organization that published a memo for Russian tourists traveling to Crimea. The Prosecutor General’s Office said that by calling Crimea an “occupied territory” in the memo and urging tourists to abide by Ukrainian laws, the organization sought to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity in violation of anti-extremism legislation. Roskomnadzor moved to block the website of the group on the same day.

This is a particularly chilling example of Russia’s anti-extremism legislation abused by the government to stifle independent criticism. The categorization of Crimea’s status is a matter of international law, and while it may generate debate, to sanction a group and threaten them with a serious criminal case for using the legal term ‘occupied territory’ is outrageous.

Hugh Williamson

Europe and Central Asia director

 
“This is a particularly chilling example of Russia’s anti-extremism legislation abused by the government to stifle independent criticism,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The categorization of Crimea’s status is a matter of international law, and while it may generate debate, to sanction a group and threaten them with a serious criminal case for using the legal term ‘occupied territory’ is outrageous.”

The Prosecutor General’s Office said that it had also forwarded the case to the investigation authorities to open a criminal inquiry under article 280.1 of Russia’s Criminal Code. That section says that “public calls to actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” is a crime and punishable by up to five years in prison if made online.

The document referred to by the Prosecutor General’s Office was authored and published by Public Control, a Moscow-based nongovernmental group that works to protect consumer rights. Public Control posted the memo on its website on June 18. Labeling the view that Crimea is a part of Russia a “legal fiction,” Public Control warned Russian tourists of potential security concerns when traveling to an “occupied territory,” including the risk of criminal prosecution for entering Crimea via Russia and without obtaining relevant permission from Ukrainian authorities. The memo further warned against purchasing property in Crimea unless any such deals are carried out in compliance with Ukrainian law.

Security and other concerns in Crimea since the February 2014 beginning of Russia’s occupation have been documented in Human Rights Watch’s report, “Rights in Retreat: Abuses in Crimea.”

Mikhail Anshakov, director of Public Control, told Human Rights Watch:

We received no warning from either the prosecutors or the media and communications watchdog. Moreover, the statement published on the Prosecutor General’s website refers to our memo but does even not identify our organization by name.… We only found out post-factum, in the evening of June 22, when people started calling and saying they could no longer access our website. Unless the website is unblocked promptly, we will complain to a court of law. As regards the possibility of a criminal prosecution, if it happens we will also have no other choice but to fight them in court.

On June 23, when speaking at an official meeting, President Vladimir Putin accused Public Control of “servicing the interests of foreign states” under the guise of caring for Russian consumers. He said the legislation on nongovernmental organizations needs to be further toughened to prevent foreign countries from interfering in Russia’s domestic matters.

“Russia’s existing legislation for nongovernmental groups, especially the infamous ‘foreign agents’ law, is already excessively restrictive, blatantly violating the country’s international human rights obligations,” Williamson said. “Russia should foster a normal environment for critics of the government, not stifle them with increasingly restrictive laws.”

In its World Report 2015, Human Rights Watch said that Russia had slid yet further backward on human rights by intensifying its crackdown on civil society, media, and the Internet, as it sought to control the narrative about developments in Ukraine, including Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its support to insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

Toughening criminal sanctions for online statements allegedly aimed at the dissolution of the country’s territorial integrity was one of the steps Russia took in 2014 to expand its arsenal of repressive tools. The Russian authorities should bring the country’s legislation and practices in compliance with freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.