Riot police detain a man during an anti-corruption protest on Tverskaya Street in central Moscow, Russia, June 12, 2017. 

© 2017 Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
(Moscow) – The Russian government escalated its crackdown on the political opposition and peaceful protesters during 2017, in advance of the 2018 elections, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018.

The government also took new steps to stifle, and parliament passed laws further curbing, freedom of online expression and the media. The authorities viciously harassed political and civic activists and upped prosecution for online speech. Chechen security officials, on orders of top local leadership, carried out a large-scale anti-gay purge, while federal authorities have not held those responsible to account.

“Last year was a dark year for independent voices in Russia,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “As the March 2018 presidential election approaches, the Kremlin is stepping up on repressive measures to discourage political opposition, independent activism and critical expression.”

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

In the first six months of 2017 alone, the number of people fined or placed in custody for alleged violations of regulations on public gatherings was two and a half times higher than throughout 2016. In most cases, officials refused to authorize demonstrations, and arbitrarily detained, harassed, and intimidated peaceful protesters, including schoolchildren and university students, and the parents of children who participated.

The authorities systematically interfered with the presidential campaign of the opposition politician and anti-corruption activist, Alexei Navalny. Although formally disqualified from running due to a politically motivated criminal conviction, Navalny opened campaign offices in most of Russia’s regions. Police searched Navalny’s offices, arbitrarily seized campaign materials, detained campaigners on groundless charges, and raided the homes of local campaigners and their relatives. Ultra-nationalist groups and pro-Kremlin activists increasingly targeted Navalny campaigners and offices. Attackers vandalized campaign offices or campaigners’ homes, stormed into meetings, and even physically assaulted campaigners.

There have also been several violent attacks on independent activists and journalists. As December drew to a close, masked assailants attacked three environmental rights defenders and a journalist in Krasnodar. One of the victims, Andrei Rudomakha, required extensive hospital treatment for a fractured skull and a broken nose.

Authorities continued their large-scale smear campaign against independent non-governmental organizations, and penalized seven local groups for supposed cooperation with foreign organizations banned as “undesirable.”

Legislation adopted in July banned anonymous use of online messenger applications and software designed to circumvent internet censorship. In November, parliament adopted a law enabling the government to designate any media organization or information distributor of foreign origin as “foreign media performing the functions of a foreign agent”, and requiring it to comply with the restrictive regulations for nongovernment groups set out in the 2012 “foreign agents” law.

The law also allows authorities to extrajudicially block websites that have “information materials of undesirable organizations” or calls for unauthorized public gatherings and extremist actions, including information accessible through hyperlinks. In December, authorities threatened to block Twitter and YouTube if they failed to remove content by a banned “undesirable” organization. Negotiations are in progress.

In early spring, security officials in Chechnya unlawfully rounded up dozens of men they presumed gay, holding and torturing them in unofficial facilities, outing them to their families and encouraging honor killings. Chechnya’s leadership responded to a media outcry by denying that there were any gay people in Chechnya and accusing journalists and human rights defenders of seeking to destabilize the republic. Federal authorities opened an investigation, but have provided no effective remedy. In early January 2018, at leading Russian rights group, Memorial Human Rights Center, Chechen authorities arrested Memorial’s Chechnya director, Oyub Titiev, on fraudulent drug charges.

Despite persistently high rates of domestic violence, in February the Russian government enacted a law decriminalizing acts of domestic violence that don’t cause serious bodily harm.

Workers on stadiums being built for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and 2018 World Cup suffered exploitation, including not providing them with contracts, withholding their wages, and retaliating for reporting abuses.

Russian authorities stepped up on repression against critics in occupied Crimea, primarily Crimean Tatars, and provided political and material support to armed self-styled separatists in eastern Ukraine while turning a blind eye to their abuses.

Syrian and Russian forces carried out unlawful attacks in Syria, including airstrikes on schools and hospitals, and air-dropped cluster munitions and incendiary weapons in populated areas. Russia protected Syria’s government from repercussions for violating the laws of war. It has used its Security Council veto 11 times since 2011 to shield Damascus from consequences like sanctions or referral to the International Criminal Court.