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Oyub Titiev stands in front of a portrait of his murdered colleague, Natalia Estemirova, in Memorial's Grozny office, Grozny, Chechnya, Russia.  © 2011 Maria Chichtchenkova
(Moscow) – The Russian government relentlessly reduced space for peaceful dissent, political opposition, and civic activism in Russia during 2018, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019.

The authorities used the rhetoric of “traditional values” and countering extremism to justify limiting free speech. Many human rights defenders, civic activists, lawyers, opposition activists, and average citizens paid a price for not conforming to the government’s political agenda.

“Russia’s human rights situation is getting bleaker with every passing year,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Russian activists have withstood tremendous government pressure and continue to defend dignity and fundamental rights, but it gets harder and harder.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

Russian authorities used vague anti-extremism legislation to criminally prosecute independent voices for social media posts, reposts, and stored memes. The government also cracked down on freedom of artistic expression and prevented dozens of concerts by rappers and other performers from taking place.

The government moved to block the Telegram social media app in Russia for its refusal to hand over the software’s source code, which would have allowed the authorities to access users’ messages.

The parliament adopted a law on penalizing news aggregators for distribution of links to websites banned in Russia. It also adopted a law on restricting access to websites and pages which refuse to take down information deemed to offend dignity and harm business reputation. Another draft law currently pending aims to cut Russia off the world wide web by enabling the government to close access to “external” websites and filter Internet traffic, both internal and external. On a positive note, in December, the parliament decriminalized first instance offense of posting information serving to incite hostility against ethnic, social, or religious group.

The authorities effectively condoned homophobic attacks and took steps to shutter a website raising awareness about the exploding HIV epidemic among men who have sex with men. In a rare positive outcome, a court exonerated a man charged with violating the country’s gay propaganda law.

In January 2019,the  Russian LGBT Network reported a new wave of round-ups of people in Chechnya whom authorities presumed to be gay, with around 40 people allegedly detained and tortured by local security officials between December 29 and January 14.

Following a 2017 Supreme Court ruling banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization, authorities throughout Russia detained, harassed, and filed criminal charges against dozens of worshipers solely for their peaceful religious activities.

Authorities routinely dispersed peaceful opposition protests and arrested and fined protesters, including children. Authorities carried out surveillance of social media to track down and detain activists who they thought might join opposition protests.

The 2012 “foreign agents” law looms over independent groups in Russia, effectively requiring groups that received foreign funding to register as a “foreign agent.” In one case, a local organization providing support and assistance to diabetes patients had to close down after three decades of service.

In October, a court in Moscow issued a stifling 22.25 million rubles (US$337,000) fine to The New Times, an independent Russian magazine, for supposed failure to report foreign funding.

During 2018, Oyub Titiev, director of the Chechnya office of Russia’s leading human rights group, Memorial, has stood trial on fabricated marijuana possession charges, despite international and domestic outcry. The case is ongoing. Titiev’s lawyers and colleagues have suffered harassment and threats. Arsonists who torched Memorial’s office in neighboring Ingushetia and a Memorial car in neighboring Dagestan have not been held to account. The head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, made explicit threats against human rights defenders, equating them with terrorists and pledging to ban them from Chechnya’s territory.

Activists and human rights defenders faced increased risks to their safety. In separate incidents, unidentified assailants attacked the head of Memorial’s Dagestan office and environmentalists in Krasnodar. A lawyer representing a victim in a high profile torture case had to temporarily flee the country and seek police protection after receiving numerous threats. The police in Krasnodar beat and detained another lawyer who was helping peaceful protesters who faced arbitrary detention.

In October, the European Parliament awarded its annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Oleg Sentsov, a filmmaker from Crimea and an opponent of Russia’s occupation of it, who continued to serve a 20-year sentence on bogus terrorism charges.

In December, 77-year-old Lev Ponomarev, a prominent rights defender, served 16 days of arrest for alleged repeated violations of public assembly rules (the case against Ponomarev had stemmed from his Facebook post about a planned peaceful protest). A court in Moscow refused to authorize Ponomarev’s temporary release so he could attend the funeral of Ludmilla Alexeeva, the matriarch of Russia’s human rights movement and his close friend and colleague.

Russian authorities did not conduct an effective investigation into the 2017 anti-gay purge in Chechnya, and declined to open a criminal investigation into a complaint filed by the only victim brave enough to step forward and do so. In November, 16 participating states of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe invoked the organization’s “Moscow Mechanism,” and appointed a rapporteur to look into allegations of abuses in Chechnya. In his report presented to the OSCE Permanent Council in December, the rapporteur concluded that Chechen authorities carried out extra-judicial executions, torture, and other abuses, and the Russian government “appears to support the perpetrators rather than the victims” in Chechnya.

The 2017 decriminalization of acts of domestic violence that do not cause serious bodily harm led to higher levels of violence, as was acknowledged by several high level officials in 2018.

Russia forcibly returned asylum seekers from Central Asia to their home countries, despite the risk that they will be tortured there, and has denied asylum to many Syrians

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