The journalist, Maxim Vernikov, was the first person convicted under a 2015 law that allows the authorities to ban from the country any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. The law also provides for administrative sanctions to organizations and people that engage with “undesirable organizations” and criminal liability for “continued involvement,” that is, more than two administrative penalties in a year.
“While we cheer the fact that Vernikov was spared detention, his conviction and sentence are violations of his rights and freedoms,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is quite simply punishment where there has been no crime, just peaceful activism.”
A court in Ekaterinburg sentenced Vernikov to 300 hours of mandatory labor for involvement in the activities of the Open Russia Civic Movement (ORCM). Three more activists with the movement are currently on trial or facing prosecution on similar charges.
Since 2015, 19 groups have been placed on Russia’s blacklist, including in 2017 an organization registered in the United Kingdom which is also called the Open Russia Civic Movement. Members of the Russian group of the same name have said repeatedly that they are not connected to the banned UK-based organization.
The case against Vernikov was opened in March 2019, after armed police raided his apartment. The charges stem from two prior misdemeanor fines issued to him in 2018 for participation in the activities of an “undesirable organization.” These involved organizing and participating in a conference of the Open Russia Civic Movement’s branch in Sverdlov region in November 2017 and posting information about the movement on his social media page. The authorities accused him of continuing to participate in the group’s activities by persisting to post information about it in late 2018 and early 2019 and by attending a regional branch meeting in mid-December 2018, at which he was allegedly elected to the branch’s council.
Vernikov’s defense team pointed out irregularities in his case in court and said they intend to appeal the decision. The Russian criminal code provides that if a person voluntarily discontinues participation in the activities of an undesirable organization, they can be exonerated from responsibility for prior participation. Open Russia’s human rights project coordinator told Human Rights Watch that Vernikov did just that. He learned about the preliminary investigation against him in February 2019, when he was called for questioning, and immediately withdrew from the organization and informed the police that he had done so.
Previously, law enforcement in Krasnodar closed a criminal case against another former coordinator of Open Russia, Alexander Savelyev, for that very reason.
Nevertheless, the criminal proceedings against Vernikov in Yekaterinburg continued. His defense also twice appealed to have the case closed, providing his statement informing Open Russia of his departure and a note from the media outlet he worked for, confirming that he attended the December 2018 meeting of the group in his capacity as a journalist.
The prosecution and the court, however, considered his departure from the organization a pretense. They accepted the testimony of an anonymized “secret witness” to assert that Vernikov had attended an event as an Open Russia activist.
The criminal cases on the same charges against other former Open Russia activists are underway. Yana Antonova is on trial in Krasnodar, Anastasiya Shevchenko has been indicted in Rostov-on-Don, and a criminal case is open against Anton Mikhalchuk from Tyumen. He has left Russia and is on a “wanted” list.
The Council of Europe’s European Commission for Democracy Through Law (the Venice Commission) has warned Russia that its law on “undesirable” organizations interferes with fundamental human rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, including the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and expression.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Russia is also a party, protects the same key principles and freedoms.
“The real targets of the ‘undesirables’ law are Russian activists and independent groups,” Williamson said. “In cases like these, Russian authorities are clearly using criminal prosecutions as a scare tactic against civic activism and critical voices.”