Correction: This text has been corrected to reflect the location of the 2019 police raid.
(Moscow) – A court in Sochi, Russia, has convicted a prominent human rights defender on criminal charges related to the country’s “foreign agents” law, Human Rights Watch said today.
The court sentenced Semyon Simonov, head of the Southern Human Rights Center, to 250 hours of community service, for an unpaid fine levied against the center. The verdict caps nearly eight years of harassment and intimidation against Simonov in retaliation for his human rights work. The authorities should immediately withdraw the charges against Simonov, quash the verdict, and repeal the abusive “foreign agents” law, which is the source of the fine. Simonov told Human Rights Watch that he plans to appeal the ruling.
“The criminal case against Semyon Simonov has been a sham from start to finish,” said Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s shocking and abhorrent that the authorities wasted so much time and resources on a case in which the accused did nothing but help people protect their rights.”
One area of Simonov’s work was documenting the exploitation of and abuses experienced by migrant workers involved in construction for Russia’s Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup. He was also involved in human rights education and monitored police conduct.
The 2012 “foreign agents” law requires any Russian group accepting any amount of foreign funding and carrying out activities deemed to be “political” to register as a foreign agent, a term that in Russia is akin to “spy” or “traitor.”
Simonov refused to register the Southern Human Rights Center.
In December 2016, the Justice Ministry added the center to the “foreign agents” registry, and in February 2017, the authorities fined the entity 300,000 rubles (approximately US$4,100) for not voluntarily registering. Simonov repeatedly submitted documentation showing that the organization did not have funds or property to pay the fine, but in July 2019, a court ordered Simonov be held personally liable for it.
In October 2019, a local court bailiff filed criminal charges against Simonov for failure to comply with a court ruling (art. 315.2 of Russia’s criminal code). On July 13, 2020, authorities imposed a travel ban on Simonov.
The criminal case against Simonov was condemned, among others, by the Council of Europe human rights commissioner and the UN special rapporteur on human fights defenders.
Since at least 2013, police have detained and questioned Simonov numerous times under various bogus pretexts. Tax authorities once even questioned him, in the context of a tax inspection, about his English language proficiency. In April 2017, police detained Simonov in Volgograd, where he traveled to interview workers about their treatment and working conditions on the FIFA World Cup stadium site.
In January 2018, Simonov learned that he was on the Federal Security Service list of “persons under special monitoring,” apparently as a result of his human rights work on behalf of workers involved in preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In September 2019, police raided Simonov's apartment, breaking a door and confiscating documents and electronic equipment.
In 2020, a new law entered into force that drastically expands the scope of individuals and groups that can be designated “foreign agents” and made it easier to institute criminal proceedings against their leadership for not complying with the “foreign agents” requirements, exposing many activists and groups to an increased risk of harassment and prosecution.
The new law is part of an onslaught of repressive legislation, politically motivated prosecutions, and other actions by Russian authorities aimed at punishing and silencing critics, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch and multiple other human rights organizations and bodies have repeatedly condemned the “foreign agents” law as a violation of human rights norms and called for its repeal.
“It is some relief that Semyon Simonov will not have to serve prison time, but he already has spent a year under travel restrictions and eight months on criminal trial for accusations that are utterly without merit, and for which he’ll have a criminal record” Aitkhozhina said. “Simonov should have been able to spend this time doing human rights work. The ‘foreign agents’ law is nothing more than a tool of repression, and it should be immediately repealed.”