(Berlin) – Russian authorities have taken punitive action against three local human rights defenders and their organizations in recent days, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities imposed arbitrary, draconian bureaucratic penalties against the groups, including through the “undesirable foreign organizations” law in one case.
Two of the groups have strong records of success in winning cases against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of victims of torture and other grave human rights violations, and the third defends the rights of migrants in Russia. The moves come amid a government crackdown on independent voices in the country.
“Russian authorities have amassed a wide array of tools to intimidate, marginalize, and punish human rights defenders,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Whether the moves against these three groups are coordinated or not, they are certainly consistent with the authorities’ wider efforts to stifle effective critics, in particular groups that work to rectify human rights abuses.”
On September 24, 2021, Russian border officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport barred Valentina Chupik from entering Russia. Chupik is the legal adviser at Moscow’s Uzbek Association and the head of Tong Jahoni (Morning of the World), a rights group that protects migrants and refugees. The officials handed her a notice purporting to ban her from the country for 30 years. Chupik runs a hotline for migrants in Russia, provides free legal aid to migrants targeted in police round-ups, visits migration detention facilities, and has frequently spoken out about a range of abuses against migrants.
Chupik has had refugee status in Russia since 2009, and has lived there since she fled Uzbekistan in the wake of the 2005 Andijan massacre. The officials stopped Chupik at passport control, as she returned from Armenia. The notification they handed her was from the Interior Ministry, addressed to her and dated September 17, stating that it had stripped her of refugee status.
The ministry cited art. 9.2.2 of Russia’s refugee law, which permits revocation of refugee status if the person has knowingly provided false information or documents to justify their asylum claim, or for violating any of the law’s provisions. But the notice did not include any allegations that would substantiate the decision, and Human Rights Watch is not aware of the specific claims of inaccuracy in Chupik’s documents.
Border authorities also confiscated Chupik’s documents, and the confiscation record, which Human Rights Watch has seen, shows that her refugee travel document had been renewed in July for five years. Lawyers have filed a request for “interim measures” with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), seeking the Court’s intervention with the Russian government to suspend Chupik’s deportation.
The sudden timing and manner of Chupik’s refugee status revocation, combined with the attempt to ban her for 30 years, strongly indicate that the decision was not based on a routine administrative process, but was instead an arbitrary and punitive move the authorities made in retaliation for her work on behalf of migrants.
On September 23, the prominent human rights group Astreya received a copy of a petition, dated September 14, from the Justice Ministry to a court seeking to dissolve the group. Astreyea has won dozens of cases before the European Court of Human Rights for victims, mainly from Russia’s North Caucasus region, of rights violations under the European Convention on Human Rights, including torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and gender-based violence.
In its petition, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, the ministry stated that Astreya’s founder had filed notifications with the ministry in 2020 and 2021 while she was not physically present in Russia. The notifications were about the changes of Astretya’s legal address and of its director. The ministry did not otherwise challenge the validity of the changes of address or director. The ministry’s efforts to shut down the group on such specious grounds should be clearly understood as retaliation for the group’s successful work on the part of victims, Human Rights Watch said. Media reports said that Astreya is challenging the petition.
Astreya is a partner of Stichting Justice Initiative (SJI), a group of legal entities and human rights lawyers, most of them based in Russia, who have represented thousands of victims of human rights violations, from Russia and several other countries in the region, at the European Court of Human Rights.
In December 2020, the authorities revoked the Russian residence permit of SJI’s director, spuriously claiming she was a national security threat, and ordered her to leave the country. In 2019, the Justice Ministry forcibly registered one of SJI’s main partiers in Russia as a “foreign agent” organization, under the repressive “foreign agents” law.
On September 17, a court issued a 10,000 ruble (approximately US$137) fine to Igor Kalyapin, chair of the Russian Committee against Torture, claiming he had violated the law on “foreign undesirable organizations.” The Committee against Torture is one of Russia’s top groups that documents torture and seeks justice for victims. Work by the group’s lawyers has led to convictions of more than 150 law enforcement officials for torture and related offenses. In 2007, it won one of the most prominent torture cases filed against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights, which required the Russian government to pay €250,000 (at the time, US$355,000) in damages to a torture survivor.
The prosecutor’s office claimed that the group had “distributed materials” of People in Need (PIN), a Prague-based human rights and humanitarian group banned in Russia as “undesirable” in 2019. The material in question was an article that the Committee against Torture posted on its website in 2017, reporting that PIN had honored Kalyapin for his human rights work. A PIN photograph of the awards ceremony and a link to PIN’s website appeared with the article. Kalyapin told Human Rights Watch that after People in Need was banned and its website was blocked in Russia, the link no longer worked. He also said that during his trial, the prosecutor’s office claimed that “in 2017 Kalypin posted the material, knowing full well that the organization was ‘undesirable,’” even though the group was not banned until 2019.
“I guess this is how I’m supposed to ‘know full well’ something that hadn’t happened,” Kalyapin told Human Rights Watch.
The “undesirables” law authorizes the prosecutor’s office to designate as “undesirable” any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. The penalty for a first-time offense of “participation” in such a group is a fine, and the maximum penalty for a second offense committed within 12 months is a four-year prison sentence.
In recent months, Russian authorities have intensified their efforts to silence independent voices, Human Rights Watch said. Parliament has adopted a battery of laws that allow even greater infringements on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. Several Russian groups and media outlets have been forced to close due to the “undesirables” law. At least three civic activists have been convicted on criminal “undesirable” charges, and two others are awaiting trial. One is in pretrial custody, and the other was released with conditions after six months in detention. Dozens of media outlets and individuals have been branded “foreign agent media.”
“The cases against Chupik, Kalyapin, and Astreya are part of a much broader effort to eliminate critics of Russia’s authorities,” Williamson said. “The Justice Ministry should withdraw its lawsuit against Astreya, the Interior Ministry should allow Chupik back into the country, and the authorities should seek to vacate the verdict against Kalyapin. These human rights defenders are doing important work to protect the rights of people in Russia, and the authorities should be facilitating, not punishing, their work.”