For months, Russian authorities have regularly unleashed repressive announcements on Fridays. 15 July was no different.
That day, a court in the city of Krasnodar sentenced Andrey Pivovarov, the former executive director of the now-defunct pro-democracy Open Russia Civic Movement, to four years in prison on charges of leading an ‘undesirable organisation’.
The same Friday also saw Russian federal authorities blacklist more organisations as undesirable.
These included the Central and Eastern European Law Initiative, aimed at advancing the rule of law; Bellingcat, a journalism group that published an investigation into the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny; and The Insider, a Russia-focused online investigative media outlet that has published some searing pieces in partnership with Bellingcat.
The Russian prosecutor’s office can designate as ‘undesirable’ any foreign or international organisation that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defence or constitutional order. The organisation in question must then cease its activities in Russia.
Anyone considered to be affiliated with an undesirable organisation who has a prior conviction on the same charges can be held criminally liable. In some cases, they can face criminal charges even without any prior convictions. Typically, those targeted by the law have been accused of connections with Open Russia. The maximum penalty for these types of offences is six years in prison.
Russia’s undesirable organisations law came into effect in 2015. In May 2021, in anticipation of changes that would streamline criminal prosecutions on allegations of affiliation with a banned organisation, Pivovarov announced that Open Russia was shutting down to protect its members.
The banned organisation in question is a UK legal entity named Open Russia, which is affiliated with exiled oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the original founder of the Open Russia movement, who lives in the UK. Open Russia activists in Russia have repeatedly objected to being treated as members of an undesirable foreign organisation, emphasizing that their movement has no connection to Khodorkovsky and is neither foreign nor associated with a UK-based entity.
This, however, did not dissuade the Russian authorities. On 31 May 2021, police detained Pivovarov, forcing him to disembark from an international flight ahead of take-off, for social media posts that they alleged connected him to Open Russia.
Pivovarov became the second person to receive a prison term on these charges. In several previous cases, activists accused of having connections with Open Russia had received punishments involving mandatory labour or suspended sentences. But Pivovarov spent over a year in pre-trial detention and now faces several more years in prison.
Russian authorities are stealing these years of Pivovarov’s life on absurd accusations, inflicting suffering on him and his family for legitimate activism and speech. To make matters worse, in an apparent attempt to end his career, the court also slapped Pivovarov with an eight-year ban on any political or public activities.
The day before Pivovarov’s sentencing, Vladimir Putin signed amendments expanding criminal liability for involvement with undesirable organisations beyond Russia’s borders, including for making donations to such organisations.
By August 2022, the Russian government has banned a total of 60 ‘undesirable’ organisations – and more and more activists and journalists may now find themselves treading on very thin ice. For years, authorities have blacklisted organisations with no presence in Russia. But new amendments mean criminal proceedings can be launched even if the concerned individuals involved have not set foot in Russia.
The ‘undesirables’ law – and the criminal and administrative provisions linked to it – is contributing to the ongoing decimation of civil society space in Russia. This trend is unlikely to change under a government that weaponises legislation to intimidate, silence and quash any dissent.
There appears to be a growing international apprehension of this danger. Five United Nations special experts sounded the alarm in a joint statement, and 38 of 57 states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have opened a short-term inquiry.
The gravity of the human rights crisis in Russia merits a sustained response by the United Nations, which should come in the form of a dedicated international mechanism monitoring human rights in the country. A number of Russian and international human rights groups are urging UN member states to introduce a resolution to create such a mechanism at the September session of the UN Human Rights Council. Now it is up to the states to ensure that this proposal succeeds.