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Former coordinator of the Open Russia civic movement Andrey Pivovarov after a search in his apartment. June 01, 2021. St Petersburg, Russia. © 2021 David Frenkel

Update: On February 20, Tatyana Usmanova, the head of Andrey Pivovarov’s parliamentary election campaign, reported that Pivovarov’s parents and lawyer were finally able to confirm his whereabouts. She said that he arrived at a penal colony in Karelia region in late January, and was immediately punished for several alleged rules violations and placed in incommunicado detention. The prison administration refused his request to call his family or lawyer to inform them about his whereabouts and instead sent a notification through regular mail, which arrived only a month later. 

The lack of a legal requirement under Russian law for the authorities to promptly inform family or legal counsel about the whereabouts of detained or convicted persons while in transfer between prison or detention facilities is a systemic problem in Russia.  

(New York, February 18, 2023) – Russian authorities have refused for a month to provide information about the location of a political prisoner, Andrey Pivovarov, raising concerns that he has been forcibly disappeared, Human Rights Watch said today.

Pivovarov’s family and lawyer last heard from him on January 18, 2023 when he sent a letter notifying them that he was due to be transferred from a St. Petersburg prison to a prison colony. Since then, they have had no contact with him and the authorities have failed to respond to their requests for information. The authorities should immediately quash his politically motivated imprisonment and unconditionally release Pivovarov and, in the meantime, urgently allow his family and lawyer to meet with him.

“After throwing him behind bars on groundless charges, the Russian authorities have further violated Andrey Pivovarov’s rights by forcibly disappearing him,” said Damelya Aitkhozhina, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Both Pivovarov and his family, who suffer, not knowing his whereabouts, are being punished for his peaceful criticism of the government.”

Pivovarov, 41, had been executive director of the now-defunct pro-democracy Open Russia Civic Movement. He was sentenced to four years in prison in July 2022, on charges of leading an “undesirable organization.”

He was held in a detention center in Krasnodar region, in southern Russia, until December 2022. Tatyana Usmanova, the head of Pivovarov’s parliamentary election campaign, told Human Rights Watch that he was shuffled from one detention center to another in Krasnodar region for a few weeks in December. She said that when his lawyer last saw him there, on December 29, he was not aware of any plans for his transfer to another penal colony. Rather, the guards had informally told Pivovarov that he would be staying in that facility through the New Year holidays.

However, the next day, the authorities placed him on a train and sent him to a prison in St. Petersburg, where Pivovarov and his family live. Earlier, his parents had filed formal requests for him to serve his sentence there, closer to his family. In his last communication, Pivovarov wrote that prison staff told him he was due to be transferred to a penal colony in the Karelia region, near St. Petersburg.

Despite numerous formal complaints and requests for information, neither his lawyer nor his parents have been able to get any information about his whereabouts or well-being, Usmanova said. His lawyer and Usmanova have contacted all prisons in both regions to no avail. Russian law does not require the authorities to inform families or lawyers about an inmate’s well-being and whereabouts during a transfer and there are no time limitations for transfers.

Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Families must live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether their loved ones are safe, and they worry over their conditions in captivity.

Pivovarov’s case and his mistreatment reflect the Russian government’s broader attack on civil society organizations, Human Rights Watch said. Under Russia’s “undesirable organizations” law, the prosecutor’s office can designate any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order as “undesirable.” The organization in question must then cease its activities in Russia, and anyone considered to be affiliated with one and who has a prior conviction on the same charges can be held criminally liable. As of February 2023, Russian authorities had designated 75 organizations as “undesirable.”

Open Russia activists in Russia have repeatedly objected to being treated as members of an undesirable foreign organization, emphasizing that their movement is neither foreign nor associated with a United Kingdom-based entity under the same name that Russian authorities designated as “undesirable” in 2017.

In May 2021, in anticipation of changes that would streamline criminal prosecutions on allegations of affiliation with a banned organization, Pivovarov announced that Open Russia was shutting down to protect its members. Nonetheless, on May 31, 2021, police detained Pivovarov, forcing him to disembark from an international flight ahead of takeoff, because of social media posts that they alleged connected him to Open Russia.

“The Russia government’s outrageous treatment of Pivovarov reflects the ever-growing campaign of harassment and intimidation that the authorities have unleashed against its own society,” Aitkhozhina said. “This has reached new levels in the year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and needs to stop.”

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