A police officer pats down a protester detained during a rally calling for the results of a referendum on Constitutional amendments to be cancelled in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

(Moscow) – The Covid-19 pandemic challenged Russia’s healthcare system and provided a pretext for Russian authorities to further encroach on fundamental rights, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

Russia passed controversial constitutional amendments, including allowing President Vladimir Putin to run again for two more six-year presidential terms, that were ultimately approved in a plebiscite. A widespread crackdown on dissenting voices followed, with several new criminal cases and politically motivated raids, detentions, and prosecutions against opposition figures, civic activists, and organizations. Prosecution under the “undesirable organizations” and “foreign agents” laws were used to further intimidate activists, while new draft “foreign agents” legislation, which introduces new, oppressive restrictions, was submitted to parliament.

“The pandemic and some of the constitutional amendments added a worrying new dynamic to Russia’s worsening human rights record,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In 2020, the Kremlin took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to push for increasingly repressive measures and suppression of dissent and civic activism.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 

The Covid-19 outbreak resulted in shortages of personal protective equipment, hospital beds, and medications and exacerbated the existing limited access to health care. The authorities’ response to the pandemic included a blanket ban on peaceful assemblies, expansion of digital surveillance and tracking, and further restrictions on the already severely curtailed space for civic activism and free expression.

Russian authorities prosecuted several journalists on trumped-up terrorism and treason charges, sending a powerful, chilling message to media workers. Several physical attacks on journalists went unpunished. Police arrested journalists who covered peaceful protests and searched a media outlet in an effort to intimidate it. New regulations tightened control over internet infrastructure and online content, further curbing freedom of expression, access to information, and protection of privacy rights.

Courts issued guilty verdicts in several terrorism and extremism-related cases, despite allegations of torture, entrapment, and the use of secret witnesses and dubious expert analysis. The authorities prosecuted people accused of affiliation with religious organizations that the government has designated as terrorist or extremist, although these groups have not espoused or been linked to violence.

Russia also continued to violate the prohibition on forcible return of asylum seekers to the risk of torture in their countries of origin.

Chechnya’s leadership continued its vicious onslaught on all forms of dissent and criticism. Moscow did nothing to hold people accountable for this.

A catastrophic fuel spill in Russia’s Arctic had devastating consequences for the environment and potentially on local indigenous populations’ livelihoods. Legislative amendments stripped environmental protections from certain infrastructure development projects. Two waste management and resource extraction projects were cancelled after massive and persistent protests. But peaceful environmental defenders who protested faced fines and other penalties.

The Black Lives Matter protests in the United States sparked discussions in Russian media and social networks highlighting racism and discrimination in Russian society. Migrants face racial profiling, mass arbitrary detentions, police brutality and xenophobia, and additional hardships due to Covid-19 related lockdowns and closed borders.

The government condones homophobic discrimination under the “gay propaganda law” and in at least one case used this law to justify a criminal prosecution.

The government lacks sufficient protections against widespread domestic violence or recourse for survivors.

The Syrian-Russian military alliance continued deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects, including hospitals, schools, and residential areas in anti-government held areas, including using internationally banned weapons.

Russian authorities also conscripted males in occupied Crimea in violation of international humanitarian law, and prosecuted Crimean Tatars on politically motivated terrorism charges.