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Political Repression and Political Prisoners in Russia 2018 - 2019

Publication date: 23.10.2020

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This report attempts to provide a comprehensive overview of trends in politically motivated repression using the criminal law in the Russian Federation, particularly those related to imprisonment in 2018 and the first three quarters of 2019, but also in the context of a longer period. The report builds on the long-term work of Memorial Human Rights Centre’s Programme to Support Political Prisoners. In an attempt to describe in more or less detail the large and complex phenomenon that contemporary Russian criminal political repression represents, we have had to address related topics on the one hand, and, on the other hand, we have not been able to reflect the phenomenon comprehensively in this limited report. As a result, the report inevitably cannot claim to be exhaustive.

The authors conclude that:

  1. Since 2015, Memorial Human Rights Centre, the main organisation conducting analysis of political repression and politically motivated unlawful imprisonment, based on the methodology elaborated by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, has recorded a steady increase in the number of political prisoners. This allows us to say that what we essentially see in Russia is fullyfledged political repression which violates many fundamental human rights against a variety of groups for a variety of political motivations and by means of a wide range of both "political" and purely criminal articles of the Criminal Code.
  2. Analysis of the repressive measures, from the perspective of those groups which can be considered their victims, shows that the vast majority of political prisoners have been deprived of their liberty because of their exercise of the freedom of religion and religious affiliation. As a result of the scale of the repression it is now possible to identify more narrowly defined groups among the victims. The largest of these are peaceful Muslims imprisoned because they belong to Hizb ut-Tahrir, designated a terrorist organisation in Russia, Crimean Tatars, Jehovah’s Witnesses, supporters of the banned Artpodgotovka, and participants in public protests. Other persecuted groups include politicians and political activists, human rights activists, journalists, bloggers,scholars, citizens of Ukraine, followers of Said Nursi, members of the Muslim organisation Tablighi Jamaat, the Church of Scientology and simply people picked at random.
  3. A great variety of articles of the Criminal Code are used for political repression, including those that directly prosecute exercise of the rights of assembly and association (Articles 284.1, 212.1), those that prosecute public statements (Articles 205.2, 280, 282, 280.1, 148, 354.1), those concerning terrorist and extremist associations (Articles 282.1, 282.2, 205.4, 205.5), other "terrorist" articles (Articles 205, 205.1), articles concerning riot and violence against public officials (Articles 212, 318), treason, espionage, sabotage, illegal border crossing (Articles 275, 276, 281 and 322), as well as articles dealing with illegal trafficking in drugs, weapons, explosives and explosive devices, economic crimes and murder.
  4. Violations of the rights of victims of politically motivated criminal prosecutions take various forms and occur at different stages of the prosecution. These forms include imposition of pre-trial restrictions, especially in the form of custody and house arrest, deprivation of liberty following conviction, the type of prison regime and the location of the penitentiary institution executing the punishments, disciplinary measures imposed on prisoners, and other penalties imposed by courts. Additional penalties that seriously violate the rights of victims of prosecutions include the establishment by the courts of long-term administrative oversight over convicted persons who have served their sentences and the inclusion, even without a court decision, of suspects and defendants with regard to extremist and terrorist offences on the list of terrorists and extremists maintained by Rosfinmonitoring.
  5. The grounds for attributing cases of unlawful and unjustified criminal prosecution to political repression are the political motives for prosecution, which are the basis for the authorities actions. Since criminal prosecution is the most important and familiar tool for authoritarian authorities to control society, it is used by powerholders at various levels to achieve a variety of goals. Accordingly, the political motives which are the basis for the authorities repressive measures also take many different forms. These include the termination of lawful activities by civil society and political activists, journalists and those engaged in peaceful religious activities, the elimination of threats to the interests of authorities or specific powerholders, the corporate, departmental interests of law enforcement structures, support for the messages of state propaganda, intimidation of society by demonstrating the negative consequences of actions not approved by the authorities and, conversely, "calming" society by means of demonstrating the authorities effectiveness in fighting terrorism and other crimes. In prosecutions that are politically motivated, various motives are most often combined.
  6. In the course of political repression in Russia, fundamental human rights are violated, in particular the right not to be tortured, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to trial within a reasonable time or release before trial, and the right to a fair trial. At the same time, in many instances politically motivated repressive measures also violate the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and dissemination of information, and the rights of assembly and association. The practice of politically motivated deprivation of liberty and, in general, criminal prosecution on political grounds, violates the Russian Constitution and the international obligations of the Russian Federation.
  7. During the period covered by the report, there has been a growing trend of public attention to the issue of politically motivated criminal prosecutions and increased public solidarity with political prisoners. There has been a significant increase in media coverage of the issue. The continued activities of "traditional" institutionalised human rights organisations to support and protect political prisoners and other victims of political repression have been complemented by the increased activity of various informal and weakly formalised initiatives and groups, both in relation to specific criminal cases and on a broader scale. New forms of solidarity with political prisoners have emerged and there has been a qualitative and quantitative increase in crowdfunding to support victims of repression. The period has been marked by a large number of public protests in solidarity with political prisoners, protests that in many instances developed into lengthy mass campaigns in support of political prisoners using a wide range of methods.
    As a result of the targeted efforts of the authorities, the role of Public Monitoring Commissions in protecting the rights of political prisoners has significantly decreased, although there have been examples of important human rights activities by individual members of these commissions in various regions. Responding to public opinion, official human rights institutions also reacted in various ways to the issue of politically motivated criminal prosecutions: the Presidential Council for Civil Society Development and Human Rights, largely through the efforts of individual members of the Council, and, to a lesser extent, the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman. The authorities could not avoid responding to public discontent over political repression, although the only practical measure resulting in this regard has been the decriminalisation of Article 282, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code.
  8. Politically motivated criminal prosecutions as repressive measures are carried out on the institutional basis of a large body of legislation and law enforcement practices. Ending the vicious practice of political repression requires first and foremost a fundamental political change, but even now it is possible to demand the repeal of the most unlawful legal norms (Article 212.1, Article 280.1 [Part 1 and Part 2], Article 148, Article 284.1, Article 330.1, Article 354.1 of the Russian Criminal Code); a serious review and clarification of the norms of anti-extremist and anti-terrorist legislation (Articles 282, 213, 275 of the Russian Criminal Code); changes in the interpretation and application of "group" articles of the Criminal Code (Articles 282.1, 282.2, 205.4, 205.5) and of articles facilitating prosecution for public statements; and the expansion of jury trials.

Trends from October 2019 to the present allow us to argue there is no sign of a reduction in political repression. On the contrary, we have seen a further attack on civil society institutions, the continuation of religious persecution, the constant emergence of new repressive initiatives, and a further expansion of the use of manifestly unlawful legislation.

Already during the editing of this report in March - April 2020, under the pretext of combatting the coronavirus epidemic, there was an unprecedented attack by federal and regional authorities on rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of the Russian Federation, accompanied by the adoption of a whole series of repressive legal norms and the introduction of vague and potentially extremely dangerous elements in the Russian Criminal Code, the Russian Code of Administrative Offences and regional codes of administrative violations. All this allows us to say that the monitoring of political repression and the assistance provided to its victims by Memorial Human Rights Centre in the coming years will remain just as relevant.