Eastern Partnership & Russia

Virtual “round table” with leaders of Russian civil society organizations

On December 11, a virtual “round table” was held with the participation of leaders of Russian civil society organizations. The topic of discussion was the situation with the deterioration of the conditions for the activities of non-governmental organizations

On December 11, a virtual “round table” was held with the participation of leaders of Russian civil society organizations, organized by the Forum of Russian-speaking Europeans and the Memorial Human Rights Center with the support of the German Foreign Ministry. The topic of discussion of the forum within the framework of the project “German-Russian Human Rights Dialogue” was the situation with the deterioration of the conditions for the activities of non-governmental organizations. The range of opinions and assessments of the conference participants is below.

The law on foreign agents undermines the activity of Russian NGOs

Svetlana Astrakhantseva, Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG). The MHG is the oldest human rights organization in Russia. Unfortunately, Russian citizens are not ready to support human rights organizations, while receiving donations from abroad threatens to obtain the status of a foreign agent, so the MHG is forced to restrain its activity. Changes to the Russian Constitution in 2020 devalued the electoral system. In addition, under the pretext of fighting COVID-19, freedom of assembly is prohibited, even single pickets are blocked. Under the same guise, general observation of citizens was introduced, at the same time, the expert draws attention, there is no possibility to observe respect for the human rights of those in prisons.

Natalia Taubina, Public Verdict Foundation. The foundation actively uses the instrument of the ECHR, because the protection of human rights (prohibition of torture, ill-treatment, freedom of assembly, speech, etc.) at the national level is rather limited. The adoption of the law on foreign agents in 2012 severely undermined the organization’s work. Since then, the pressure and repression have only grown.

The North Caucasus is a region where human rights violations subsequently spread to all of Russia

Olga Sadovskaya, Committee Against Torture. The organization faces stiff resistance: an office with all documents and computers in Chechnya was burnt twice in a year, and a car with 10 journalists was also burned there. Then the office in Ingushetia was destroyed, so the branch of the organization had to relocate to Pyatigorsk to monitor the human rights situation in southern Russia. The expert noted that by publishing the personal data of human rights violators, it is worth having evidence of their violations, so as not to lose in court. For example, the Committee Against Torture, which actively investigates complaints of torture and from time to time publishes information about such violators, has never lost a case. It is also worth actively using the extrapolation method on mass violations of human rights, because their essence does not change from case to case. Whenever possible, the organization also collects money to help victims of torture, but this is not easy, because money can only be donated from accounts in Russian banks.

Anna Dobrovolskaya, Memorial Human Rights Center. Memorial’s office in Chechnya was closed by the local authorities two years ago, although the republic certainly needs the presence of human rights defenders on the spot: according to victims’ testimonies, tortures are underway in secret prisons, and representatives of the LGBT community are persecuted. Members of several religious communities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or some Muslims, are also frequent targets of persecution in Russia. The organization as a “foreign agent” is subjected to frequent and unscheduled inspections of the prosecutor’s office, as one is taking place now, and recently it had to pay a huge fine of 5 million rubles for the lack of markings “foreign agent” on individual posts on social networks, another such fine was fought off thanks to public support… The money was collected by the whole world – by crowdfunding. State mechanisms for the protection of human rights need to be activated, in particular, the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights has greatly reduced its activity in recent years.

Svetlana Gannushkina, Civic Assistance Committee. The organization is 30 years old, and it helps refugees. People from other countries migrate to Russia in search of asylum, but obtaining refugee status is not easy. In addition, immigrants from the North Caucasus are under particular pressure on racial and religious grounds.

Moscow is trying to follow the example of Beijing

Damir Gainutdinnov, AGORA. In connection with the cyclic blackouts of the Internet in Russia (Telegram, Ingushetia, Buryatia), Belarus, and other regions, not only freedom of speech suffers, but also ordinary business, because even peaceful sites like air ticket booking services are subject to sanctions. Russia is taking decisive steps towards universal surveillance not only on the Internet: for example, in Moscow, in order to get to rallies, you need to pass through a metal detector, and the process is filmed on a camera connected to a face recognition system. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has become another trigger for human rights abuses.

The law on foreign agents violates the rights of citizens, the situation will worsen

Leonid Abgadzhava, Russia Behind Bars. The expert noted that there is no way to monitor respect for human rights in penitentiary institutions. A huge number of people are generally denied medical care, despite the fact that there are almost 500 thousand prisoners in Russia. The inmates are given poor quality food. While physical violence also occurs, albeit on a smaller scale, psychological violence on the part of employees of the federal service for the execution of punishments, who generally demonize people behind bars, is equally destructive. The problem of secret prisons in the DPR and LPR is also acute: according to the testimonies of hundreds, sort of a holocaust is there.

Polina Filippova, Sakharov Center. Even the non-political organization for the preservation of the legacy of Academician Sakharov (archiving his works, human rights education, support for the ideals of peace, progress, and human rights) has to suffer from the label of a “foreign agent.”

Against the background of COVID-19, football matches in Russia are held with spectators, but single pickets are prohibited

Leonid Drabkin of OVD-Info said that an average of 7 people a day are detained in Russia for peaceful protests. The human rights organization provides legal assistance to such people, makes their cases public because publicity protects them.

Drug policy is not humanized

Anna Sarang of Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health Protection and Social Justice exacerbated the problem of HIV-infected individuals and drug addicts in Russia. Previously, drug addicts were often tortured and beaten, and today sick persons are imprisoned: the number of convicts under Article 228 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, manufacture, processing of narcotic drugs…”) is growing.

Svetlana Zakharova, Russian LGBT Network representative, noted that the law banning the promotion of non-traditional social relations among young people actually affects the entire population, including adults, which prevents public discussion on the problem. There are also cases of refusal by the police to help members of the LGBT community. In Chechnya, the problems with LGBT rights are especially huge. In addition, for conducting a survey on the topic of LGBT in schools this summer, the organization is facing closure.

Domestic violence is the most common human rights violation

Anna Rivina, Center for violence.net («Насилию.нет»). Even in Germany, according to research, one in three women suffered from domestic violence. HIV-positive women who have suffered from domestic violence cannot get to the assistance centers for such victims in Moscow, they are simply not accepted without a special law or its clause. It is also known that, against the background of COVID-19 restrictions, the Russian police fined women who left their homes to the police to report domestic violence against them.

A tent camp during a garbage protest at the Shiyes station, Arkhangelsk region, in June 2019. The photo was taken by a protester.

A tent camp during a garbage protest at the Shiyes station, Arkhangelsk region, in June 2019. The photo was taken by a protester.

Yuri Chesnokov runs an interregional popular protest against the import of Moscow garbage to the Shiyes station. Since June 2019, a 24/7 camp is stationed on the site of the proposed construction of a waste incineration plant near Arkhangelsk, and several tens of thousands have already taken part in protests.

Construction is being carried out illegally and without documents, and democratically-minded people formed the backbone of the movement “Pomorye is not a garbage dump.” Supplies are delivered by helicopters, there are victims in clashes with guards of would-be workers and the police. Shiyes activists are persecuted, a group of them once almost died under the wheels of trucks, which broke through the cordon of the activists on duty at the location. Even the band Rammstein has “helped”: an activist of the movement, a fan of the group, is being tried for reposting a clip of the German rockers on a social network, which he immediately deleted at the request of law enforcement officers. He faces 2 to 6 years in prison. Another movement activist who organized a march through the city in 2019 was sentenced to 400 hours of correctional labor.

If someone thinks that if he/she does not get acquainted with information about human rights violations, then this will not happen to them, then this is not so

All speeches by representatives of civil society turned out to be short but informative. As a result, all the speakers were unanimous in their assessments that the law on foreign agents violates the rights of citizens, and the difficult situation in which all NGOs in Russia now operate will only get worse. Nevertheless, it is important to educate the audience, because, as Olga Sadovskaya of the Committee Against Torture said, “If someone thinks that if he/she does not get acquainted with information about human rights violations, then this will not happen to them, then this is not so.”

Pavel Pernikau, member of the board, head of the press center of the Belarusian section of the ISHR