To ‘commemorate’ Vladimir Putin beginning his tenth year as leader of Russia, here are ten examples of human rights violations which have occurred throughout the years under his regime.
1. The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former oligarch and once one of the richest men in the world, soon found himself subject to the wrath of Putin after speaking out against corruption, and demonstrating his political ambitions. Putin viewed the head of oil giant Yukos as a threat to his regime and moved to silence his critic. In July 2003, Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev were arrested on trumped up charges of fraud and tax evasion. Following unfair trials, both were sentenced to thirteen years imprisonment. Khodorkovsky is considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and is due to be released in 2014.
2. The ‘Foreign Agents’ Law
On July 20 2012, Putin passed a new law which required all organisations which received foreign funding and participated in ‘political activities’ to register with the authorities as ‘foreign agents’. The negative connotations surrounding this phrase are obvious. Such organisations are ‘enemies’ of the state. Failure to register renders an organisation liable to fines of up to $16,000. This law has been swiftly followed by numerous intimidating and intrusive ‘inspections’ of organisations suspected of being ‘foreign agents’. This has had a clear impact on public opinion. In late 2012, the Moscow office of human rights organisation ‘Memorial’ was vandalised, the words ‘Foreign Agent’ written on the building.
3. The ‘Treason’ Law
Also concerning is a new law passed by the Russian Duma in October 2012 which provided for an extended definition of ‘treason’. This is another example of Putin’s crackdown on civil society. According to this new law, merely providing consultative or other assistance to a foreign state, or an international or foreign organisation can constitute treason if acting against the security of the Russian Federation. This is an extremely broad provision and can easily be manipulated to encompass any activities of organisations or individuals which the regime dislikes. It is likely that human rights NGOs will be particularly affected by this law. Those found guilty face up to 20 years imprisonment.
4. The trial of ‘Pussy Riot’
On February 21 2012, Maria Alekhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of feminist punk rock band ‘Pussy Riot’, entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest against the recent support of the Russian Orthodox Church for the re- election to presidency of Vladimir Putin. In an attempt to quell any opposition prior to his re election, Putin used ‘Pussy Riot’ as a scapegoat to create a sense of urgency, and hence the need for a strong State. After months in detention and a show trial, Maria, Ekaterina and Nadezhda were sentenced to two years imprisonment charged with ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’, rather than a more appropriate administrative fine (Art 5.26(2) Administrative Offences Code). On appeal, Ekaterina was released. However, Maria and Nadezhda remain in separate penal colonies up to 500km away from Moscow. Both have young children.
5. Supplying weapons to the Syrian regime
Also, concerning is the supply of weapons by the Putin regime to the Syrian government in the midst of the civil war, which has resulted in the loss of over 70,000 lives. Not only has the Putin regime threatened to veto UN Security Council sanctions against the Syrian government, it has continued to supply arms to the regime. Just last week, Russia refused to rule out further supply of weapons despite the rising bloodshed, preferring to honour its commitments. There are also Russian plans to provide Syria with a state of the art defence system. It is the supply of weapons in such circumstances which the newly adopted Arms Trade Treaty will prevent.
6. The ‘Assembly’ Law
On May 2012 another attack on civil society in Russia came in the form of a new ‘Assembly’ law. This significantly increased the fines for violating rules relating to the holding of public events and imposed numerous restrictions on organisers and participants in protests. This measure was designed to quell the recent rise in protests against the Putin regime. Individuals violating such rules can now be fined up to a maximum of $9,700. Other restrictions include a ban on wearing face masks (no doubt a result of the actions of Pussy Riot), and an increase in the range of penalties available. Whilst the right to freedom of assembly under the ICCPR (art 21), and ECHR (art 11) is not absolute, it is unlikely that such restrictions would be deemed ‘necessary in a democratic society’, as required.
7. Internet Censorship
Not content with the aforementioned restrictions on civil society, a new Bill was also introduced by the State Duma on July 11 2012 restricting internet content available to citizens. This came into effect on November 1 2012. This law was said to be necessary to protect children from accessing harmful content, however, in effect the state can now blacklist so called ‘prohibited’ websites without trial. This is another concerning curtailment of freedom of expression, information and opinion in Russia.
8. LGBT Rights
The re election of Putin to presidency has also seen a decline in protection of LGBT rights in Russia, leading to an increasingly hostile public opinion towards homosexuality. A new bill criminalising ‘homosexual propaganda’ is one step closer to entering into force after passing its first reading in the Russian Parliament. Its second reading is due on May 25 2013. Whilst not criminalising homosexuality itself, the bill outlaws ‘promotion’ of homosexuality. What will be encompassed by this notion is unclear but the effects of this provision can already be seen. There is an increasingly hostile public opinion towards homosexuality, with an increase in documented attacks against those perceived to be gay. A prime example of this is the recent allegedly anti-gay murder of Vladislav Tornovoi in Volgograd.
9. The ‘Dima Yakovlev’ Law
On December 28 2012 Putin signed the ‘Dima Yakovlev’ law, named after a three month old Russian toddler who died in the US after adoption by US citizens. This new measure was largely seen as a political response to the Magnitsky Act recently introduced by the US which provided for visa bans and the freezing of assets of those involved in the torture and killing of whistleblowers in Russia. Notably, this new Russian law banned the adoption of Russian children by US citizens. However, perhaps more importantly, according to Human Rights Watch is the effect this will have upon NGOs. The law also prohibits Russian NGOs which engage in ‘political’ activities and receive funding from the US, or engage in activities which threaten Russia’s interests. Again, the extremely broad nature of this provision gives cause for concern.
10. Forced Evictions in Sochi
Finally, another worrying trend concerns a recent rise in forced evictions taking place in Sochi in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Everyone has the right to adequate housing under article 11 ICESCR. Under this provision, the state has an obligation not to arbitrarily evict occupants from their houses. It seems that Putin does not place much importance on this right. Indeed, there has been a notable increase in forced evictions in Sochi to make way for new roads and other construction projects in preparation for the Winter Olympics. Occupants are often left without suitable alternative accommodation or adequate compensation. This problem is only likely to worsen as the Olympics draw closer.
Much of the information for this article was based upon a recent report by Human Rights Watch, ‘Laws of Attrition: Crackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to Presidency’.
Download the report here: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/russia0413_ForUpload_0.pdf