Sunday, October 24, 2021

Russia intensifies action on dissent

Russia’s opposition activists and rights groups hoped that elections for the Duma, the lower house of the Kremlin parliament, would ease crackdown on dissent, independent media outlets and civic organizations after elections were concluded last month.

But there is little sign of that happening, he says.

The Justice Ministry has added about two dozen activists and journalists, an independent rights watchdog and a news site to a blacklist of “foreign agents” designated in the Soviet style. The moniker could mean the death knell for media outlets as it prompts panicked advertisers to opt out. Both Russian and non-Russian can be branded as foreign agent.

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“Russian authorities intensify their efforts to silence independent voices,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. The rights group says officials are using “a battery of laws that allow for even greater infringements on freedom of expression, association and assembly.”

In the run-up to Russia’s parliamentary elections in September, in which the ruling United Russia party retained its majority in the 450-seat Duma, opposition leaders and critics of President Vladimir Putin complained of the intensity of the campaign of repression, which saw an exodus of dissidents. .

FILE – Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny attends a rally to mark the 5th anniversary of the assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and to protest proposed amendments to the country’s constitution, in Moscow, February 29, 2020.

The Kremlin barred the most truly independent candidates – first and foremost supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny – from running in the election.

Last week, Russia’s domestic spy agency added to its list of topics and issues that could earn the nickname of “foreign agent.” The Federal Security Service listed 60 non-classified topics, many of which pertain to the armed forces, including military procurement and the morale of soldiers that could be exploited by foreign enemies. Topics include collecting or publishing information about corruption within the military as well as Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos.

Expanding the list would increase the risk to journalists trying to report on Russia’s military, rights lawyers complain.

FILE - Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov listens during Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia December 19, 2019.

FILE – Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov listens during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia December 19, 2019.

In an interview with Reuters news agency after the elections, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said officials would continue to take a tough stand against “non-systemic opposition”. He said the opponents had “crossed a red line some time ago.” And, he added, “what they were doing was using all means to incite provocation and social unrest.”

Peskov said, “Naturally, any official will take the position as difficult as possible for him. The aim is to maintain stability in society. There is no place for chaos and we are ready to force people to obey the law.” It is not connected with the Duma elections. This is our line and it will remain our line.”

Those designated as foreign agents can be fined and jailed for up to five years for failing to meet various administrative requirements, including filing regular financial reports.

They are also required to add this statement to anything they publish: “This message was created by a foreign media outlet to perform the functions of a foreign agent and/or by a Russian legal entity to perform the actions of a and/or is distributed by foreign agents.”

Russia’s law on foreign agents was initially introduced in 2012, but has since been amended and amended several times. Last month, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global network of 50 independent media outlets, announced that it was halting operations in Russia to protect its Russian journalist associates.

FILE - Pyotr Verzilov gestures during a court hearing on July 16, 2018 in Moscow.

FILE – Pyotr Verzilov gestures during a court hearing on July 16, 2018 in Moscow.

More than 70 individuals are on the foreign agent blacklist, nearly a third of them added since parliamentary elections. The most recent additions include Sergei Smirnov and Pyotr Verzilov, editor-in-chief of the independent news site Mediazona and its publisher, Zona Prava, respectively; a rights organization founded by the punk rock band Pussy Riot to monitor abuse in Russia’s prison system; and several members of the election watchdog Golos.

Three members of the feminist Pussy Riot were jailed in 2012 after they staged a sacrilegious and unauthorized performance inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

FILE - A bailiff stands next to the screen with a live broadcast of a court hearing on members of female punk band 'Pussy Riot' on October 10, 2012 in Moscow.

FILE – A bailiff stands next to the screen with a live broadcast of a court hearing on members of female punk band ‘Pussy Riot’ on October 10, 2012 in Moscow.

The incident, which brought international fame to the group, was billed as an anti-Putin demonstration. Putin was the Prime Minister at that time.

Mediazona news site on Tuesday published three videos obtained by an NGO, Gulaugu.net, of prisoners being beaten and tortured by guards in several prisons across the country, including in the city of Saratov. The website of Guggu.net was blocked by state media watchdog Roskomnadzor earlier this year following a request from Russian security agencies.

“Russian authorities have mobilized a variety of tools to intimidate, marginalize and punish human rights defenders,” said Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch’s director of Europe and Central Asia.

HRW has also raised concerns about crackdowns on two Russian rights groups, both of whom have won cases against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights, and Valentina Chupik, an Uzbek migrant rights campaigner, who was reunited in Russia last month. Was barred from entering where she has been living since 2005.

Border officials handed over a notice to Chupik, saying he would be banned from entering the country for 30 years.

“Whether or not the moves against these three are coordinated, they are certainly in line with the authorities’ broader efforts to suppress effective critics, particularly in groups working to correct human rights abuses,” says Williamson.

A group of 45 Westerners on Tuesday demanded that Russia respond immediately over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Navalny. Westerners say Navalny was poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent in Russia in August last year. He was treated in Germany before returning to Russia, where he is now in prison.

Moscow has 10 days to respond to questions posed by the European Union, the United States, Canada and Australia under the rules of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). “It is imperative that Russia elaborate on the steps it has taken to investigate and shed light on the use of chemical weapons in its territory,” the 45-nation statement said.

FILE - Emergency personnel of the German Army load a stretcher into their ambulance, which was used to carry Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, at Charity Hospital in Berlin, August 22, 2020.

FILE – Emergency personnel of the German Army load a stretcher into their ambulance, which was used to carry Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, at Charity Hospital in Berlin, August 22, 2020.

Moscow has denied any involvement in the poisoning of Navalny. Navalny was imprisoned upon his return to Russia on charges of fraud, which his supporters say had been duped. He is being kept at Penal Colony No. 2 in Pokrov, Vladimir region of Russia.

His prison sentence is set to expire in mid-2023, but Russian authorities have launched a new case against Navalny and other directors of his anti-corruption fund and he could face new extremism charges, each of which carry a possible sentence of 10 years.

“The organization I founded specializes in fighting against corruption. And this, apparently, is enough to make it extremist in the eyes of the authorities of my country,” Navalny said in a speech delivered for him at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Miami on Wednesday.

Information from Reuters was used in this report.

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