Human Rights in Russia


Since 2000 the human rights situation worsened in Russia and has greatly deteriorated since Putin was reinstalled as President of Russia in 2012. State repression over the past few years became more sophisticated as legislation was adopted to discredit and/or attack human rights defenders. New laws restricting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association have been introduced since Putin’s re-election. Russian authorities have made efforts to control and limit the last available channels for freedom of speech – Internet and social media through two new laws introduced in 2014.  Enforcement of the “Foreign Agents Law 2012” has resulted in an unprecedented, nationwide inspection of hundreds of NGOs. With the adoption of the law on “undesirable NGOs” signed off by the President in 2015 even more obstacles have been put in place to shrink the space in which civil society can operate. The persecution of human rights defenders, opposition leaders, and other critics of Russian policies have also increased since the annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine and the on-going conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Prominent opposition leaders have been arrested on spuriously formulated charges. One of the most vocal critics of Putin, politician Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead in February 2015. The investigation into his murder leaves grave doubts regarding the impartiality and thoroughness of the investigation, the same that can be said regarding the silencing through murder of top government critics such journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and human rights defender Natalia Estemirova in 2009.

The issue of torture and inhumane treatment is systemic throughout the Russian penal system. The judicial system does not comply with international standards and remains infected by corruption, political influence and a selective approach to justice. Additionally, there is a high level of discrimination against LGBT people, ethnic and religious minorities, women and persons with disabilities because of widespread societal stigmatisaton and the lack of legal instruments to protect minority groups. The situation in the North Caucasus is characterised by insecurity and volatility, where systematic human rights violations are coupled with almost total impunity for the perpetrators of crimes.

 The situation for human rights defenders in Russia

The environment for human rights defenders and independent journalists, has become incredibly constrained. Many of them are victims of harassment, death threats, physical violence or intimidation. In addition to those working on human rights issues, others who have expressed alternative views on the conflict in Ukraine are also endangered. There has been slow progress made when it comes to investigating attacks connected to the professional activities of human rights defenders, in particular those working in the North Caucasus. The legislation on “Foreign Agents” introduced in 2012 has put at risk not only the future existence of NGOs receiving foreign funding, but also the freedom of civil society leaders who could now be held liable for any breaches of the law leading to lengthy prison sentences.

 Ten rights in focus

The right to life and physical integrity

Violations of the right to life and physical integrity are pervasive, especially in the North Caucasus. Although the security situation improved in some parts of the region, security forces continue to enjoy an almost blanket impunity for human rights abuses. The cases of extrajudicial killing, torture, abduction and collective punishment have not been properly investigated. The level of domestic violence in Russia, especially against women, is alarming and on the increase. The LGBT community and activists dealing with LGBT issues have increasingly been targeted by right-wing nationalists and religious extremists, which became even more prevalent after the adoption of the propaganda law back in 2014.

Prisoners and detainees face human right abuses, including torture and inhuman treatment while incarcerated, indicating that torture is a systemic practice in the Russian penal system. Although complaints about ill treatment by the police are well documented by human rights defenders in different parts of Russia, they are often not properly investigated by the authorities. The new Law on Police (2011) and subsequent amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code (2011) do not contain any provisions that might strengthen the accountability of the police when it comes torture and ill treatment.

The right to liberty and security of person

Violations of the right to liberty and security of person are most severe in the North Caucasus, where regular reports of arbitrary arrests and disappearances are common. Russia is a country of origin, transfer and destination for human trafficking, and although laws on trafficking exist, there is no successful implementation.

In the wake of the 2011 parliamentary and subsequent 2012 presidential elections, police detained a large number of people participating in largely peaceful demonstrations against vote rigging. In some instances police used excessive force to disperse demonstrators. Many protesters were sentenced to short administrative arrests but some faced criminal prosecution resulting in long prison sentences. For example, in the Bolotnoya case several protestors were convicted of organising or participating in a mass riot as well as initiating violence against the police, during the “March of the Millions” demonstration held in Moscow on the 06th May 2012.

The right to a fair trial and an effective remedy

National law provides for an independent judiciary, however, judges remain under political influence and pressure, particularly in politically sensitive cases. The practice of selection, appointment, promotion and dismissal of judges is subject to undue influence, which undermines the right to fair trial. Furthermore, reports in many cases authorities do not provide adequate protection for witnesses when it comes to intimidation or threats. The high profile Bolotanaya case, involving the trial of participants of the aforementioned demonstration on the 06th May 2012 resulted in 27 people being arrested and subsequently accused of organising mass rioting, is indicative of the deficiencies in the court system and illustrates the lack of access to a fair trial system. Lawyers are often subjected to attacks, threats, or even murdered. The situation is particularly grave in the North Caucasus, where, in the context of terrorism and counter-terrorism activities, lawyers who continue with their professional duties expose themselves and their families to significant danger. Victims of anti-LGBT violence face huge hurdles in seeking justice, and it is almost impossible to get redress or obtain any form of protection for violation of their human rights.

Russia accounts for over a quarter of cases in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), with a significant number of cases originating from the North Caucasus. The ECtHR has repeatedly ruled that the right to fair trial is one of Russia’s most frequently violated rights but, unfortunately, Russia does not undertake measures to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Even though the right to freedom of religion is provided under the Russian Constitution, other legislation (such as the Anti-Extremism Law 2014) and policies to practice religion restrict religious freedom. These restrictions include the use of extremist charges and allegations to ban religious materials and curtail the right to assemble and can lead to detentions, raids or denial of official registration with the Ministry of Justice, denial of official building registration, and denial of visas for religious workers if breached. These limitations and constraints affect congregations of minority religious groups that are not affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2014 at least 18 Jehovah’s Witness groups became the subject of criminal proceedings under the Russian Extremism Law. There have also been reports of discrimination based on religious affiliation, ones religious beliefs or practicing ones religion. Members of minority religious groups continue to experience harassment and occasional physical attacks. There is widespread harassment of Muslims practicing non-traditional Islam such as Salafism, especially in the North Caucasus.

The right to the freedom of expression

The constitution protects freedom of speech and guarantees press freedom. However, independent media and journalists who openly criticise or challenge the authorities are often endangered and subjected to harassment, persecution or even murdered. The government controls the lion share of print and broadcast media. State-controlled media often discredits human rights work and critics of the regime, as a rule reporting a one-sided view of news relating to sensitive topics such as the situation in the North Caucasus and more recently the conflict in Ukraine.

Several recent laws undeniably seek to curtail freedom of the media. The Law on Extremism, which allows the authorities to close down any establishment that a court determines as “extremist,” is one example. In 2012 the authorities resorted to restricting freedom of expression by re-criminalising libel, which is now punishable with a fine of up to 2 million rubles (33,000 Eur) An Internet censorship bill provides for the blacklisting of websites deemed harmful to children and a vaguely defined high treason law, where communicating any information deemed by the authorities as harming Russia´s internal and external security or interested can be considered “high treason”. Regional as well the Federal laws banning propaganda of “homosexuality” impose restrictions on those advocating for LGBT rights. In June 2013 the Russian State Duma adopted amendments to the Criminal Code banning protestors from offending believers’ religious sentiments.

In August 2014, Russia further restricted blogging and social media freedoms by making it obligatory for web site owners and social media users having more than 3000 visitors a day to register, essentially forcing them to conform to burdensome mass media regulations. The same law requires Russian blogging services and social networks to store user activity and make it readily available at the request of the authorities. Another law adopted in late June 2014 legislates for a prison term of up to five years for “extremist calls” on the Internet, including re-posts on online social networks.

In connection to the current legislation, thousands of websites have been blocked, and a number of journalists, bloggers, netizens, and whistle-blowing civil servants have been charged with extremism and other offences in what is seen as a concerted effort to control their activities.

From 2016 it will be forbidden to store personal data of Russian users on foreign servers. It is yet unclear how these new rules will be used in practice, but it could create obstacles for social platforms such as Facebook. A new law limiting foreign ownership to 20% in Russian media will come into force on the 01st January 2016, which will endanger freedom of expression even further.

The right to freedom of assembly and association

The law requires that organisers of a demonstration notify details to the authorities. It essentially works as a permit system. Frequently, the authorities deny permission to assemble, or offer sites in far out locations. Violent and unjustified dispersal of protesters are fairly frequent. Following large-scale street protests against the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011-2012, restrictive sanctions on organisers of meetings and gatherings were added to the Assemblies Act. In July 2014 sanctions were intensified even further; fines for violating rules on holding public events were increased, as was the length of the prison sentence for participation in unauthorised public gatherings.

Local authorities have persistently denied permission to hold Pride parades despite an ECtHR ruling, which states that the ban violates the right to freedom of assembly. The “anti-propaganda” law made the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientations” among minors a criminal offence, leading to arbitrary arrests of LGBT activists during demonstrations and making it almost impossible for LGBT organisations to exercise their right to freedom of assembly.

In November 2012 the Foreign Agents Law came into force. It obliges NGOs to register as “organizations performing the functions of foreign agents”; in case they receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities”. Failure to comply with the new law can lead to heavy fines and imprisonment. In June 2014 Russia adopted amendments to the law authorising the Ministry of Justice to enter NGOs into the registry of foreign agents without consent from the NGO in question and subject them to a trial process. The current legislation has resulted in the involuntary closure of several NGOs, and the addition of dozens of NGOs to the register.

Additionally, in May 2015 the new law on “Undesirable NGOs”, which has adverse and far-reaching human rights implications, was adopted. An NGO will be considered “undesirable” if the authorities consider it to present a threat to the foundations of the constitutional system, defense capabilities of the country or national security. The law endangers both organisations and their members, but also those who participate in activities of these branded “undesirable NGOs”, by enforcing punishments through fines and imprisonment ranging from two to six years.

Political rights

Political power in Russia remains in the iron grip of President Vladimir Putin.  Opposition politicians and activists have been targeted through politically motivated criminal charges and administrative harassments to silence their criticisms and often their lives are in danger..

Independent observers have frequently reported about widespread violations during local and national elections, which included restrictions on the ability of opposition parties/candidates to register, equal access in the media, ballot stuffing and manipulations of the vote count. The electoral system underwent some positive changes in 2012, when parliament adopted legislative amendments that restored the popular election of regional governors. However, these changes have been rather ineffective and superficial, since candidates are required to secure support from local legislatures, which are overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling party.

The right to protection against discrimination

Even thought the Constitution of Russia prohibits discrimination, in practice it is poorly enforced. There is societal violence and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities throughout Russia. There are numerous cases where ethnic minorities, especially people from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Roma community face discrimination from the authorities and are subjected to racially motivated violence. Illegal and repeated checks of documents are common, as are police raids of premises belonging to minority groups, at times including physical abuse. There is growing Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other racist and xenophobic acts. Indigenous peoples in northern Russia, Siberia and the Far East, face discrimination on almost every level of society.

There is no real protection of LGBT persons in the current anti-discrimination legislation. The adoption of laws banning propaganda of “homosexuality” amongst minors reinforced the discriminatory legislative practices of the Russian government during Putin’s third tenure. Discrimination in the work place and in connection to state institutions such as health care is common. LGBT people who are open about their sexual orientation are constantly at risk of physical attacks, being fired from their jobs, harassment and in some cases murder. These cases are almost never properly investigated. The situation for LGBT people is especially severe in the North Caucasus.

Despite the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by Russia, this group continues to face a host of obstacles in accessing equal rights to education, employment, and social institutions.

Discrimination against women is ubiquitous. The level of domestic violence affecting women and children has also increased significantly since 2010. The situation for women in the North Caucasus is particularly severe; for instance, women face marriage by abduction and honour killings.

The role of Civil Rights Defenders in Russia

Since 1982 Civil Rights Defenders has empowered hundreds of human rights defenders in Russia. We are the only organisation with a solely civil and political rights agenda, whose main objective is to protect and empower human rights defenders. We provide financial and organisational support to human rights organisations operating in Russia.

As a small and flexible organisation, we react quickly to human rights violations; as an international human rights organisation, we provide protection and assistance to human rights defenders in cases of harassment and other problems. In the North Caucasus we play an important role as a supporter of human rights defenders working at great personal in and combating wide spread structural impunity. We currently have eight participants in the Natalia Project in Russia. The project is part of a wider security system to empower and protect human rights defenders at risk. From our extensive work in other repressive and closely- controlled countries, we have knowledge, experience, and best practices to share with human rights defenders in the region.

Categories: Country reports.
Tags: Human rights.
Regions: Eastern Europe and Russia.