Human rights in Russia

(Updated in May 2011)

The overall human rights climate in Russia remains very negative. Russia is a highly corrupt country at all official levels, which undermines the observance of the rule of law. Russia is also ranked among the top ten of the most dangerous countries in the world, and has undergone a massive rise in crime during the past ten years. Despite President Dmitri Medvedev’s ostentatious public commitments to improve the human rights situation and the rule of law, concrete steps to support civil society have not been taken.

As was the case in previous years, the North Caucasus remains the most troubled region, and from the summer of 2009 the situation severely deteriorated for human rights defenders in the North Caucasus. Russian officials and politicians continue to suppress freedom of speech and media. Discrimination of minorities remains a vast problem, especially for ethnic minorities and the LGBT community. Racism, homo- and xenophobia are widespread among ordinary people as well as officials and authorities. Right-wing extremists continue to pose a real and serious threat to people who belong to these minorities.

Corruption is widespread
Corruption continues to be widespread on each level of the executive, legislative and judicial branch of the country. In Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index for 2010, Russia was ranked 154 out of the 178 countries surveyed, dropping from 146 in 2009. On a 0-10 scale, with 0 perceived to be highly corrupt and 10 to be low levels of corruption, Russia scored 2,1 in 2010, an increase from the 2009 score of 2,2. In Freedom House’s 2010 annual Map of Freedom, Russia is considered Not Free.

The situation in Chechnya is included in Freedom House’s reports since 2009 but the 2010 report states that the downward trend can be accounted “to electoral abuses, declining religious freedom, greater state controls over the presentation of history, growing police corruption, and the repeated use of political terror against victims including human rights activists and journalists”. Corruption and electoral abuses were evident during the tightly controlled regional and local elections of October 11, 2009, where the large-scale disqualification of opposition candidates contributed to the ruling party United Russia’s sweeping victory of 70% of the contested seats. Observers confirmed that the elections were neither free nor fair and reports wrote about major violations, such as ballot stuffing and voter intimidation. During the regional elections on March 13, 2011, United Russia won less than 70% of the votes, in some regions less than 50%, but according to the independent monitoring organisation Golos more violations were reported than during the 2009 elections.

Russia’s growing authoritarianism is also apparent in the continued pressure on parts of Russia’s civil society and political opposition. Political dissident and leading human rights defender Lyudmila Alekseeva – who was detained in 2010 after the violent dispersion of a rally for freedom of assembly, organised by Article 31 – believes that the repression under Putin is greater than during the communist era. Political opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s recent jail sentence linked to a peaceful anti-Kremlin rally affirms that Soviet tactics of denouncing political opponents are still an existing aspect of Russian political life.

Harrassment and intimidation of human rights organisations
The Russian government’s deconstruction of a potentially pluralistic democratic society as well as harassment and intimidation of human rights organisations, which marked the presidency of Vladimir Putin, has largely continued under President Dmitry Medvedev, with an increase of government scrutiny and control of human rights organisations, mainly through the 2006 law regulating NGOs, arbitrary tax, labor and fire inspections, and anti-extremism legislation. For example, a series of coordinated inspections of around forty NGOs, unprecedented in its scale and intensity, were carried out in the early autumn of 2010. The subjects of this extreme scrutiny are particularly organisations, who receive funds from abroad and who work with the most controversial issues, such as the human rights situation in the North Caucasus, where Ramzan Kadyrov and local law enforcement agencies use harsh tactics towards the local population to suppress rebel activity with Kremlin’s backing.

The regime’s most serious critics remain the target of murder, among others, human rights defenders Stanislav Markelov and Natalia Estemirova who were killed in January and July 2009, respectively. Another criticized method of attempting to silence opponents, constituted the multiple lawsuits against human rights defenders, most notably in this context is the slander trial against Oleg Orlov from Memorial, scheduled to proceed in Moscow on June 9, 2011. Orlov allegedly slandered Kadyrov when calling the latter responsible for the murder on Natalia Estemirova, to whom Kadyrov had addressed death threats on numerous occasions. If convicted of slander, Orlov faces a prison sentence of up to three years.

Judiciary under political influence
A conviction is likely as the Russian judiciary remains an area were political influence is obvious. The judiciary lacks independence from the executive branch, partly because judges must follow Kremlin preferences to advance and receive bonuses. In June 2009, a report of the Council of Europe on the widespread political abuse of the Russian courts disclosed that the practice of the so-called “telephone justice”, where an official calls a judge to state how to rule in a case, has escalated to Russian judges being so worried about making a mistake that they call the officials themselves to ask for instructions.

Most recently, the second trial against the former head of Yukos Oil Company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, based on charges of embezzlement and money laundering, exemplifies the lack of respect for the rule of law in the Russian judicial system. After the judge had sentenced Khodorkovsky and his business partner to another six years in prison in December 2010, an assistant to the judge exposed that the verdict was dictated from above after a first draft was rejected. Analysts state that the case against Yukos is politically motivated by the Kremlin, as it was initiated after Khodorkovsky started funding opposition groups and spoke out against corruption. In May 2011, Khodorkovsky’s appeal was rejected but his prison sentence reduced by one year. He will be released at the end of 2016.

Furthermore, the 2010 Freedom of Press Index, published by Reporters without Borders, places Russia 140 out of 178 countries, a rating close to previous years, with the exception of 2009, which was marked by the murder of several journalists and other human rights defenders. Nonetheless, it is reported that there is no improvement as regards press freedom since impunity reigns unchallenged in cases of violence against journalists and the system remains as tightly controlled as ever.

Russia’s constitution may stipulate freedom of speech but the authorities continue to put pressure on the declining number of critical media outlets. Only a few radio stations and publications with limited audiences offer a different perspective. Since 2003, the Russian government has controlled the existing national television networks. At least nineteen journalists have been killed since 2000 and in no cases have the masterminds been prosecuted. Vague anti-extremism laws have been used to curb freedom of expression, to crack down on any organisation that lacks official support and journalists have been harassed and beaten. Mid-April, the International Federation of Journalists reported that the trend in attacks on journalists in Russia changed in 2010, with murders giving place to severe beatings, but that the overall situation remained bleak. Two of the most highlighted cases, include the brutal beatings of journalists Mikhail Beketov and Oleg Kashin in relation to protests against the building of a highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg through the protected Khimki forest.

Dagestan and Ingushetia most violent regions in the North Caucasus
According to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index (GPI), Russia is the seventh most dangerous and violent country in the world. During the past decade, Russia has been the site of the largest number of serious terrorist attacks apart from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq – and the latter countries can technically be considered war zones. Terrorist attacks have spread from the North Caucasus to Moscow, most recently in January 2011, when an Ingush suicide bomber struck at Domodedovo airport, killing 37 and wounding 180 people and in March 2010, when two Dagestani women blew themselves up in the Moscow subway, killing 40 and wounding more than 100 passengers.

The promise of the self-acclaimed brain behind the Domodedovo attack, Chechen rebel fighter and Islamist leader of the Caucasian Emirate, Doku Umarov, to inflict “blood and tears” in Russia ahead of 2012 presidential elections, was followed by a wave of terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus, including the gunning of tourists in Kabardino-Balkaria. Indeed, despite Russia’s declaration in April 2009 that the nearly decade-long counter terrorism operation (CTO) against the separatists in Chechnya is over, the situation in the entire North Caucasus is far from stable.

The amount of terrorist attacks doubled in the year after the end of the CTO and the spring of 2010 was more deadly than the same period in 2008 and 2009 with more than 200 fatalities due to incidents of violence. Notwithstanding the past years’ threats and reprisals, including a public declaration of collective punishment by Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov in 2010, addressed at the parents and family of young men and women who “head to the forest” to join the insurgents, there are few signs of the exodus subsiding. On the contrary, the Islamist insurgency in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan is expanding.

As a consequence, Dagestan and Ingushetia have now taken over Chechnya’s position as the most violent region in the North Caucasus and the conflict in Dagestan has nearly approached the level of civil war, despite the appointment of the Magomedsalam Magomedov as a compromise president in early 2010 to calm the situation in the republic. In Ingushetia people continued to disappear and were extrajudicially executed despite president Yunus-Bek Yevkurov’s promise to uphold the rule of law and improve the human rights situation.

“Police not capable to deal with insurgents”
Clashes between security forces and rebels in Kabardino-Balkaria have also been on the rise, with the number of people killed or tortured doubling in the last year. In early February 2011, Kabardino-Balkaria’s president, Arsen Kanokov, convened a press conference in Nalchik at which he admitted that the republic’s police are not capable of dealing with the insurgents. In relation to the growing insurgency, human rights organisations have found that law enforcement and security agencies, engaged in counterinsurgency operations in the North Caucasus, commit grave human rights violations, such as torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and collective punishment, which remain unpunished.

A decade of failure to stabilize the region and deal with the rampant impunity has shown how futile the use of violence has been and has widened the gap between the public and the government. Nonetheless, Russian law enforcement appears unwilling to investigate these crimes or prevent violations and as a consequence, more human rights abuses are taking place and an atmosphere of impunity has permeated the entire region. The impending likely re-appointment of Kadyrov as head of Chechnya will unlikely remedy the situation in the region. Parallel to these events, Memorial Human Rights Centre (Memorial) reported on the spread of the “Chechenzation” of Russia, meaning that human rights violations, typically taking place in the North Caucasus, such as abductions, enforced disappearances and illegal detention, have spread to the Moscow region since the fall of 2010.

Human rights defenders in the region are working under very difficult circumstances and are endangering their lives to help victims obtain justice and to highlight the human rights violations in the North Caucasus. Since 2009 an increasing number human rights defenders from the North Caucasus were harassed, beaten, kidnapped and murdered, among others, Natalia Estemirova, human rights lawyer from Memorial Chechnya, who was abducted in Grozny on July 15, 2009 and later that day found shot dead in neighbouring lngushetia. The perpetrators have still not been brought to justice.

Pressure on human rights defenders accelerated in summer of 2009
One of Civil Rights Defenders’ partner organisations, Memorial, stated that this increased pressure on human rights defenders accelerated in the summer of 2009, after Natalia Estemirova was killed. Her death resulted in a serious blow to the presence of human rights organisations on the ground. Memorial had to suspend all its operations for six months. The murder of Estemirova was also followed by several other murders of human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents, such as Chechen activist Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband Alik Dzhabrailov, who were illegally detained and later found killed and activist Maksharip Aushev, who was shot dead while travelling in Kabardino-Balkaria on October 25, 2009. Also, Sapiyat Magomedova, a Dagestani lawyer, who represents victims of human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, was beaten unconscious at the premises of the Khasavyurt police department on June 17, 2010.

The perpetrators have been identified but not held accountable. Additionally, there were innumerable threats and acts of harassment, such as the torching of Mothers of Dagestan’s office on 19 August 2009 and the serious threats against staff members of Memorial, whereby well-grounded fear for their physical security forced several of them to leave the region, temporary or permanently, most recently in the summer of 2010, after Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov labelled staff members of Memorial as “enemies of the people, enemies of the law and enemies of the state” on public television. Memorial fears that this verbal attack will be viewed as an instruction to act against Memorial and its representatives.

Based on all of the above, Civil Rights Defenders concludes, along with several other Russian and international human rights organisations that the situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus recently worsened severely. Human rights defenders working with or in the North Caucasus work under extreme pressure and are often confronted with direct physical threat.

162 convictions in the European Court
By the end of February 2011, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR) held Russia responsible 162 times for serious human rights violations in the North Caucasus, mainly Chechnya, including extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances. In every ruling, the ECtHR stresses the fact that the Russian government has failed to properly investigate the violations. In about one third of the judgments the ECtHR also remarks that the Russian government fail to provide relevant and necessary documentation to the ECtHR to properly examine the cases.

Russia has consistently paid the compensation awarded by the ECtHR to the victims. However, it has failed to fully implement the core of the judgments because firstly, to date no perpetrator has been held accountable despite substantial evidence in many cases and secondly, as a party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Russia is also under an obligation to adopt general measures, including reforming law and practice to prevent future violations, but has so far failed to do so. In the beginning of 2010, a federal law on compensation was adopted in order to comply with a pilot judgment of the ECtHR, which created an obligation to establish an effective domestic remedy to secure adequate and sufficient redress for non-enforcement or delayed enforcement of domestic judgments.

Yet, the law does not provide any mechanism for forced execution of national compensation judgments against the Russian treasury and the habit of the government of not executing such judgments without forced measures. It is also important to note a positive development. In the beginning of 2010, the Duma voted in favour of ratifying Protocol 14 of the European Convention. Russia was the last state to ratify the protocol after a delay of more than three years and despite the fact that about 30 % of all applications to the ECtHR are lodged against Russia. Protocol 14, which entered into force on June 1, 2010, will improve the efficiency of the ECtHR by simplifying, among other things, admissibility procedures.

The hostility towards the North Caucasus and its population remains widespread in the rest of Russia. According to figures presented by the Russian Investigative Committee, the number of hate crimes in Moscow increased by one-third in 2010. Extremist-motivated murders increased by 50%. A case revealing the increasing violence within the Russian nationalist movement is conviction of the neo-Nazi murderers of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, who were shot down in Moscow in January 2009. Right-wing extremists continued to pose a real and very serious threat to persons who belong to minorities, including LGBT people, as discussed below, and the Russian law enforcement agencies seem unwilling to deal with these crimes. A recent illustration is the extreme right-wing riots, targeting immigrants from the Caucasus region, which took place in Moscow in December 2010.

Systematic discrimination against LGBT community
The Russian LGBT community continues to face systematic discrimination. Although progress has been noted in terms of internal strength of the LGBT community, Russia remains a dangerous place for LGBT persons: LGBT individuals are constantly exposed to violence and discrimination connected with their sexual orientation or gender identity. The discrimination is present at all levels of society starting from family, institutions such as education and health, to official bodies such as the judiciary and political sphere.

For instance, the businessman and public person German Sterligov called for physical extermination of homosexual people. A public opinion poll conducted in March 2010 in 44 regions showed that 43% of the respondents condemn gays or lesbians. In a shadow report produced by Civil Rights Defenders’ partner, the Russian LGBT Network, which was submitted to the 46th CEDAW session in July 2010, the Network concludes that “deeply rooted homophobia and transphobia in public and political discourse are used to justify the limitation of most attempts to introduce relevant issues in public space: meetings or demonstrations are forbidden, in many cases LGBT organisations are refused registration, or there are obstacles to holding cultural events, and arguments on the inadmissibility of “propaganda of homosexuality” are widespread”.

In the same report, the LGBT Network describes several cases of local LGBT groups or organisations trying to register or hold events and gatherings, but prevented by local authorities. There have also been cases of physical violence towards LGBT persons: on April 7 2010 in Yekaterinburg three masked men attacked a public discussion organised by local LGBT activists and on April 11 2010, the head of the Russian LGBT Network was attacked at a public meeting in St Petersburg and received face injuries. In addition to this, there are most likely a large number of attacks never reported.

Various international human rights organisations as well as the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) confirm the above-described situation. In its periodic review of Russia at the end of 2009, the HRC stated that it “is concerned about acts of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons (…) (and about) the systematic discrimination against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation in (Russia), including hate speech and manifestations of intolerance and prejudice by public officials, religious leaders and in the media (…) as well as the infringement of the right to freedom of assembly and association.”

Positive trend in media coverage of LGBT issues
However, the Russian LGBT Network reports on a positive development in terms of media coverage of LGBT issues. A positive trend under 2010 was shown by the more neutral and correct way both regional and national media have reported on activities carried out by LGBT activists, most recently at the second International Queer Festival in St Petersburg in September 2010. It is also encouraging that the second edition of the Festival took place without any insurmountable obstacles.

The general impression of the atmosphere linked to the Festival was positive and the organisers carefully interpret this as an increased tolerance for the LGBT community. However, when looking ahead, it is not likely that the situation for LGBT persons will improve drastically in the near future. Especially when taking into consideration that the few positive developments mostly occur in the St Petersburg area and to a lesser extent in the Moscow regions.

The initial anticipation of improvement after the judgment of the ECtHR from October 2010, where the ECtHR in Alexeev v. Russia ruled against Russia in a case concerning attempts to hold Pride parades in Moscow, was crushed after statements made by President Medvedev and the Chairman of the Constitutional Court that there would be no policy change. It is more or less unlikely that Sergey Sobyanin, the new mayor of Moscow since September 2010 after the dismissal of the once powerful Yuri Luzhkov, who repeatedly banned the Pride Parade, will improve matters, as Sobyanin is a close ally of Prime Minister Putin and was appointed by President Medvedev. Indeed, at the end of May 2011, a sixth attempt to organize the Moscow Pride failed as several activists were arrested at the event, which was banned by the Moscow authorities, based on complaints of religious and parental groups.

Categories: Country reports.
Tags: Human rights.
Regions: Russia.