Urgent Interventions

Open Letter to the President of the Russian Federation, Mr. Vladimir Putin

May 2, 2012

As May 7, 2012 will mark the starting date of your term as the new President of the Russian Federation, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), is writing to you to urge you to include the question of the protection of human rights defenders and the promotion of their activities as one of the central issues of your presidential term.

Raising of the argument of extremism or foreign plots to restrain activists from defending universal rights, and depicting them as dangerous elements, as it has been the case in the past and most recently through some of your statements as Prime Minister, have put them more than ever at risk of acts of harassment from both State and non-State actors. In the pre-electoral context, we were also appalled to witness a number of actions of harassment and intimidation against election watchdog GOLOS and their members. Again, at the very end of February, threats were received by GOLOS employees, in an obvious attempt to discourage them from carrying their activities in favour of free, fair and transparent elections.

In a context where the picture of the Russian Federation has considerably worsened over the years, it is indeed instrumental ensure better protection of international and regional human rights standards in the country. In order to achieve this aim, it is essential that human rights defenders themselves be better and genuinely protected. They must no longer be harassed, assaulted, intimidated, threatened or killed, as it has too often been the case.

Human rights defenders judicially harassed and/or arbitrarily detained for fighting against impunity

Over the past years, a number of human rights defenders have been harassed by the Russian judicial system in an attempt to silence their human rights activities. The Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Human Rights Centre (HRC) “Memorial”, Mr. Oleg Orlov, was sued by Mr. Ramzan Kadyrov, President of the Republic of Chechnya, from August 2009 to January 20, 2012. The actions brought against Mr. Orlov by Mr. Kadyrov for defamation, first at the civil level, then at the criminal level, have manifestly been undertaken in an attempt to sanction a statement made by Mr. Orlov about Mr. Kadyrov’s responsibility in the assassination of Ms. Natalia Estemirova, HRC Memorial collaborator in Grozny, Chechnya, in August 2009, in a context where several human rights defenders were killed for denouncing human rights violations in the Chechen Republic and beyond, while others were threatened and stigmatised by the authorities, thus fuelling further the general climate of impunity. Impunity has remained, in particular, following the killings of Ms. Anna Politkovskaya, prominent Novaya Gazeta journalist, in October 2006; Ms. Natalia Estemirova , in July 2009; Mr. Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer from Moscow, and Ms. Anastasia Baburova, Novaya Gazeta journalist who was accompanying him, in January 2009; Ms. Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband Mr. Alik (Umar) Dzhabrailov, in August 2009. As of April 2012, those responsible for these killings had not been brought to court with one exception, the assassination of Mr. Markelov and Ms. Baburova, who were murdered by right-wing extremists. All these assassinations must be duly investigated, and those responsible identified and brought to justice.

In addition, Mr. Aleksei Sokolov, Head of the organisation “Pravovaja osnova”, struggling against torture and ill treatment of people in detention, was arrested and charged with “larceny” and “robbery” in 2008 in an attempt to sanction his human rights activities. He was first condemned to five years of imprisonment in May 2010, a sentence finally reduced to three years to be served in a high security colony far away from his residence. It was only on July 27, 2011 that Mr. Sokolov was released on parole by a court of Krasnoiark. The Observatory is relieved that his imprisonment actually came to an end but is still concerned about the pending proceedings that have not been dropped yet.

Human rights defenders assaulted

Over the past years, many human rights defenders were subjected to severe assaults and constant harassment by non-State actors and/or Russian officials, in connection with their human rights activities.

A recent illustration is the physical attack against Mr. Alexey Dmitriev, a lawyer and a supporter of the Campaign for the Defence of the Khimki Forest in the Moscow region, in the framework of plans to build a highway connecting Moscow to Saint Petersburg that would go through the forest. On April 16, 2012, Mr. Alexey Dmitriev was attacked by unknown attackers as he was standing outside his flat and was subjected to brutal beating. Mr. Dmitriev lost conscience almost immediately and neighbours called an ambulance for him and helped him to get into his flat. Mr. Dmitriev’s mobile phone and camera, which contained a lot of pictures he had taken at sites of felling, were stolen. When taken to the hospital, Mr. Dmitriev was diagnosed with head concussion, lacerated wounds on the head and broken nose. The police, who were called simultaneously with the ambulance, arrived on the spot about two hours after the beating took place. A week before the attack, Mr. Dmitriev had led a public environmental inspection to the site of the destruction of the Klyaz’ma river for the Moscow - Saint Petersburg toll motorway. Subsequently, he published a report denouncing the destruction of the forest by the French company Vinci and its Russian partners. Moreover, he was to due participate the same week in two trials to consider suits he has initiated against one developing company and the Khimki town municipality, which permitted the construction of a parking lot in the middle of the park. The last post in his LiveJournal blog was on the flooding in Druzhba street in Khimki town, caused by numerous infringements of the construction regulations while building a multi-storied apartment building. On April 17, 2012, Mr. Alexey Dmitriev lodged a complaint and a criminal case was opened. Yet, the police almost immediately started to claim that the attack was a mere robbery without any political motivations.

Similarly, on February 3, 2012, Mr. Philipp Kostenko, a member of the Anti-Discrimination Centre (ADC) “Memorial” in St Petersburg known for his activism against corruption and electoral irregularities, was beaten by two unidentified individuals as he was heading towards ADC “Memorial” premises. Not only was he physically attacked but he also received threats both from the police - who tried to force him not to bring charges against the assailants - and from an officer of the Centre of Counter -Extremism of Saint-Petersburg and the Leningrad region, Mr. Vassily Trifan. This assault might be seen as an attempt to impede Mr. Kostenko from participating in a peaceful demonstration against electoral irregularities, which was planned to take place on February 4, 2012. Mr. Kostenko had already been assaulted by four unknown individuals on January 31, 2012. He has also been subjected to a large number of written and physical threats over the past six months. The concern raised by these assaults are strengthened by the stillness of judicial authorities against Mr. Kostenko’s aggressors. It paves the way to a climate of total impunity for those responsible of physical harassment against human rights defenders. In November and December 2011, Mr. Kostenko was arrested on several occasions following his participation in peaceful demonstrations. On December 7, he was sentenced to the maximum sentence of 15 days of administrative detention. On December 22, the 153rd court department sentenced him to an additional 15 days of detention for “disorderly conduct” under Article 20.1.1 of the Criminal Code after he allegedly swore before police officers on October 16, 2011. This decision was handed out a few minutes before Mr. Kostenko’s expected release. On January 5, 2012, upon his release from pre-trial detention, agents from the Centre of Countering Extremism of Saint-Petersburg threatened to “break his legs” if he continued protest actions.

The defence of minorities hindered by restrictive legislations and judicial harassment

The situation in the Russian Federation has remained characterised by hindrances against human rights defenders who struggle against all types of discrimination, racism and activities of far right movements. They are regularly subjected to harassment by both governmental and non-State groups, at both legislative and practical levels. It is also sometimes particularly striking to witness the rapidity with which Russian officials can take action on the basis of elements provided by non-State actors, and how some statements made by Russian officials can fuel the climate of insecurity of the defenders of minority rights and those who fight against extremism.

The defence of LGBT rights in jeopardy

On February 29, 2012, a bill pro hibiting public activities “promoting homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism among minors ” was approved in third reading by the Legislative Assembly of St Petersburg. We are all the more concerned that shortly before the passage of that local law, on February 8, 2012, six Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) activists were arrested during a protest before the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly, as they were calling for LGBT rights. Five of them were then abusively charged under the Administrative Code.
The prohibition of so-called promotion of homosexuality is already in force in Ryazan (since 2006), Arkhangelsk and Kostroma regions (since 2011). These moves constitute a serious violation of the provisions of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and in particular these of Article 6 (b) and (c), which states that “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others [...] freely to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms"; "to study, discuss, form and hold opinions on the observance, both in law and in practice, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and, through these and other appropriate means, to draw public attention to those matters ”. They also pave the way of a possible threat of extension of such prohibition at the federal level.

Moreover, the public comparison made in February by the President of the Legislative Committee Mr. Vitaly Milonov between homosexuality and drug trafficking or paedophilia has contributed to maintaining homophobia at its highest level among the Russian population.

The general and institutional spread of homophobic opinions strengthens the climate of insecurity of both LGBT defenders’ freedoms and safety.

Continued harassment against defenders of minority rights and fighting against extremist movements

In a context of growing nationalism, many antifascist activists are harassed by both law enforcement agencies and non-State actors. In particular, members of ADC Memorial are regularly victims of threats and acts of harassment because of their struggle against discrimination, racism, and activities of extreme right-wing movements. Recently, on February 3, 2012, the home of Ms. Stefania Kulaeva, Head of the ADC “Memorial”, was visited by St Petersburg’s police, on the basis of a complaint lodged by Mr. Aleksi Voevodine, a member of the ’Borovikov-Voevodine’ racist gang, who is currently serving a life sentence in jail for the murder of Mr. Nikolai Girenko, minority rights defender and an anthropologist in Saint Petersburg. The Observatory is concerned that the police decided to carry out such investigation on the basis of a single testimony given by a murderer who, in addition, had already personally threatened Ms. Kulaeva over the past for her fight against impunity in the Girenko case. At his trial, he had even declared that he was preparing a plan to murder her.
Mr. President,

In a context where human rights defenders are therefore still not able to carry out their activities in the Russian Federation without fearing retaliation, attacks, judicial harassment or any other kind of restrictions and hindrances to their legitimate human rights activities, we urge you to take this new presidential term as an opportunity to genuinely commit to guarantee effective protection of and show public support to all human rights defenders in the country.

We express our sincere hope that you will take these considerations and requests into account.

Yours sincerely,

Souhayr Belhassen
FIDH President

Gerald Staberock
OMCT Secretary General
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