Briefing on Individuals Unjustly Imprisoned by Russia

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
June 18, 2018


MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today’s background call on individuals unjustly imprisoned by the Russian Government. We are joined today by [Senior State Department Official], who will be referred to as a senior State Department official, please. As a reminder, today’s call is on background and will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

With that, I’m happy to turn it over to our senior State Department official for some brief opening remarks, and then we’ll open it up for questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you, everybody, for joining this afternoon. I think you’ve already seen our statement that we put out earlier this morning on people unjustly imprisoned by Russia. I’d just like to highlight a few points and then we can get into questions.

Again, we’re speaking out today on this issue because we’re concerned about the welfare of imprisoned Crimean film director Oleh Sentsov, who has been on a hunger strike since May 14th. We support Mr. Sentsov’s demand and – to release all unjustly imprisoned Ukrainians, and we call for Russia to release not only Mr. Sentsov and the other 60-some Ukrainians that it has unjustly imprisoned, but all those that have been imprisoned for their dissent or peaceful religious practice.

Particularly, today I’d like to call attention to the fact that the number of these cases involving Russia is growing rapidly. We’ve seen a threefold increase since 2014, and the list of those unjustly imprisoned exceeds now over 150 people. In addition, we also have seen a revival of cruel, Soviet-era practices, including abusive psychiatric confinement, closed trials, transferring of prisoners to remote and harsh prison conditions far from their families. For example, Mr. Sentsov is in a facility above the Arctic Circle, something I think we’d all agree is a harsh prison condition. And a particularly difficult and challenging approach that we’ve seen from the Russians is the threat to strip dissidents and members of religious minorities of their parental rights over their children. This is an old Soviet practice, and we’re seeing that being – at least the threat of that being brought back today.

And then finally, I’d just like to highlight a couple of the most urgent and egregious cases for your attention today. Again, Mr. Sentsov, whose case we mentioned, but also his co-dependent – co-defendant, excuse me, Oleksandr Kolchenko, who’s also serving a 10-year sentence in a remote prison. There are three other wrongfully imprisoned Ukrainians also on hunger strike whose health is at risk today: Volodymyr Balukh, Oleksandr Shumkov, and Stanislav Klykh. In addition, we’d like to draw your attention to the human rights activist Oyub Titiyev, who’s facing bogus narcotics charges, in apparent retaliation for his very work to expose human rights violations in Chechnya.

I know many are concerned about the recent moves by the Russian Government against Jehovah’s Witnesses, and again, we’d like to draw your attention to the case of Dennis Christensen. He was the first of over a dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses who’ve been targeted for their religious beliefs under vague crimes of extremism. And that’s a pattern we’ve seen increasing is this use of extremism charges.

And lastly is the case of Crimean Tatar activist Ruslan Zeytullaev, who, as reportedly convicted on unjust – unjustly on terrorism charges in retaliation for his opposition to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. And again, this is another case where the Russian system has used and abused the legal system to punish somebody for speaking out. And on each of his appeals, they’ve only increased his prison term.

So again, these represent a pattern, and a growing pattern, of abuse by the Russian Government. And so today we’re calling on Russia to release these prisoners that have been imprisoned on account of their political and religious beliefs, to end the misuse of the legal system for those who wish to speak out, and allow all Russians the right to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without fear of retribution.

So thank you for that, and I think we’ll turn it over for questions.

MODERATOR: All right, Operator, if you could take the first question.

OPERATOR: As a reminder, if you’d like to ask a question, you may press * and then 1. Our first question is from Michael Gordon with The Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. Could you please tell us if you’ve had any success in getting people released, let’s say, over the last year as a result of presidential-level phone calls or other communications? And should progress in this area be a precondition for having a summit, since there’s now discussion of a summit between President Trump and President Putin?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, look, we continue to raise these cases with the Russian Government and to press for Russia to honor its – to meet its international commitments, to end these political persecutions, and to release these prisoners. So I don’t have a specific case that I can point to at this time, and that’s part of why we really want to draw an international attention to this is so that we hope that the Russian Government will do the right thing and – as it has in times past and release – end the persecutions and release some of these prisoners. And so, again, as to the latter question, I’m not going to engage in any hypotheticals, but thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Once again, if you’d like to queue up for a question, you may press * and then 1. Next we’ll go to Josh Lederman with the Associated Press.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this. The President’s general approach to these types of rights and detention issues has been, well, a lot of people do a lot of bad things around the world. And so I’m curious, in particular, do you see the political and religious prisoner issue in Russia as more egregious than it is in North Korea, and where we hear the President say nothing at all about concerns about these issues? And if not, if it’s not worse in Russia, then will you issue a similar call for political prisoners to be released from North Korea? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to engage in a comparison between one country or another. We’re here today to talk about what we see as a growing pattern in Russia – again, where it’s growing each year of an increase in political prisoners. And we have had a long pattern of engaging and talking directly to the Russian Government to meet its commitments to end these abuses and to release these prisoners.

OPERATOR: Next we have a question from Carol Morello with The Washington Post.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I was wondering on the timing of this. Does it have anything to do with the fact the World Cup is being held in Moscow or in Russia right now, and so you’re using that as an occasion to sort of focus attention on this?

And also, for the record, since you mentioned that the – one of the things that Russians seem to be doing is attempting to strip dissidents of parental rights over children, do you see – do you find it difficult to make the argument at a time when the United States is separating children from their parents at the Mexican border? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, some others have made – Mr. Sentsov himself has made a reference to the World Cup. We are not making that association. Look, we’re bringing this today because, one, we’re concerned about Mr. Sentsov and the health of the other Ukrainian hunger strikers and this growing list of people imprisoned by Russia and their status. And again, Russians are speaking out, and we’re joining our voice with them as they raise these cases.

And again, as relates to removal of parental rights, again, this is really an atrocious Soviet practice that they’ve threatened to bring against people for their religious beliefs. I can refer you back to Homeland Security to talk about our border policy, but it’s – when we’re talking about Russia here we’re seeing a return to Soviet practices across the board in trying to suppress dissent. And that’s what we are trying to draw attention here to today.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Rosiland Jordan with Al-Jazeera English.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for the call. If Russia does not reverse this pattern of harassing, detaining, and jailing these people for their speaking out because of their religious beliefs, is the U.S. prepared to use economic sanctions in order to convince Moscow to change its ways? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, I can’t engage in a hypothetical, but I can tell you what we have done, and that is we have engaged the Russian Government, we meet with civil society and Russian voices to make sure that their story gets out more broadly. And again, over the past several years we’ve used the Magnitsky law to sanction high-ranking Russian officials who’ve been responsible for politically motivated prosecutions, including, I would note, the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov and the head of the Investigative Committee Aleksandr Bastrykin, both of whom who have been involved in some of these politically motivated prosecutions and persecutions. And so we stand behind that with our actions of what we’re talking about here today.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Amy Mackinnon with Foreign Policy. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing this. I’m just wondering if you had a response to Trump’s comments reported in Buzzfeed a few days ago at the G7 summit that the Crimea is Russian because everyone who lives there speaks Russian.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, we’ve reiterated that our Crimea policy remains. We support Ukraine’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, and our Crimea policy remains unchanged. Our sanctions – our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia ends its occupation and returns Crimea to Ukraine.

MODERATOR: I think we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you for joining, everybody.