Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, numerous credible reports indicated law enforcement personnel engaged in torture, abuse, and violence to coerce confessions from suspects, and authorities only occasionally held officials accountable for such actions.
There were reports of deaths as a result of torture (see section 1.a.).
Physical abuse of suspects by police officers was reportedly systemic and usually occurred within the first few days of arrest in pretrial detention facilities. Reports from human rights groups and former police officers indicated that police most often used electric shocks, suffocation, and stretching or applying pressure to joints and ligaments because those methods were considered less likely to leave visible marks. The problem was especially acute in the North Caucasus.
There were multiple reports of the FSB using torture against young anarchist and antifascist activists who were allegedly involved in several “terrorism” and “extremism” cases. Multiple defendants, whom authorities alleged were planning terrorist attacks under the auspices of previously unknown supposed organizations called “the Network” and “New Greatness,” alleged they were subjected to torture to coerce confessions, including severe beatings and electric shocks.
In one of many cases with a similar pattern of allegations, on January 23, FSB officers detained software engineer and antifascist activist Viktor Filinkov at St. Petersburg airport, placed him in a minivan, and subjected him to electric shocks for more than five hours while attempting to force him to memorize a confession to planning a terrorist act. On January 25, the Dzerzhinskiy District Court in St. Petersburg authorized Filinkov’s pretrial detention for two months on charges of alleged involvement in a terrorist organization the FSB called “the Network,” which was allegedly comprised of young activists in St. Petersburg and Penza. After visiting him in detention, Filinkov’s lawyer and two members of the St. Petersburg Public Oversight Commission noted burns on his right thigh and chest and handcuff marks on both hands that were consistent with his allegations of torture by electric shock. On a later visit the Public Oversight Commission members noted that the Prison Service did not allow Filinkov to take prescribed medications with him to the St. Petersburg pretrial detention center. As of mid-November, Filinkov remained in pretrial detention.
In the North Caucasus region, there were widespread reports that security forces abused and tortured both alleged militants and civilians in detention facilities. (see section 1.a. for reports of torture against members of the LGBTI community in the Republic of Chechnya). For example, on January 16, the media outlet Republic published an article describing the mass arrest and torture of at least 70 suspected drug addicts in the Shali District of the Republic of Chechnya. One victim described how in August 2017 Chechen police tortured both him and his brother with electric shocks for a week to coerce confessions of drug possession.
Police and persons who appeared to be operating with the tacit approval of authorities conducted attacks on political and human rights activists, critics of government policies, and persons linked to the opposition (see sections 2.b. and 3).
Observers noted an emerging pattern of poisoning of government critics. For example, on September 11, Pyotr Verzilov, the 30-year-old manager of Pussy Riot and editor of the human rights-focused media outlet Mediazona, fell ill after attending a court hearing in Moscow and later suffered seizures and began losing his sight, speech, and mobility. On September 15, he was transported for treatment to Germany, where doctors stated that it was “highly likely” he had been poisoned by an undetermined substance. Press reports indicated that, on the day he was hospitalized, Verzilov was planning to receive a report from “foreign specialists” investigating the July killings of a team of independent Russian journalists who were investigating the activities of the Wagner Battalion, a private militia linked to the Russian government, in the Central African Republic.
Reports by refugees, NGOs, and the press suggested a pattern of police and prison personnel carrying out beatings, arrests, and extortion of persons whom they believed to be Roma, Central Asian, African, or of a Caucasus nationality.
There were multiple reports of authorities detaining defendants for psychiatric evaluations for 30 days or longer to exert pressure on them, or sending defendants for psychiatric treatment as punishment. Beginning July 19, new amendments to the administrative procedure code gave prosecutors the ability to request suspects be placed in psychiatric clinics on an involuntary basis; the law previously only allowed certified medical professionals to make this request, although human rights activists noted that in practice, prosecutors already had this ability.
For example, on August 31, a court in Barnaul ruled to send Andrey Shisherin to a psychiatric clinic for a one-month evaluation. Shisherin was facing blasphemy charges for posting memes on his social network account that ridiculed the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The court ignored independent psychiatric assessments attesting to Shisherin’s good mental health and sided with the prosecutor, who argued that psychiatric incarceration was required because Shisherin had behaved suspiciously by renouncing a confession he alleged he had previously given under duress.
Nonlethal physical abuse and hazing continued in the armed forces, although violations related to hazing in the military were fewer than in previous years. Activists reported hazing was often tied to extortion schemes.
There were reports Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region and Russian occupation authorities in Crimea engaged in torture (see Country Reports on Human Rights for Ukraine).
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in prisons and detention centers varied but were often harsh and life threatening. Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a serious problem. While the penal code establishes the separation of women and men, juveniles and adults, and pretrial detainees and convicts into separate quarters, anecdotal evidence indicated not all prison facilities followed these rules.
The NGO Penal Reform International reported conditions were generally better in women’s colonies than in those for men, but they remained substandard.
Physical abuse by prison guards was systemic. For example, on July 20, Novaya Gazeta published a YouTube video provided by the NGO Public Verdict that showed 17 prison guards from prison IK-1 in Yaroslavl Oblast appearing to torture prison inmate Yevgeniy Makarov in June 2017. At least 11 prison officials, including the deputy head of the prison and an investigator who had refused to act on prior complaints, were arrested for abusing Makarov and at least five other inmates. On July 24, Makarov’s lawyer, Irina Biryukova, fled the country after receiving death threats, but she later returned. By the time the video was published, Makarov had been transferred to IK-8 in Yaroslavl Oblast, where he reported prison guards severely beat him on several occasions. On September 19, the Investigative Committee announced it had opened a criminal investigation into Makarov’s beatings in IK-8. On October 1, Makarov was released from prison. The Makarov case sparked significant public outcry and led to the public reporting of many other similar cases of inmate torture from prisons across the country, including some instances resulting in the prosecution of prison personnel.
Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was also a problem. For example, according to media reports, on July 5, Ukrainian prisoner Pavlo Hryb was admitted to a medical facility with broken legs and severe bruises. His lawyer alleged Hryb had been beaten by his fellow prisoners while being transported to Rostov-on-Don.
There were also reports prison authorities recruited inmates to abuse other inmates. For example, on August 1 in Vladimir, two inmates and six officials were charged with torture after authorities discovered a torture chamber at a pretrial detention facility. A previous court decision had noted that the pretrial detention center “held inmates that used physical and psychological violence to force other detainees to self-incriminate.”
Overcrowding, nutrition, ventilation, heating, and sanitation standards varied among facilities but generally were poor. The NGO Russia Behind Bars reported minimal opportunities for movement and exercise. Potable water was sometimes rationed and food quality was poor; many inmates relied on food provided by family or NGOs. Access to quality medical care remained a problem.
A 2017 Amnesty International report described the country’s prison transport practices as part of a “Gulag-era legacy” and documented how authorities often transported prisoners for weeks in tiny train compartments with no ventilation, natural light, little water, and infrequent access to toilets and other sanitation.
NGOs reported many prisoners with HIV did not receive adequate treatment.
There were reports political prisoners were placed in particularly harsh conditions of confinement and subjected to punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units. For example, on September 21, Ukrainian prisoner Oleksander Kolchenko was put in solitary confinement for three days in a prison in Chelyabinsk. His attorneys believed the action was in retaliation for his request for a visit from the Ukrainian consul.
Administration: Convicted inmates and individuals in pretrial detention have visitation rights, but authorities can deny visitation depending on circumstances. By law prisoners with harsher sentences are allowed fewer visitation rights. The judge in a prisoner’s case can deny the prisoner visitation. Authorities can also prohibit relatives deemed a security risk from visiting prisoners.
While prisoners can file complaints with public oversight commissions or with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, they often did not do so due to fear of reprisal. Prison reform activists reported that only prisoners who believed they had no other option risked the consequences of filing a complaint. Complaints that reached the oversight commissions often focused on minor personal requests.
NGOs reported that some prisoners who alleged torture were later charged with making false accusations, which often resulted in additional prison time. For example, on January 11, the Investigative Committee of Kirov Oblast opened a criminal case against an unidentified inmate for allegedly making false accusations of torture in a complaint alleging he had been beaten and subjected to electric shocks at prison IK-1. According to press reports, this was the second inmate in two years to be prosecuted for filing a torture complaint against the facility.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted representatives of public oversight commissions to visit prisons regularly to monitor conditions. According to the Public Chamber, there were public oversight commissions in 81 regions with a total of 1,154 commission members. Human rights activists expressed concern that some members of the commissions were individuals close to authorities and included persons with law-enforcement backgrounds.
A law adopted on July 19 gave members of oversight commissions the right to videotape and photograph inmates in detention facilities and prisons with their written approval. Commission members may also collect air samples and conduct other environmental inspections, and they may also conduct safety evaluations and access prison psychiatric facilities.
Authorities allowed the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture to visit the country’s prisons but continued to withhold permission for it to release any reports, with the exception of one released in 2013 on a visit conducted in 2012.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. During the year the government instituted several new laws restricting both freedom of expression and of the press, particularly in regards to online expression. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous issues, especially of Ukraine and Syria, LGBTI issues, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as issues of secessionism, or federalism. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was increasingly widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television.
Freedom of Expression: Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a climate intolerant of dissent.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of September 11, the Ministry of Justice expanded its list of extremist materials to include 4,507 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of more than 200 items from 2017. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 1,500 extremism cases in 2017, some of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
Several persons were charged with extremism under the criminal code for comments and images posted in online forums or social networks. For example, on February 11, a court in Stariy Oskol sentenced 23-year-old doctoral student Aleksandr Kruze to 2.5 years in prison for extremism for reposting four nationalist images on social media in 2016. Kruze had been writing a dissertation on radicalization and maintained that the posts had been a part of a research experiment in online discourse around radicalism.
In September the Supreme Court amended its 2011 decree regarding publication of extremist material online to require authorities to have proof of criminal intent in order for them to prosecute. Authorities must now prove in court that publications or reposts were made with the intent “to incite hate or ill will.”
By law authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet outlets it suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.
During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, on August 7, a court in Biysk fined 16-year-old Maxim Neverov 50,000 rubles ($750) for posting images of shirtless men on a social network. The Russia LGBT Network attributed the case against Neverov to his organizing of a May public protest called “Gay or Putin.” On October 26, an appeals court overturned the lower court decision.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” On May 8, authorities raided the home and seized the computers of Barnaul resident Maria Motuznaya. Motuznaya was interrogated and shown pictures of her social media posts from 2015 in which she shared memes that satirized the Russian Orthodox Church. On June 23, she was charged with “offending the feelings of religious believers” and “extremism.” On October 9, a judge returned the case to prosecutors for further development.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated a law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” On August 6, police in the Tyva Republic detained journalist Oyuuma Dongak because of photographs of Nazi Germany which contained a swastika posted on her Facebook page in 2014. Dongak said that the photos accompanied an article she had shared about the rebirth of fascism. A court fined her 1,000 rubles ($15) on August 8. Observers described the case as retribution for Dongak’s support of opposition politicians.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly “insulted government officials.” For example, on August 3, a court in Magadan fined two men for “insulting” local mayor Yuri Grishan when they demanded his resignation in messages on the platform WhatsApp, using language authorities deemed “unacceptable.”
During the year authorities used a law banning the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute the independent press for their coverage of independent political candidates. On June 20, a court in Syktyvkar fined the independent online news outlet 7×7 800,000 rubles ($12,000), and fined its editor 40,000 rubles ($600) for publishing an interview in March with a libertarian politician who noted that synthetic drugs killed people at a higher rate than heroin. Authorities considered this statement an endorsement of heroin.
The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols. On February 26, a St. Petersburg court sentenced opposition activist Artem Goncharenko to 25 days in prison for “organizing an unsanctioned meeting” because he displayed a large inflatable rubber duck in the window of his apartment. Yellow rubber ducks have been used to signal support for the anticorruption protests organized by opposition leader Navalny.
Press and Media Freedom: The government continued to restrict press freedom. As of 2015, the latest year for which data was available, the government and state-owned or state-controlled companies directly owned more than 60 percent of the country’s 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all of the so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most-watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings. At many government-owned or controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law seemingly bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”
A 2017 law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of September 20, there were nine outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents could be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.
In some cases courts imposed extremely high fines on independent media outlets, which observers believed were intentionally disproportionate and designed to bankrupt the outlets and force their closure. For example, on October 26, a Moscow court fined independent news outlet The New Times 22.3 million rubles ($338,000) for errors in information it had provided to the government, as required by the “foreign agents” law. Press reports indicated this was the highest fine imposed on a media outlet in the country’s history. Prosecutors alleged that the newspaper had not properly accounted for money it received from a foundation affiliated with the paper, the Press Freedom Support Foundation, which is designated by the government as a “foreign agent.” Observers believed the case against The New Times to be in retaliation for the newspaper publishing an interview with opposition leader Navalny.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Fund, as of September incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included two killings, 42 attacks, 82 detentions by law-enforcement officers, 14 prosecutions, 42 threats, 21 politically motivated firings, and one attack on media offices. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered forms of government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
On April 14, Maksim Borodin, a Yekaterinburg journalist with the independent newspaper Novyy Den, died in a fall from his fifth-floor apartment balcony in an incident seen by observers as suspicious. Borodin had been reporting on the foreign activities of the Wagner battalion, a private oligarch-sponsored militia aligned with the government.
On April 12, two unknown assailants in Yekaterinburg attacked Dmitriy Polyanin, editor in chief of the regional progovernment newspaper Oblastnaya Gazeta, which had recently published articles about local disputes related to the housing market. Polyanin was hospitalized with a concussion and a broken rib.
On January 31, the FSB raided the apartment of journalist Pavel Nikulin and brought him to their headquarters for several hours of interrogation in response to a 2017 article he wrote about a man who had gone to Syria to fight for ISIS. A regional court named Nikulin as a witness in a criminal investigation into “illegal terrorist training” in connection with the article and had approved a search warrant for his apartment. In July, Nikulin and a colleague were detained by police in Krasnodar on suspicion of extremist activity and attacked by unknown assailants with pepper spray. On September 16, Nikulin and two colleagues were again arrested in Nizhniy Novgorod on suspicion of distributing “extremist materials.”
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored the media, much of which occurred online (see Press Freedom, Internet Freedom, and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events sections). Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread.
There were multiple reports that the government retaliated against those who published content it disliked. For example, on January 23, the website Russiagate.com was blocked with no formal notification hours after it published evidence of corruption by the head of the FSB, Aleksandr Bortnikov. The website’s editor reported that investors in the website immediately informed her that they were ending their financing of the project.
On April 4, the independent Kaliningrad newspaper Novyye Kolesa announced it would cease publication following a campaign of harassment and censorship by authorities. Following an FSB raid in November 2017, authorities arrested the newspaper’s editor, Igor Rudnikov, and charged him with extortion. Human rights organizations believed there to be no legitimate basis for the charges, which could bring 15 years in prison. On March 29, unidentified individuals went to newsstands, seized all copies of the newspaper on sale, and threatened vendors. The lead story in that edition of the newspaper alleged that the FSB had tortured to death a local resident in detention. Distribution network representatives gave orders to hide all remaining copies, and later informed Novyye Kolesa leadership it would no longer be profitable for them to continue to sell the newspaper.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of journalists and bloggers who criticized them and to retaliate against them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel. For example, on July 23, a Moscow court ruled in favor of Nizhigorodskiy Prison Colony Number 2, which had filed a lawsuit against the newspaper Sobesednik and Pussy Riot-member Maria Alekhina for damaging its reputation in a 2017 article describing forced labor conditions at the prison. The court obliged the newspaper to print a retraction and pay a 3,000-ruble ($45) fine.
On April 23, President Putin signed a law allowing the state to block online information that “offends the honor and dignity” of an individual, if the author of the information has defied a court order to delete it.
On October 3, President Putin signed a law that strengthened penalties for the dissemination of “false” information related to defamation or information that violates privacy restrictions. International and domestic experts believed the introduction of criminal responsibility for noncompliance with court decisions ordering the takedown or retraction of content in civil defamation cases would expand the tools available to officials and public figures to interfere with public access to information detrimental to their interests.
National Security: Authorities cited laws protecting national security to restrict criticism of government policies or officials, or to retaliate against critics.
On May 18, authorities raided the home of independent Omsk journalist Viktor Korb, conducted a 10-hour search, and charged him with incitement to terrorism, justification of terrorism, and terrorist propaganda, which carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The charges stemmed from Korb’s 2015 publication on a news and discussion website of a portion of remarks given by political activist Boris Stomakhin, during Stomakhin’s trial on terrorism charges. Korb did not endorse Stomakhin’s remarks.
Authorities also charged independent journalists with espionage. On June 4, a Moscow court convicted Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko of espionage and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. Sushchenko, a Paris-based correspondent for the Ukrinform news agency, was detained in Moscow in 2016 on suspicion of collecting classified information, an allegation human rights groups claimed was politically motivated.
The government took significant new steps to restrict free expression online. According to data compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 76 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2017.
The government monitored all internet communications and prohibited online anonymity (see also section 1.f.). The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enabled police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.
The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law. Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. As of July 1, companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months. As of October 1, companies are required to store electronic correspondence (audio, images and video) for three months.
Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. Providers face fines of one million rubles ($15,000) for noncompliance.
On April 13, a Moscow court ruled in favor of Roskomnadzor’s 2017 request to block the Telegram messaging service for failing to share with the FSB encryption keys to users’ correspondence. Telegram maintained that the FSB’s request was both unconstitutional and technically impossible, as the messenger uses end-to-end encryption (when the encryption keys are stored only by users). The Supreme Court upheld the FSB’s arguments on August 8. For several months beginning in mid-April, Roskomnadzor actively attempted to block Telegram. Since the messenger was using dynamic internet protocol (IP) addresses, however, blocking it proved impossible. Roskomnadzor was forced to block more than 20 million other IP addresses, which resulted in a major loss in accessibility to a wide range of unrelated online services. Despite Roskomnadzor’s efforts, Telegram remained mostly accessible to users. In August press reports indicated that Roskomnadzor and the FSB were testing systems designed to allow more precise blocking of individual sites to enable blocking Telegram.
The law requires commercial virtual private network (VPN) services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. Under the law Roskomnadzor can also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In May, Roskomnadzor reported it had blocked 50 VPN services.
The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts can be blocked. The law came into force in January. On August 27, Roskomnadzor expanded the list of designated “organizers of information dissemination” to include several new sites, such as the blogging platform Livejournal, the online dating site LovePlanet, and the car sharing app BlaBlaCar. Beginning in July these “organizers of information dissemination” were required to store and provide to the FSB in-depth user information, including user name; full real name; date of birth; exact address; internal passport number; lists of relatives, friends, contacts, all foreign languages spoken; date and time of account’s creation; date and time of all communications; full text of all communications; full archives of all audio and video communications; all shared files; records of all e‑payments; location for use of each service; IP address; telephone number; email address; and software used.
On November 6, Prime Minister Medvedev signed a decree requiring anonymous messenger applications to obtain verification of a user’s phone number from mobile phone network providers within 20 minutes of initial use of the application. If the phone network provider cannot verify the phone number, then messenger services are required to block the user. The government also required network operators to keep track of messenger apps for which users have registered.
The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information, and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of October, a total of 3.8 million websites were unjustly blocked in the country.
On November 26, Roskomnadzor filed a civil law suit against Google seeking to fine the company 700,000 rubles ($10,500) for declining to connect its search engine to an automated system that prevents blocked web sites from appearing in search results. On December 11, a court fined Google 500,000 rubles ($7,530).
During the year authorities blocked websites and social network pages that either criticized government policy or purportedly violated laws on internet content. For example, on April 28, Roskomnadzor blocked the LGBTI health awareness site Parni Plus. The site’s administrators said they received a notice from Roskomnadzor on April 28 informing them about a January 26 ruling by a district court in the Altai Territory to block Parni Plus for distributing information that “challenges family values” and “propagates nontraditional sexual relations.” The notice did not specify what content broke the law, and the notice came so late that the website missed its opportunity to appeal the verdict.
In some cases authorities coerced sites into taking down content by threatening to block entire platforms. For example, on February 13, Roskomnadzor threatened to block YouTube, Instagram, and several dozen media outlets if, based on a court decision, they did not delete an anticorruption investigation video made by opposition activist Navalny that described a meeting between government-linked oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko on a luxury yacht. All but YouTube complied. On February 20, Roskomnadzor stated it would not seek to block YouTube for its noncompliance.
In 2017 amendments to the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies, and Protection of Information and to the administrative code came into force requiring owners of internet search engines (“news aggregators”) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities can demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal. Dunja Mijatovic, the special representative on freedom of the media of the OSCE, raised concerns the law “could result in governmental interference of online information and introduce self-censorship in private companies.”
A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom on the Net report, there were several instances of courts ordering that content be removed from search results on these grounds in 2017.
There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see Freedom of Expression).
There were reports of disruption of communications during demonstrations. For example, media reported that, during opposition protests in Moscow on May 7, authorities switched off phone and mobile internet coverage in the protest area.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government took new steps during the year to restrict academic and cultural freedom.
On June 21, the Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency revoked the accreditation of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka), claiming the school violated multiple education standards. Shaninka, a Russian-British higher education institution founded in 1995, continued to operate but will not be not be able to issue state-approved diplomas or provide deferment from military service. Media outlet Meduza speculated the loss of accreditation was due to the school’s extensive international connections, and constituted a move to disable the country’s only remaining private institution of higher education.
On November 7, the trial began of well known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov for embezzlement of state funds to stage a Shakespeare play that the government alleged he never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times and observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies. Serebrennikov has been in custody since August 2017.
Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays they considered offensive or that expressed views in opposition to the government and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. Citing a bomb threat, police disrupted a June 13 theater production about imprisoned Chechen human rights activist Oyub Titiyev in Moscow and evacuated the theater.
In November media outlets reported a notable increase in the number of incidents in which authorities forced the cancellation of concerts of musicians who had been critical of the government. Monitoring by Meduza identified 13 such cases across the country during the month of November, compared with 10 during the rest of the year. Of the 13 cases, nine involved the rapper Husky or the electronic music group IC3PEAK, both of whom perform songs containing lyrics critical of the government. In most cases the concerts were canceled after the FSB or other security forces visited and threatened the managers or owners of music venues.
Persons expressing views of historical events that run counter to officially accepted narratives faced harassment. For example, on January 23, the Ministry of Culture recalled the rights to air the comedy film The Death of Stalin after a number of cultural figures sent a complaint to the department. The authors of the collective letter claimed Death of Stalin was a “spit in the face” of veterans that “blackened the memory of our citizens who defeated fascism.” Police disrupted a January 25 screening of the film at the Pioneer cinema in Moscow. On February 22, a Moscow court fined the theater 100,000 rubles ($1,500) for the screening.