Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, the government increasingly restricted those rights. The government instituted several new laws that restrict both freedom of speech and press. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government. The government exercised greater editorial control over state-controlled media than it had previously, 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 problems, especially the situation in Ukraine and Syria, LGBTI problems, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as issues of secessionism or federalism. Self-censorship in television and print media was increasingly widespread, particularly on 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 Speech and Expression: Government-controlled media frequently used 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 also invoked a law prohibiting the “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations to minors to restrict the free speech of LGBTI persons and their supporters (see section 6).
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of November 9, the Ministry of Justice expanded its list of extremist materials to include 3,897 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of nearly 800 items from 2015. According to the Investigative Committee, detectives referred more than 500 extremism cases to prosecutors in 2015, a number of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
In July 2015 journalist Alexander Sokolov of the independent news company RBK was arrested on a charge of participating in the activities of the People’s Will Army, which was declared an extremist organization by the Moscow City Court. Sokolov maintained he was simply providing professional services to the group, such as registering its website. Sokolov had previously reported on state corruption and embezzlement connected with the construction of the Vostochnyy space center. In November 2015 the Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Sokolov as a political prisoner, demanding that the court drop its prosecution. In June, Human Rights Ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova appealed to the prosecutor general, requesting verification of the lawfulness and legality of the decisions taken in the case against Sokolov. On August 1, Reporters without Borders requested that authorities immediately release Sokolov. He remained in prison.
Several persons, including minors in some instances, were charged with extremism under the criminal code for comments and images posted in online forums. In April, Yekaterina Vologzheninova, a single mother working as a cashier in the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg, was charged after she shared links online critical of the country’s role in the Ukraine conflict. She was subsequently sentenced to 320 hours of “corrective labor.” According to the indictment, Vologzheninova shared and liked posts deemed “insulting and degrading to Russian people.”
By law authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet sources suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year were enough to initiate a closure lawsuit.
Press and Media Freedoms: The government increasingly restricted 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. The federal or local governments or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned approximately 66 percent of the 2,500 television stations, including all six national channels. 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. A 2014 law, effective in January, restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent.
In May the owner of RBK, Mikhail Prokhorov, who was widely seen as under pressure from the government, fired the chief editors of RBK’s newspaper, television channel, and web portal. Following several of RBK’s high-profile investigations into corruption on the part of President Putin, his family, and alleged business associates, culminating in reporting on the “Panama Papers” scandal in April, the government allegedly demanded changes in the holding company’s editorial policies. The editors in chief were replaced by new personnel from the state-owned TASS news agency. The new editors instructed staff that there would now be a “double line” editorial policy–a line that cannot be crossed–concerning certain types of topics, according to a transcript of an RBK staff meeting published by the newspaper Meduza and a source cited in Reuters.
In April the FSB raided the Prokhorov-owned ONEXIM Group’s Moscow premises on suspicion of tax evasion. According to a number of analysts, the raids resulted from the government’s displeasure with RBK’s extended coverage of the Panama Papers leak of documents that detailed how private individuals and public officials used offshore accounts to conceal financial activity, at least some of questionable legality. The Ministry of Internal Affairs also opened a criminal case against RBK on suspicion of alleged fraud.
In July, Svetlana Bababeva, the chief editor of Gazeta.ru, one of the most widely read independent digital media sites in the country, was abruptly fired without explanation when her contract expired. Press reports subsequently indicated that the leadership of Rambler & Co, the media-holding firm that owns Gazeta.ru, faced government pressure to terminate Bababeva because of her opposition to the government and its policies.
Many newspapers ensured their financial viability by agreeing to various types of “support contracts” with government ministries, under which they agreed to provide positive coverage of government officials and policies in news stories. Absent direct government support, independent news publications reported difficulty attracting advertising and securing financial viability, since advertisers feared retaliation if their brands became linked to publications that criticized the government.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. The Glasnost Defense Fund reported numerous actions against journalists in 2014, including five killings, 52 attacks, 107 detentions by law enforcement officers, 200 prosecutions, 29 threats against journalists, 15 politically motivated firings, and two attacks on media offices.
On July 12, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, tasked with monitoring legal entities’ and individuals’ compliance with the country’s terrorist and extremist financing laws, published a list of some 6,000 individuals on its website that included Crimean journalists Nikolay Semena and Anna Andriyevskaya from the Center for Journalistic Investigations. OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic expressed concern over the government’s placing of journalists on a list of alleged terrorists and extremists.
In September a criminal court in Chechnya’s Shali District convicted Caucasian Knot journalist Zhalaudi Geriyev of drug possession for personal use and sentenced him to three years in prison. The defense maintained that the prosecutor’s case was marred by inconsistencies and flawed evidence as well as by violations of the criminal procedure code. Although Geriyev had signed a confession while in custody, he completely recanted during the trial, claiming he signed the confession under duress. Caucasian Knot published a statement stating it believed the criminal case against Geriyev was fabricated and calling accusations of his drug use “completely far-fetched.” The statement continued that the “absence of direct evidence” and the pressure placed on Geriyev suggested that the prosecution was “connected with his professional activities.”
Journalists reporting in or on the North Caucasus remained particularly vulnerable to physical attacks for their reporting. Rumors also persisted of an alleged “hit list” that included prominent journalists such as Aleksey Venediktov, chief of the independent radio and news organization Ekho Moskvy.
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, or the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Journalists and bloggers who uncovered various forms of government malfeasance also faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, often through legal prosecution. In March journalists on a reporting tour organized by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture were stopped and beaten by a group of masked assailants as they traveled from Ingushetia to Chechnya. No one was prosecuted for the attack (see section 1.c.).
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government continued to use laws and decrees to censor or restrict media content.
On January 23, political analyst Andrey Piontkovskiy posted an article to the Ekho Moskvy website entitled “A Bomb Ready to Explode” which implied that federal authorities had “lost the war for Chechnya” and suggested federal authorities were complicit in acts of corruption by Chechnya’s leaders. The final two paragraphs of the article suggested that authorities allow Chechnya to secede from the Russian Federation and were removed from the text shortly after the article was uploaded. The State Duma called for the prosecution of Ekho Moskvy over the article, and the FSB began an investigation of the station for incitement to violate the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. The FSB conducted searches at Ekho Moskvy’s editorial office, where they seized Piontkovsky’s correspondence. A number of Ekho Moskvy employees were also summoned for questioning. A criminal case was opened against Piontkovskiy, who subsequently left the country.
According to the Glasnost Defense Fund and other NGOs, authorities used media’s widespread dependence on the government for access to property, printing, and distribution services to discourage critical reporting. Approximately 90 percent of print media relied on state-controlled entities for paper, printing, and distribution services, and many television stations relied on the government for access to the airwaves and office space. Officials continued to manipulate the price of printing at state-controlled publishing houses to pressure private media rivals.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority, sometimes publicly, to restrict the work of journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel.
National Security: The law places limits on free expression on national security grounds, notably in statutes against extremism and treason (see Freedom of Speech and Expression).
The government utilized antiextremism laws to censor an array of online content (see Internet Freedom, below).
The government took significant new steps to restrict free expression on the internet. Threats to internet freedom included: physical attacks on bloggers; politically motivated prosecutions of bloggers for “extremism,” libel, or other crimes; blocking of specific sites by national and local service providers; distributed denial-of-service attacks on sites of opposition groups or independent media, including to independent pollster Levada Center less than two weeks before State Duma elections; monitoring by authorities of all internet communications; and attempts by national, local, and regional authorities to regulate and criminalize content. The internet was widely available to citizens in all parts of the country, although connection speeds varied by region. According to data compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 73 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2015.
A report issued by the legal services NGO AGORA stated that the number of cases in which authorities infringed the rights of internet users increased in 2015, from 2,951 cases to 15,022. The report attributed the surge in cases in part to improved reporting and noted that the number of requests to block, edit, or remove information also increased significantly. Such types of administrative pressure accounted for 11,800 of the reported cases, and occurred in Russian-occupied Crimea as well as in a number of regions of Russia. The number of regions in Russia in which internet users were subjected to serious pressure increased more than twofold to 30 regions.
New laws place additional restrictions on internet freedom. On June 24, President Putin signed into law amendments to the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies, and Protection of Information and to the administrative code 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 they can also impose heavy fines for noncompliance. Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE special representative on freedom of the media, raised concerns that the law “could result in governmental interference of online information and introduce self-censorship in private companies.” The law’s provisions enter into force on January 1, 2017.
In September 2015 the country’s data on-shoring law went into effect, requiring domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Critics expressed concern that the law might have negative commercial effects and provide the government with further access to citizens’ private information. On November 17, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications authority, announced that it would block the U.S.-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law. LinkedIn was the first social networking site targeted under the new law.
On January 1, the country’s “right to be forgotten” law entered into force, allowing individuals in the country to block search engine companies from showing search results that contain information about them. Figures with ties to the regime made several attempts to use the law to stifle reporting about their business and political activities. In June the Kuibyshev district court of St. Petersburg began hearings on claims of St. Petersburg billionaire Evgeniy Prigogine against the Yandex search engine. The applicant sought to remove from search engine results links to the website of the NGO Fund to Fight Corruption that contained reporting on Ministry of Defense contracts awarded to Prigogine’s companies. Another target was the Fontanka news site, which covered the entrepreneur’s funding of an internet “trolling factory” that posted progovernment comments on a paid basis. By August, out of 11 such claims against Yandex, none had been upheld by the courts. In four instances, decisions were favorable to Yandex, in two the plaintiffs dropped their claims, and in two others, the cases were dismissed without hearing.
In August the public organization Roskomsvoboda filed a lawsuit against Google in the Moscow Arbitration Court to require that pages containing reference materials hosted on the website of the SOVA Center be restored in search engine results. These pages had earlier been removed from search results in accordance with provisions of the “right to be forgotten” law. The deleted pages contained reports on two trials related to incitement of hatred. The plaintiffs’ representatives asserted that citizens have the right to know that such crimes were committed, who committed them, and where they were committed and that the decision (to remove the material) infringes on the provision in the constitution providing for free flow of information.
Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required internet service providers (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 or “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” Roskomsvoboda reported that its registry included more than 25,000 sites as of April and estimated that almost 600,000 sites were blocked within the country. Sites other than those officially blacklisted often ended up themselves blocked when they shares the same internet address as a blocked site.
Cell phone service providers cooperated with government security agencies’ surveillance of telephone users. In May political activists Oleg Kozlovskiy and Gregoriy Alburov threatened to sue mobile operator MTS for abetting the hacking of their Telegram accounts, an encrypted messaging service popular among activists for its security features. According to Kozlovskiy and Alburov, on April 29, MTS temporarily disabled text messaging services on their phones, allowing a third party trying to hack their accounts to intercept log-in codes sent via text messaging from Telegram.
On July 7, the State Duma passed the “Yarovaya package” of security-related amendments to the law that require telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies used by apps like WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram. Providers face fines of one million rubles ($15,000) for noncompliance. Later that month President Putin ordered the FSB to produce encryption keys to decrypt all data on the internet. In the beginning of August, the FSB announced that it finally had the capabilities to collect encryption keys from internet companies that could decrypt unreadable data on the internet. The statement met with skepticism in the professional community; due to the nature of encryption key technology, many considered this not feasible.
During the year authorities blocked or threatened to block some websites and social network pages that either criticized government policy or violated laws on internet content. On May 11, users in occupied Crimea and several Russian regions reported that Krym.Realii, the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website dedicated to covering events in occupied Crimea, was no longer accessible. In August, after the government alleged Ukrainian “incursions” into the Crimean peninsula, authorities disconnected internet access in the northern part of Crimea, allegedly for security reasons.
During the year authorities prosecuted individual bloggers for alleged extremist content they published online, including the content of other users’ comments on their pages. On August 11, a court refused to grant early release on parole to Darya Polyudova, who was sentenced in December 2015 to two years’ imprisonment for inciting separatism and extremist activities. The charges derived from three posts related to Ukraine on her VKontakte page that criticized the government for supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. In February the Investigative Committee opened a case against the prominent blogger Anton Nosik for inciting hatred and humiliation of human dignity. The charges stemmed from a November 2015 post on Nosik’s LiveJournal blog, titled “Wipe Syria off the Face of the Earth,” in which he compared the Assad regime in Syria to the Nazis. Nosik refused to take down the post, asserting that his words did not constitute extremism. His trial remained underway, and he faced four years in prison if convicted. The newspaper Kommersantreported that Luzgin faced criminal prosecution under a highly controversial law signed by President Putin in 2014 that imposes penalties ranging from fines to five years’ imprisonment for the “rehabilitation of Nazism.”
There were multiple reports that authorities fined libraries, schools, and internet clubs during the year for failing to block content listed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials or covered under the law “protecting” children from harmful information. The SOVA Center described 27 cases of sanctions directed at the management of educational facilities for various content filtration-related failures from January to August.
The government continued to employ a “system for operational investigative measures,” which requires 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 e-mail communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were indications that the government took new steps during the year to restrict academic and cultural freedom.
Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays that they considered offensive or that expressed views in opposition to the government and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. On June 10, a museum dedicated to the newly controversial subject of American and Soviet cooperation in World War II was closed under pressure from administrators of the government school in which it had been located for 12 years. The museum director stated he was offered a lease that would have allowed him to rent space at the school, but the rent was set at an exorbitant rate because administrators knew he had no way of paying. The director subsequently created a mobile version of the museum to travel to different cities in the country.
Those expressing views of historical events that run counter to officially accepted narratives faced harassment. During an annual student essay competition on 20th century Russian history held by the Memorial Human Rights Center in April, progovernment protesters attacked participants, including students and teachers, throwing eggs and green fast-dye antiseptic liquid at them. The protesters yelled “national traitors” at the participants. Prominent Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya, who chaired the competition’s jury, was among those attacked. Some assailants wore World War II-era uniforms, and the group hoisted a replica Soviet Victory flag and held placards reading, “We don’t need alternative history.”
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities increasingly restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While numerous public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located. The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of the law on public assembly, up to 300,000 rubles ($4,500) for individuals, 600,000 rubles ($9,000) for organizers, and one million rubles ($15,000) for groups or companies.
Under the law the government may punish “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law provides that the government may levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events and prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings. Protesters who violate the regulations multiple times within a six-month period may be fined up to one million rubles ($15,000) or imprisoned for up to five years. In December 2015 a Moscow court sentenced Ildar Dadin to three years’ imprisonment for participation in four protests constituting “repeated violations of the rules on conducting public acts.” Two more activists, Irina Kalmykova and 76-year-old Vladimir Ionov, fled the country to avoid similar charges. In January, Presidential Human Rights Council chairman Mikhail Fedotov criticized the law and called on authorities to remove it from the criminal code.
In April authorities arrested Maxim Panfilov in Astrakhan on charges of taking part in a mass riot and assaulting a police officer, making him the 36th and most recent person charged in connection with the 2012 Bolotnaya Square case. Originally initiated in connection with clashes between police and protesters at demonstrations on the eve of President Putin’s inauguration (see section 1.e.), the term for Bolotnaya investigations was extended through September.
There were reports that activists were subject to threats and physical violence in connection with organizing or taking part in public events or protests. In February in Chelyabinsk, unknown attackers beat Vyacheslav Kislitsin, an organizer of a local march to commemorate the killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, outside of the factory where he worked. Kislitsin suffered a heart attack and a broken rib and had to be hospitalized. Kislitsin was quoted as claiming that local police officers were among his attackers.
Police often broke up demonstrations that were not officially sanctioned and at times used disproportionate force when doing so. On April 8, Moscow authorities arrested several protesters, including Dmitriy Boynov, for protesting the construction of a building at Park Dubki. Boynov was beaten by police and hospitalized with a fractured leg as well as contusions on his back and chest (see section 1.c.). On April 29, police in Sochi attacked and dispersed a protest by approximately 100 residents of the Lazarev district against the closure of a pedestrian crossing leading to the sea, according to Caucasian Knot. According to witnesses, law enforcement authorities arrived at the peaceful demonstration and began forcibly removing and beating people, leading to the hospitalization of several protesters.
In its annual report in February, AI noted that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly remained severely curtailed. The report also noted that protests were infrequent, their number having declined following severe restrictions introduced in earlier years.
On February 26, the State Duma adopted a law requiring that “motor rallies” and other “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. The new law requires gatherings that will interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. Consequently, single-person pickets remained the sole form of public protest that does not require official approval.
Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted “single-person pickets,” which require there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. On June 15, Moscow police arrested opposition leader Leonid Volkov for a single-person picket outside the Federation Council building in Moscow protesting the reappointment of Yuriy Chayka as prosecutor general. According to police, the street where Volkov was protesting was considered “protected territory” and therefore, an illegal venue to stage a picket.
Authorities continued to deprive LGBTI individuals and their supporters of free assembly rights. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that LGBTI individuals are a “protected class” and should be allowed to engage in public activities, the law prohibiting so-called propaganda of homosexuality to minors (see section 6) provides grounds to deny LGBTI activists and their supporters the right of assembly and was used on multiple occasions to interrupt public demonstrations by LGBTI activists. In May, Moscow City officials refused an application by representatives of the LGBTI community to hold a parade, upholding a 2012 decision to prohibit gay parades in Moscow for 100 years, despite an ECHR ruling that the ban contravened the European Convention on Human Rights.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The Russian Constitution provides for freedom of association. During the year, however, the government instituted new measures and expanded existing restrictive laws to stigmatize, harass, fine, close, and otherwise raise barriers to membership in organizations that were critical of the government.
Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.
The government expanded its use of a 2012 law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as foreign agents, to harass, stigmatize, and in some cases halt the operation of NGOs. During the year the Ministry of Justice added 37 NGOs to the list of foreign agents. At the end of the year, 150 NGOs were designated as foreign agents.
In addition to continued widespread inspections of NGOs designated as foreign agents, authorities began to levy heavy fines against NGOs for failing to disclose foreign agent status on websites or printed materials. According to HRW, while authorities inspected a wide range of designated civil society groups from nearly every region of the country, groups that were warned, fined, or prosecuted generally were those active in areas such as election monitoring, human rights advocacy, anticorruption work, and environmental protection. During inspections law enforcement agencies typically brought representatives from as many as a dozen different bodies, including fire inspectors, tax inspectors, and health and safety inspectors, to issue citations to NGOs. In addition, state-controlled media crews frequently accompanied authorities during such inspections. On June 27, authorities also initiated criminal charges for the first time under the foreign agents law against the NGO Union of the Women of the Don. As of August 30, the case was still under consideration.
Organizations the government deemed as foreign agents reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press. As a result some organizations discontinued their work and closed their doors. Notable NGOs that closed included St. Petersburg’s Antidiscrimination Center Memorial and the Committee against Torture. In February the Supreme Court of Tatarstan ruled to liquidate the NGO AGORA at the request of the Ministry of Justice for violations of the law on foreign agents. This was the first case of a so-called foreign agent forced to close based on a court ruling.
In May at the behest of President Putin, the government clarified and ultimately expanded the definition of political activities covered under the foreign agent law. Putin signed the related amendments in June. Under the new definition, political activities include: organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions or presentations; participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempts to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.
On September 5, the Ministry of Justice added the first polling organization, the Levada Center, to the register of foreign agents, for the first time making use of the expanded definition of political activity. The addition came two weeks before the State Duma election and only days after the Levada Center published a poll showing a significant decline in support for the ruling United Russia party. The Levada Center indicated in the press that it would have to close if the decision was not canceled, because conducting polling with such a stigma attached would be impossible. The expanded definition of political activity was widely criticized by civil society NGOs, as well as the government’s own Presidential Human Rights Council.
In 2015 the foreign agent law was amended to create a mechanism to allow qualifying NGOs to be removed from the foreign agent list. To be delisted, the NGO in question must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving it received no foreign funding or engaged in no political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list. During the year only six NGOs were successful in their efforts to qualify for removal from the foreign agent list. In such cases, however, the Ministry of Justice did not remove the organizations from the list on its website but noted in a separate column the date the NGO qualified for removal and “ceased performing the functions of a foreign agent.”
Use of the law on “undesirable” foreign organizations expanded during the year with the additions of the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the Media Development Fund to the list of such organizations. The organizations joined the National Endowment for Democracy, Open Society, Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation, and the U.S.-Russia Foundation. According to the definition of the law, a foreign organization may be found undesirable if that group is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” To date, authorities have not clarified what specific threats the undesirable NGOs posed to the country. In accordance with the law, any foreign organization deemed undesirable must cease its activities, any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found to be continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that “pose a threat to the country” that receive support from U.S. citizens or organizations are also subject to suspension under the “Dima Yakovlev” law, which prohibits these NGOs from having dual Russian-U.S. citizen members.
There were multiple reports that civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. On March 16, a mob of unidentified individuals attacked Igor Kalyapin, head of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, in Chechnya. No arrests were made in connection with the attack. The attack occurred a week after masked men, armed with baseball bats, attacked a group of foreign and Russian journalists and activists from Kalyapin’s organization, setting their bus on fire. No arrests were made in connection with the attack (see section 1.c.).
In multiple cases authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see sections 1.d. and 1.e.).
There were reports that authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. With the exception of refugees from Ukraine, who as a group were well received, the government provided minimal assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and NGOs stated that police at times detained, fined, and threatened migrants, refugees, and stateless persons with deportation and that citizens subjected them to racially motivated assaults.
The government seldom cooperated on asylum and refugee problems with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations.
In-country Movement: Although the law gives citizens the right to choose their place of residence, adult citizens must carry government-issued internal passports while traveling domestically and must register with local authorities after arriving at a new location. Persons with official refugee or asylum status must request permission to relocate to a district other than the one that originally granted them status. Authorities often refused to provide government services to individuals without internal passports or proper registration, and many regional governments continued to restrict this right through residential registration rules that closely resembled Soviet-era regulations.
Authorities required intercity travelers to show their internal passports when buying tickets to travel via air, long-distance railroad, water, or road. Commuter travel on road, water, or via railroad did not require identification. Authorities imposed travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes. In August authorities charged Leonid Volkov, the head of the Democratic Opposition’s election movement in Novosibirsk, with obstructing the work of a journalist. Authorities reportedly restricted his freedom to travel while they investigated the case.
Foreign Travel: The law provides for freedom to travel abroad, but the government introduced new restrictions on this right during the year, including an amendment that allows for the temporary restriction of citizens’ rights to exit the country if they are bankrupt.
The law on procedures for departing from and entering the country stipulates that a person who violates a court decision has no right to leave the country. A court may prohibit a person from leaving the country for failure to satisfy debts, if the individual is suspected, accused, or convicted of a crime, or if the individual has access to classified material. Authorities imposed travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes.
According to press reports, in 2014 the government restricted foreign travel by approximately five million government employees, mostly from the security services. This included employees of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Prison Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Bailiff Service, the Federal Migration Service (FMS, now GAMI, see next paragraph), and the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Freedom House reported that often employees who were not themselves prohibited from travel felt obliged not to go abroad to be consistent with colleagues. The law requires citizens to disclose any dual citizenship.
On April 5, the FMS was abolished, and President Putin announced the Ministry of Internal Affairs would take over all FMS duties. The move was part of the larger restructuring of the ministry, which included the creation of the new Russian Federal National Guard Service (see section 1.d, Role of the Police and Security Apparatus). The new entity carrying out the FMS’s previous duties is the General Administration for Migration Issues (GAMI). The transfer of responsibility was underway during the year, although officially the FMS ceased operations in April.
Exile: There were many high-profile cases of self-imposed exile during the year, primarily involving leaders of political opposition movements, NGOs, environmental organizations, and protesters who feared reprisals for their participation in anti-Putin demonstrations or for their opposition activities.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS
In December 2014 the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimated that Russia was home to at least 27,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), most of whom remained in the North Caucasus as a result of the Chechen conflict. The situation for the IDPs displaced after the conflict in Chechnya remained poor, with the majority still living in substandard accommodations without proper sanitation and electricity. The government’s official statistics showed the number IDPs decreased from 28,292 in 2015 to 25,359 during the year.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The country’s laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. NGOs reported applicants commonly paid informal “facilitation fees” of approximately 33,000 rubles ($500) to GAMI/the FMS adjudicators to have their application reviewed. Applicants who did not speak Russian had to pay for a private interpreter. Human rights organizations noted that nearly all newly arrived refugees and temporary asylum seekers in large cities, in particular Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. With the exception of Ukrainians, GAMI/the FMS approved a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum.
Some observers pointed out that GAMI/the FMS data failed to include asylum seekers who were forcibly deported or extradited before exhausting their legal remedies. Some asylum seekers, especially those from Central Asia, also reportedly chose not to make formal applications for asylum because doing so often led to criminal investigations and other unwanted attention from the security services.
Human rights organizations criticized the country’s reported preferential treatment of Ukrainian applicants for refugee status and temporary asylum. According to UNHCR and local NGOs, authorities had blanket authority to grant temporary asylum to Ukrainians and prioritized Ukrainian nationals over other nationalities, especially those from African nations. As of November 2015, the vast majority of Ukrainian nationals who applied for temporary asylum received this status on a one-year basis and were eligible to apply twice for renewals. This prioritization resulted in longer waiting periods and drastically fewer approvals for non-Ukrainian applicants. As of November 2015, authorities reportedly also had blanket authority to grant temporary asylum to Syrians. According to local NGOs, GAMI/the FMS stopped granting them temporary asylum and refugee status. Local migration experts noted a decrease in the number of Syrians with temporary asylum, indicating that GAMI/the FMS did not renew the temporary asylum of hundreds of Syrians. Authorities did not release up-to-date data on non-Ukrainian refugees during the year. According to official statistics, there were 311,134 Ukrainian citizens holding temporary asylum; in contrast, 1,302 Syrians held the same status.
According to official statistics, 770 persons were granted refugee status during the year, down from 790 in 2015 but more than the 632 reported in 2014.
According to a Sky News report from May, only two Syrians received full asylum status since the conflict there began in 2011. The country’s official statistics indicated that two Syrians per year were granted refugee status since 2013. The Sky News report stated that five Syrian asylum seekers in Makhachkala, Dagestan, who had been behind bars for over a year, remained incarcerated indefinitely due to a lack of proper paperwork related to their asylum claims. Human rights groups believed numerous Syrians sat in similar circumstances throughout the country.
In the fall of 2015, approximately 5,500 migrants and asylum seekers crossed Russia’s border with Norway by utilizing a loophole that allowed border crossing via bicycle without documentation check by Russian border guards. When Norway began returning the migrants to Russia, HRW noted “a lack of assurance from the Russian authorities that they would provide those sent back with any hearing of their asylum claims, much less a fair consideration of their applications.” According to HRW, UNHCR and Norway’s country-of-origin office noted deficiencies in Russia’s asylum system that could prevent the fair and effective assessment of a person’s refugee claims.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The responsible agency, GAMI/the FMS, did not maintain a presence at airports or other border points and did not adequately publicize that asylum seekers had the ability to request access to the agency. Asylum seekers had to rely on the goodwill of border guards and airline personnel to call immigration officials. Otherwise, they faced immediate return to their countries of origin, including in some cases to countries where they may have had reasonable grounds to fear persecution.
A Sky News report stated that Russian officials had tried to deport five detained asylum seekers directly back to Syria, but their attorney succeeded in blocking the deportation while they were waiting to board a plane at a Moscow airport. According to UNHCR and other human rights monitors, at least 18 Syrians have been directly returned to Syria, contravening the country’s constitution.
By law an applicant may appeal the decision of a GAMI/the FMS official to a higher-ranking authority or to a court. During the appeal process, the applicant is legally entitled to the rights of a person whose application for refugee status was being considered.
Human rights groups continued to allege that authorities made improper use of international agreements that permit them to detain, and possibly repatriate, persons with outstanding arrest warrants from other former Soviet states. This system, enforced by informal ties between senior law enforcement officials of the countries concerned, permitted authorities to detain individuals for up to one month while the Prosecutor General’s Office investigated the nature of the warrants. UNHCR and human rights groups noted several cases of disappearances and extralegal return of persons of UNHCR concern, in which officials detained individuals (most commonly from Central Asia) and returned them to their country of origin clandestinely. Rights groups and UNHCR maintained that this could not have happened without the cooperation of several different federal agencies.
In July, Khursheddin Fazylov, a citizen of Tajikistan who had applied for political asylum in Russia, was returned to Tajikistan before his application and appeals process had been completed. The government of Tajikistan accused him of recruiting Tajik citizens to go to Syria through Turkey to take part in jihad and requested his extradition. According to his lawyer, Fazylov was transported out of the country to Tajikistan on the day his detention period would have expired. At the time, his asylum case was still under appeal. Fazylov’s family reported that, within a week of that date, he was back in Tajikistan in prison.
In July the government returned Olim Ochilov, a 27-year-old citizen of Uzbekistan, to his home country, where he allegedly faced the threat of torture. The deportation took place even though the ECHR had ruled that Russia should grant Ochilov temporary asylum. The government of Uzbekistan accused Ochilov of “antistate activities.” His location in Uzbekistan was unknown.
Access to Basic Services: By law successful temporary asylum seekers and persons whose applications were being processed have the right to work, receive medical care, and attend school. NGOs reported authorities provided some services to Ukrainian asylum seekers, but applicants from other countries were routinely denied them. During the year authorities closed the majority of government-funded temporary accommodation centers specially erected for Ukrainian nationals waiting to receive temporary asylum. These centers provided shelter, food, medical care, and job-placement assistance. As of November 2015, some 16,112 Ukrainian nationals remained in these centers throughout the country, although NGOs reported that many inhabitants were Ukrainians with legal status who were paying to live in the facilities. Non-Ukrainian asylum applicants did not have access to these benefits.
While federal law provides for education for all children, regional authorities occasionally denied access to schools to children of temporary asylum and refugee applicants who lacked residential registration. When parents encountered difficulties enrolling their children in school, authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR to resolve the problem. Authorities frequently denied applicants the right to work if they lacked residential registration, which was common due to landlords’ preference not to register occupants for tax reasons.
Temporary Protection: A person who did not satisfy the criteria for refugee status, but who could not be expelled or deported for humanitarian reasons could receive temporary asylum after submitting a separate application. There were reports, however, of authorities not upholding the principle of temporary protection.
UNHCR estimated there were approximately 113,470 stateless persons in the country at the end of 2014. Official statistics did not differentiate between stateless person and other categories of persons seeking assistance. UNHCR reported a significant number of Afghans resided in Russia for more than 20 years, including some orphans brought back by Soviet armed forces. The majority of these individuals and their offspring did not have legal status in the country because GAMI/the FMS repeatedly rejected their applications for temporary asylum or refugee status. This Afghan population faced the same risks as newly arrived asylum seekers, including denial of, or lack of, access to medical care, schooling, and housing.