Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press and other media, the government increasingly restricted this right. 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. 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 topics, especially of the unauthorized pro-Navalny demonstrations early in the year and investigations into Navalny’s poisoning; events in Belarus; treatment of LGBTQI+ persons; problems involving the environment, elections, COVID-19, and corruption; and criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as secessionism or federalism. 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. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism, under which citizens may be punished for certain types of peaceful protests, affiliation with certain religious denominations, and even certain social media posts, as a tool to stifle dissent. As of October the Ministry of Justice had expanded its list of extremist materials to include 5,215 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items. According to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, in 2020 authorities “inappropriately initiated” 145 new cases against individuals under antiextremism laws, including for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere or for their religious beliefs.
The law prohibits the dissemination of false “socially significant information” online, in mass media, or during protests or public events, as well as the dissemination of “incorrect socially meaningful information, distributed under the guise of correct information, which creates the threat of damage to the lives and health of citizens or property, the threat of mass disruption of public order and public security, or the threat of the creation of an impediment to the functioning of life support facilities, transport infrastructure, banking, energy, industry, or communications.”
The law criminalizes “offending the religious feelings of believers” (blasphemy). Actions in public “demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the religious feelings of believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,000), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year. If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.
The law prohibits showing “disrespect” online for the state, authorities, the public, flag, or constitution. For example, on March 4, a court in the city of Samara convicted civil rights activist Karim Yamadayev of promoting extremism and insulting authorities for mocking President Putin and two of his close associates in a 2019 YouTube video. The prosecutor originally sought to sentence Yamadayev to six years and seven months in prison. Yamadayev spent more than a year in detention before the court released him on March 4 with a 300,000 ruble ($4,000) fine and prohibition from serving as an administrator for social media networks.
During the year the government enacted new restrictions on the content that could be shared on the internet. In December 2020 President Putin signed into law amendments to communications legislation that allow Roskomnadzor to block websites that “violate the rights of [Russian citizens],” including by restricting the “dissemination of socially significant information.” Experts characterized the new law as restricting “Russophobic” content and noted that it was adopted during a government public relations campaign against YouTube after it blocked content posted by progovernment media personality Vladimir Solovyov. In December 2020 President Putin also signed a law prohibiting journalists and websites from publishing the personal data of law enforcement officers and certain other state employees affiliated with the country’s security services. Expanding the definition of sensitive data, the FSB published a list on June 20 of topics that could be “used against the security” of Russia, including information and assessments of Russia’s military, security sector, and space agency, Roscosmos. Individuals who collect information in the specified categories could be subject to designation as “foreign agents” (see section 2.b.).
During the year authorities invoked laws prohibiting “inciting minors to participate in dangerous activities” or “violations to the established procedure for organizing or holding a public event” to charge individuals who published material online related to the demonstrations in January and February. For example, on February 3, authorities sentenced Sergey Smirnov, editor in chief of the independent Mediazona, to 25 days in prison for “repeatedly violating the rules of public demonstrations” after he retweeted a joke referencing the January 23 demonstration. The Moscow City Court subsequently reduced his sentence to 15 days. In another example, authorities filed charges on January 22 against four editors of the student journal DOXA – Armen Aramyan, Alla Gutnikova, Vladimir Metelkin, and Natasha Tyshkevich – after DOXA published a YouTube video on January 23 expressing solidarity with students interested in participating in the unauthorized demonstrations and stating that it was unlawful for universities to punish those who did. All four were subjected to restrictions on their movement and communications until September 14 and faced up to three years in prison if convicted. Memorial considered the editors to be political prisoners.
During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the distribution of “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTQI+ persons and their supporters. For example, on March 30, a court in Krasnodar convicted Anastasiya Panchenko, coordinator of Aleksey Navalny’s Krasnodar office, of distributing content prohibited by the law after she posted a photograph on her Instagram account of two same-sex couples kissing.
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, although the Duma adopted legislation in June that prohibits displaying images of individuals found guilty of committing crimes in accordance with the verdict of the Nuremberg Tribunal. On April 5, President Putin signed two related laws codifying penalties for the dissemination of information “denying the facts established by judgment of the International Military Tribunal” and about the activities of the USSR during the Second World War (covered in the administrative code) and strengthening the rehabilitation of Nazim (covered in the criminal code).
In 2019 the Supreme Court of the Komi Republic designated the Union of Slavic Forces of Russia an extremist organization for claiming that the USSR had not dissolved as a political entity. During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly sought to restore the rights of citizens of the USSR. On July 12, the Leninskiy District Court sentenced three supporters of the Citizens of the USSR organization – Sergey Vorontsov, Vyacheslav Podchufarov, and Svetlana Vorontsova – with up to three years in prison under the extremism law for denying the fall of the USSR. On July 13, the Volga City Court sentenced Aleksandr Mordovskiy, a leader of Citizens of the USSR, to six years in prison on the same charges.
During the year authorities enforced a law prohibiting the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute or threaten to block independent outlets and journalists. For example, in June authorities opened an administrative case against popular YouTube personality and journalist Yuriy Dud for purportedly promoting drugs in recent interviews published on his YouTube channel. On October 20, Dud was found guilty and fined 100,000 rubles ($1,350).
On June 8, authorities arrested video blogger Yuriy Khovanskiy on suspicion of “publicly justifying extremism,” reportedly based on a song he recorded about the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis.
During the year authorities used a law banning cooperation with “undesirable foreign organizations” to restrict free expression (see section 2.b.).
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 societal climate intolerant of dissent.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The government continued to restrict press and media freedom. More than 80 percent of country’s mass media was funded by the government or progovernment actors. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets, which are permitted to determine what they publish within formal or informal boundaries set by the government. In the regions each governor controlled regional media through direct or indirect funding or through affiliated structures. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all 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, and a preferential tax rate.
On a regional level, state-owned and progovernment television channels received subsidies from the Ministry of Finance for broadcasting in cities with a population of less than 100,000 and on the creation and production of content. 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 apparently 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.”
By law the Ministry of Justice is required to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” The decision to designate media outlets or individual journalists as foreign agents may be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies. The law allows authorities to label individuals (both Russian and foreign citizens) as “foreign agents” if they disseminate foreign media to an unspecified number of persons, receive funding from abroad, or, after a December 2020 amendment, “carry out the interests of a foreign state.” The new amendment specifies that a foreign journalist “performing the functions of a foreign agent, incompatible with his professional activities as a journalist” could be declared an individual foreign agent.
Human rights defenders expressed concern that the “foreign agent” law was being used to restrict further the activities of or selectively punish journalists, bloggers, and social media users. Individuals labeled a “foreign agent” are required to register with the Ministry of Justice, and those living abroad also must create and register a legal entity inside the country to publish materials inside the country. All information published by the “foreign agent” individual must be marked as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Fines for noncompliance with the law range from 10,000 to five million rubles ($135 to $67,500). In December 2020 authorities utilized the “individual media foreign agent” category for the first time by adding five individuals to this registry, including Lev Ponomaryov, a well known human rights activist and Memorial Human Rights Center cofounder, who closed his NGO following the designation.
As of December 30, there were 37 outlets and 74 individuals designated as “media foreign agents,” the majority of whom were journalists. Several of those designated as “foreign agents” tried unsuccessfully to reverse their designation. For example, in March feminist activist Darya Apakhonchich filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Justice for her inclusion on this list, arguing that she had never received money or other property from foreign sources. All three Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) contributors initially designated also lost their appeals to reverse the designation.
At the end of 2020, the government imposed new onerous labeling requirements for media outlets designated as foreign agents, which at the time only included Voice of America, RFE/RL and its affiliated outlets, and a news site run by Medium-Orient, based in the Czech Republic. In February, President Putin signed into law additional legislative changes related to the labeling “foreign agents.” The amendments introduced fines for the dissemination of information or media content about or belonging to a “foreign agent” without specifying this “foreign agent” status. Fines for noncompliance with this new amendment range from 2,000 to 50,000 rubles ($27 to $675).
During the year authorities vigorously implemented the law to impose fines or noncompliance of labeling requirements. As of July authorities had imposed 252 million rubles ($3.4 million) in fines on RFE/RL and frozen its bank accounts due to alleged noncompliance with the new law, which RFE/RL maintained imposed devastating financial reporting and labeling requirements for all electronic media to pressure the media outlets to close. RFE/RL challenged the “foreign agent” law labeling requirements and the millions of rubles in fines levied on its Russian operations in the ECHR, filing a complaint on May 19. In July the ECHR granted RFE/RL’s request to grant the case priority status, giving the Russian government until October 5 to reply. Following a response from the Russian government in November, the case remained pending as of year’s end. State-owned media outlets were also fined under the law. For example, on May 6, the Moscow Arbitration Court fined the government-controlled Channel One media outlet 30,000 rubles ($400) for broadcasting a story from a “foreign agent” without labeling it as such.
During the year the government significantly intensified its campaign against so-called media foreign agents. As of December 30, the Ministry of Justice’s register of “media foreign agents” comprised 111 media outlets and individuals, 94 of which had been added since the beginning of the year. The news site VTimes, which was established in 2019 by former Vedomosti journalists, ceased operation on June 12 following its May 14 “foreign agent” designation. In a letter to its supporters on June 4, VTimes stated it saw no viable way to continue its operations after the designation placed its employees at risk of criminal prosecution and undercut its ability to attract advertising revenue and engage with sources. On June 16, Reporters Without Borders condemned the designation of outlets Meduza and VTimes and warned that the “draconian ‘foreign agents’ law is steadily killing off the country’s independent media.”
On July 15, the Ministry of Justice added independent investigative outlet Proyekt to the list of “undesirable foreign organizations,” making it the first media entity to receive that designation, which effectively bans its operations in the country. Under legislative changes adopted during the year (see section 2.b.), individuals who cooperate with “undesirable foreign organizations” could be charged with a fine or up to six-year prison sentence. Even quoting or reposting material from such an organization places individuals or organizations at risk of a fine. Independent media and human rights organizations characterized the inclusion of Proyekt on the “undesirable foreign organizations” list as a significant escalation in the government’s efforts to restrict independent media.
By law authorities were able to close any organization 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. On December 30, President Putin signed a law requiring Roskomnadzor to block without a court decision websites deemed to justify extremism or terrorism, if the prosecutor general or his deputy submit a request.
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 Foundation, in January alone incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included 22 attacks, 161 detentions by law enforcement officers, one criminal prosecution and 12 lawsuits, and three threats. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered 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 livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by government officials and police. For example, on March 10, Russian occupation authorities in Crimea arrested freelance journalist Vladislav Yesypenko on espionage charges that were widely described as politically motivated and reportedly tortured him in detention. On July 15, Yesypenko was indicted on weapons-related charges that many activists considered baseless; his trial was underway as of December.
There were reports of police briefly detaining journalists to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. According to Reporters Without Borders and Open Media, during the January 23 demonstration more than 50 journalists were arbitrarily detained, with more than 82 journalists arbitrarily detained on January 31. Journalists reported that they had been detained and charged with “participation in an unauthorized mass event,” even when clearly wearing press credentials. Some correspondents for independent news outlets reported that they were questioned by authorities about their supposed participation in the demonstrations or had received threats of violence or other efforts at intimidation.
There were reports of police framing journalists for serious crimes to interfere with or to punish them for their reporting. For example, Ivan Safronov, a former national security journalist for major national daily newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, was arrested by the FSB and charged with treason in July 2020, a charge that carries a 20-year prison sentence if convicted. According to media, Safronov’s case itself was classified, and the FSB declined to disclose what information he allegedly shared with Czech intelligence in 2012. Observers speculated the charges might be related to a 2017 Kommersant article coauthored by Safronov, detailing the potential sale of Russian military aircraft to Egypt. Safronov also provoked a strong reaction from the government for a 2019 article in Kommersant speculating on a shakeup of the leadership in the Federation Council. The court extended Safronov’s pretrial detention five times, including most recently on October 4 through the end of the year. On July 17, the freedom of information legal defense group Team 29, led by Safronov’s lawyer Ivan Pavlov, announced its dissolution as a result of pressure from authorities (see section 1.d.).
On May 28, the Moscow City Court convicted former police officer Igor Lyakhovets and his three subordinates on charges of fabricating a criminal case against Meduza correspondent Ivan Golunov in July 2019 (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2019 for Russia). Lyakhovets, who was the principal officer in Golunov’s illegal arrest, was sentenced to 12 years in prison while his subordinates each received an eight-year prison sentence. The court also banned them from serving as public officers for up to five years.
There were reports of police raids on the offices of independent media outlets that observers believed were designed to punish or pressure the outlets. For example, on April 9, the FSB searched the home of prominent investigative journalist and IStories editor in chief Roman Anin, seizing his equipment, notebooks, and materials. IStories, which specialized in investigative reporting, said that its offices had been searched as well. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on April 12, Anin speculated that authorities seized his personal records in response to a 2016 investigation he conducted into Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and his former wife’s wealth and more recent articles on the security services. Authorities charged Anin with “violation of privacy by abusing his professional functions,” an offense that is punishable by up to four years in prison.
Journalists reported threats in connection with their reporting. For example, Amnesty International considered journalist and human rights defender Yelena Milashina to be a “case of concern” due to repeated threats against her for documenting Chechen officials’ abuses in Novaya Gazeta. In 2020 Milashina received a death threat on Instagram from the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, and was physically attacked in Grozny along with human rights lawyer Marina Dubrovina. Chechen officials began a defamation and intimidation campaign against Milashina after she published the testimony in Novaya Gazeta on March 15 of a former police officer who said he witnessed extrajudicial executions, torture, and other grave human rights violations in 2017.
In another example, Andrey Afanasyev, a journalist with RFE/RL Russian Service’s Siberia.Realities, was severely beaten by unknown assailants on June 9. Afanasyev reported that the attackers demanded “less reporting about respectable people.” Prior to his attack, Afanasyev had been investigating allegations of corruption against Adam Magomadov, a former leader of the Chechen diaspora and manager of the Akhmat martial arts club in Blagoveshchensk, and Andrey Domashenkin, a local lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party who founded the club. The Investigative Committee opened an investigation on June 17 into the attack on “hooliganism” charges, rather than “obstruction of journalist activities” as Afanasyev had requested. As of July the attackers were not identified.
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in several 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 media, much of which occurred online (also see Internet Freedom and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events, below).
There were reports that the government retaliated against those who produced or published content it disliked. For example, authorities conducted searches of the houses of Roman Badanin, Proyekt editor in chief, deputy editor Mikhail Rubin, and journalist Mariya Zholobova on June 29, the same day the outlet intended to publish an investigation alleging corruption by Minister of Internal Affairs Vladimir Kolokoltsev, his son, and other members of his family. OVD-Info reported that authorities had opened an investigation into Badanin and his colleagues on criminal libel charges related to the 2017 showing of a documentary series that linked President Putin to Ilya Traber, a businessman suspected of having mafia connections. On July 15, the Ministry of Justice added Badanin and four Proyekt journalists to its list of media “foreign agents” and Proyekt to the list of “undesirable foreign organizations.”
On July 19, media reported that the country’s Office of Consumer Rights blocked a Russian-language website operated by Czech Radio. Authorities cited a 2001 online article about Jan Palach, a student who set himself on fire on Prague’s Wenceslas Square in 1969 to protest the 1968 Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Experts noted that although the government cited the article’s “promotion of suicide” as the rationale, the decision came as part of a series of retaliatory steps after the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Prague earlier in the year due to Russia’s role in the 2014 Vrbetice ammunition site explosion.
Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of and to retaliate against journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel, which are criminal offenses. President Putin signed new legislation in December 2020 that introduced criminal penalties of up to two years’ imprisonment for slander or libel “using information and telecommunications networks, including the internet.” Authorities used these laws to target human rights defenders and civil society activists in criminal investigations, most recently by accusing them of spreading unreliable information related to the COVID-19 pandemic or libelously criticizing public officials.
National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. There were reports that critics of the government’s counterterrorism policies were themselves charged with “justifying terrorism.” For example, in July 2020 RFE/RL contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva was convicted of “justifying terrorism” and fined for a 2018 radio piece that explored the motivations of a teenage suicide bomber who had attacked a regional FSB office (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Russia). In February the Moscow Region’s Military Court of Appeal upheld her 2020 verdict and fine.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities 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 some 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. Many public demonstrations were restricted or banned due to COVID-19 measures. Each region enforced its own restrictions.
Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted single-person pickets and required that there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. By law police officers may stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer. In December 2020 President Putin approved amendments to the law that placed further restrictions on single-person pickets as well as multiperson protests, rallies, or demonstrations. The amended law imposes financial reporting requirements, prohibits protests or public demonstrations near agencies that perform “emergency operational services” (such as law enforcement agencies), and imposes further restrictions on journalists covering these events. In addition, the law prohibits “foreign sources of funding” financing public demonstrations and treats single-person pickets, if held in the general vicinity of other picketers, as “mass demonstrations without a permit,” which are banned. Authorities regularly detained single-person picketers. For example, on February 9, Yekaterinburg police arrested Galina Gastrygina, a 79-year-old woman, for holding a placard stating, “Navalny is a hero of our time.” A court subsequently fined her 1,000 rubles ($13.50) on February 19. Her lawyer reported that guards pushed witnesses and journalists out of the courtroom during what was to have been a public hearing. In another example, on May 25, St. Petersburg police detained civil activist Yevgeniya Smetankina for having held a single-person picket in support of the feminist activist Yuliya Tsvetkova (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
The law requires that “motor rallies” and “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. It requires gatherings that would 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. The law prohibits “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about the organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law allows authorities to prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings and to levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events.
Following an amendment to the criminal code signed by President Putin in December, the law imposes a fine for destroying infrastructure facilities and blocking roads and a 10-year prison sentence in the case of death of more than one person. During demonstrations early in the year, authorities charged dozens of individuals countrywide under the new law penalizing the blocking of roads. For example, on January 24, the Ministry of Interior opened a criminal case for “blocking roads and sidewalks” during a rally on Pushkin Square in central Moscow. Under the pretext of its investigation, the Ministry of Interior raided the homes of 30 individuals suspected of involvement and seized their equipment and files, purportedly as evidence.
The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of public assembly law. Protesters convicted of multiple violations within six months may be fined substantially or imprisoned for up to five years. The law prohibits “involving a minor in participation in an unsanctioned gathering,” which is punishable by fines, 100 hours of community service, or arrest for up to 15 days. On June 18, Novaya Gazeta reported that several cities filed lawsuits against the supposed organizers of the January and February demonstrations in their areas in a stated effort to recuperate costs incurred by the Ministry of Interior staff and local authorities who worked on the day of the demonstrations. In the Kemerovo region, authorities sought 700,000 rubles ($9,500) in compensation from former employees of Navalny’s regional headquarters.
Arrests or detentions for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. Ahead of the January 23 demonstrations, which were unauthorized, authorities preemptively detained Navalny associates, including his spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, and his Anticorruption Foundation’s lawyer, Lyubov Sobol, and investigator, Georgiy Alburov. Ten Navalny associates, including Yarmysh, Sobol, and Navalny’s brother Oleg, were subsequently arrested on January 28 and charged with violating COVID-19-related public health rules in connection with the January 23 demonstration and placed under house arrest through June 23. Independent media outlets characterized the arrests as an effort to prevent the political opposition from participating in the September Duma elections. On June 7, a Moscow court extended movement and communications restrictions for Sobol and Oleg Navalny until November, and on July 21, the courts separately extended Yarmysh’s house arrest until January 2022. Memorial considered the 10 activists of the “sanitary case” to be political prisoners.
According to an FSB internal report leaked to media, approximately 12,000 individuals, including 761 minors, were detained nationwide during the January 23 and 31 demonstrations on charges that included violations of COVID-19 preventive measures, violence against persons in authority, incitement of minors, and organization of an unauthorized protest. Media outlets reported that of those detained, 1,200 were sentenced to administrative arrest and 2,490 were fined for their participation in the demonstrations. The independent human rights media project OVD-Info reported that an additional 1,788 individuals were detained on April 21 during countrywide demonstrations after Navalny declared a hunger strike to seek medical care (see section 1.c.).
On February 11, the Ministry of Interior reported that it had opened 90 criminal cases for crimes committed during the demonstrations, with most cases to “illegal actions targeting police officers” or “repeated participation in an unauthorized protest.” For example, on March 3, a court in the Volga region sentenced a man to 18 months of forced labor for attacking a police officer during the January 23 protest after the man pleaded guilty to the charge. Based on information provided by the court reporter to OVD-Info, the man intervened in the detention of another protest participant, “causing the latter physical pain and bodily injury.”
Police often broke up protests that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. OVD-Info registered at least 140 reports of police brutality against demonstrators and monitored the initiation of 90 criminal cases against demonstrators. For example, in one instance filmed on January 23, police officers kicked a woman in the stomach, causing her to collapse and require medical assistance. On February 5, members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights released a statement urging officials to end the use of riot control weapons during the detention of peaceful demonstrators and to investigate “cases of excess of authority and hindrances to the activity of lawyers and journalists.”
There were reports that the government penalized employees for their participation in or support of unsanctioned assemblies. For example, at least 40 employees of the Moscow metro were dismissed in May for their participation in or support of the January and February protests. On May 14, Moscow City Duma deputy Mikhail Timonov reported that metro management ordered the dismal of employees whose names or whose relatives’ names appeared in a leaked database of Navalny supporters.
Media reported several instances in which authorities charged individuals for their alleged participation in or other support of the demonstrations even when the individual charged was already detained or the statute of limitations for that particular charge had expired. For example, an employee of Navalny’s political organization, Aleksandr Kopyev, was charged on February 19 for his alleged participation in a January 31 pro-Navalny demonstration, even though he had already been detained for his earlier involvement in a demonstration on January 23.
The courts occasionally acknowledged violations of citizens’ rights to assemble. For example, on March 3, the Smolninskiy District Court of St. Petersburg ordered the Ministry of Internal Affairs to pay compensation for moral damage to Sergey Dumtsev, who was detained for holding a single-person picket in 2019. The court found that the police had no right to stop the picket or to detain the activist and keep him in the police office for more than three hours. In another example, during the spring the Supreme Court of Tatarstan awarded compensation for moral damages to three activists from Naberezhnye Chelny after the executive committee refused their 2018 request to hold a rally against raising the retirement age.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect it. 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 continued to use the “foreign agents” 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 their operation, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. As of December 7, the Ministry of Justice’s registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 75 NGOs. The Ministry of Justice maintained separate registries of 111 media outlets and journalists designated as foreign agents as well as 49 “undesirable organizations” (see sections 2.a., Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events). NGOs designated as “foreign agents” are banned by law from observing elections and face other restrictions on their activity.
For the purposes of implementing the “foreign agents” law, the government considered “political activities” to include: organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and 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 attempting to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.
To be delisted, an NGO must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving that it did not receive any foreign funding or engage in any 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.
The law requires that NGOs on the foreign agents list identify themselves as “foreign agents” in all their public materials. Authorities fined NGOs for failing to disclose their “foreign agent” status on websites or printed materials. For example, on April 13, the Kuybyshevskiy District Court of St. Petersburg fined the Center for the Development of Nonprofit Organizations and its director, Anna Orlova, for failure to label social media posts appropriately.
Organizations the government listed 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. At the same time, the “foreign agent” label did not necessarily exclude organizations from receiving state-sponsored support.
The law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of “undesirable foreign organizations.” The list expanded during the year to 49 organizations as of December 7. The Ministry of Justice added three German NGOs involved in efforts to develop relations with Russia, three United Kingdom (UK) affiliates of opposition activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russian Foundation, a French NGO involved in educational exchange, a Czech NGO promoting freedom of information, a foreign college, two Church of Scientology organizations, the investigative outlet Proyekt, the International Partnership for Human Rights, four evangelical Christian groups, and the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations.
By law a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if it is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities did not clarify what specific threats these “undesirable” NGOs posed to the country. Any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” must cease its activities. Any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found guilty of continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison. On June 29, President Putin signed into law a bill that prohibits Russian citizens in any country from taking part in the work of NGOs designated as undesirable in Russia and from transferring money to Russia from certain countries under monitoring by the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, regardless of the transferred amount. The law became effective on October 1.
Authorities imposed criminal penalties for purported violations of the law on “undesirable foreign organizations.” On February 18, a court in Rostov-on-Don convicted political activist Anastasiya Shevchenko of violating the “undesirable organizations” law for her work with the UK-based NGO Open Russia. The court sentenced her to four years of parole and ended her house arrest. Shevchenko was the first person criminally charged under the “undesirable organizations” law. Amnesty International considered her a prisoner of conscience.
On March 13, law enforcement authorities detained all 194 participants at a forum for municipal and city council members organized by the unregistered political movement United Democrats. Authorities charged the detainees with administrative violations for allegedly “cooperating with an undesirable foreign organization,” even though United Democrats had not formally been recognized as such. Attendees, including anti-Kremlin analyst and activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, prominent municipal council members Ilya Yashin and Yuliya Galyamina, and former Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeniy Roizman, had gathered at a hotel in greater Moscow to exchange ideas and undergo training to enhance city and municipal governance. While those detained were released pending court hearings in subsequent months, the courts fined a number of the forum participants, including Galyamina, Roizman, and Yekaterinburg city deputy Konstantin Kiselyov. The Council of Deputies of the Timiryazevskiy district of Moscow announced its decision March 25 to deprive Galyamina of her status as a municipal deputy due to her repeated participation in unauthorized rallies; a Moscow City Court had sentenced Galyamina to two years’ probation for this offense in December 2020.
Citing the pending changes to legislation regarding “undesirable” organizations, director of the Russia-based Open Russia, Andrey Pivovarov, announced on May 27 that the organization would close all branches and annul memberships to prevent the criminal prosecution of its supporters. Even though the Open Russia organization was declared “undesirable” in 2017, the Russian political advocacy group with the same name had not been banned as of July. Despite his announcement, on May 31, Russian security forces boarded a flight prior to its departure from St. Petersburg and arrested Pivovarov. The Investigative Committee subsequently charged Pivovarov for participating in the activities of an “undesirable organization,” detaining him for two months in a pretrial detention facility in Krasnodar. On June 1, authorities also searched the premises of, detained, and opened criminal cases against other prominent Open Russia members, including former director Aleksandr Solovyov. A court in St. Petersburg fined Pivovarov for the production and distribution of materials of an organization acting as a foreign agent, without indicating its status on July 19. The opposition politician told media that he believed authorities were persecuting him for political reasons. On July 21, a court in Krasnodar extended Pivovarov’s pretrial detention through the end of October. He faced up to six years in prison if convicted on the charge of belonging to an undesirable organization. Memorial considered Pivovarov a political prisoner.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that received support from U.S. citizens or organizations are subject to suspension under the 2012 “Dima Yakovlev” law, which prohibits NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.
In February, President Putin signed into law new regulations and restrictions regarding “foreign agents” and those who disseminate information about them. The Ministry of Justice subsequently announced the creation of a new registry of “foreign agents,” consisting of unregistered NGOs or loosely defined “public associations” that purportedly receive funding from foreign sources and are engaged in political activity in Russia. Under the new law, individuals and NGOs who meet the criteria of a “foreign agent” are obliged to register or face criminal liability, with penalties of a fine of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,000), compulsory labor for up to 480 hours, or up to two years of correctional labor or prison. Under the law the Ministry of Justice may also assign the “foreign agent” status directly to individuals or associations. On August 18, the election-monitoring group Golos became the first association to be included in the list. On March 1, when the penalties under the law entered into force, prominent human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov announced the closure of the For Human Rights organization, an unregistered group of human rights activists established in 2019 after a Supreme Court ruling to liquidate his rights monitoring and advocacy organization with the same name. Ponomaryov, who was designated a “foreign agent” in December 2020 (see section 2.a.), filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 3, demanding his removal from the registry.
On March 3, the Ministry of Justice designated the independent trade union Alliance of Doctors as a “foreign agent,” citing its “repeated receipts of foreign funding, as well as the implementation of political activities.” Anastasiya Vasilyeva, the leader of the trade union and an associate of Navalny, was one of the activists charged as part of the “sanitary case” for violating COVID-19 protocol in the organization of the January 23 protest (see section 2.b.). Memorial considered her a political prisoner.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism to stifle freedom of association. On June 4, President Putin signed a law that prohibits members of “extremist” organizations from participating in elections at all levels – municipal, regional, and federal. An organization’s founders and leaders are barred from running for elected office for five years from the date of the organization’s ban, while members and others “involved in its work” are barred for three years. In addition to direct membership, a person may be considered by the courts to be “involved” in the organization if that individual makes a statement of support for the group, including on social media, transfers money to it, or offers any other form of “assistance.” The ban may also be applied retroactively, barring individuals from running for office if they were involved with the group up to three years prior to the extremist designation. Experts and both “systemic opposition” (effectively progovernment) and independent politicians decried the law as politically motivated and unconstitutional, citing the law’s retroactive nature and ability to disenfranchise thousands of individuals as evident violations of the constitution.
On June 9, a Moscow city court designated Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation, his political operations, and the affiliated Citizens’ Rights Protection Fund as “extremist” in a move that experts said was designed to prohibit those affiliated with Navalny and the Anticorruption Foundation from running for office. In April the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office had filed a lawsuit seeking the organizations’ designation as “extremist,” which led to an injunction to freeze the organizations’ bank accounts and the suspension of their activities. Experts characterized this designation and legislative changes to the “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations” legislation as targeted political repression against opposition groups ahead of the September elections (see section 3).
In multiple cases authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).
There were reports authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTQI+ community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
Authorities misused antiterrorism and antiextremism laws, as well as other measures to label wrongfully peaceful religious groups and their practices “terrorist,” “extremist,” and “undesirable.” Among those designated without any credible evidence of violent actions or intentions were two foreign-based Church of Scientology organizations, four Protestant groups from Latvia and Ukraine, a regional branch of Falun Gong and seven Falun Gong-associated NGOs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community, Tablighi Jamaat, followers of the Muslim theologian Said Nursi, and Hizb ut-Tahrir. These designations effectively banned their worship and activities, and members were subject to prolonged imprisonment, harsh detention conditions, house arrest and house raids, discrimination, harassment, and criminal investigation for participating in the activities of a “banned extremist organization” (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
There were reports civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that in most cases law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. For example, on July 1, an ecological activist in Tambov Oblast, Roman Gerasimov, was attacked and stabbed three times by assailants after he filmed a video for President Putin’s annual call-in press conference requesting that a planned new landfill not be built in his region.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but in some cases authorities restricted these rights.
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 different location. To have their files transferred, persons with official refugee or asylum status must notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs in advance of relocating 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.
Authorities imposed in-country travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes.
Foreign Travel: The law provides for freedom to travel abroad, but the government restricted this right for certain groups. The law stipulates that a person who violates a court decision does not have a right to leave the country. A court may also 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 had access to classified material. The law allows for the temporary restriction of the right to leave the country for citizens with outstanding debts.
The government restricted the foreign travel of millions of its employees, prescribing which countries they are and are not allowed to visit. The restriction applies to employees of agencies including the Prosecutor General’s Office, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Defense, Federal Prison Service, Federal Drug Control Service, Federal Bailiff Service, General Administration for Migration Issues, and Ministry of Emergency Situations. On July 7, media outlets reported that Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed a decree stating that prior to traveling abroad, his deputies and ministers must obtain his written permission. The travel restriction would also apply to lower-ranking officials, such as heads of agencies, who must obtain permission from their supervisors before travel.
Citizenship: There were reports that the government revoked citizenship on an arbitrary or discriminatory basis. For example, in April 2020 the Internal Affairs Ministry stripped the citizenship of Feliks Makhammadiyev and Konstantin Bazhenov, two members of Jehovah’s Witnesses convicted of “extremism” on the basis of their religious beliefs. Makhammadiyev was left stateless as a result. In January authorities deported Makhammadiyev to Uzbekistan. Media outlets reported that authorities revoked the residency permits of several foreign nationals who had participated in the January and February protests in support of Aleksey Navalny and the people of Belarus, including individuals married to Russian citizens.
In another example, on October 26, authorities deported Tajikistan-born Bakhtiyor Usmonov, separating him from his wife and children. Usmonov’s deportation followed his successful case in the ECHR against the Russian state, which annulled his citizenship and held him in a detention center for foreign citizens for two years. The ECHR ordered the Russian government to restore Usmonov’s citizenship and to pay him compensation in the amount of 11,000 euros ($12,700).
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimated the country was home to 1,230 internally displaced persons (IDPs) as of December 2020. Of these, the center asserted that 130 IDPs were displaced due to weather-related events, such as floods, and 1,100 were displaced because of conflict and violence.
According to the government’s official statistics, the number of “forced” migrants, which under the government’s definition includes refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs, decreased from 9,485 in 2019 to 5,323 in January 2020 and again in January 2021 to 2,512. The government indicated that most forced migrants came from Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
Reliable information on whether the government promoted the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs was not available. According to the independent NGOs Civic Assistance Committee and Memorial, most IDPs in the country were displaced by the Ossetian-Ingush conflict of 1992 and the Chechen wars in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. The Ossetian-Ingush conflict displaced Ingush from the territory of North Ossetia-Alania, and the Chechen wars displaced Chechens. The government provided minimal financial support for housing to persons registered as IDPs. The Civic Assistance Committee criticized the government’s strict rules for qualifying for assistance and long backlog of persons waiting for housing support.
f. Protection of Refugees
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported it had a working relationship with the government on asylum, refugee, and stateless persons problems. The Civic Assistance Committee reported, however, that the government failed to provide protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. On April 5, President Putin signed a law adopting the charter of the International Organization for Migration, which promotes the organized movement of migrants and refugees.
Access to Asylum: The law provides 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 ($445) to General Administration for Migration Issues adjudicators to have their application reviewed. Applicants who did not speak Russian often had to pay for a private interpreter. Human rights organizations noted that nearly all newly arrived asylum seekers in large cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. NGOs also noted difficulty in applying for asylum due to long queues and lack of clear application procedures. The General Administration for Migration Issues approved only a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum, with exception of applications from Ukrainians, who had a much higher chance of approval.
Human rights organizations noted the government’s issuance of refugee and temporary asylum status decreased over the previous few years, pointing to the government’s systematic and arbitrary refusal to grant asylum. NGOs reported that authorities encouraged applicants to return to their countries of origin.
Authorities reportedly also had blanket authority to grant temporary asylum to Syrians, but local migration experts noted a decrease in the number of Syrians afforded temporary asylum, suggesting that the General Administration for Migration Issues had not renewed the temporary asylum of hundreds of Syrians and, in some cases, encouraged applicants to return to Syria.
Refoulement: The concept of nonrefoulement is not explicitly stated in the law. 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, the General Administration for Migration Issues, did not maintain a presence at airports or other border points and did not adequately publicize that asylum seekers may 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 deportation to neighboring countries or return to their countries of origin, including in some cases to countries where they may have had reasonable grounds to fear persecution.
According to Memorial, on March 23, Russian authorities rejected the asylum request of Rozgeldy Choliyev, a citizen of Turkmenistan facing prosecution for public criticism of his home country’s government. Choliyev had arrived in Moscow from Istanbul and spent three weeks in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport waiting for a response to his request before being deported back to Turkey because all flights from Moscow to Ashgabat were cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. Memorial said that Choliyev faced extradition from Turkey to Turkmenistan, where he could be prosecuted for his public criticism of the government.
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 among 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. For example, on July 21, a Russian court ruled that Alyaksey Kudzin, world champion kickboxer and outspoken critic of Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, could be extradited to face charges for assaulting a security officer during prodemocracy protests in Belarus in August 2020. Despite an earlier ECHR opinion that banned his extradition over concerns that he may be politically persecuted and tortured, Kudzin was handed over to Belarusian authorities and sentenced on August 11 to two and one-half years in prison.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: NGOs reported that police detained, fined, and threatened migrants and refugees with deportation.
In some cases temporary asylum holders who received refugee status from third countries were not granted exit visas or allowed to depart the country.
Employment: Employers frequently refused to hire applicants who lacked residential registration. UNHCR reported that employers frequently were not familiar with laws permitting employment for refugees and asylum seekers without work permits and refused to hire them. NGOs reported that refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants were vulnerable to exploitation in the form of forced labor because of the lack of proper documents and insufficient Russian language skills.
Access to Basic Services: By law successful temporary asylum seekers and persons whose applications were being processed have the right to work, to receive medical care, and to attend school. The government considered Ukrainian asylum seekers to be separate from asylum seekers from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. NGOs reported authorities provided some services to Ukrainian asylum seekers, but there were instances in which applicants from other countries were denied the same service, including access to medical care and food banks.
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 or who did not speak Russian. The Civic Assistance Committee reported that approximately one-third of the children of refugees were enrolled in schools. When parents encountered difficulties enrolling their children in school, authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR to resolve the problem.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. As of January 1, a total of 19,817 persons, 92 percent of whom were citizens of Ukraine, held a certificate of temporary asylum in Russia. A person who does not satisfy the criteria for refugee status, but who for humanitarian reasons could not be expelled or deported, may receive temporary asylum after submitting a separate application. There were reports, however, of authorities not upholding the principle of temporary protection.
g. Stateless Persons
According to the 2010 population census, the country was home to 178,000 self-declared stateless persons. Official statistics did not differentiate between stateless persons and other categories of persons seeking assistance. UNHCR data showed 60,185 stateless persons, including forcibly displaced stateless persons, in the country at the end of 2020. Law, policy, and procedures allow stateless persons and their children born in the country to gain nationality. The Civic Assistance Committee noted that most stateless persons in the country were elderly, ill, or single former Soviet Union passport holders who missed the opportunity to claim Russian citizenship after the Soviet Union broke up. The NGO reported various bureaucratic hurdles as obstacles to obtaining legal status in the country. On February 24, President Putin signed a law authorizing temporary identity certificates for stateless persons that would be valid for 10 years or until the holder receives citizenship or a residence permit in another country.