The Russian Federation has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin. The bicameral Federal Assembly consists of a directly elected lower house (State Duma) and an appointed upper house (Federation Council), both of which lack independence from the executive. The 2018 presidential election and the September 19 State Duma elections were marked by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process, including the exclusion of meaningful opposition candidates.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, Federal Security Service, Investigative Committee, Office of the Prosecutor General, and National Guard are responsible for law enforcement. The Federal Security Service is responsible for state security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism, as well as for fighting organized crime and corruption. The national police force, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for combating all crime. The National Guard assists the Federal Security Service’s Border Guard Service in securing borders, administers gun control, combats terrorism and organized crime, protects public order, and guards important state facilities. The National Guard also participates in armed defense of the country’s territory in coordination with Ministry of Defense forces. Except in rare cases, security forces generally report to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities maintained, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which are accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. There were credible reports that members of the Russian security forces committed numerous human rights abuses.
The country’s occupation and purported annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula continued to affect the human rights situation there significantly and negatively. The Russian government continued to arm, train, lead, and fight alongside Russia-led separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities; pervasive torture by government law enforcement officers that sometimes resulted in death and occasionally involved sexual violence or punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrest and detention; political and religious prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country; severe arbitrary interference with privacy; severe suppression of freedom of expression and media, including violence against journalists and the use of “antiextremism” and other laws to prosecute peaceful dissent and religious minorities; severe restrictions on internet freedom; severe suppression of the freedom of peaceful assembly; severe suppression of freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organizations”; severe restrictions of religious freedom; refoulement of refugees; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; severe limits on participation in the political process, including restrictions on opposition candidates’ ability to seek public office and conduct political campaigns, and on the ability of civil society to monitor election processes; widespread corruption at all levels and in all branches of government; serious government restrictions on and harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence and violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of ethnic and religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer persons.
The government failed to take adequate steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish most officials who committed abuses and engaged in corruption, resulting in a climate of impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, numerous credible reports indicated law enforcement officers engaged in torture, abuse, and violence to coerce confessions from suspects, and authorities only occasionally held officials accountable for such actions.
There were reports of deaths because of torture (see section 1.a., above).
Physical abuse of suspects by police officers was reportedly systemic and usually occurred within the first few days of arrest in pretrial detention facilities. Reports from human rights groups and former police officers indicated that police most often used electric shocks, suffocation, and stretching or applying pressure to joints and ligaments because those methods were considered less likely to leave visible marks. The problem was especially acute in the North Caucasus. According to the Civic Assistance Committee, prisoners in the North Caucasus complained of mistreatment, unreasonable punishment, religious and ethnic harassment, and inadequate provision of medical care.
There were reports that police beat or otherwise abused persons, in some cases resulting in their death. Police used excessive force and harsh tactics to encircle and detain protesters during countrywide protests in late January and early February calling for the release of Aleksey Navalny, who was detained on January 17 upon his return to Russia and sentenced to prison on February 2 (see section 1.d.). On April 26, the online news outlet Meduza published an article detailing multiple instances of excessive use of force and harsh treatment against detainees held in custody during the April 21 protests in St. Petersburg. In one example, police detained a protester for filming the arrests and shocked him with a taser on the way to the police van, “triggering symptoms of cardiac arrythmia,” according to Meduza.
There were reports that law enforcement officers used torture, including sleep deprivation, as a form of punishment against detained opposition and human rights activists, journalists, and critics of government policies. For example, on March 31, Navalny initiated a hunger strike to protest authorities’ failure to provide him a requested medical examination and treatment for pain and loss of mobility in his legs after he was transferred on March 15 to the Penal Colony No. 2 (IK-2) in the Vladimir region (see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest and Detention). Prison authorities also subjected Navalny for months to hourly wake-ups through the night by prison authorities on the pretense that he was a “flight risk.” Navalny likened this treatment to torture through sleep deprivation. On April 23, he ended his hunger strike after being permitted access to outside medical care. On June 28, a Moscow district court rejected Navalny’s request to be removed from the “prone to escape” list. Navalny continued to be treated as a flight risk until October 11, when he was instead designated an extremist and a terrorist.
Several activists affiliated with Navalny and his political activities or the Anticorruption Foundation also reported being tortured or abused by security officials while in their custody. Alena Kitayeva, a volunteer for Navalny associate Lyubov Sobol, who was issued a 12-day administrative arrest in February, accused police officers of torture after they placed a bag over her head and threatened her with a stun gun if she did not provide them her cell phone password.
In several cities police reportedly subjected members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious group banned without basis under antiextremism laws, to physical abuse and torture during and following their arrest. For example, on October 4, during coordinated home raids by Interior Ministry and National Guard forces targeting members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Irkutsk, four members of the group alleged that they were severely beaten, one of whom additionally alleged he was tortured. One member, Anatoliy Razdabarov, was allegedly kicked in the head and kidneys and threatened with rape, while his wife Greta was dragged by her hair before being beaten. Nikolay Merinov was hit in the face with a blunt object, breaking one of his teeth and knocking him unconscious. When he regained consciousness, an officer was sitting on him and beating him. Merinov’s wife Liliya reported she was also dragged by her hair and physically assaulted.
There were reports of the FSB using torture against young “anarchists and antifascist activists” who were allegedly involved in several “terrorism” and “extremism” cases.
In the North Caucasus region, there were widespread reports that security forces abused and tortured both alleged militants and civilians in detention facilities. For example, on October 24, newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on the case of Salman Mukayev, a Chechen man who was detained and allegedly tortured in 2020 because security forces, based on a text message, believed him to be gay. The officers reportedly suffocated Mukayev with a bag, kicked him, subjected him to electric shocks for hours and attempted to co-opt him to identify members of the LGBTQI+ community in Chechnya. After his release, Mukayev fled Russia.
There were reports of authorities detaining defendants for psychiatric evaluations to exert pressure on them or sending defendants for psychiatric treatment as punishment. Prosecutors and certified medical professionals may request suspects be placed in psychiatric clinics on an involuntary basis. For example, on January 27, authorities forcibly hospitalized Siberian shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev after he renewed his 2019 calls to “expel” Vladimir Putin from power and missed a court-mandated appointment related to his May 2020 detention (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Russia for 2020). In mid-March the Yakut psychiatric hospital declared Gabyshev insane. On July 26, the Yakutsk City Court ruled that Gabyshev be confined indefinitely to a psychiatric hospital for compulsory intensive treatment.
Reports of nonlethal physical abuse and hazing continued in the armed forces. Activists reported such hazing was often tied to extortion schemes. On May 27, the online media outlet 29.ru published an article describing the abuse of a 21-year-old conscript, Dmitriy Lapenkov, who was serving in the city of Yurga in Kemerovo Oblast. Lapenkov’s mother told the outlet he was subjected to severe hazing, including being forced to take an unknown tablet and call relatives to ask for large sums of money. He was subsequently transferred to a psychiatric hospital in the city of Novosibirsk in an incoherent state. His mother claimed he had sustained a brain injury because of beating.
There were reports that Russia-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region and Russian occupation authorities in Crimea engaged in torture (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. In most cases where law enforcement officers or other government officials were publicly implicated in human rights abuses, authorities denied internal and external requests for independent investigation and engaged in disinformation campaigns or other efforts to obfuscate such allegations. The government’s propensity to ignore serious human rights allegations along with the uneven application of the rule of law and a lack of judicial transparency resulted in impunity for most perpetrators.
The few investigations into official abuses that were conducted often concerned allegations of torture in detention and pretrial detention facilities that were exposed by whistleblowers or independent media. For example, on June 28, the Kanavinskiy District Court of Nizhny Novgorod sentenced former police officers Aleksey Khrulev and Nikolay Atamashko to two and one-half years in prison for abuse of office with violence. In 2015 the officers detained and beat Leonid Murskiy until he signed a confession for selling drugs.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in prisons and detention centers varied but were often harsh and life threatening. Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a serious problem. While the law mandates the separation of women and men, juveniles and adults, and pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners in separate quarters, anecdotal evidence indicated not all prison facilities followed these rules. In March 2020 Amnesty International stated that prisons’ overcrowding, poor ventilation, and inadequate health care and sanitation led to a high risk of COVID-19 infection among prisoners and detainees. According to a Council of Europe report released on April 8, the mortality rate of the Russian prison population in 2019 increased by more than 12 percent, compared with the previous year.
Physical and sexual abuse by prison guards was systemic. For example, on February 8, media outlets reported that the Russian Investigative Committee brought charges of torture and extortion against the former head and staff of detention center No. 1 in Makhachkala. According to an investigation conducted from 2015 to 2019, the former head of the center, Daud Davydov, and two of his subordinates regularly beat a former investigator of the Investigative Committee, who was himself accused of torture and illegal imprisonment. The detention center officials faced charges of abuse of power with the use of violence, extortion, fraud with the use of an official position, and bribery by a group of persons. As of October no date was set for the court case.
Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was also a problem. For example, the lawyer of Pavel Sheremet, a detainee in the regional tuberculosis hospital No. 1 in Saratov, told media that inmates at the facility beat and sexually assaulted Sheremet on June 3. Media outlets reported that the prosecutor’s office of the Saratov Region initiated an investigation into the allegations, although as of October no further information was available on the outcome of the case.
There were reports prison authorities recruited inmates to abuse other inmates. For example, on March 3, authorities detained the head of the Irkutsk penal colony No. 6 (IK-6) after reports emerged that he condoned the rape and beating of prisoner Takhirzhon Bakiyev by prison staff. According to media reporting, on January 20, after transferring to IK-6 from another facility, Bakiyev was placed in a “torture squad,” where, with the knowledge and complicity of the prison guards, his cellmates then proceeded to rape and beat him before tying him up. Videos obtained by the NGO Gulagu.net in October documented numerous cases of prisoners in the Saratov region being enlisted or coerced by prison officials to abuse and in some cases rape other inmates.
Overcrowding, ventilation, heating, sanitation, and nutritional standards varied among facilities but generally were poor. Opportunities for movement and exercise in pretrial detention were minimal. Potable water was sometimes rationed, and food quality was poor; many inmates relied on food provided by family or NGOs. Access to quality medical care remained a problem. For example, in early April the former governor of Khabarovsk Kray, Sergey Furgal, contracted COVID-19 while detained in the Lefortovo pretrial detention center, according to his lawyer. NGOs reported that approximately 50 percent of prisoners with HIV did not receive adequate treatment, with treatment provided only to inmates with a CD4 white blood cell count below a certain level. NGOs reported the supplies of some antiretroviral drugs were occasionally interrupted.
There were reports that political prisoners were placed in particularly harsh conditions and subjected to punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units. For example, on March 2, the New York Times reported that prisoners in the isolation unit of penal colony IK-2, including Aleksey Navalny, were forced to stand for hours with their hands clasped behind their backs and were forbidden from making eye contact with prison guards. Former political prisoners described having to carry out meaningless tasks multiple times a day and being sent to the “punishment brigade” for minor infractions, conditions that one prisoner described as psychologically harrowing. In March media outlets reported that authorities issued 20 violations to Navalny in his first month of prison, including for getting out of bed 10 minutes before the scheduled “wake up” command. On January 20, Navalny filed a complaint to the ECHR concerning the poor conditions of his detention center, which he characterized as a “friendly concentration camp.” On April 16, the ECHR gave the government of Russia notice it should respond by July 12. No public announcement concerning Russia’s response had been made by year’s end.
During the year media coverage of multiple allegations of torture at several penal colonies and testimony from victims and their family members prompted investigations by the Federal Penitentiary System. In one example, on February 23, the Investigative Committee opened an investigation into abuse of power after media published two videos of abuse at penal colony No. 1 (IK-1) in Yaroslavl. Staff at the prison had previously been convicted of torture-related crimes stemming from a separate 2018 video depicting the abuse of an inmate. In May media outlets reported that the Investigative Committee had detained 10 staff members of the IK-1 prison, although as of July, no information was available on the outcome of the investigation. On October 5, after the release of numerous videos depicting the torture and rape of inmates in the Saratov regional tuberculosis hospital No. 1, the Federal Penitentiary System opened an investigation into abuses at the facility.
Administration: While prisoners may file complaints with public oversight commissions or with the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, they often did not do so due to fear of reprisal. Prison reform activists reported that only prisoners who believed they had no other option risked the consequences of filing a complaint. Complaints that reached the oversight commissions often focused on minor personal requests.
Convicted inmates and individuals in pretrial detention have visitation rights, but authorities may deny visitation depending on circumstances. By law prisoners with harsher sentences are allowed fewer visitation rights. The judge in a prisoner’s case may deny the prisoner visitation. Authorities may also prohibit relatives deemed a security risk from visiting prisoners. Some pretrial detainees believed authorities sometimes denied visitation and telephone access to pressure them into providing confessions.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted representatives of public oversight commissions to visit prisons regularly to monitor conditions. According to the Public Chamber, there were public oversight commissions in almost all regions. Human rights activists expressed concern that some members of the commissions were individuals close to authorities and included persons with law enforcement backgrounds.
By law members of oversight commissions have the right to videotape and photograph inmates in detention facilities and prisons with their written approval. Commission members may also collect air samples, conduct other environmental inspections, conduct safety evaluations, and access prison psychiatric facilities. The law permits human rights activists not listed in public oversight commissions to visit detentions centers and prisons. The NGO Interregional Center for Women’s Support, working with detained migrants, noted that only after a specific detainee submits a request and contacts the NGO may the organization obtain permission to visit a given detention center.
Authorities allowed the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture to visit the country’s prisons and release some reports on conditions but continued to withhold permission for it to release all recent reports.
There were reports of authorities prosecuting journalists and activists for reporting torture. For example, Vladimir Taranenko, an employee of the human rights organization Siberia Pravovaya detained in pretrial detention facility No. 1 of the Kemerovo region on extortion charges, told media on July 6 that he had been tortured by prison authorities who sought access to the Siberia Pravovaya YouTube channel. Siberia Pravovaya provides legal assistance to convicts and prisoners and publishes accounts of prison abuse on its YouTube channel, and human rights defenders alleged that Taranenko was prosecuted on fabricated charges because of his activism.