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
There were several reports the government or its agents committed, or attempted to commit, arbitrary or unlawful killings. Impunity was a significant problem in investigating whether security force killings were justifiable (see section 1.e.).
Officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) poisoned opposition activist and anticorruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny in August 2020 with a form of Novichok, a nerve agent that was also used in the 2018 attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergey Skripal in the United Kingdom. In December 2020 investigations published by the independent outlets Bellingcat and The Insider identified eight FSB officers suspected to have been involved in Navalny’s poisoning based on telephone records and travel data as well as an inadvertent confession by one of the FSB officials. On June 11, Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation published the results of an investigation that alleged the doctors who treated Navalny at a hospital in Omsk falsified his original medical records to hide evidence of his poisoning. At year’s end Russian Federation representatives continued to reject requests to open an investigation into the circumstances of Navalny’s poisoning and repeated denials that he had been poisoned by a nerve agent.
In an investigation published on January 27, Bellingcat, The Insider, and Der Spiegel implicated several of the same FSB officials in the deaths of at least two other Russian activists between 2014 and 2019: Timur Kuashev, a journalist critical of Russia’s invasion of Crimea who died in 2014, and Ruslan Magomedragimov, an activist for the Lezgin ethnic minority group who died in 2015. According to reporting at the time, both died of apparent poisoning, although neither death was investigated by authorities as suspicious. In another joint investigation, Bellingcat, The Insider, and Der Spiegel reported on February 12 that some of the same FSB officials had followed opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza immediately preceding his poisoning with an unknown substance in two assassination attempts in 2015 and 2017. On June 10, Bellingcat and The Insider reported that the same FSB officers were also implicated in the 2019 poisoning and near death of writer, journalist, and Russian government critic Dmitriy Bykov.
Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media outlets continued to publish reports indicating that, from December 2018 to January 2019, local authorities in the Republic of Chechnya renewed a campaign of violence against individuals perceived to be members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community. In February the news outlet Novaya Gazeta published information corroborating previous reports that Chechen security officials extrajudicially executed 27 residents of the Republic of Chechnya in 2017. As part of its investigation into the abuses, Novaya Gazeta interviewed former Chechen police sergeant Suleyman Gezmakhmayev, who testified that his police regiment, the Akhmat Kadyrov Police Patrol Service Regiment, carried out mass arrests and some of the extrajudicial killings of the 27 residents between December 2016 and January 2017. Media reported that Chechen police officers subsequently sought to force Gezmakhmayev to recant his testimony by putting pressure on relatives who remained in Chechnya. On March 15, presidential press secretary Dmitriy Peskov told reporters that the government was aware of Novaya Gazeta’s investigations into the extrajudicial executions in Chechnya but did not have the prerogative to investigate. Media outlets reported that the former head of the regiment, Aslan Iraskhanov, was appointed head of Chechnya’s police at the end of March. According to human rights organizations, as of December authorities had failed to open investigations into the allegations or reports of extrajudicial killings and mass torture of LGBTQI+ persons in Chechnya and continued to deny there were any LGBTQI+ persons in the republic.
There were multiple reports that, in some prison colonies, authorities systematically tortured inmates (see section 1.c.), in some cases resulting in death or suicide. According to media reports, on February 27, a prisoner, Adygzhy Aymyr-ool, was found dead at the Irkutsk Penal Colony No. 25 (IK-25) prison with signs of torture on his body. Relatives of Aymyr-ool told media that he had previously complained of beatings and poor detention conditions. The Federal Penitentiary System Office of the Irkutsk Region told media it would investigate the cause of his death but denied reports detailing signs of a violent death. On October 5, the human rights group Gulagu.net announced it had obtained more than 1,000 leaked videos showing Russian prison officials torturing and sexually abusing inmates or forcing inmates to subject other inmates to such abuse in the Saratov region and elsewhere.
There were reports that the government or its proxies committed, or attempted to commit, extrajudicial killings of its opponents in other countries. On February 19, Ukraine filed a complaint against the Russian Federation in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for its role in the “political assassinations of opponents.” Ukraine claimed that “operations to target the alleged opponents of the Russian state are carried out in Russia and on the territory of other states, including the member states of the Council of Europe, outside the situation of armed conflict.” On December 15, a German court sentenced a Russian citizen, Vadim Krasikov, to life in prison for killing a former Chechen rebel commander of Georgian nationality, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, in a Berlin park in 2019. Prosecutors claimed that Krasikov traveled to Germany under an alias and belonged to a special unit of the FSB. The presiding judge concluded that “the central government of the Russian Federation was the author of this crime.”
The country continued to engage in armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, where human rights organizations attributed thousands of civilian deaths, widespread displacement of persons, and other abuses to Russia-led forces. Russian occupation authorities in Crimea also committed widespread abuses (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Since 2015 the country’s armed forces conducted military operations, including airstrikes, in the conflict in Syria. According to human rights organizations, the country’s forces took actions, such as bombing urban areas, that intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Syria).
Since 2017 the country provided the Central African Republic Army unarmed military advisors under the auspices of parameters established by the UN Security Council sanctions regime. According to a report presented by the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic to the UN Security Council Committee on May 20, the Russian advisors actively participated in, and often led, combat operations on the ground and participated in abuses against civilians, including cases of excessive use of force, harsh interrogation tactics, numerous killings of civilians, and looting of homes on a large scale (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for the Central African Republic).
The news website Caucasian Knot reported that violent confrontations with security forces resulted in at least 19 deaths in the North Caucasus during the first half of the year. Chechnya was the most affected region, with five law enforcement officers injured and six suspected armed insurgents killed.
There were reports of disappearances perpetrated by or on behalf of government authorities. Enforced disappearances for both political and financial reasons continued in the North Caucasus. According to the August 2020 report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, there were 896 outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances in the country.
There were reports that police committed enforced disappearances and abductions during the year.
Security forces were allegedly complicit in the kidnapping and disappearance of individuals from Central Asia, whose forcible return was apparently sought by their governments (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
There were continued reports of abductions and torture in the North Caucasus, including of political activists, LGBTQI+ persons, and others critical of Chechnya head Kadyrov. For example, in September 2020 Salman Tepsurkayev, a 19-year-old Chechen activist and moderator of 1ADAT, a social media channel that was highly critical of Kadyrov, was kidnapped and subjected to abuse and humiliation in a disturbing video, reportedly by officers of the Akhmat Kadyrov Post and Patrol Service Regiment of the Chechen Police. Media outlets reported in January that the Investigative Committee of Gelendzhik in Krasnodar Kray opened an investigation into Tepsurkayev’s disappearance. As of December, however, Tepsurkayev’s whereabouts were unknown. On October 19, the ECHR found Russian state agents responsible for the disappearance and torture of Tepsurkayev and ordered the Russian Federation to pay 26,000 euros ($29,900) in compensation.
On June 23, the ECHR ordered Russia to pay damages of almost two million euros ($2.3 million) to the relatives of 11 persons, mainly from the ethnic Avar minority, who went missing in Chechnya in 2005 during an operation by a military unit composed of ethnic Chechens. In its ruling, the ECHR stated that Russia had violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to life.
There were reports Russia-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in enforced disappearances (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
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.
While the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, authorities engaged in these practices with impunity. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention, but successful challenges were rare.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but judges remained subject to influence from the executive branch, the armed forces, and other security forces, particularly in high-profile or politically sensitive cases, as well as to corruption. The outcomes of some trials appeared predetermined. Acquittal rates remained extremely low. In 2020 courts acquitted 0.34 percent of all defendants.
There were reports of pressure on defense attorneys representing clients who were being subjected to politically motivated prosecution and other forms of reprisal. According to a 2019 report from the Agora International Human Rights Group, it was common practice for judges to remove defense attorneys from court hearings without a legitimate basis in retaliation for their providing clients with an effective defense. The report also documented a trend of law enforcement authorities using physical force to interfere with the work of defense attorneys, including the use of violence to prevent them from being present during searches and interrogations.
The law forbids officials from entering a private residence except in cases prescribed by federal law or when authorized by a judicial decision. The law also prohibits the collection, storage, utilization, and dissemination of information about a person’s private life without his or her consent. While the law previously prohibited government monitoring of correspondence, telephone conversations, and other means of communication without a warrant, those legal protections were significantly weakened by laws passed after 2016 granting authorities sweeping powers and requiring telecommunications providers to store all electronic and telecommunication data (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). Politicians from minority parties, NGOs, human rights activists, and journalists alleged that authorities routinely employed surveillance and other measures to spy on and intimidate citizens.
Law enforcement agencies required telecommunications providers to grant the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB continuous remote access to client databases, including telephone and electronic communications, enabling them to track private communications and monitor internet activity without the provider’s knowledge. The law permits authorities with a warrant to monitor telephone calls in real time, but this safeguard was largely pro forma. The Ministry of Information and Communication requires telecommunications service providers to allow the FSB to tap telephones and monitor the internet. On July 1, President Putin signed into law a bill that allows security services to obtain data on the location of mobile telephones without a court order for a period of 24 hours, or 48 hours in the case of a missing minor. Prior to the adoption of this amendment, even though the Ministry of Information and Communication maintained that authorities would not access information without a court order, the FSB was not required to show it.
Law enforcement officials reportedly accessed, collected, or used private communications or personal data arbitrarily or unlawfully or without appropriate legal authority.
The law requires explicit consent for governmental and private collection of biometric data via facial recognition technology. Laws on public security and crime prevention, however, provide for exceptions to this consent requirement. Human rights activists claimed the law lacks appropriate safeguards to prevent the misuse of these data, especially without any judicial or public oversight over surveillance methods and technologies.
Authorities punished family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives. On January 27, police detained Aleksey Navalny’s brother Oleg (see section 1.d.) the same day as police searched the houses of at least 13 Navalny associates, including those of his wife Yuliya and his colleague Lyubov Sobol, as well as the headquarters of “Navalny Live,” Navalny’s anticorruption YouTube channel. Critics characterized the police tactics as efforts to punish or pressure Navalny, who remained detained at the time. In subsequent months authorities exerted similar pressure on the families of Navalny’s associates residing outside of the country, such as Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s former campaign manager, and Ivan Zhdanov, the former director of the Anticorruption Foundation.
According to a December 2020 study by the information and analytical agency TelecomDaily, the country had more than 13 million closed-circuit television cameras in 2020, with approximately one-third of these installed by the government and the rest by businesses and individuals to protect private property. By the end of 2020, approximately 200,000 government surveillance cameras were installed in Moscow and equipped with Russian-developed automated facial recognition software as part of its “Safe City” program. The system was initially installed in key public places, such as metro stations and apartment entrances, to scan crowds against a database of wanted individuals. During the demonstrations on April 21 (see section 1.d.), authorities used facial recognition data to identify protesters, sometimes incorrectly, days after the demonstration.
In 2020 the State Duma adopted a law to create a unified federal register containing information on all the country’s residents, including their names, dates and places of birth, and marital status. According to press reports, intelligence and security services would have access to the database in their investigations. There were reports that authorities threatened to remove children from the custody of parents engaged in political activism or some forms of religious worship, or parents who were LGBTQI+ persons. Several families reportedly left the country due to fear of arrest, although as of October no related arrests were reported.
The law requires relatives of terrorists to pay the cost of damages caused by an attack, which human rights advocates criticized as collective punishment. Chechen Republic authorities reportedly routinely imposed collective punishment on the relatives of alleged terrorists, including by expelling them from the republic.