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 March 18 presidential election and the 2016 State Duma elections were marked by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process, including the exclusion of meaningful opposition candidates.
Except in rare cases, security forces generally reported to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities, however, had, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which were accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
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 forces in eastern Ukraine. Credible observers attributed thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as numerous abuses, to Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region (see the Country Reports on Human Rights for Ukraine). Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured.
Human rights issues included extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances by government authorities; pervasive torture by government law enforcement personnel that sometimes resulted in death and sometimes involved punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary or unjust arrest and detention; political prisoners; severe arbitrary interference with privacy; severe suppression of freedom of expression and media, including the use of “antiextremism” and other laws to prosecute peaceful dissent; violence against journalists; blocking and filtering of internet content and banning of online anonymity; severe suppression of the right of peaceful assembly; increasingly severe suppression of freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organizations;” severe restrictions on religious freedom; undue restrictions on freedom of movement of those charged with political offenses; credible reports of refoulement; 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; trafficking in persons; government decriminalization of domestic abuse, which created an atmosphere of impunity for domestic violence against women; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against LGBTI persons and members of ethnic minorities.
The government failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. During the year the government instituted several new laws restricting both freedom of expression and of the press, particularly in regards to online expression. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous issues, especially of Ukraine and Syria, LGBTI issues, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as issues of secessionism, or federalism. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was increasingly widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television.
Freedom of Expression: Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a climate intolerant of dissent.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of September 11, the Ministry of Justice expanded its list of extremist materials to include 4,507 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of more than 200 items from 2017. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 1,500 extremism cases in 2017, some of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
Several persons were charged with extremism under the criminal code for comments and images posted in online forums or social networks. For example, on February 11, a court in Stariy Oskol sentenced 23-year-old doctoral student Aleksandr Kruze to 2.5 years in prison for extremism for reposting four nationalist images on social media in 2016. Kruze had been writing a dissertation on radicalization and maintained that the posts had been a part of a research experiment in online discourse around radicalism.
In September the Supreme Court amended its 2011 decree regarding publication of extremist material online to require authorities to have proof of criminal intent in order for them to prosecute. Authorities must now prove in court that publications or reposts were made with the intent “to incite hate or ill will.”
By law authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet outlets it suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.
During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, on August 7, a court in Biysk fined 16-year-old Maxim Neverov 50,000 rubles ($750) for posting images of shirtless men on a social network. The Russia LGBT Network attributed the case against Neverov to his organizing of a May public protest called “Gay or Putin.” On October 26, an appeals court overturned the lower court decision.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” On May 8, authorities raided the home and seized the computers of Barnaul resident Maria Motuznaya. Motuznaya was interrogated and shown pictures of her social media posts from 2015 in which she shared memes that satirized the Russian Orthodox Church. On June 23, she was charged with “offending the feelings of religious believers” and “extremism.” On October 9, a judge returned the case to prosecutors for further development.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated a law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” On August 6, police in the Tyva Republic detained journalist Oyuuma Dongak because of photographs of Nazi Germany which contained a swastika posted on her Facebook page in 2014. Dongak said that the photos accompanied an article she had shared about the rebirth of fascism. A court fined her 1,000 rubles ($15) on August 8. Observers described the case as retribution for Dongak’s support of opposition politicians.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly “insulted government officials.” For example, on August 3, a court in Magadan fined two men for “insulting” local mayor Yuri Grishan when they demanded his resignation in messages on the platform WhatsApp, using language authorities deemed “unacceptable.”
During the year authorities used a law banning the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute the independent press for their coverage of independent political candidates. On June 20, a court in Syktyvkar fined the independent online news outlet 7×7 800,000 rubles ($12,000), and fined its editor 40,000 rubles ($600) for publishing an interview in March with a libertarian politician who noted that synthetic drugs killed people at a higher rate than heroin. Authorities considered this statement an endorsement of heroin.
The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols. On February 26, a St. Petersburg court sentenced opposition activist Artem Goncharenko to 25 days in prison for “organizing an unsanctioned meeting” because he displayed a large inflatable rubber duck in the window of his apartment. Yellow rubber ducks have been used to signal support for the anticorruption protests organized by opposition leader Navalny.
Press and Media Freedom: The government continued to restrict press freedom. As of 2015, the latest year for which data was available, the government and state-owned or state-controlled companies directly owned more than 60 percent of the country’s 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all of the so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most-watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings. At many government-owned or controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law seemingly bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”
A 2017 law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of September 20, there were nine outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents could be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.
In some cases courts imposed extremely high fines on independent media outlets, which observers believed were intentionally disproportionate and designed to bankrupt the outlets and force their closure. For example, on October 26, a Moscow court fined independent news outlet The New Times 22.3 million rubles ($338,000) for errors in information it had provided to the government, as required by the “foreign agents” law. Press reports indicated this was the highest fine imposed on a media outlet in the country’s history. Prosecutors alleged that the newspaper had not properly accounted for money it received from a foundation affiliated with the paper, the Press Freedom Support Foundation, which is designated by the government as a “foreign agent.” Observers believed the case against The New Times to be in retaliation for the newspaper publishing an interview with opposition leader Navalny.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Fund, as of September incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included two killings, 42 attacks, 82 detentions by law-enforcement officers, 14 prosecutions, 42 threats, 21 politically motivated firings, and one attack on media offices. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered forms of government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
On April 14, Maksim Borodin, a Yekaterinburg journalist with the independent newspaper Novyy Den, died in a fall from his fifth-floor apartment balcony in an incident seen by observers as suspicious. Borodin had been reporting on the foreign activities of the Wagner battalion, a private oligarch-sponsored militia aligned with the government.
On April 12, two unknown assailants in Yekaterinburg attacked Dmitriy Polyanin, editor in chief of the regional progovernment newspaper Oblastnaya Gazeta, which had recently published articles about local disputes related to the housing market. Polyanin was hospitalized with a concussion and a broken rib.
On January 31, the FSB raided the apartment of journalist Pavel Nikulin and brought him to their headquarters for several hours of interrogation in response to a 2017 article he wrote about a man who had gone to Syria to fight for ISIS. A regional court named Nikulin as a witness in a criminal investigation into “illegal terrorist training” in connection with the article and had approved a search warrant for his apartment. In July, Nikulin and a colleague were detained by police in Krasnodar on suspicion of extremist activity and attacked by unknown assailants with pepper spray. On September 16, Nikulin and two colleagues were again arrested in Nizhniy Novgorod on suspicion of distributing “extremist materials.”
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored the media, much of which occurred online (see Press Freedom, Internet Freedom, and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events sections). Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread.
There were multiple reports that the government retaliated against those who published content it disliked. For example, on January 23, the website Russiagate.com was blocked with no formal notification hours after it published evidence of corruption by the head of the FSB, Aleksandr Bortnikov. The website’s editor reported that investors in the website immediately informed her that they were ending their financing of the project.
On April 4, the independent Kaliningrad newspaper Novyye Kolesa announced it would cease publication following a campaign of harassment and censorship by authorities. Following an FSB raid in November 2017, authorities arrested the newspaper’s editor, Igor Rudnikov, and charged him with extortion. Human rights organizations believed there to be no legitimate basis for the charges, which could bring 15 years in prison. On March 29, unidentified individuals went to newsstands, seized all copies of the newspaper on sale, and threatened vendors. The lead story in that edition of the newspaper alleged that the FSB had tortured to death a local resident in detention. Distribution network representatives gave orders to hide all remaining copies, and later informed Novyye Kolesa leadership it would no longer be profitable for them to continue to sell the newspaper.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of journalists and bloggers who criticized them and to retaliate against them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel. For example, on July 23, a Moscow court ruled in favor of Nizhigorodskiy Prison Colony Number 2, which had filed a lawsuit against the newspaper Sobesednik and Pussy Riot-member Maria Alekhina for damaging its reputation in a 2017 article describing forced labor conditions at the prison. The court obliged the newspaper to print a retraction and pay a 3,000-ruble ($45) fine.
On April 23, President Putin signed a law allowing the state to block online information that “offends the honor and dignity” of an individual, if the author of the information has defied a court order to delete it.
On October 3, President Putin signed a law that strengthened penalties for the dissemination of “false” information related to defamation or information that violates privacy restrictions. International and domestic experts believed the introduction of criminal responsibility for noncompliance with court decisions ordering the takedown or retraction of content in civil defamation cases would expand the tools available to officials and public figures to interfere with public access to information detrimental to their interests.
National Security: Authorities cited laws protecting national security to restrict criticism of government policies or officials, or to retaliate against critics.
On May 18, authorities raided the home of independent Omsk journalist Viktor Korb, conducted a 10-hour search, and charged him with incitement to terrorism, justification of terrorism, and terrorist propaganda, which carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The charges stemmed from Korb’s 2015 publication on a news and discussion website of a portion of remarks given by political activist Boris Stomakhin, during Stomakhin’s trial on terrorism charges. Korb did not endorse Stomakhin’s remarks.
Authorities also charged independent journalists with espionage. On June 4, a Moscow court convicted Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko of espionage and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. Sushchenko, a Paris-based correspondent for the Ukrinform news agency, was detained in Moscow in 2016 on suspicion of collecting classified information, an allegation human rights groups claimed was politically motivated.
The government took significant new steps to restrict free expression online. According to data compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 76 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2017.
The government monitored all internet communications and prohibited online anonymity (see also section 1.f.). The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enabled police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.
The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law. Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. As of July 1, companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months. As of October 1, companies are required to store electronic correspondence (audio, images and video) for three months.
Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. Providers face fines of one million rubles ($15,000) for noncompliance.
On April 13, a Moscow court ruled in favor of Roskomnadzor’s 2017 request to block the Telegram messaging service for failing to share with the FSB encryption keys to users’ correspondence. Telegram maintained that the FSB’s request was both unconstitutional and technically impossible, as the messenger uses end-to-end encryption (when the encryption keys are stored only by users). The Supreme Court upheld the FSB’s arguments on August 8. For several months beginning in mid-April, Roskomnadzor actively attempted to block Telegram. Since the messenger was using dynamic internet protocol (IP) addresses, however, blocking it proved impossible. Roskomnadzor was forced to block more than 20 million other IP addresses, which resulted in a major loss in accessibility to a wide range of unrelated online services. Despite Roskomnadzor’s efforts, Telegram remained mostly accessible to users. In August press reports indicated that Roskomnadzor and the FSB were testing systems designed to allow more precise blocking of individual sites to enable blocking Telegram.
The law requires commercial virtual private network (VPN) services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. Under the law Roskomnadzor can also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In May, Roskomnadzor reported it had blocked 50 VPN services.
The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts can be blocked. The law came into force in January. On August 27, Roskomnadzor expanded the list of designated “organizers of information dissemination” to include several new sites, such as the blogging platform Livejournal, the online dating site LovePlanet, and the car sharing app BlaBlaCar. Beginning in July these “organizers of information dissemination” were required to store and provide to the FSB in-depth user information, including user name; full real name; date of birth; exact address; internal passport number; lists of relatives, friends, contacts, all foreign languages spoken; date and time of account’s creation; date and time of all communications; full text of all communications; full archives of all audio and video communications; all shared files; records of all e‑payments; location for use of each service; IP address; telephone number; email address; and software used.
On November 6, Prime Minister Medvedev signed a decree requiring anonymous messenger applications to obtain verification of a user’s phone number from mobile phone network providers within 20 minutes of initial use of the application. If the phone network provider cannot verify the phone number, then messenger services are required to block the user. The government also required network operators to keep track of messenger apps for which users have registered.
The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information, and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of October, a total of 3.8 million websites were unjustly blocked in the country.
On November 26, Roskomnadzor filed a civil law suit against Google seeking to fine the company 700,000 rubles ($10,500) for declining to connect its search engine to an automated system that prevents blocked web sites from appearing in search results. On December 11, a court fined Google 500,000 rubles ($7,530).
During the year authorities blocked websites and social network pages that either criticized government policy or purportedly violated laws on internet content. For example, on April 28, Roskomnadzor blocked the LGBTI health awareness site Parni Plus. The site’s administrators said they received a notice from Roskomnadzor on April 28 informing them about a January 26 ruling by a district court in the Altai Territory to block Parni Plus for distributing information that “challenges family values” and “propagates nontraditional sexual relations.” The notice did not specify what content broke the law, and the notice came so late that the website missed its opportunity to appeal the verdict.
In some cases authorities coerced sites into taking down content by threatening to block entire platforms. For example, on February 13, Roskomnadzor threatened to block YouTube, Instagram, and several dozen media outlets if, based on a court decision, they did not delete an anticorruption investigation video made by opposition activist Navalny that described a meeting between government-linked oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko on a luxury yacht. All but YouTube complied. On February 20, Roskomnadzor stated it would not seek to block YouTube for its noncompliance.
In 2017 amendments to the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies, and Protection of Information and to the administrative code came into force requiring owners of internet search engines (“news aggregators”) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities can demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal. Dunja Mijatovic, the special representative on freedom of the media of the OSCE, raised concerns the law “could result in governmental interference of online information and introduce self-censorship in private companies.”
A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom on the Net report, there were several instances of courts ordering that content be removed from search results on these grounds in 2017.
There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see Freedom of Expression).
There were reports of disruption of communications during demonstrations. For example, media reported that, during opposition protests in Moscow on May 7, authorities switched off phone and mobile internet coverage in the protest area.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government took new steps during the year to restrict academic and cultural freedom.
On June 21, the Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency revoked the accreditation of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka), claiming the school violated multiple education standards. Shaninka, a Russian-British higher education institution founded in 1995, continued to operate but will not be not be able to issue state-approved diplomas or provide deferment from military service. Media outlet Meduza speculated the loss of accreditation was due to the school’s extensive international connections, and constituted a move to disable the country’s only remaining private institution of higher education.
On November 7, the trial began of well known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov for embezzlement of state funds to stage a Shakespeare play that the government alleged he never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times and observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies. Serebrennikov has been in custody since August 2017.
Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays they considered offensive or that expressed views in opposition to the government and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. Citing a bomb threat, police disrupted a June 13 theater production about imprisoned Chechen human rights activist Oyub Titiyev in Moscow and evacuated the theater.
In November media outlets reported a notable increase in the number of incidents in which authorities forced the cancellation of concerts of musicians who had been critical of the government. Monitoring by Meduza identified 13 such cases across the country during the month of November, compared with 10 during the rest of the year. Of the 13 cases, nine involved the rapper Husky or the electronic music group IC3PEAK, both of whom perform songs containing lyrics critical of the government. In most cases the concerts were canceled after the FSB or other security forces visited and threatened the managers or owners of music venues.
Persons expressing views of historical events that run counter to officially accepted narratives faced harassment. For example, on January 23, the Ministry of Culture recalled the rights to air the comedy film The Death of Stalin after a number of cultural figures sent a complaint to the department. The authors of the collective letter claimed Death of Stalin was a “spit in the face” of veterans that “blackened the memory of our citizens who defeated fascism.” Police disrupted a January 25 screening of the film at the Pioneer cinema in Moscow. On February 22, a Moscow court fined the theater 100,000 rubles ($1,500) for the screening.
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 numerous public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located.
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. In 2017 the Constitutional Court decreed that police officers may stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer.
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 levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events.
The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of public assembly laws–up to 300,000 rubles ($4,500) for individuals, 600,000 rubles ($9,000) for organizers, and one million rubles ($17,140) for groups or companies. Protesters with multiple violations within six months may be fined up to one million rubles ($15,000) or imprisoned for up to five years.
On May 10, President Putin signed a decree limiting freedom of assembly in cities hosting the 2018 International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA) World Cup in conjunction with enhanced security, although protests in cities that did not host the tournament were allowed to take place.
Arrests for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. For instance, on August 25, police arrested opposition leader Navalny for allegedly organizing an unsanctioned “voters’ strike” rally on January 28. His arrest came shortly before planned rallies in opposition to pension reform scheduled nationwide on September 9. Immediately following his release on September 24, police from a different precinct rearrested Navalny for 20 more days for allegedly organizing the unsanctioned September 9 demonstration, which purportedly caused “bodily harm to a government official.”
There was a reported increase in authorities charging individuals with “inciting mass riots” based upon their social media activities. For example, following the May 5 antigovernment protests, 28 organizers and activists with opposition leader Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation were detained and charged with inciting mass riots based on their tweets or retweets. While some were fined and released, others were sentenced to 30-day prison terms.
Activists were at times subject to threats and physical violence in connection with organizing or taking part in public events or protests. On May 5, police stood by as unknown persons in Cossack uniforms beat participants in peaceful opposition rallies in Moscow and other cities. More than 1,300 persons were arrested during these protests, 572 in Moscow alone.
Police often broke up demonstrations that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. For example, on September 9, police throughout the country detained 1,195 persons who were demonstrating against pension reform. Media reports of the Moscow protest described unprovoked and disproportionate police beatings of protesters with rubber batons.
Authorities regularly arrested single-person picketers. For example, on June 14 authorities arrested UK-based activist Peter Tatchell in Moscow for staging a single-person picket against restrictions on LGBTI persons in the country, citing a breach of antiprotest rules put in place for the World Cup. Tatchell was released the same day and departed the country before appearing in court.
Authorities continued to deprive LGBTI persons and their supporters of free assembly rights. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that LGBTI persons should be allowed to engage in public activities, the law prohibiting “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) provides grounds to deny LGBTI activists and supporters the right of assembly and was often used to interrupt public demonstrations by LGBTI activists. On November 27, the ECHR ruled that the country’s blanket refusal to grant permission to hold public assemblies related to LGBTI issues could not be justified by public safety concerns and constituted a violation of the right to freedom of assembly.
On April 8, police detained approximately 30 gay rights activists who took part in an unsanctioned rally in St. Petersburg. City authorities had turned down their request to hold a parade, so each participant demonstrated alone, in a bid to avoid the protest being called a gathering, which did not prevent their arrest.
Moscow authorities refused to allow an LGBTI pride parade for the 13th consecutive year, notwithstanding a 2010 ECHR ruling that the denial violated the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom from discrimination.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association. During the year, however, the government instituted new measures and expanded existing restrictive laws to stigmatize, harass, fine, close, and otherwise raise barriers to membership in organizations that were critical of the government.
Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.
The government continued to use a law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” to harass, to stigmatize, and in some cases to halt their operation, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. As of October the Ministry of Justice had added five NGOs to the “foreign agents” registry during the year, and its registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 73 NGOs.
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 on “foreign agents” requires that NGOs 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 August 13, a court in the Mari-El Republic fined the human rights group Man and Law 300,000 rubles ($4,500) for failing to mark its Facebook page as belonging to a “foreign agent.” According to the NGO, the page had previously been marked but the marking disappeared when Facebook had updated its user interface.
The government placed additional restrictions on NGOs designated as “foreign agents.” On October 11, President Putin signed a law prohibiting “foreign agent” NGOs and foreign NGOs from receiving an accreditation from the Ministry of Justice that would allow them to submit anticorruption analysis of legislation. NGOs designated “foreign agents” were already prohibited from participating in election observation.
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.
The law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of “undesirable foreign organizations.” The list expanded during the year as the Ministry of Justice added the European Platform for Democratic Elections, the International Elections Study Center, the German Marshall Fund, and Pacific Environment. As of October the total number of “undesirable foreign organizations” was 15. According to the law, a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if that group is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities have not clarified what specific threats the “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 to be continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that receive support from U.S. citizens or organizations are subject to suspension under the “Dima Yakovlev” law, which also prohibits NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle freedom of association. In 2017 the Supreme Court criminalized the activity of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision prohibited all activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country, effectively banning their worship. The parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and 395 regional branches were formally placed on the Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, a procedural move following the Supreme Court’s decision. As of October more than 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses were facing criminal charges for taking part in the activities of a banned extremist organization (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at 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. As of September the legal NGO Agora had identified more than 80 such attacks during the year. For example, there were multiple reports of physical attacks on the Memorial and its activists in the North Caucasus during the year, which human rights organizations believed to be a coordinated campaign of pressure aimed at silencing Memorial and halting its human rights work. On January 17, two masked men set fire to the Memorial office in Nazran, Ingushetia. On January 23, unknown perpetrators set fire to one of Memorial’s cars in Makhachkala, Dagestan. On March 29, Sirazhutdin Datsiyev, the head of Memorial’s office in the Republic of Dagestan, was hospitalized with a head injury after an attack by unknown assailants.
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 LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but in some cases, authorities restricted internal movement, foreign travel, and repatriation.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported it had a working relationship with the government on asylum and refugee problems. NGOs reported, however, that the government failed to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. In one case NGOs reported that 102,944 refugees remained in the country, including 101,019 Ukrainians, of whom nearly 2,000 struggled to maintain legal status. The government considered Ukrainian asylum seekers to be separate from asylum seekers from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria, and Yemen. According to NGOs, two Syrian refugees and 150 Ukrainian refugees received citizenship in during the year. In some cases temporary asylum holders who received refugee status from third countries were not granted exit visas or allowed to depart the country.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that police detained, fined, and threatened with deportation migrants, refugees, and stateless persons. NGOs also reported racially motivated assaults by civilians.
In-country Movement: Although the law gives citizens the right to choose their place of residence, adult citizens must carry government-issued internal passports while traveling domestically and must register with local authorities after arriving at a new location. 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 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 on procedures for departing from and entering the country stipulates that a person who violates a court decision does not have a right to leave the country. A court may prohibit a person from leaving the country for failure to satisfy debts; if the individual is suspected, accused, or convicted of a crime; or if the individual had access to classified material. The law allows for the temporary restriction of a bankrupt citizen’s right to leave the country. Authorities imposed travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes. For example, the government temporarily stopped opposition leader Navalny from leaving the country to attend an ECHR hearing on November 13 because he had an outstanding debt from embezzlement charges that most observers considered politically motivated. He was permitted to leave the country the following day.
According to press reports, since 2014 the government restricted the foreign travel of approximately five million of its employees. This included employees of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Prison Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Bailiff Service, the General Administration for Migration Issues, and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
In 2017 the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated the country was home to 19,000 internally displaced persons, down from 22,600 in 2016. Of the 19,000 IDPs, the IDMC asserted that 5,900 were new displacements. According to the government’s official statistics, the number of forced migrants decreased from 25,359 in the beginning of 2016 to 19,327 in January 2017. The government indicated that the majority of forced migrants came from former USSR republics, namely Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, with between 3,500 and 4,000 persons displaced due to the first Chechen conflict in 1995-96.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The responsible agency, the Main Directorate for Migration Affairs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (GAMI), did not maintain a presence at airports or other border points and did not adequately publicize that asylum seekers could 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. There were no known statistics on the number of persons subjected to such actions.
Human rights groups continued to allege that authorities made improper use of international agreements that permit them to detain, and possibly repatriate, persons with outstanding arrest warrants from other former Soviet states. This system, enforced by informal ties between senior law enforcement officials of the countries concerned, permitted authorities to detain individuals for up to one month while the Prosecutor General’s Office investigated the nature of the warrants. International organizations reported six cases of refoulement of asylum seekers during the year, and NGOs cited cases in which officials detained persons (most commonly from Central Asia) and returned them clandestinely to their country of origin.
Access to Asylum: The country’s laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. NGOs reported applicants commonly paid informal “facilitation fees” of approximately 33,000 rubles ($495) to GAMI 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 refugees and temporary asylum seekers in large cities, in particular Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. With the exception of Ukrainians, GAMI approved a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum.
Some observers pointed out that GAMI data failed to include asylum seekers who were forcibly deported or extradited before exhausting their legal remedies. Moreover, some individuals who might otherwise have sought international protection, especially those from Central Asia, reportedly chose not to make formal applications for asylum because doing so often led to criminal investigations and other unwanted attention from the security services.
Human rights organizations noted the country’s tendency during the year not to accept more Ukrainian and Syrian applicants for refugee status and temporary asylum. NGOs also 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 GAMI had not renewed the temporary asylum of hundreds of Syrians and, in some cases, encouraged applicants to return to Syria.
Employment: Employers frequently refused to hire applicants who lacked residential registration.
Access to Basic Services: By law successful temporary asylum seekers and persons whose applications were being processed have the right to work, receive medical care, and attend school. NGOs reported authorities provided some services to Ukrainian asylum seekers, but there were instances in which applicants from other countries were denied the same service.
While federal law provides for education for all children, regional authorities occasionally denied access to schools to children of temporary asylum and refugee applicants who lacked residential registration. When parents encountered difficulties enrolling their children in school, authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR to resolve the problem.
Temporary Protection: A person who did not satisfy the criteria for refugee status, but who could not be expelled or deported for humanitarian reasons, could receive temporary asylum after submitting a separate application. There were reports, however, of authorities not upholding the principle of temporary protection.
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. Laws, policies and procedures allow stateless persons to gain nationality, and for their children born in the country to gain nationality. Some NGOs estimated there were approximately 500,000 stateless persons in the country and reported that authorities urged stateless persons to depart the country, but, in most cases, they failed to provide temporary legal status that would facilitate their departure.