Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media outlets published reports indicating that in December local authorities in the Republic of Chechnya had renewed a campaign of violence against individuals perceived to be members of the LGBTI community. Local Chechen authorities reportedly illegally detained and tortured at least 40 individuals, including two who reportedly died in custody from torture.
On May 15, Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov stated during the country’s UN Universal Periodic Review that the government’s “preliminary investigation” into the 2017 campaign of extrajudicial killings and mass torture of gay men in Chechnya by state agents had been closed after authorities had been unable to find evidence of any human rights violations or evidence of the existence of gay men in Chechnya. In 2017 the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta had reported that, during an “antigay purge” that took place from late 2016 through March 2017, local Chechen security services kidnapped, held prisoner, and tortured more than 100 male residents in Chechnya based on their presumed sexual orientation, resulting in at least three deaths. An independent fact-finding mission launched in November by 16 member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as multiple independent human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Russia LGBT Network, and Memorial, subsequently confirmed Novaya Gazeta’s allegations. According to the Russian LGBT Network, as of July 30, at least 125 LGBTI persons had fled Chechnya, the majority of whom had also left the country.
On August 22, a court in Stavropol denied for the fifth time an appeal brought by survivor Maksim Lapunov that sought to compel authorities to open an investigation into his allegations of torture and illegal detention by Chechen officials. Lapunov was the only survivor of the antigay purge in Chechnya willing to be publicly named and cooperate with investigative bodies.
There were multiple reports that, in some prison colonies, authorities systematically tortured inmates (see section 1.c.), which in some cases resulted in death. According to press reporting, on July 25, authorities charged prison guard Ivan Marshalko from prison IK-6 in the Bryansk region with murder and abuse of power after he allegedly intentionally asphyxiated an unnamed inmate on July 22. On September 24, Marshalko’s pretrial detention was extended for two months.
Physical abuse and hazing, which in some cases resulted in death, continued to be a problem in the armed forces, but authorities took steps in some cases to hold those responsible to account. For example, on January 5, according to media reports, soldier Rustam Avazov committed suicide at an airbase in Perm after alleged continual physical and psychological hazing by fellow soldier Ramazan Magomedov. Magomedov was subsequently charged with driving Avazov to commit suicide, and his trial began in August. On October 1, the Perm Regional Military Prosecutor announced at least four officials had been discharged from duty or stripped of their commands following Avazov’s death and that at least 11 others had been reprimanded. According to media reports, this was the third recent death of a conscript at the airbase.
In June media outlets citing confidential sources reported that authorities had reopened their investigation into the 2015 murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and had been conducting new interviews with the five men convicted in 2017 for the killing. Authorities made no official announcement to confirm the report. Human rights activists and the Nemtsov family still believed that authorities were intentionally ignoring the question of who ordered and organized the killing and noted that these persons were still at large.
There were reports that the government or its proxies committed, or attempted to commit, extrajudicial killings of its opponents in other countries. For example, on March 4, according to British authorities, agents of Russian military intelligence spread the nerve agent Novichok on the front door of the home of former Russian military intelligence offer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in an apparent attempt to kill him. Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal were hospitalized in serious condition after coming in contact with the nerve agent, but both ultimately survived. On June 30, Salisbury residents Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley were hospitalized after accidentally coming in contact with a bottle of Novichok that the assassins had discarded. Sturgess died from her exposure to the nerve agent on July 8.
The country played a significant military role in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, where human rights organizations attributed thousands of civilian deaths and other abuses to Russian-led forces. Russian occupation authorities in Crimea also committed widespread abuses (see Country Reports on Human Rights for Ukraine).
Since 2015 the country’s forces have 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 purposefully targeted civilian infrastructure (see Country Reports on Human Rights for Syria).
The news website Caucasian Knot reported that at least 50 deaths in the North Caucasus resulted from clashes with security forces in the region during the first half of the year. Dagestan was the most affected region in the first half of the year with 25 deaths, followed by Chechnya, where 15 persons were killed, and Ingushetia, where eight persons were killed.
There were reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. Enforced disappearances for both political and financial reasons continued in the North Caucasus. According to the 2017 report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, there were 808 outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances in the country. 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.d.).
On October 6, men who identified themselves as officers with the Ingushetia Center for Combatting Extremism abducted, beat, and subjected Amnesty International researcher Oleg Kozlovskiy to mock executions. Kozlovskiy was in Ingushetia to monitor a series of peaceful protests against a new border agreement signed by the leaders of Ingushetia and Chechnya. According to Kozlovskiy, a man claiming to be a representative of the protest organizers lured him into a car. The man and several accomplices then beat him, drove him to a field, forced him to remove his clothes, beat him again (breaking his rib), photographed him naked, and twice subjected him to a mock execution. Afterward, they held a gun to his head, demanded information about his contacts, attempted to recruit him as an informant, and threatened to kill his wife and children if he reported the abduction. Amnesty International lodged a formal complaint with authorities.
On January 17, Chechen Republic head Kadyrov, suggested that Chechen singer Zelimkhan Bakayev, who had disappeared in August 2017 after allegedly being detained by Chechen police, may have been killed by family members due to his sexual orientation. This marked the first instance a government official suggested the singer may not be alive. Bakayev’s family denied the allegations, and his whereabouts remained unknown at year’s end.
There were continued reports of abductions related to apparent counterterrorism efforts in the North Caucasus. For example, according to Amnesty International, on September 1, several dozen armed men wearing Federal Security Service (FSB) and Ministry of Interior insignias came to the house where Azamat Bayduyev was staying in the Chechen village of Shalazhi and took him to an unknown location with no explanation. Chechen authorities denied detaining Bayduyev, a Chechen refugee who had been deported to the country from Poland on August 31 after he was suspected, but not charged, by Belgian authorities of involvement in planning a terrorist attack. His whereabouts were unknown.
There were reports Russian-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in enforced disappearances (see Country Reports on Human Rights for Ukraine).
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, numerous credible reports indicated law enforcement personnel 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 as a result of torture (see section 1.a.).
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.
There were multiple reports of the FSB using torture against young anarchist and antifascist activists who were allegedly involved in several “terrorism” and “extremism” cases. Multiple defendants, whom authorities alleged were planning terrorist attacks under the auspices of previously unknown supposed organizations called “the Network” and “New Greatness,” alleged they were subjected to torture to coerce confessions, including severe beatings and electric shocks.
In one of many cases with a similar pattern of allegations, on January 23, FSB officers detained software engineer and antifascist activist Viktor Filinkov at St. Petersburg airport, placed him in a minivan, and subjected him to electric shocks for more than five hours while attempting to force him to memorize a confession to planning a terrorist act. On January 25, the Dzerzhinskiy District Court in St. Petersburg authorized Filinkov’s pretrial detention for two months on charges of alleged involvement in a terrorist organization the FSB called “the Network,” which was allegedly comprised of young activists in St. Petersburg and Penza. After visiting him in detention, Filinkov’s lawyer and two members of the St. Petersburg Public Oversight Commission noted burns on his right thigh and chest and handcuff marks on both hands that were consistent with his allegations of torture by electric shock. On a later visit the Public Oversight Commission members noted that the Prison Service did not allow Filinkov to take prescribed medications with him to the St. Petersburg pretrial detention center. As of mid-November, Filinkov remained in pretrial detention.
In the North Caucasus region, there were widespread reports that security forces abused and tortured both alleged militants and civilians in detention facilities. (see section 1.a. for reports of torture against members of the LGBTI community in the Republic of Chechnya). For example, on January 16, the media outlet Republic published an article describing the mass arrest and torture of at least 70 suspected drug addicts in the Shali District of the Republic of Chechnya. One victim described how in August 2017 Chechen police tortured both him and his brother with electric shocks for a week to coerce confessions of drug possession.
Police and persons who appeared to be operating with the tacit approval of authorities conducted attacks on political and human rights activists, critics of government policies, and persons linked to the opposition (see sections 2.b. and 3).
Observers noted an emerging pattern of poisoning of government critics. For example, on September 11, Pyotr Verzilov, the 30-year-old manager of Pussy Riot and editor of the human rights-focused media outlet Mediazona, fell ill after attending a court hearing in Moscow and later suffered seizures and began losing his sight, speech, and mobility. On September 15, he was transported for treatment to Germany, where doctors stated that it was “highly likely” he had been poisoned by an undetermined substance. Press reports indicated that, on the day he was hospitalized, Verzilov was planning to receive a report from “foreign specialists” investigating the July killings of a team of independent Russian journalists who were investigating the activities of the Wagner Battalion, a private militia linked to the Russian government, in the Central African Republic.
Reports by refugees, NGOs, and the press suggested a pattern of police and prison personnel carrying out beatings, arrests, and extortion of persons whom they believed to be Roma, Central Asian, African, or of a Caucasus nationality.
There were multiple reports of authorities detaining defendants for psychiatric evaluations for 30 days or longer to exert pressure on them, or sending defendants for psychiatric treatment as punishment. Beginning July 19, new amendments to the administrative procedure code gave prosecutors the ability to request suspects be placed in psychiatric clinics on an involuntary basis; the law previously only allowed certified medical professionals to make this request, although human rights activists noted that in practice, prosecutors already had this ability.
For example, on August 31, a court in Barnaul ruled to send Andrey Shisherin to a psychiatric clinic for a one-month evaluation. Shisherin was facing blasphemy charges for posting memes on his social network account that ridiculed the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The court ignored independent psychiatric assessments attesting to Shisherin’s good mental health and sided with the prosecutor, who argued that psychiatric incarceration was required because Shisherin had behaved suspiciously by renouncing a confession he alleged he had previously given under duress.
Nonlethal physical abuse and hazing continued in the armed forces, although violations related to hazing in the military were fewer than in previous years. Activists reported hazing was often tied to extortion schemes.
There were reports Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region and Russian occupation authorities in Crimea engaged in torture (see Country Reports on Human Rights for Ukraine).
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 penal code establishes the separation of women and men, juveniles and adults, and pretrial detainees and convicts into separate quarters, anecdotal evidence indicated not all prison facilities followed these rules.
The NGO Penal Reform International reported conditions were generally better in women’s colonies than in those for men, but they remained substandard.
Physical abuse by prison guards was systemic. For example, on July 20, Novaya Gazeta published a YouTube video provided by the NGO Public Verdict that showed 17 prison guards from prison IK-1 in Yaroslavl Oblast appearing to torture prison inmate Yevgeniy Makarov in June 2017. At least 11 prison officials, including the deputy head of the prison and an investigator who had refused to act on prior complaints, were arrested for abusing Makarov and at least five other inmates. On July 24, Makarov’s lawyer, Irina Biryukova, fled the country after receiving death threats, but she later returned. By the time the video was published, Makarov had been transferred to IK-8 in Yaroslavl Oblast, where he reported prison guards severely beat him on several occasions. On September 19, the Investigative Committee announced it had opened a criminal investigation into Makarov’s beatings in IK-8. On October 1, Makarov was released from prison. The Makarov case sparked significant public outcry and led to the public reporting of many other similar cases of inmate torture from prisons across the country, including some instances resulting in the prosecution of prison personnel.
Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was also a problem. For example, according to media reports, on July 5, Ukrainian prisoner Pavlo Hryb was admitted to a medical facility with broken legs and severe bruises. His lawyer alleged Hryb had been beaten by his fellow prisoners while being transported to Rostov-on-Don.
There were also reports prison authorities recruited inmates to abuse other inmates. For example, on August 1 in Vladimir, two inmates and six officials were charged with torture after authorities discovered a torture chamber at a pretrial detention facility. A previous court decision had noted that the pretrial detention center “held inmates that used physical and psychological violence to force other detainees to self-incriminate.”
Overcrowding, nutrition, ventilation, heating, and sanitation standards varied among facilities but generally were poor. The NGO Russia Behind Bars reported minimal opportunities for movement and exercise. 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.
A 2017 Amnesty International report described the country’s prison transport practices as part of a “Gulag-era legacy” and documented how authorities often transported prisoners for weeks in tiny train compartments with no ventilation, natural light, little water, and infrequent access to toilets and other sanitation.
NGOs reported many prisoners with HIV did not receive adequate treatment.
There were reports political prisoners were placed in particularly harsh conditions of confinement and subjected to punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units. For example, on September 21, Ukrainian prisoner Oleksander Kolchenko was put in solitary confinement for three days in a prison in Chelyabinsk. His attorneys believed the action was in retaliation for his request for a visit from the Ukrainian consul.
Administration: Convicted inmates and individuals in pretrial detention have visitation rights, but authorities can deny visitation depending on circumstances. By law prisoners with harsher sentences are allowed fewer visitation rights. The judge in a prisoner’s case can deny the prisoner visitation. Authorities can also prohibit relatives deemed a security risk from visiting prisoners.
While prisoners can file complaints with public oversight commissions or with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, 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.
NGOs reported that some prisoners who alleged torture were later charged with making false accusations, which often resulted in additional prison time. For example, on January 11, the Investigative Committee of Kirov Oblast opened a criminal case against an unidentified inmate for allegedly making false accusations of torture in a complaint alleging he had been beaten and subjected to electric shocks at prison IK-1. According to press reports, this was the second inmate in two years to be prosecuted for filing a torture complaint against the facility.
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 81 regions with a total of 1,154 commission members. Human rights activists expressed concern that some members of the commissions were individuals close to authorities and included persons with law-enforcement backgrounds.
A law adopted on July 19 gave members of oversight commissions the right to videotape and photograph inmates in detention facilities and prisons with their written approval. Commission members may also collect air samples and conduct other environmental inspections, and they may also conduct safety evaluations and access prison psychiatric facilities.
Authorities allowed the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture to visit the country’s prisons but continued to withhold permission for it to release any reports, with the exception of one released in 2013 on a visit conducted in 2012.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
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.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, the Investigative Committee, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the National Guard are responsible for law enforcement at all levels of government. The FSB 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 combatting all crime. The National Guard assists the FSB 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 county’s territory in coordination with Ministry of Defense forces.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces. While mechanisms to investigate abuses existed, the government generally did not investigate and punish abuses by law enforcement officers, and impunity was widespread. National-level civilian authorities had, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which were accountable only to the Republic head Kadyrov. Authorities investigated and prosecuted numerous cases of corruption by law enforcement officials, but in many instances, corruption investigations appeared to be a means of settling political scores or turf battles among law enforcement entities.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
By law authorities may arrest and hold a suspect for up to 48 hours without court approval, provided there is evidence of a crime or a witness; otherwise, an arrest warrant is required. The law requires judicial approval of arrest warrants, searches, seizures, and detentions. Officials generally honored this requirement, although bribery or political pressure sometimes subverted the process of obtaining judicial warrants. After arrest, police typically took detainees to the nearest police station, where they informed them of their rights. Police must prepare a protocol stating the grounds for the arrest, and both detainee and police officer must sign it within three hours of detention. Police must interrogate detainees within the first 24 hours of detention. Prior to interrogation, a detainee has the right to meet with an attorney for two hours. No later than 12 hours after detention, police must notify the prosecutor. They must also give the detainee an opportunity to notify his or her relatives by telephone unless a prosecutor issues a warrant to keep the detention secret. Police are required to release a detainee after 48 hours, subject to bail conditions, unless a court decides, at a hearing, to prolong custody in response to a motion filed by police not less than eight hours before the 48-hour detention period expires. The defendant and his or her attorney must be present at the court hearing.
By law police must complete their investigation and transfer a case to a prosecutor for arraignment within two months of a suspect’s arrest, although an investigative authority may extend a criminal investigation for up to 12 months. Extensions beyond 12 months need the approval of the head federal investigative authority in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, or the Investigative Committee and the approval of the court. According to some defense lawyers, the two-month time limit often was exceeded, especially in cases with a high degree of public interest.
A number of problems existed related to detainees’ ability to obtain adequate defense counsel. Federal law provides defendants the right to choose their own lawyers, but investigators generally did not respect this provision, instead designating lawyers friendly to the prosecution. These “pocket” defense attorneys agreed to the interrogation of their clients in their presence while making no effort to defend their clients’ legal rights. In many cases, especially in more remote regions, defense counsel was not available for indigent defendants. Judges usually did not suppress confessions taken without a lawyer present. Judges at times freed suspects held in excess of detention limits, although they usually granted prosecutors’ motions to extend detention periods.
Except in the North Caucasus, authorities generally respected the legal limitations on detention. There were reports of occasional noncompliance with the 48-hour limit for holding a detainee. At times authorities failed to issue an official detention protocol within the required three hours after detention and held suspects longer than the legal detention limits.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were many reports of arbitrary arrest, often in connection with demonstrations (see section 2.b.). For example, on March 2, a St. Petersburg court sentenced Denis Mikhaylov, the St. Petersburg campaign manager for opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, to 25 days in jail for participating in protests in January. Earlier that day, Mikhaylov had been released from a 30-day jail term for organizing the same protests. On March 7, a St. Petersburg court upheld his second detention. These “immediate rearrest” scenarios occurred in several cases of Navalny supporters during the year as well as with Navalny himself.
There were reports that Russian-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in arbitrary detention (see Country Reports on Human Rights for Ukraine).
Pretrial Detention: Observers noted lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, but data on its extent was not available.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law a detainee may challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court. Given problems with judicial independence (see section 1.e.), however, judges typically agreed with the investigator and dismissed defendants’ complaints.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces. While mechanisms to investigate abuses existed, the government generally did not investigate and punish abuses by law enforcement officers, and impunity was widespread. National-level civilian authorities had, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which were accountable only to the Republic head Kadyrov. Authorities investigated and prosecuted numerous cases of corruption by law enforcement officials, but in many instances, corruption investigations appeared to be a means of settling political scores or turf battles among law enforcement entities.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
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.
There were reports of pressure on defense attorneys representing clients who were being subjected to politically motivated prosecution and other forms of reprisal. For example, on September 9, police in Krasnodar beat and then charged defense lawyer Mikhail Benyash with disobeying police by “injuring himself.” Police warned Benyash previously he would be arrested if he appeared in downtown Krasnodar on that day to provide legal assistance to individuals who had been illegally detained during protests. Police claimed that injuries visible on Benyash’s head resulted from Benyash’s striking his own head against the glass of a police car contrary to their orders.
On April 24, the Moscow Bar Association disbarred human rights lawyer Mark Feygin, who had represented some of the most high-profile defendants in politically motivated trials in recent years. Observers saw the move as retaliation for his work on behalf of these clients.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but executive interference with the judiciary and judicial corruption undermined this right.
The defendant has a legal presumption of innocence and the right to a fair, timely, and public trial, but these rights were not always respected. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of charges and to be present at the trial. The law provides for the appointment of an attorney free of charge if a defendant cannot afford one, although the high cost of legal service meant that lower-income defendants often lacked competent representation. There were few qualified defense attorneys in remote areas of the country. Defense attorneys may visit their clients in detention, although defense lawyers claimed authorities electronically monitored their conversations and did not always provide them access to their clients. Prior to trial defendants receive a copy of their indictment, which describes the charges against them in detail. They also have the opportunity to review their criminal file following the completion of the criminal investigation. Non-Russian defendants have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals, although the quality of interpretation is not always good. During trial the defense is not required to present evidence and is given an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and call defense witnesses, although judges may deny the defense this opportunity. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right of appeal. Appellate courts reversed approximately 1 percent of sentences where the defendant had been found guilty.
The law allows prosecutors to appeal acquittals, which they did in most cases. Prosecutors may also appeal what they regard as lenient sentences. On April 5, a court in Petrozavodsk acquitted renowned historian of the gulag and human rights activist Yuri Dmitriyev of child pornography charges, a case that many observers believed to be politically motivated and in retaliation for his efforts to expose Stalin-era crimes. On June 14, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karelia granted the prosecutor’s appeal of the acquittal and sent the case for retrial. On June 27, Dmitriyev was again arrested and as of November remained in pretrial detention.
Authorities particularly infringed on the right to a fair trial in the Republic of Chechnya, where observers noted that the judicial system served as a means of conducting reprisals against those who exposed wrongdoing by Republic head Kadyrov. For example, on January 9, police in Grozny arrested human rights activist and Memorial Chechnya office head Oyub Titiyev, known for his work exposing violations of human rights in Chechnya, most recently on the 2017 reports of a summary execution of at least 27 men. Police pulled him over, searched his car, and supposedly found 180 grams of marijuana, which observers believed was planted by police to provide a pretext for his imprisonment. Police held Titiyev incommunicado for almost seven hours and threatened to harm his family if he did not plead guilty. On January 10, prosecutors charged Titiyev with drug possession. His trial began on July 19, and he remained in pretrial detention. Some sessions of his trial were closed to the public on vague “national security” grounds, which observers considered baseless.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were credible reports of political prisoners in the country and that authorities detained and prosecuted individuals for political reasons. Charges usually used in politically motivated cases included “terrorism,” “extremism,” “separatism,” and “espionage.” Political prisoners were reportedly placed in particularly harsh conditions of confinement and subjected to other punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units.
As of November the NGO Memorial Human Rights Center’s list of political prisoners included 204 names, including 153 individuals who were allegedly wrongfully imprisoned for exercising religious freedom. The list included journalists jailed for their writing, such as Igor Rudnikov and Zhelaudi Geriyev; human rights activists jailed for their work, such as Oyub Titiyev and Yuri Dmitriyev; many Ukrainians imprisoned for their vocal opposition to the country’s occupation of Crimea, such as Oleh Sentsov and Oleksander Kolchenko, and dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious believers. Memorial noted the average sentences for the cases on their list continued to grow, from 5.3 years for political prisoners and 6.6 years for religious prisoners in 2016 to 6.8 and 9.1 years, respectively, this year. In some cases sentences were significantly longer, such as in the case of Aleksey Pichugin, who has been imprisoned since 2003 with a life sentence.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Although the law provides mechanisms for individuals to file lawsuits against authorities for human rights violations, these mechanisms often did not work well. For example, the law provides that a defendant who has been acquitted after a trial has the right to compensation from the government. While this legal mechanism exists in principle, in practice it was very cumbersome to use. Persons who believed their human rights had been violated typically sought redress in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after domestic courts had ruled against them. The law enables the Constitutional Court to review rulings from international human rights bodies and declare them “nonexecutable” if the court finds that the ruling contradicts the constitution, and the court has declared ECHR rulings to be nonexecutable under this law.
The country has endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Restitution but declined to endorse the 2010 Guidelines and Best Practices. The government has laws in place providing for the restitution of cultural property, but according to the law’s provisions, claims can only be made by states and not individuals.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
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, these legal protections were significantly weakened by laws passed since 2016 granting authorities sweeping new powers and requiring telecommunications providers to store all electronic and telecommunication data (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). NGOs, human rights activists, and journalists alleged that authorities routinely employed surveillance and other active 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 to monitor telephone calls in real time, with a warrant, but this safeguard is largely pro forma in practice. The Ministry of Information and Communication requires telecommunications service providers to allow the FSB to tap telephones and monitor information over the internet. The Ministry of Information and Communication maintained that authorities would not access information without a court order, although the FSB is not required to show it upon request.
In its 2017 report Russia under Surveillance, the human rights NGO Agora described the development in recent years of a system of “total oversight targeted at civic activists, independent journalists, and representatives of the political opposition” in the name of national security. According to Agora, since 2007 authorities have greatly increased surveillance of telephone calls and online messages, increased the use of hidden audio and video recording devices, and expanded the use of biometric data gathering.
In March, Agora published a report on politically motivated searches of private homes which analyzed the searches of the residences of 600 political activists that security services had conducted over the previous three years. The report concluded that authorities often used the searches to intimidate and threaten political activists. In 98 cases police used the threat of violence, actual violence, and the display of firearms during the searches; in 47 cases authorities searched the premises of the activists’ relatives and friends; and in 70 cases they broke down the doors or entered the residence through a window.
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.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
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.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While 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).
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the government acknowledged difficulty in enforcing the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.
Corruption: Corruption was widespread throughout the executive branch, including within the security sector, as well as in the legislative and judicial branches at all levels. Its manifestations included bribery of officials, misuse of budgetary resources, theft of government property, kickbacks in the procurement process, extortion, and improper use of official position to secure personal profits. While there were prosecutions for bribery, a general lack of enforcement remained a problem. Official corruption continued to be rampant in numerous areas, including education, military conscription, health care, commerce, housing, social welfare, law enforcement, and the judicial system.
There were reports of corruption by government officials at the highest level. For example, on February 25, Novaya Gazeta published an article describing how then deputy prime minister Dmitriy Rogozin, who oversaw the country’s military-industrial complex, directed hundreds of millions of rubles in government financing and loans to defense sector firms run by his nephew. There were no indications of an investigation by authorities.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires government officials to file extensive declarations of all foreign real estate they own and any large expenditure involving land, vehicles, and securities, as well as their incomes. The law was inconsistently and selectively enforced, and investigative bodies rarely acted upon media reports of undeclared assets held overseas and other alleged violations. According to Transparency International and investigative reporters, the information officials provided often did not reflect their true income or that of close family members.