The Russian Federation has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin. The bicameral Federal Assembly consists of a directly elected lower house (State Duma) and an appointed upper house (Federation Council), both of which lack independence from the executive. The 2018 presidential election and the September 19 State Duma elections were marked by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process, including the exclusion of meaningful opposition candidates.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, Federal Security Service, Investigative Committee, Office of the Prosecutor General, and National Guard are responsible for law enforcement. The Federal Security Service is responsible for state security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism, as well as for fighting organized crime and corruption. The national police force, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for combating all crime. The National Guard assists the Federal Security Service’s Border Guard Service in securing borders, administers gun control, combats terrorism and organized crime, protects public order, and guards important state facilities. The National Guard also participates in armed defense of the country’s territory in coordination with Ministry of Defense forces. Except in rare cases, security forces generally report to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities maintained, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which are accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. There were credible reports that members of the Russian security forces committed numerous human rights abuses.
The country’s occupation and purported annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula continued to affect the human rights situation there significantly and negatively. The Russian government continued to arm, train, lead, and fight alongside Russia-led separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities; pervasive torture by government law enforcement officers that sometimes resulted in death and occasionally involved sexual violence or punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrest and detention; political and religious prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country; severe arbitrary interference with privacy; severe suppression of freedom of expression and media, including violence against journalists and the use of “antiextremism” and other laws to prosecute peaceful dissent and religious minorities; severe restrictions on internet freedom; severe suppression of the freedom of peaceful assembly; severe suppression of freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organizations”; severe restrictions of religious freedom; refoulement of refugees; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; severe limits on participation in the political process, including restrictions on opposition candidates’ ability to seek public office and conduct political campaigns, and on the ability of civil society to monitor election processes; widespread corruption at all levels and in all branches of government; serious government restrictions on and harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence and violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of ethnic and religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer persons.
The government failed to take adequate steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish most officials who committed abuses and engaged in corruption, resulting in a climate of impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While some public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located. Many public demonstrations were restricted or banned due to COVID-19 measures. Each region enforced its own restrictions.
Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted single-person pickets and required that there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. By law police officers may stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer. In December 2020 President Putin approved amendments to the law that placed further restrictions on single-person pickets as well as multiperson protests, rallies, or demonstrations. The amended law imposes financial reporting requirements, prohibits protests or public demonstrations near agencies that perform “emergency operational services” (such as law enforcement agencies), and imposes further restrictions on journalists covering these events. In addition, the law prohibits “foreign sources of funding” financing public demonstrations and treats single-person pickets, if held in the general vicinity of other picketers, as “mass demonstrations without a permit,” which are banned. Authorities regularly detained single-person picketers. For example, on February 9, Yekaterinburg police arrested Galina Gastrygina, a 79-year-old woman, for holding a placard stating, “Navalny is a hero of our time.” A court subsequently fined her 1,000 rubles ($13.50) on February 19. Her lawyer reported that guards pushed witnesses and journalists out of the courtroom during what was to have been a public hearing. In another example, on May 25, St. Petersburg police detained civil activist Yevgeniya Smetankina for having held a single-person picket in support of the feminist activist Yuliya Tsvetkova (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
The law requires that “motor rallies” and “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. It requires gatherings that would interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. The law prohibits “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about the organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law allows authorities to prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings and to levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events.
Following an amendment to the criminal code signed by President Putin in December, the law imposes a fine for destroying infrastructure facilities and blocking roads and a 10-year prison sentence in the case of death of more than one person. During demonstrations early in the year, authorities charged dozens of individuals countrywide under the new law penalizing the blocking of roads. For example, on January 24, the Ministry of Interior opened a criminal case for “blocking roads and sidewalks” during a rally on Pushkin Square in central Moscow. Under the pretext of its investigation, the Ministry of Interior raided the homes of 30 individuals suspected of involvement and seized their equipment and files, purportedly as evidence.
The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of public assembly law. Protesters convicted of multiple violations within six months may be fined substantially or imprisoned for up to five years. The law prohibits “involving a minor in participation in an unsanctioned gathering,” which is punishable by fines, 100 hours of community service, or arrest for up to 15 days. On June 18, Novaya Gazeta reported that several cities filed lawsuits against the supposed organizers of the January and February demonstrations in their areas in a stated effort to recuperate costs incurred by the Ministry of Interior staff and local authorities who worked on the day of the demonstrations. In the Kemerovo region, authorities sought 700,000 rubles ($9,500) in compensation from former employees of Navalny’s regional headquarters.
Arrests or detentions for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. Ahead of the January 23 demonstrations, which were unauthorized, authorities preemptively detained Navalny associates, including his spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, and his Anticorruption Foundation’s lawyer, Lyubov Sobol, and investigator, Georgiy Alburov. Ten Navalny associates, including Yarmysh, Sobol, and Navalny’s brother Oleg, were subsequently arrested on January 28 and charged with violating COVID-19-related public health rules in connection with the January 23 demonstration and placed under house arrest through June 23. Independent media outlets characterized the arrests as an effort to prevent the political opposition from participating in the September Duma elections. On June 7, a Moscow court extended movement and communications restrictions for Sobol and Oleg Navalny until November, and on July 21, the courts separately extended Yarmysh’s house arrest until January 2022. Memorial considered the 10 activists of the “sanitary case” to be political prisoners.
According to an FSB internal report leaked to media, approximately 12,000 individuals, including 761 minors, were detained nationwide during the January 23 and 31 demonstrations on charges that included violations of COVID-19 preventive measures, violence against persons in authority, incitement of minors, and organization of an unauthorized protest. Media outlets reported that of those detained, 1,200 were sentenced to administrative arrest and 2,490 were fined for their participation in the demonstrations. The independent human rights media project OVD-Info reported that an additional 1,788 individuals were detained on April 21 during countrywide demonstrations after Navalny declared a hunger strike to seek medical care (see section 1.c.).
On February 11, the Ministry of Interior reported that it had opened 90 criminal cases for crimes committed during the demonstrations, with most cases to “illegal actions targeting police officers” or “repeated participation in an unauthorized protest.” For example, on March 3, a court in the Volga region sentenced a man to 18 months of forced labor for attacking a police officer during the January 23 protest after the man pleaded guilty to the charge. Based on information provided by the court reporter to OVD-Info, the man intervened in the detention of another protest participant, “causing the latter physical pain and bodily injury.”
Police often broke up protests that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. OVD-Info registered at least 140 reports of police brutality against demonstrators and monitored the initiation of 90 criminal cases against demonstrators. For example, in one instance filmed on January 23, police officers kicked a woman in the stomach, causing her to collapse and require medical assistance. On February 5, members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights released a statement urging officials to end the use of riot control weapons during the detention of peaceful demonstrators and to investigate “cases of excess of authority and hindrances to the activity of lawyers and journalists.”
There were reports that the government penalized employees for their participation in or support of unsanctioned assemblies. For example, at least 40 employees of the Moscow metro were dismissed in May for their participation in or support of the January and February protests. On May 14, Moscow City Duma deputy Mikhail Timonov reported that metro management ordered the dismal of employees whose names or whose relatives’ names appeared in a leaked database of Navalny supporters.
Media reported several instances in which authorities charged individuals for their alleged participation in or other support of the demonstrations even when the individual charged was already detained or the statute of limitations for that particular charge had expired. For example, an employee of Navalny’s political organization, Aleksandr Kopyev, was charged on February 19 for his alleged participation in a January 31 pro-Navalny demonstration, even though he had already been detained for his earlier involvement in a demonstration on January 23.
The courts occasionally acknowledged violations of citizens’ rights to assemble. For example, on March 3, the Smolninskiy District Court of St. Petersburg ordered the Ministry of Internal Affairs to pay compensation for moral damage to Sergey Dumtsev, who was detained for holding a single-person picket in 2019. The court found that the police had no right to stop the picket or to detain the activist and keep him in the police office for more than three hours. In another example, during the spring the Supreme Court of Tatarstan awarded compensation for moral damages to three activists from Naberezhnye Chelny after the executive committee refused their 2018 request to hold a rally against raising the retirement age.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect it. Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.
The government continued to use the “foreign agents” law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” to harass, stigmatize, and, in some cases, halt their operation, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. As of December 7, the Ministry of Justice’s registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 75 NGOs. The Ministry of Justice maintained separate registries of 111 media outlets and journalists designated as foreign agents as well as 49 “undesirable organizations” (see sections 2.a., Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events). NGOs designated as “foreign agents” are banned by law from observing elections and face other restrictions on their activity.
For the purposes of implementing the “foreign agents” law, the government considered “political activities” to include: organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions, or presentations; participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempting to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.
To be delisted, an NGO must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving that it did not receive any foreign funding or engage in any political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list.
The law requires that NGOs on the foreign agents list identify themselves as “foreign agents” in all their public materials. Authorities fined NGOs for failing to disclose their “foreign agent” status on websites or printed materials. For example, on April 13, the Kuybyshevskiy District Court of St. Petersburg fined the Center for the Development of Nonprofit Organizations and its director, Anna Orlova, for failure to label social media posts appropriately.
Organizations the government listed as “foreign agents” reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press. At the same time, the “foreign agent” label did not necessarily exclude organizations from receiving state-sponsored support.
The law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of “undesirable foreign organizations.” The list expanded during the year to 49 organizations as of December 7. The Ministry of Justice added three German NGOs involved in efforts to develop relations with Russia, three United Kingdom (UK) affiliates of opposition activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russian Foundation, a French NGO involved in educational exchange, a Czech NGO promoting freedom of information, a foreign college, two Church of Scientology organizations, the investigative outlet Proyekt, the International Partnership for Human Rights, four evangelical Christian groups, and the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations.
By law a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if it is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities did not clarify what specific threats these “undesirable” NGOs posed to the country. Any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” must cease its activities. Any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found guilty of continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison. On June 29, President Putin signed into law a bill that prohibits Russian citizens in any country from taking part in the work of NGOs designated as undesirable in Russia and from transferring money to Russia from certain countries under monitoring by the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, regardless of the transferred amount. The law became effective on October 1.
Authorities imposed criminal penalties for purported violations of the law on “undesirable foreign organizations.” On February 18, a court in Rostov-on-Don convicted political activist Anastasiya Shevchenko of violating the “undesirable organizations” law for her work with the UK-based NGO Open Russia. The court sentenced her to four years of parole and ended her house arrest. Shevchenko was the first person criminally charged under the “undesirable organizations” law. Amnesty International considered her a prisoner of conscience.
On March 13, law enforcement authorities detained all 194 participants at a forum for municipal and city council members organized by the unregistered political movement United Democrats. Authorities charged the detainees with administrative violations for allegedly “cooperating with an undesirable foreign organization,” even though United Democrats had not formally been recognized as such. Attendees, including anti-Kremlin analyst and activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, prominent municipal council members Ilya Yashin and Yuliya Galyamina, and former Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeniy Roizman, had gathered at a hotel in greater Moscow to exchange ideas and undergo training to enhance city and municipal governance. While those detained were released pending court hearings in subsequent months, the courts fined a number of the forum participants, including Galyamina, Roizman, and Yekaterinburg city deputy Konstantin Kiselyov. The Council of Deputies of the Timiryazevskiy district of Moscow announced its decision March 25 to deprive Galyamina of her status as a municipal deputy due to her repeated participation in unauthorized rallies; a Moscow City Court had sentenced Galyamina to two years’ probation for this offense in December 2020.
Citing the pending changes to legislation regarding “undesirable” organizations, director of the Russia-based Open Russia, Andrey Pivovarov, announced on May 27 that the organization would close all branches and annul memberships to prevent the criminal prosecution of its supporters. Even though the Open Russia organization was declared “undesirable” in 2017, the Russian political advocacy group with the same name had not been banned as of July. Despite his announcement, on May 31, Russian security forces boarded a flight prior to its departure from St. Petersburg and arrested Pivovarov. The Investigative Committee subsequently charged Pivovarov for participating in the activities of an “undesirable organization,” detaining him for two months in a pretrial detention facility in Krasnodar. On June 1, authorities also searched the premises of, detained, and opened criminal cases against other prominent Open Russia members, including former director Aleksandr Solovyov. A court in St. Petersburg fined Pivovarov for the production and distribution of materials of an organization acting as a foreign agent, without indicating its status on July 19. The opposition politician told media that he believed authorities were persecuting him for political reasons. On July 21, a court in Krasnodar extended Pivovarov’s pretrial detention through the end of October. He faced up to six years in prison if convicted on the charge of belonging to an undesirable organization. Memorial considered Pivovarov a political prisoner.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that received support from U.S. citizens or organizations are subject to suspension under the 2012 “Dima Yakovlev” law, which prohibits NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.
In February, President Putin signed into law new regulations and restrictions regarding “foreign agents” and those who disseminate information about them. The Ministry of Justice subsequently announced the creation of a new registry of “foreign agents,” consisting of unregistered NGOs or loosely defined “public associations” that purportedly receive funding from foreign sources and are engaged in political activity in Russia. Under the new law, individuals and NGOs who meet the criteria of a “foreign agent” are obliged to register or face criminal liability, with penalties of a fine of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,000), compulsory labor for up to 480 hours, or up to two years of correctional labor or prison. Under the law the Ministry of Justice may also assign the “foreign agent” status directly to individuals or associations. On August 18, the election-monitoring group Golos became the first association to be included in the list. On March 1, when the penalties under the law entered into force, prominent human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov announced the closure of the For Human Rights organization, an unregistered group of human rights activists established in 2019 after a Supreme Court ruling to liquidate his rights monitoring and advocacy organization with the same name. Ponomaryov, who was designated a “foreign agent” in December 2020 (see section 2.a.), filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 3, demanding his removal from the registry.
On March 3, the Ministry of Justice designated the independent trade union Alliance of Doctors as a “foreign agent,” citing its “repeated receipts of foreign funding, as well as the implementation of political activities.” Anastasiya Vasilyeva, the leader of the trade union and an associate of Navalny, was one of the activists charged as part of the “sanitary case” for violating COVID-19 protocol in the organization of the January 23 protest (see section 2.b.). Memorial considered her a political prisoner.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism to stifle freedom of association. On June 4, President Putin signed a law that prohibits members of “extremist” organizations from participating in elections at all levels – municipal, regional, and federal. An organization’s founders and leaders are barred from running for elected office for five years from the date of the organization’s ban, while members and others “involved in its work” are barred for three years. In addition to direct membership, a person may be considered by the courts to be “involved” in the organization if that individual makes a statement of support for the group, including on social media, transfers money to it, or offers any other form of “assistance.” The ban may also be applied retroactively, barring individuals from running for office if they were involved with the group up to three years prior to the extremist designation. Experts and both “systemic opposition” (effectively progovernment) and independent politicians decried the law as politically motivated and unconstitutional, citing the law’s retroactive nature and ability to disenfranchise thousands of individuals as evident violations of the constitution.
On June 9, a Moscow city court designated Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation, his political operations, and the affiliated Citizens’ Rights Protection Fund as “extremist” in a move that experts said was designed to prohibit those affiliated with Navalny and the Anticorruption Foundation from running for office. In April the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office had filed a lawsuit seeking the organizations’ designation as “extremist,” which led to an injunction to freeze the organizations’ bank accounts and the suspension of their activities. Experts characterized this designation and legislative changes to the “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations” legislation as targeted political repression against opposition groups ahead of the September elections (see section 3).
In multiple cases authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).
There were reports authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTQI+ community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
Authorities misused antiterrorism and antiextremism laws, as well as other measures to label wrongfully peaceful religious groups and their practices “terrorist,” “extremist,” and “undesirable.” Among those designated without any credible evidence of violent actions or intentions were two foreign-based Church of Scientology organizations, four Protestant groups from Latvia and Ukraine, a regional branch of Falun Gong and seven Falun Gong-associated NGOs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community, Tablighi Jamaat, followers of the Muslim theologian Said Nursi, and Hizb ut-Tahrir. These designations effectively banned their worship and activities, and members were subject to prolonged imprisonment, harsh detention conditions, house arrest and house raids, discrimination, harassment, and criminal investigation for participating in the activities of a “banned extremist organization” (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
There were reports civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that in most cases law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. For example, on July 1, an ecological activist in Tambov Oblast, Roman Gerasimov, was attacked and stabbed three times by assailants after he filmed a video for President Putin’s annual call-in press conference requesting that a planned new landfill not be built in his region.