„Putins’ laws“ worsen the human rights situation in Russia
In January last year a group of people gathered in St Petersburg to have a snowball fight. The police responded by banning it and dispersing the crowd – calling it an 'unauthorised gathering'. This may seem to be a ridiculous one off event, but it isn’t. The space for freedom of assembly, association and expression is rapidly shrinking in Russia.
Since Vladimir Putin returned to office as Russia’s President he has introduced laws that:
• Severely limit freedom of assembly
• Stigmatise the LGBTI community
• Criminalise insulting the feelings of believers
• Broaden the definitions of treason and espionage so that human rights activism could potentially be criminalised
Putin also brought in provisions that force NGOs who engage in “political activity” and receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents” - contributing to the smear campaign against NGOs and human rights activists. Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have had their Moscow offices raided.
All of these laws have been introduced to crack down on political opposition and civil society activists. These provisions must be repealed as they are in violation of Russia’s own Constitution and its international human rights obligations.
"Foreign agents” law
Enacted by the Russian authorities on 21 November 2012, it requires any NGO receiving foreign funding and engaging in what it defines very loosely as "political activity" to register as an "organization performing the functions of a foreign agent".
It has a wide reach, affecting NGOs working on civil, political, social and economic rights, environmental issues, and discrimination, including against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.
The "foreign agents law" is at the centre of a series of repressive legislation that has been brought in since Putin’s return to the presidency.
As the Winter Olympic Games, being held in the Russian city of Sochi, approach, Amnesty International's members and supporters from around the world are campaigning to highlight Russia’s increasingly deplorable human rights record.
Russian NGOs have unanimously and vocally refused to be branded "foreign agents". The unannounced mass "inspections" of some 1,000 organizations during the spring and autumn of 2013 were widely publicized by media aligned with the Russian authorities.
The "inspections" were followed by persecution of several NGOs and their leaders through administrative proceedings and the courts, and more cases are expected to follow.
Since the "foreign agents law" came into being:
• At least 10 NGOs have been taken to court by the Russian authorities for failing to register as an "organization performing the functions of a foreign agent".
• At least five other NGOs across Russia have been taken to court following the "inspections" for purported administrative violations such as the failure to present requested documents.
• At least 10 Russian NGO leaders have been ordered to comply with the "foreign agents law".
• And at least 37 NGOs have been officially warned that they will be in violation of the law if they continue to receive foreign funding and engage in arbitrarily defined "political activities". This includes publishing online materials on human rights in Russia and not registering as "foreign agents".
Golos – the organization had to pay high fines and to stop its activity because of the „foreign agents“ law
The Association in Defence of Voters’ Rights Golos (Voice) became the first Russian nongovernmental organizations to fall afoul of the “foreign agents” law. It was fined 300,000 rubles (almost US$10,000). Golos played a prominent role in organizing election monitoring and reporting allegations of electoral fraud in the 2011 Parliamentary and 2012 Presidential elections. Golos is alleged to have violated a law introduced in 2012 requiring organizations in receipt of foreign funding to describe themselves as “foreign agents” if they engage in undefined “political activities.” The law imposes restrictions on the freedom of association that are inconsistent with international human rights standards.
Ban on non-traditional sexual relations propaganda
In March 2012, Russia passed a law prohibiting the spread of gay “propaganda” alongside any activities that promote gay culture among minors. The anti-gay legislation effectively bans LGBTI public events and demonstrations under the pretext of protecting minors. But what it really does is deny the LGBTI community the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, freedom from discrimination, and freedom of expression in Russia.
Prominent Russian LGBTI rights activist Nikolai Alexeyev became the first individual to be fined for spreading “gay propaganda” when he protested the law outside the headquarters of the Sochi 2014 Organising Committee with a poster stating “homosexuality is not a perversion” in May 2012.
Alongside increases to anti-gay legislation, Russia has seen increased violence and hostility aimed at LGBTI individuals.
This violence was apparent at the June 2013 demonstration, where activists were met not only by police force, but also by homophobic counter-protestors in numbers greater than their own. LGBTI activists had stones, eggs and smoke canisters thrown at them, with one activist sustaining serious injuries, including a broken nose and jaw.
With anti-gay legislation perpetuating a view that LGBTI individuals are inferior, homophobic violence is bound to increase unless Russia takes steps to actively promote equality and punish those suspected of hate crimes against LGBTI people.
Jail sentences for offending religious feelings
In June last year, the Duma approved a law allowing jail sentences of up to three years for acts insulting religious feelings. Along with a potential jail term, the law imposes fines of up to RUB 500,000 (over USD 15,000). Amnesty’s John Dalhuisen highlights how the new law reflects the reality of Russia today, with “the suppression of any form of dissent or diverging views in all spheres of life.”
The introduction of the blasphemy law came following the trials and subsequent jail terms of Pussy Riot members who were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after performing a protest song in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.
The members have since been released, with Nadezhda and Maria being released last month after serving 21 months in prison. There is strong speculation that such action in the lead up to the Olympics was merely a strategic move made by Putin in an attempt to improve his image.
Restrictions on freedom of assembly
Russia’s anti-gay legislation has also severely impacted the right to freedom of assembly. Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia Director, John Dalhuisen, states, “the law provides the framework for state-sponsored discrimination. It is yet another measure in a long list introduced under Vladimir Putin’s current presidency to prevent people from enjoying their freedoms and speaking out about human rights.”
In June 2013, 55 activists were detained by police following an attempt to hold a peaceful demonstration in St. Petersburg to raise awareness of rising homophobia, discrimination and violent attacks against LGBTI people in Russia. The organisers had obeyed laws requiring them to inform city authorities of the date and purpose of the event; however, arrests were made under the pretext of spreading propaganda of homosexuality among minors.
Mikhail Kosenko – Putin Critic Confined To Psychiatric Ward
Mikhail Kosenko was arrested in June 2012 and charged with participating in “mass riots” and use of force against a police officer. The court then ordered him to be sent for forcible psychiatric treatment. Kosenko was arrested when he took part in an authorised protest in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square which led to some protesters clashing with the police. Mikhail Kosenko has a history of mild mental disability due to an injury sustained when he was a conscript in the army. The prosecution has sought to demonstrate that he is prone to violence and a danger to himself and society, and that he must be sent to forcible psychiatric treatment. This claim is based on a medical opinion requested by the prosecution. The judge refused to allow an independent examination of his mental health as requested by his defence. Mikhail Kosenko denies any involvement in violence or any other illegal actions in Bolotnaya Square. Available video and witness testimony support his statement. As for his mental health, his records show no history of violence. For years he had been receiving treatment without hospitalization and he had never been recognised as a danger to society or himself.