Russia attacks fundamental freedoms and rule of law as Navalny’s network targeted

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistMonday 24 May 2021

The international community breathed a collective sigh of relief on 23 April when opposition leader Alexei Navalny ended a 24-day hunger strike in prison after finally receiving medical care. Yet ongoing efforts to suspend his political organisation and restrict other fundamental freedoms threaten to cripple Russia’s already deteriorating human rights situation.

On 26 April, the Moscow prosecutor’s office ordered Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and its regional network to suspend all activities, pending a court ruling on whether to designate the opposition group as ‘extremist’.

The move, which would give the authorities the power to arrest FBK staff, supporters, and even crowdfunding donors, was yet another nail in the coffin for the ailing Kremlin critic, who was imprisoned in February on a range of charges shortly after returning from Berlin where he received treatment for Novichok poisoning.

It's clearly a direct threat to the rule of law and to the democratic process in Russia

Professor Philip Leach
Director, European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, Middlesex University

The hearing, due to take place on 17 May, was postponed until 9 June to allow Navalny’s legal team more time to review additional documents submitted by the prosecution. Meanwhile, on 18 May the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, quietly approved three bills that look set to further tighten the screws on political freedoms in the country.

One bill proposes blacklisting ‘undesirable’ organisations, expanding the scope of a 2012 law that requires foreign-funded non-governmental organisations in Russia to register as foreign agents. Another would ban members of ‘extremist’ organisations from becoming lawmakers in what is being viewed as a thinly veiled attempt to prevent Navalny from standing in Russia’s upcoming parliamentary elections in September.

The pressure on Navalny’s wider circle has been relentless. Thousands of Russian civilians were arrested earlier this year after taking part in unauthorised rallies to protest against his imprisonment. Russia has refused to act on a February order from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that urged the country to release Navalny over fears for his life.

In mid-April, lawyer and journalist Lyubov Sobol, a close associate of Navalny, was sentenced to a year of community service for trespassing. Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer and founder of human rights group Komanda 29 (Team 29), which acts as counsel for the FBK, was detained by the Russian authorities on 30 April after a raid on the hotel where he was staying in Moscow.

Professor Philip Leach, Director of Middlesex University’s European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, is acting for Navalny in a case at the ECtHR that calls on the Court to use the interim measures mechanism to stop the FBK and other organisations from being liquidated.

He says the latest efforts in Russia to crack down on the Putin critic and his wider network are extremely perturbing. ‘From the raids on his offices and on staff and the freezing of the bank accounts, right up to more recent events – the attempt on his life, his imprisonment and now the attempt to liquidate the Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional offices – it’s very clear that they are all being targeted and they want to stop them from operating,’ says Leach. ‘It's clearly a direct threat to the rule of law and to the democratic process in Russia.’

As civil liberties are increasingly curtailed in Russia, resentment is already building, says Oksana Antonenko, Director, Global Risk Analysis at Control Risks. ‘The popularity approval rating of President Putin is falling,’ she says. ‘There’s been more and more unhappiness, particularly amongst the young generation of Russians, but also across the country, as we've seen in the recent wave of protests with what the government is doing and more demand for openness and freedom. Now, with this organisation being designated as extremists, a lot of those activities will go underground as a result and perhaps will be more radicalised, as we’ve seen happen all across the world.’

Since 2019 the Kremlin has introduced a series of laws aimed at expanding its control over freedom of speech, internet infrastructure and online content. The new laws require domestic internet service providers to store users’ metadata and entitle the security services to access this metadata with no prior judicial authority.

The legislation has also served to embolden Roskomnadzor, Russia’s telecommunications watchdog, to block access to content that the government deems a threat. In March, the regulator slowed access to Twitter right down in a bid to force the social media platform to delete content it said was illegal or pornographic. Roskomnadzor has also issued fines against Facebook, Google, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter over their refusal to remove posts that helped galvanise support for the mass protests that took place earlier this year.

In April, the watchdog said it was backtracking on its threat to block Twitter after the platform agreed to accelerate efforts to delete flagged content. Alexa Koenig, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley believes it’s critical that social media and other online platforms stand up to state-backed efforts to impose internet shutdowns or curb online speech. ‘It's important that the companies hold to their commitment to protecting freedom of expression and access to information,’ she says, ‘both to limit Russia's ability to censor speech, but also to strengthen norms around what is expected with regards to online speech.’

Koenig says social media has an important role to play in strengthening accountability, both for human rights violations in Russia and other authoritarian regimes. ‘Facebook and Twitter's commitment to freedom of speech and access to information can safeguard human rights when used to push back against government censorship and to preserve citizens' ability to share their experiences with the international community – information that can be critical for advocacy, accountability and humanitarian purposes.’

Image: Shutterstock.com / Sergey Otroshko

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