The respect for human rights continues to deteriorate in Russia

On 20 February, the Permanent Representation of Sweden to the EU, in collaboration with Civil Rights Defenders, held a meeting with Russian human rights organisations and officials from various EU countries. The aim was both to review the state of human rights with a focus on the situation for LGBTI people in Russia and to discuss support measures by the EU.

Elena Shakhova, Citizens’ Watch, and Anna Dobrovolskaya, Memorial. From Civil Rights Defenders: Tommaso Nodari, Programme Officer, Brussels office, and Anders Pettersson, Executive Director.
Carefully monitoring human rights developments in Russia is an important part of the EU's work on relations with its eastern neighbours. Contacts with human rights organisations is key to carry out this task. From the left: Elena Shakhova, Citizens’ Watch, and Anna Dobrovolskaya, Memorial. From Civil Rights Defenders: Tommaso Nodari, Programme Officer, Brussels office, and Anders Pettersson, Executive Director. Photo: The Swedish EU Representation

The Memorial human rights centre, Citizens’ Watch, and the Russian LGBT Network presented their views of the development in Russia at the meeting. They listed reprisals, persecution, torture, LGBTI people deprived of their parenthood and children losing their parents, farcical trials and monitoring of digital activity as tools to control and discourage LGBTI people and the organisations that stand up for their rights.

Focus on Chechnya

The representatives of the organisations confirmed that the situation is continuing to deteriorate in Chechnya in particular. This Republic is the area of Russia that has most clearly distinguished itself for the systematic persecution and harassment of LGBTI people. In recent years, hundreds of arrests and many cases of torture and abuse have been reported in the area. Many LGBTI people and their families have felt that they have no choice but to leave Chechnya.

Oyub Titiev, head of Memorial in Chechnya, was detained last year and his trial that started in July 2018 is now coming to the end.

- The case against him is a farce. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Head of the Chechen Republic, has said that interested parties are welcome to attend the trial but that human rights organisations will subsequently no longer be permitted to work in the Republic. This means that there will no longer be any human rights organisations left in Chechnya to report on developments and to provide support to people subjected to human rights violations, Executive Director of Memorial, Anna Dobrovolskaya, pointed out.

Ms Dobrovolskaya went on to say that, despite this, there is a small ray of hope in that media reporting of the situation in Chechnya has awoken some debate in Russia.

Legislation targeting civil society

The ‘foreign agents law’ of 2012 and other repressive legislative pieces have had a suffocating effect on civil society, the Civil Rights Defenders reports. Organisations have cut back on their operations and declined international funding in order to be removed from the blacklist of the ´foreign agents law’. For those continuing to operate, it is difficult to obtain funding. The administrative burden has grown due to demands for comprehensive financial reporting which diverts resources from the organisations’ work. To this can be added smear campaigns aimed directly at members of the organisations. Elena Shakhova, Chair of Citizens’ Watch, witnessed herself how her family was subjected to this.

- But what is causing concern now is the effects of the law from 2015 on undesirable organisations. It’s broad and its interpretation is unclear and above ad regards the concept of “collaboration”. We see a risk that people who have contact with human rights organisations in some way will be impacted, explains Ms Shakhova, adding that the maximum penalty for violating this law is six years’ imprisonment.

In response to the question on what the international community can do, and particularly the EU member states, the representatives were very clear. The Russian LGBT Network called for support for the UN to appoint an international fact-finding mission with the mandate to investigate abuses of LGBTI people in Chechnya. Memorial’s Ms Dobrovolskaya called for the European Parliament to closely monitor and draw attention to the situation in Chechnya and the case of Oyub Titiev, and for national parliaments in the EU to stay well informed.

Anders Pettersson, Civil Rights Defenders’ Executive Director, informed about the organisation’s work in supporting local organisations in Russia. Mr Pettersson pointed at the problem of the shrinking space for civil society and that it sets bad example for many other countries in the region and beyond. Civil Rights Defenders describes the situation in the report Never Give Up: Russian Human Rights Defenders Keep Swimming under the Ice, which was published in March 2018.

In addition to the Permanent Representation of Sweden to the EU, the European External Action Service and members of the European Parliament were also included in the meeting programme in Brussels.

"Never Give Up, Russian Human Rights Defenders keep swimming under the ice":
Report on the Civil Rights Defenders' web

Previous meeting at the EU-representation about human rights in Russia