Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza has survived two attempts to poison him. At a hearing in a committee room in Parliament earlier this year, organised by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, he told us that “arbitrary detention, slanderous propaganda, electoral disenfranchisement, and even long-term imprisonment are not the worst consequences for those who oppose the regime.” Instead, he said, “increasingly murder and attempted murder is becoming a tool of political reprisals in Russia.”
Earlier this week, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission launched its report, titled Poison, Torture, Lies and Repression: Human Rights in Russia Today. In addition to Mr Kara-Murza, we heard evidence in our inquiry from, among others, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia’s wealthiest businessman and spent ten years in a Russian jail for his criticism of Vladimir Putin, as well as Marina Litvinenko, whose husband Alexander was poisoned in London in 2006, Bill Browder, an American businessman who was expelled from Russia and whose lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was beaten and tortured to death in jail, and Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion driven into exile because of his political opposition to Putin’s regime.
As our report shows, across the board, human rights in Russia have deteriorated dramatically during Vladimir Putin’s almost two decades in power. Press freedom and freedom of expression have been severely repressed. Reporters Without Borders argue that Putin’s rule has had “a disastrous effect on freedom of expression,” with press freedom descending “to a state of repression not seen since the fall of the USSR”. All major media, they and others argue, is controlled by the Kremlin, and journalists face harassment, jail, violence and in some instances murder.
Space for civil society has been significantly restricted, with repressive new laws banning Non-Governmental Organisations regarded as “foreign agents” or “undesirable organisations”.
Freedom of religion or belief has been repressed, particularly for Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna adherents and others. There was an attempt to prosecute a yoga instructor in St Petersburg in 2017 for giving a public lecture, and the Salvation Army’s Bibles were confiscated in Vladivostock because they did not feature the prescribed official approval mark for distribution. In 2016 police burst into the home of American missionary Donald Ossewaarde in Oryol in 2016, while he and his wife were holding a Bible study group. He was charged with illegal religious activity, convicted in court, and left Russia, where he had lived for ten years. At least 29 Jehovah’s Witnesses are in pre-trial detention. In an open letter in June this year, ten of the wives of jailed Jehovah’s Witnesses expressed a “cry of desperation” that “our husbands, those who feed us, the fathers of our children, honest people who are always ready to help others, are being thrown behind bars for being suspected of reading Bible commandments and praying together with us and our children.” They conclude that “our fundamental rights are being trampled on … If the Russian government does not quickly put an end to this growing campaign of terror, the administration will be faced with a nation-wide human rights catastrophe.”
A campaign of violence and hatred against the LGBT community has intensified, and in the Caucasus grave violations including enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions continue. Extra-territorially, Russia continues its atrocities in Crimea.
One of the key challenges, journalist Zoya Svetova told us, is “the absence of an independent judiciary”. Lawyer Daniel Lipin told us that “courts make decisions without consideration of the case” and people are convicted “only on the basis of a police report”. Activist Oleg Kozlovsky says that “a great many judges have never acquitted a single person in their entire careers”.
As a consequence, argues researcher Nikolai Shchur, “alongside China and the United States, Russia imprisons more people per thousand population than anywhere else in the world”. According to Rights in Russia, official statistics indicate that over half a million people are in detention, before trial or after trial. Torture and ill-treatment is widespread. Russia’s prisons, in Zoya Svetova’s view, are “hell on earth”.
Just over a week ago, activist Oleg Kozlovsky, who gave evidence to our inquiry, was, according to Amnesty International, “abducted, beaten, and subjected to terrifying mock executions” in Ingushetia, North Caucasus, before being released. His abductors reportedly claimed to be from the security services. Mr Kozlovsky wrote on Twitter that his kidnappers brought him to a remote place where they stripped him naked, punched him, broke a rib, took photos, and threatened to rape him. He alleges that they put a gun to the back of his head and said they were going to shoot him. His telephone and camera were confiscated, and they reportedly warned that his children would be killed if he ever spoke about this ordeal.
In his written testimony to us, he said: “I have been arrested dozens of times – I stopped counting when it was about 30 – for organising or participating in protests, sometimes beaten in the process. I have been detained for up to 15 days several times … I was illegally drafted into the army on a request to isolate me during [a] presidential campaign … Police have several times raided offices of my organisations, always without any legal grounds. I have been followed and received death threats; my home address has been published by some people. I lost a job in a company after my boss was visited by FSB officers. My Telegram account has been hacked … The one thing I enjoyed was when pro-Kremlin media accused me of being a traitor who was preparing to overthrow Putin on orders from John McCain. It may look like a lot, but in fact it is nothing out of the ordinary. I know a lot of people who face much greater risks and, while it certainly is not good, the fact that such people exist gives me hope. I don’t think that Russian civil society can be destroyed or forced into submission by this regime.”
As Mr Kozlovsky told us, “damage is caused … by inaction or turning a blind eye to rights violations”. As Mr Kasparov says in a statement endorsing our report, “Complacency and engagement with Putin have failed. There is no middle ground. As Churchill wrote in The Gathering Storm, “The counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster.” Failure to act decisively today will cost more lives, and they will not be only Russian lives. They never are.”
Our report calls on the British government and others to speak out clearly, consistently and strongly in support of human rights defenders and journalists in Russia, to put pressure on Russia by ensuring that targeted sanctions, as proposed by the legislation named after Sergei Magnitsky, are fully implemented, and to strengthen support for civil society in Russia. Given the threat that Putin’s regime poses to Britain itself as well as its own people, human rights and security are intertwined, and it is in our own interests to ensure that these crimes can no longer be perpetrated with impunity.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.