Latest update: 30 September 2013
The last three months have seen a continuation of the negative trend for human rights in Russia.
In June the Russian government passed a law which imposes penalties on the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations among minors”. The law does not define “non-traditional”, but is widely understood to mean lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships. Propaganda has been defined as “dissemination of information aimed at….the attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relations, or giving a distorted picture of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations”. The law prescribes differing levels of penalties for Russian citizens, officials, legal entities and foreign citizens.
We have strong concerns about this law, which in effect could prevent the LGBT community in Russia from fully enjoying the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The Prime Minister set out these concerns with President Putin in a meeting in St Petersburg on 6 September, making clear the strength of feeling in the UK, and that it was in Russia’s interests to tackle discrimination. British officials at all levels have been lobbying on the LGBT law since the first regional “homosexual propaganda” bill was tabled in 2011.
In early July a law was passed which bans the adoption of Russian children by same-sex couples, and also unmarried and single people in countries where same-sex marriage is legal. The Department for Education is working to establish how the law may impact on people in the UK who want to adopt from Russia in the future.
In July a court in Kirov sentenced opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who took a lead role in the protests following the 2011 Duma elections, to five years in prison for embezzling £300,000 from timber firm KirovLes in 2009 while working as an adviser to the regional governor. The day after his conviction Navalny was released on bail pending his appeal. The prosecutor argued that as Navalny was a candidate in the Moscow mayoral election, the custodial sentence should be postponed in order to allow Navalny the right of “equal access of candidates to work with voters and to conduct their election campaigns”. The case is widely seen as politically motivated. The Foreign Secretary made a statement on the conviction, expressing concerns about selective justice and calling upon the Russian government to apply the rule of law in a non-discriminatory and proportionate way.
In July a Moscow Court found the late Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in pre-trial detention in 2009, guilty of tax evasion. Magnitsky was not sentenced due to his “physical absence”. The UK government has long called for a full and transparent investigation into the tragic death of Sergei Magnitsky. Commenting on the guilty verdict, the Minister for Europe, David Lidington, described the trial and conviction of a man who cannot defend himself as an “exceptional step” that would “add to negative perceptions of judicial process in Russia”.
In August Russia’s Supreme Court ruled not to overturn the sentences of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former business partner Platon Lebedev, but instead reduced them by two months to ten years and ten months. This means that Lebedev is now due for release in May 2014, and Khodorkovsky in August 2014. At a parliamentary debate on the Khodorkovsky case in July, Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Warsi, said that the release of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev according to schedule would be a positive step towards demonstrating the fair application of law in Russia.
In June election monitoring, the Russian NGO Golos (which played a prominent role in uncovering fraud in the 2011 Parliamentary and 2012 Presidential elections) had its activities suspended for six months under the law which requires NGOs in receipt of foreign funding and engaged in vaguely defined “political activity” to register as a “foreign agent”. The decision further highlights concerns expressed by Mr Lidington in March regarding the NGO “foreign agents” law. We will continue to urge the Russian authorities to not prevent the work of groups advocating the protection of fundamental freedoms.
Update: 30 June 2013
The last three month period has seen a further worsening of the human rights situation in Russia. The British Prime Minister outlined our concerns with President Putin during a meeting in Downing Street in June ahead of the G8 Summit.
Following unannounced inspections on many NGOs to assess their compliance with the “foreign agents” law, those where there was evidence of past foreign funding were given warnings. Those whose work the authorities considered to fall under the law were given “notice of violations” and required to register as foreign agents within one month. Those who do not register face an administrative court case and large fines. The independent election monitoring body Golos, whose research and monitoring contributed to evidence of fraud in the 2011 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections became the first NGO to be convicted and fined in early May. Golos has said that it has not received foreign funds since the NGO law came into force in November. In June, two LGBT organisations – the Side by Side Film Festival and Coming Out – were fined in St Petersburg for not registering as foreign agents.
In a meeting with Justice Minister Konovalov in St Petersburg, Minister of State for Justice Lord McNally discussed the implementation of the NGO law. He also met NGOs and heard their concerns about the “foreign agent” label and the impact it would have on their ability to work with citizens and local authorities. In June, the Foreign Secretary raised the NGO law with the Chair of the Russian Federation Council.
On 11 June the State Duma approved a draft law to impose fines for the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations among minors”. The law builds on similar legislation passed last year in St Petersburg and other regions which prohibit “homosexual propaganda”. Freedom of expression NGO Article 19 said that they were “deeply concerned” that the State Duma approved the law as it “violates the rights of all people to free expression, and discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people”.
On 21 June, the State Duma approved a draft law banning foreign adoptions by same-sex couples and by single sex couples in countries where same-sex marriage is legal.
The Moscow authorities denied permission for a Gay Pride march in May, as they have done for a number of years. The St Petersburg authorities authorised an event in support of International Day Against Homophobia, and a sanctioned Gay Pride rally took place in Kostroma.
The 2013 UK-Russia Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue took place in Moscow in May. The meeting allowed us to have a structured discussion on human rights. Senior officials raised concerns across a wide range of issues, including the negative trends around civil society and opposition figures, the North Caucasus, the rights of minority groups and the Magnitsky and Khodorkovsky cases. We also expressed support for the positive developments on the rights of disabled people.
Update: 31 March 2013
In the first few months of 2013 respect for human rights continued to deteriorate in Russia. Pressure on civil society has been one manifestation of this. In March the Russian authorities conducted inspections on a number of NGOs across the country. This followed on from a series of restrictive laws passed in 2012, notably the NGO “foreign agents” law. In a statement the Minister for Europe David Lidington urged the Russian authorities not to place advocacy groups under special scrutiny.
The Russian Investigative Committee announced in March that it had closed its investigation into the death in pre-trial detention of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky “due to lack of evidence of a crime”. This decision is particularly disappointing and difficult to understand, given that the Presidential Committee on Human Rights concluded in 2011 that Magnitsky’s death was likely the result of being denied medical treatment and being severely beaten. The Foreign Secretary raised our concerns around the Russian authorities’ handling of Magnitsky’s death with Foreign Minister Lavrov in London on 13 March, as did Mr Lidington during his meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Titov in Moscow in February. We are working with likeminded partners in the Council of Europe to make clear the need for Russia to meet its obligations as a member of a rules-based international system.
In addition to closing the investigation, Russian prosecutors re-filed tax evasion charges against Magnitsky. A court began proceedings on 22 March after rejecting the state-appointed defence lawyer’s request to postpone the hearing until Russia’s Constitutional Court rules on the legitimacy of trying a dead person without the consent of his relatives. Posthumous trials are rare and usually take place only to exonerate a wrongfully convicted person or to provide justice for family members of victims, so the decision to try Magnitsky against the wishes of his mother and widow is a worrying development.
In February the Russian State Duma passed a bill in the first reading which would establish penalties for “propaganda of homosexuality among minors” at the federal level. The next reading in the Duma is due in May. We have made clear to Russia that we believe that all individuals should enjoy the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly. We are following this matter closely, and will take further opportunities to urge Russia to guarantee the right of non-discrimination.
Opposition figures continue to face pressure from the authorities. In February opposition activist Sergei Udaltsov was placed under house arrest until 6 April. The Russian Investigative Committee accused opposition politician Alexei Navalny of fraudulently obtaining his credentials as a lawyer. Navalny was also charged of fraud in relation to the privatisation of a state-owned timber company, and is due to face trial in April. Meanwhile, in relation to the “Bolotnaya case”, a number of activists remain in long-term detention on charges of participation in mass unrest or alleged violence against law enforcement agents, following a political protest on the eve of the Presidential inauguration last May (which concluded in Bolotnaya Square). Most have not yet faced trial. Many domestic commentators have raised questions of political motivation behind these cases.