Russia – Россия
At present we are addressing a number of themes in Russia, including: gross abuses in the North Caucasus, civil society repression, women’s rights, protest, LGBTI+ rights and conflict or interstate tensions.
Over 15 years since we started litigating flagrant human rights violations in the North Caucasus, disappearances and torture remain an endemic issue for the region, while historic cases still have not been investigated by the authorities.
2004 Beslan School Siege
2017 marked an important milestone for survivors and victims’ families in their thirteen-year battle for justice, as the European Court ruled in April that failings in the Russian authorities’ response to the school siege contributed to the 334 fatalities and hundreds of casualties that day. In a robust judgment, the Court found that the authorities had failed to take preventative measures despite prior intelligence about such an attack, and that there were serious shortcomings in the planning and control of the security operation. The security forces used disproportionately powerful and indiscriminate weapons, such as flame throwers and tanks, and the subsequent investigation failed to establish whether this force was justified. The judgment was a crucial acknowledgement by an objective and authoritative body that Russia had severely breached its human rights obligations. It has great personal significance for so many people in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia, and, of course, national significance for the Russian population.The applicants in this case were awarded a total of €2,933,000.
|BBC’s Sarah Rainsford talks to victims of the Beslan School Siege and EHRAC Litigation Director Jessica Gavron|
Disappearances and murders
On the morning of 22 August 2013, Omar Valibagandov left his friend’s flat to go to work. Shortly afterwards he stopped answering his mobile phone. At about 6pm, he was taken by a group of officers from the Federal Security Service to the Karabudakhkent Central Hospital with a gunshot wound from a rubber bullet to the thigh. He was then transferred to Izberbash hospital, handcuffed and under surveillance. In the hospital, during the removal of the bullet, Omar told the doctors that he had been beaten, shot and abducted by the law-enforcement officers. Shortly after he was taken driven away in a police car and has not been seen or heard from since. We represent his family before the European Court of Human Rights – his case was communicated alongside thirteen others in June 2018.
Building on our origins of tackling egregious human rights abuse in the aftermath of the Second Chechen conflict, we continue to litigate cases of enforced disappearances, killings and other human rights violations during ongoing security operations in the North Caucasus. For example, in September 2014, security forces launched a counterinsurgency operation in the village of Vremenniy, which had a population of 900. Early in the morning, between 1000 and 3000 officers descended on the village with military vehicles, blocking all roads out. They collected extremely detailed information and photographs from each villager, before carrying out armed searches of their properties. Some villagers report being used as human shields during the searches. In the later days of the searches, servicemen began to damage property and threatened to use their firearms on the inhabitants. The men of the village were evicted after two days, and everyone else was evicted 18 days later, with no notice. They were finally allowed back at the end of November, by which time some of their homes had been completely destroyed or irreparably damaged. We lodged an application on behalf of five women from the village in January 2017.
Advocating for change
In partnership with the Open Society Justice Initiative and the European Implementation Network, we regularly brief the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and UK diplomats on the progress of the Khashiyev and Akayeva group of cases, which address egregious abuses in Chechnya between 1999 and 2006. With over 247 judgments from the Court establishing Russian responsibility for aerial bombardment, extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture, our regular briefings are crucial for maintaining pressure on the Russian Government to provide redress for victims and their families. EHRAC, Memorial HRC (Moscow) and the Stichting Justice Initiative (Moscow) also made a submission (known as a General Allegation) about Russia’s persistent failure to investigate these disappearances to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in January 2018.
In March 2017, the European Court communicated to the Russian Government our case challenging the ‘Foreign Agents’ Law. EHRAC and Memorial HRC represent 18 of 61 NGOs which have been stigmatised and sanctioned for receiving funding from outside Russia, and accused of carrying out ‘political activity’. This case, unfortunately, is symptomatic of the hostile environment towards human rights defenders across Russia and the South Caucasus. We submitted our reply to the Government’s observations in March 2018.
Human rights defenders and journalists often experience violence and abuse for their attempts to expose uncomfortable truths: in March 2017, the European Court ruled that the abduction, beating of and threats in November 2007 to Memorial’s Chairman were committed by Russian State agents. Oleg Orlov and three REN-TV journalists were in Nazran, Ingushetia to report on a protest against abuse of authority by the security forces. The night before the protest, armed men in balaclavas and camouflage uniforms burst into their hotel rooms, beat them up, covered their heads with sacks and forced them into a minibus outside. They were driven far outside Nazran and told they would be executed. When the abductors were unable to find silencers for their guns, they threatened to kill Oleg and the journalists if they returned to Ingushetia. Fearing the abductors’ return, the applicants ran through the snow in the opposite direction for an hour to the next village, where they eventually received help from residents. In a particularly strongly-worded judgment, the Court found that the Government “advanced no plausible explanation for the events in question” and the accumulation of the beatings, threats and their abandonment in the cold amounted to inhuman treatment.
Bolotnaya Square, Moscow
At the start of 2016, the Court ruled in the first of our cases concerning the 2012 Bolotnaya Square demonstration against parliamentary and presidential election results. Evgeny Frumkin was arrested, detained and convicted for failing to obey a police order, while peacefully taking part in the protest. In a particularly strongly-worded judgment, reflecting its wide-reaching implications, the Court noted that Russia is obliged to protect freedom of assembly, and that the sanctions imposed on the applicant and many other demonstrators had a chilling effect on open political debate in Russia. We are taking a series of other protest-related cases, including one challenging the arrest and conviction of protesters outside a Moscow court during the 2014 verdict on the prosecution of the original Bolotnaya Square demonstrators.
“The Court rejected the narrative put forward by the State that restrictive measures were necessary to keep the peace, and robustly upheld the right to freedom of assembly at a time when it is under threat in Russia.”
Jessica Gavron, EHRAC Legal Director, speaking after the Frumkin judgment
Violence against women
Across the world, women’s rights have been propelled into the headlines, in the wake of high-profile campaigns aiming to empower women to tackle harassment and discrimination in everyday situations. In our target region, we are focusing our efforts on the scourge of violence against women, particularly domestic violence. This is a particular issue in Russia: in February 2017, legislators signed into a law amendments that decriminalised some forms of domestic violence, making “moderate” violence within the family an administrative, rather than a criminal, offence. We represent a young woman from Dagestan who complains that the authorities failed to effectively investigate her repeated rape and assault as a child by 11 men over the course of two years.
The so-called ‘Law on homosexual propaganda’ in Russia continues to be in force, and in March 2017, we responded to the Russian Government’s observations on the dispersal of a ‘kiss-in protest’ in front of the Duma in Moscow, while the bill was being discussed in 2013. 60% of the protesters were arrested, detained and charged, compared with only 2% of a group of Orthodox Christian counter-protesters.
We collaborated in 2016 with the International Commission of Jurists and ILGA-Europe to intervene in a case regarding the refusal of the Russian authorities to register two organisations, including the Movement for Marriage Equality, on the basis that homosexuality was immoral.
In collaboration with Ukrainian and Russian partners, we act for the Crimean Mejlis (the body representing the indigenous Crimean people, the Crimean Tatars) as they seek to challenge their designation as an ‘extremist’ organisation, and subsequent banning by the Russian authorities. Some Mejlis members have been forced to relocate to Kyiv. Since the Russian occupation of Crimea began in March 2014, the Mejlis has consistently refuted that Crimea is part of Russia, and it is thought that the banning of the Mejlis, as well as other systemic repressive measures against Crimean Tatars, is a form of retribution. We lodged their case at the European Court in March 2017.
Memorial was EHRAC’s first partner organisation, and is one of the leading human rights NGOs in the Russian Federation. It was established in 1991 and has 58 branches across the Russian Federation. EHRAC has worked with lawyers in their strategic litigation department since 2003, bringing cases to the European Court on a wide range of human rights abuse, from disappearances in the North Caucasus, to violence against women, to protests, to civil society repression. The Centre also focuses on politically motivated persecution in the former Soviet Union, discrimination on ethnic grounds and analysing the situation of refugees and forced migrants.