A group of leading rights organizations has urged the United Nations to condemn the deterioration of civil rights in Russia, which has “constructed a legal landscape that is inconsistent” with international standards.
In an open letter to the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Human Rights House Foundation, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) noted that, while a recent session of the UN Human Rights Council put a spotlight on the “alarming trend” in Russia, the situation has only worsened since.
“We hoped that the Russian authorities would have changed their approach following such clear expressions of concern from such a broad number of states,” the open letter, dated July 7, said.
“Yet, since the statement (of concern) was delivered, the authorities have further expanded their crackdown, including through laws targeting members and supporters of civil society organizations labeled ‘extremist’ or ‘undesirable’ –- in some cases, targeting them by retroactive application of newly introduced unduly restrictive legislation,” it added.
Russia has come under heavy international criticism in the past year for several moves that have been seen as limiting civil rights.
The open letter pointed to the incarceration of Aleksei Navalny, and the use of the so-called “foreign agents” law and the “undesirable organizations” designation as examples of the “harassment and prosecution of peaceful political and civil society activists, protesters and other dissenting voices in Russia.”
“In this regard, continued, and heightened engagement by this (UN Human Rights) Council is needed,” the letter said.
We “urge the Russian authorities to revert and repeal the legislative initiatives that unduly restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and bring Russia’s legislation into full compliance with its international human rights obligations,” it added.
Russia’s so-called “foreign agent” legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires noncommercial organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.
Later modifications targeted foreign-funded media. In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL’s Russian Service on the list, along with six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services and Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. The Russian Service of VOA was also added to the list.
In a report analyzing the amendments, published on July 6, the EU’s Venice Commission, which is composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, was sharply critical of Russia for the laws and called on Moscow to curb the scope of the laws.
Russia has said the laws and new amendments are designed to increase transparency and enhance national security.
However, the activists said in the open letter that the laws were being used to silence opposition voices such as Navalny and Andrei Pivovarov, the former executive director of the pro-democracy Open Russia movement who was detained after being removed from a Warsaw-bound plane just before takeoff from St. Petersburg in late May.
Pivovarov faces charges of “participating in the activities of an undesirable group.” He denies any wrongdoing.
Navalny, Putin’s most prominent domestic critic, was arrested in January upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin — an accusation that Russian officials reject.
Navalny was sentenced in February to 2 1/2 years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction widely considered politically motivated. In April, tens of thousands of people demonstrated for his release, following similar mass protests in January against his arrest.
With the country mired in economic woes that have seen a decline in real incomes and rising inflation, Putin’s ruling United Russia party has been polling at historic lows with parliamentary elections looming on September 19.
In the run-up to the elections, the Kremlin has cracked down — sometimes brutally — on opposition political figures and independent media.
Earlier this month, Putin endorsed a law that bars leaders and founders of organizations declared extremist or terrorist by Russian courts from running for elected posts for a period of five years. Other members or employees of such organizations will face a three-year ban.