Freedom Under Assault in Putin's Russia

June 13, 2013

Freedom Under Assault in Putin's Russia

Testimony of Frank S. Jannuzi Deputy Executive Director, Amnesty International, USA

In recent months, Russian authorities have intensified their assault on basic freedoms and undermined rule of law. The assault takes many forms. New bills - passed just this week by the country's lower house of Parliament and expected to be approved in the near future by the upper house of Parliament and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin – restrict the activities of non-governmental organizations, criminalize public actions "committed to insult the religious feelings of believers" and outlaw activism by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals and their supporters. I would note that the new law criminalizing "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations," passed 436-0 by the rubber stamp Duma this week, comes as much of the world marks Pride month.

New controls over the media are being used to smear government critics and bolster the government's policy line. Authorities use secret detention facilities and torture, especially in the North Caucuses region, to silence critics and deny them access to counsel. These measures are widespread and systematic. They are being imposed on domestic and international civil society groups alike.

This crackdown, coming as Russia prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, should be a matter of grave concern to the U.S. government. Moscow's lack of respect for human rights speaks volumes about its reliability as a potential partner to the United States and Europe in addressing pressing international security concerns, from the conflict in Syria to the danger of nuclear proliferation. Moreover, it marks an ominous turn in a country that had been making progress towards developing more open, transparent, and accountable governance.

Many of you may be aware that Amnesty International has itself been subjected to various forms of harassment. For some NGOs, the significance of this particular brand of harassment is that it can result in self-censorship, restriction of activities, or flight. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Director, has expressed our concern that Russia's new NGO law will be used to target prominent civil society organizations. Already 43 Russian non-governmental organizations in 16 regions are undergoing inspections and investigations, with devastating effect. Many prominent organizations, such as Golos (Voice) Association which monitors elections, the LevadaCenter for sociological research, the Moscow School for Political Research, and the Human Rights Center Memorial, have been labelled by prosecutors as "Foreign Agents." Our biggest concern is that this is just "round one," and that forced closures are likely to follow.

Indeed, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute – arms of the National Endowment for Democracy funded by Congress – have already suspended operations in Russia given the threat that their employees might be charged with treason or espionage. This is because the NGO law passed late last year provides for sentences of up to 20 years for individuals "providing consultative assistance to a foreign organization" if that group was involved in "activities aimed against Russia’s security," a catch-all phrase that could be used to criminalize almost any activity the government deems hostile.

Prisoners of Conscience

Amnesty International coined the term "Prisoner of Conscience" to describe individuals who have been imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their beliefs or identity. These individual cases are often emblematic of systemic problems; so let me briefly highlight some cases to underscore two key points:

  • First: Russia's crackdown is not just about silencing opponents at the political fringes. It is about stifling all who would question the consolidation of power under President Putin and his Federal Security Service (FSB) siloviki associates. This network of former and current state security officers is consolidating control over all key political and economic levers of power in Russia. The influence of these KGB-trained operatives, and their willingness to use force to maintain their privileged status – should not be underestimated.
  • Second: while the stifling of dissent is widespread, it is arguably most pronounced in the North Caucuses region, home to violent insurrections against Russian rule for centuries. Human rights defenders who bravely speak out about the situation in the North Caucuses region are particularly at risk.

Russia's most famous Prisoners of Conscience are the members of the band Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot's one minute long performance in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, and the band members' subsequent arrest and sentencing, sparked a global outcry and brought Russia’s mounting repression to an international audience. The YouTube video of their punk performance, in which they criticized President Putin, generated over 3,000,000 YouTube views.

Amnesty International championed the case of Pussy Riot, not because we have an opinion on their musicality – I am more of a Sondheim fan myself – but because we recognize that artists are often at the cutting edge of political commentary. When artists are arrested for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression – whether in China with painter and sculptor Ai Wei Wei, in Egypt with TV Bassem Youssef, or in Burma with comic Zarganar – broader restrictions on the general public are likely to follow.

Two of three Pussy Riot members remain imprisoned, and Amnesty International has designated them as Prisoners of Conscience. We are calling on Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and clear all charges against them.

Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova is serving a two-year sentence at the notoriously brutal IK-14 women's penal colony in the Republic of Mordovia. Prior to her arrest, Nadya was a student of philosophy at Moscow State University and split her time juggling the demands of being a student, mother, and a political activist. Her daughter Ghera is five years old. I had the honor to meet Ghera last fall when I hosted her along with a more famous human rights activist - Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – at the Newseum. Ghera misses her mommy very much.

The second jailed Pussy Riot band member, also a Prisoner of Conscience, is Maria "Masha" Alekhina. Mashahas a four-year old son, Philip. She was a senior at the Institute of Journalism and Creative Writing in Moscow prior to her arrest.Masha is serving the rest of her term in Perm Krai, a Siberian region notorious for hosting some of the Soviet Union's harshest gulags. Like Ghera, Masha’s son misses his mother very much.

An HBO documentary – Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – debuted this week, and Amnesty International, in collaboration with the producers, has produced a viewing guide, available on our web site. Concerned citizens – including members of Congress – can also express solidarity for the band members by visiting

Unfortunately, the case of Pussy Riot is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to political repression in Putin’s Russia. Other critics of the government – less colorful, perhaps, but no less brave – suffer in obscurity. They are likely to be treated even more harshly than their more famous kindred spirits.

The situation is especially grave in the North Caucasus region, which has been characterized by insecurity and armed attacks on security forces, civilians, and local officials. Many Americans may have first become aware of this region during the Boston Marathon bombing, but the region has long been troubled. Heavy-handed security operations have led to human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, secret detention, torture, and other forms of ill treatment.

The absence of rule of law fuels unrest. The criminal justice system of Russia is set up to deliver quick convictions, not justice. Defense lawyers are often seen as obstacles to law enforcement officers, who would prefer to see them removed from the equation altogether. Lawyers who dare to defend individuals suspected of membership in armed groups are themselves often threatened, attacked, or murdered by law enforcement officials. Complaints against law enforcement officials often receive no response, are dismissed, or are countered by criminal investigations against those who have filed the complaint.

The case of Sapiyat Magomedova is emblematic. As a defense lawyer, Magomedova is known for her work on cases involving human rights violations committed by law enforcement agencies in Dagestan. In June 2010, when she went to the Khasavyurt town police station to visit a client, police officers prevented her from gaining access to her client. They forcibly removed her from the police station and physically assaulted her. When she attempted to file a complaint about the attack, the police launched their own investigation saying that she in fact attacked them. Investigators repeatedly tried to pressure her into withdrawing her complaint, and warned her that she would face criminal charges herself if she pressed ahead. She refused to be intimidated. In the end, the courts dismissed both complaints – hers and that of the police – without explanation. While some might have interpreted this as a victory, she doesn’t see it that way, and neither does Amnesty International. When police assault lawyers simply for attempting to do their jobs, the authorities should hold those police accountable. Magomedova is still seeking justice, and still being persecuted for her persistence. Just last month, Magomedova reported receiving death threats via text messages. Amnesty International stands beside this brave human rights defender and supports her call for justice and accountability.

What can be done?

There are no quick fixes to reverse the ever shrinking space for freedom of expression in Russia. A blend of public and private initiatives may work best. Let me suggest four things the members of this committee can do to perhaps deter some of the worst of the abuses and support those inside Russia who are courageously doing their part to advance human rights and rule of law.

  • First: continue to shine a spotlight on what is happening and help the American people understand why they should care. Ideally, you should synchronize your efforts with Parliamentarians in Europe and through the Helsinki process, because when you speak in unison with your fellow legislators, your voices are amplified. Russia is a great power with enormous potential to help solve the world’s problems. But what happens in Moscow does NOT stay in Moscow. It speaks volumes about Russia’s reliability as a global partner of the United States in every field, from trade to international security.
  • Second: insist that when President Obama travels to Russia in September, that he put human rights prominently on his summit agenda. The Russian government cares about its reputation, and the United States should not give President Putin a free pass on repression.
  • Third: join Amnesty International's Defenders of Freedom program, a cooperative venture we launched last fall with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and the International Religious Freedom Commission. You can adopt a certified Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience and tell their story on your web pages, give floor statements about them, and pass resolutions calling for their release. YOUR voices can help unlock cell doors, and we’ve already done the research work for you.
  • Fourth: notwithstanding budget pressures and Russian restrictions, you can generously support funding for nongovernmental organizations striving to strengthen Russian civil society. Training in international human rights law for journalists, lawyers, judges, and even public security officials can improve their performance and better equip them to be human rights champions. And let me say for the record that this is NOT an appeal for funding for Amnesty International. We don’t take government money for our research or advocacy.

These would all be constructive, welcome steps. You may not win any thanks from President Putin, but I can assure you, as a representative of the world’s largest grassroots human rights organization, that your efforts can make a difference in the lives of Nadia, Masha, Sapiyat, Ghera, and countless other brave citizens of Russia who would will benefit if the U.S. Senate makes a firm commitment to advancing human rights at home and abroad.