Russia's Belligerence Starts With Abuse at Home
When the government of President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, the international community rightly rushed to condemn Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The world’s outrage has continued to focus on Russian belligerence in the years since that attack. Putin’s government violates the norms of international law with impunity. Moscow supports dictatorial regimes from Syria to Venezuela, poisons political activists and dissidents abroad, and launches coordinated campaigns to undercut the legitimacy of democratic elections in the United States and elsewhere. These actions deserve global scorn.
Yet human-rights violations inside Russia attract much less attention. Perhaps overwhelmed by Russia’s external aggression, the international community has generally found itself unwilling or unable to take meaningful action to oppose the abuses of Putin’s government against its own people. What global leaders need to realize is that it is precisely the absence of free elections and the domestic suppression of freedom of speech, assembly, and association that allow Russian authorities to act so brazenly in the international arena.
This month in Russia, protesters fighting this kind of persecution scored a victory in the case of Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist arrested on a fabricated charge of dealing drugs. Golunov was beaten while jailed, but he was released amid an outcry that included three leading Russian newspapers running front-page banners declaring: “We are Ivan Golunov.”
Golunov, unfortunately, is the exception. Hundreds of others remain trapped in the state-sanctioned system of politically motivated imprisonment, which solidifies the Putin regime’s grip on power. The targets of this system are not only the regime’s political opponents and critics, but also include members of religious minorities the regime views as a potential threat, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims. Many other prisoners are not deliberate targets of persecution, but instead fall hostage to the state’s systematic efforts to pressure specific populations or to impose a line of thinking on society at large. In this way, dozens of Ukrainians are jailed for no crime at all.
Documenting and raising awareness of the plight of these prisoners in Russia is central to the mission of the Memorial Human Rights Centre, where I serve as head of our program on political prisoners. In our work, we compile and maintain lists of political prisoners in modern Russia, carefully investigating and vetting the details of each case to confirm the political nature of the individual persecution. These lists feature prominently in the first comprehensive report on the Kremlin’s political prisoners published last month. The report was commissioned by four global human-rights groups and prepared with our research support.
The report lists 236 innocent individuals languishing in Russian prisons. Their stories are harrowing -- in many cases, the individual’s so-called crime was nothing more than taking part in a peaceful rally opposing Putin, or attending a prayer meeting. It is a sad fact of the state of Putin’s Russia that, from the time our report went to the printer and the date of its publication, the number of political prisoners we track rose from 236 to 278.
The use of mass detention as a tool of political repression did not end with the fall of the Soviet Union. It is brutal, ongoing, and pervasive. Consider the case of Alexei Pichugin, Russia’s longest-serving political prisoner. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recently released a carefully argued ruling that Pichugin, jailed in 2003, has been arbitrarily detained. The UN experts called for Pichugin’s immediate and unconditional release, concluding that Pichugin’s association with the Yukos Oil Company, whose leaders’ persecution was obviously unlawful and politically motivated, “is the only plausible explanation for his arrest, detention and imprisonment.”
We are not so naive as to think that Putin will leap to comply with a UN ruling, but we do know that active pressure both from Russian civil society and the international community is a powerful means to support Pichugin and the hundreds more victims like him. Personal sanctions against the human-rights violators who are directly responsible for these politically motivated deprivations of liberty are crucial components of this pressure. These officials should be added to various countries’ sanctions lists, with limits on their ability to travel and invest freely in the West. The recent report, for example, offers 16 Russian officials as potential objects for the application of these sanctions.
Finally, while the recent report focuses on the number of political prisoners, Memorial is keenly aware that, as in the case of Ivan Golunov, behind each of these numbers are human beings -- individuals with their own stories and their own suffering. We seek to speak for them until the day when there will no longer need to be interventions by the United Nations and others to secure the freedoms that belong to each of us by right.
Sergey Davidis is Head of the Political Prisoners Support Program and a Member of the Council at the Memorial Human Rights Centre in Moscow, Russia. The views expressed are the author's own.