Russia’s Human Rights: 3 Steps Back

July 28, 2012

Europe, Russia

BY: Anna Malinovskaya

Three pieces of legislation infringing on human rights marked the first few months of Putin’s presidency and attracted fierce criticism from leading human rights activists.

On June 9, 2012, changes to the federal law on assembly, rally, demonstration, and picketing came into force. They were initiated by the “United Russia” party and increased the fine for participating in “unsanctioned public meetings” by 150 times.  According to the introduced changes, each public gathering must be sanctioned in advance by local authorities. Individuals who initiate a peaceful assembly, rally, demonstration, or picketing without the authorities’ permission will pay a fine of up to 30,000 rubles (about 1,000 USD), and a civil servant will be fined for 40,000 rubles for the same “violation”. The fines rise dramatically if a public meeting obstructs the movement of vehicles or pedestrians or violates other “norms” established by the law.

Amnesty International states that it considers “ridiculous” the new provision in the law that allows public gatherings to be held only in “particular places designated by local authorities for public events”. John Dalhuisen, the director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia program, believes that isolation of participants in a designated zone where they cannot address those to whom they would like to express their protest is against the essence of the right to assemble. He further states that the law on public meetings is meant to prevent any political protests and curb free expression of thoughts that are different from the officially accepted point of view.

On July 13, State Duma, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament adopted a law turning certain types of libel from administrative into criminal offense. Human Rights Watch advised that the international community call on President Putin not to sign the law because “criminal penalties for libel are regressive and out of step with international human rights law”. Just seven months earlier, President Medvedev ensured that libel is considered an administrative offense, a step which was praised by the Council of Europe.

Human Rights Watch is especially concerned with a provision in the law that makes libel against judges, jurors, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials subject to a fine of up to 2 million rubles (about 61,000 USD). It states that “Under international human rights law, the threshold for criticism of a public official is greater than for a private individual, and this provision could restrict legitimate criticism of public officials to an extent not permitted under international standards”.

On July 13, the State Duma also approved a law which was soon named the “smear campaign against NGOs” by leading human rights organizations. The notorious law requires NGOs receiving funding from abroad, financially or in kind, to register as “non-commercial organizations performing the functions of a foreign agent”. The changes apply specifically to those NGOs that are engaged in political activities, that is in the law’s wording, if they attempt to influence decision making by public authorities in order to change public policies pursued by them or if they attempt to affect public opinion for the same purpose. Amnesty International believes that such a broad definition of political activities includes any human rights organization and most civil society organizations. The penalties for a failure to register an organization as “performing the functions of a foreign agent” are severe and range from a fine of up to 1 million rubles for organizations to imprisonment of certain NGO members.

A notion of a “foreign agent” has strongly negative associations in the Russian language, as Amnesty International pointed out. The fact that NGOs registered as “performing the functions of foreign agents” are obliged to state that on all their publications, whether available in hard copy or via the Internet, means that the law also aims to delegitimize the work of such organizations by making them appear as serving some foreign powers.

With regard to these three important legislative changes that happened in just two months, United Nations human rights chief, Navi Pillay, urged the Russia’s government “to avoid taking further steps backwards to a more restrictive era,” referring to the more than 70 years of communist rule.



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