A Russian court has extended the house arrest of Anastasiya Shevchenko, a member of the Open Russia Civic Movement, alleging that she is involved in an “undesirable” organization, Human Rights Watch said today. The decision is consistent with Russian authorities’ use of an abusive law on “undesirable organizations” to silence activists, with several other activists on trial or facing prosecution on similar accusations.
“That Anastasiya Shevchenko has been confined to her apartment for over a year is absurd,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “No one should spend even a minute in detention for what Open Russia activists are accused of, yet Russian authorities are using criminal prosecutions as a scare tactic against civic activism and critical voices.”
The law on “undesirable organizations,” adopted in May 2015, authorizes the Prosecutor General’s Office to ban from the country any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. The law also provides for administrative and criminal sanctions for Russian organizations and nationals that engage in “continued involvement” with “undesirable organizations.” Since 2015, 19 groups have been placed on Russia’s blacklist, including an organization registered in the UK also called Open Russia Civic Movement, in 2017.
Members of the Russian group of the same name have said repeatedly that they are not connected to the banned UK-based organization, which was liquidated in early 2019. The charges against Shevchenko stem from her participation in a public debate in 2018 in which the organizers introduced her as a local coordinator of Open Russia, and her reposting of social media items attributed by authorities to Open Russia. She has spent just short of a year under house arrest, on repeated extensions, the most recent of which runs until March 20, 2020.
The first trial of a member of the Open Russia group, Yana Antonova, on charges of “participating in activities of an undesirable organization,” began in late July 2019.
The charge against Antonova, a pediatrician, stems from a peaceful protest in February 2019 and two reposts on social media. At the protest, to commemorate the assassination of a Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was a single-person picket at which Antonova held a placard bearing the portrait of Nemtsov, reading, “We Remember.” Several days earlier, she reposted on her social media page an announcement by Open Russia in Rostov-on-Don about the authorized Nemtsov commemoration.
In early March, she reposted an Open Russia post with a quote by a Russian media figure, Vlad Listyev, who was assassinated in 1995, which read, “Several generations of people grew up, who don’t know what democracy is and never lived in it. They grew up in a totalitarian state and that’s in our genes and we now harvest the fruits thereof.”
In mid-October, Antonova’s apartment was searched as part of nationwide searches connected to a criminal case against the Foundation against Corruption (FBK), associated with the opposition politician Alexei Navalny. The day before the search, authorities froze Antonova’s mother’s savings account, cutting access to funds intended for Antonova’s brother, who has a disability. Antonova denied any connection to either the FBK or Navalny.
The authorities have opened three more criminal cases on the same charges in different parts of Russia against other former Open Russia activists: Anton Mikhalchuk from Tyumen, Maxim Vernikov in Yekaterinburg, and Alexander Savelyev in Ust-Labinsk in Krasnodar region. Michalchuk has left Russia and is on a “wanted” list. Vernikov’s trial started in August, and Savelyev has been named as a suspect.
Alexey Prianishnikov, coordinator with Open Russia, told Human Rights Watch that he is concerned that other members of the organization could face criminal prosecution.
Once designated “undesirable,” an organization can no longer arrange or participate in any projects or other activities in Russia. Russians accused of involvement with an “undesirable organization” face administrative charges punishable by a fine. Those found guilty of two administrative violations, misdemeanors, within one year may face criminal charges and a maximum six-year prison sentence.
The Council of Europe’s, European Commission for Democracy Through Law (the Venice Commission), concluded that the Russian law on “undesirable” organizations interferes with fundamental human rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, including the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and expression.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Russia is also a party, protects the same key principles and freedoms.
“The real targets of the ‘undesirables law’ are Russian activists and independent groups,” Williamson said. “The ongoing criminal cases against activists for social media posts and entirely peaceful assemblies makes this obvious.”