Russian authorities opened their first criminal case against a Russian activist for alleged involvement with a so-called “undesirable” foreign organization, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 23, 2019 Rostov-on-Don court placed Anastasia Shevchenko, a member of the Open Russia Civic Movement (ORCM), under house arrest as a suspect.
ORCM is an unregistered pro-democracy movement of Russian citizens, founded in 2016, which Russian authorities view as part of an organization registered in the UK under the same name and banned by Russia in 2017. Activists have repeatedly said that they are not connected to the banned UK-based organization.
“The criminal prosecution of Anastasiya Shevchenko is a blatant attack on freedom of association in Russia,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Both the draconian law and this prosecution are being used solely to intimidate activists trying to counter corruption, election fraud, and human rights violations in Russia.”
Police arrested Shevchenko on January 21, and she learned then that they had opened the criminal case on January 18. Her home was searched, and she spent two nights in police custody. On January 23, the court in Rostov-on-Don transferred Shevchenko to house arrest until March 20.
Russia’s law on “undesirable organizations,” adopted in 2015, authorizes the prosecutor general to ban from the country any foreign or international organization that it perceives as harming 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.
Authorities opened the case against Shevchenko on the last day before the statute of limitations would have expired. Shevchenko was fined under the law on January 19, 2018, in connection with her participation in a public debate in October where the organizers introduced her as a local coordinator of ORCM. Shevchenko was fined a second time in August on the basis of screenshots of the group’s social media posts about various events.
On January 21, police searched the homes of eight other ORCM activists in Rostov-on-Don, Kazan, and Ulyanovsk and then interrogated them. Police also interrogated two more activists in Ulyanovsk. All are identified in the government’s case as witnesses against Shevchenko. Officials from the anti-extremism police department interrogated at least four of them, denying them access to a legal counsel.
Human Rights Watch spoke with seven activists with the movement, including five who had been interrogated. The police also searched the apartments of four of those five. One, Elza Nisanbekova, a lawyer with the group, said that the police who searched her home in Kazan were armed with combat rifles. Anton Prikhodko, from Rostov-on-Don, said the police cut off the electricity in his apartment before the search and threatened to break down the door.
Police seized cellphones and computers during the searches and in at least three cases, also took mobile phones and computers belonging to the activists’ family members. Four activists said that the police refused to give them a copy of the search warrant.
Shevchenko is the only formal suspect in the case, but the search warrant for Nisanbekova alleged that she had a “criminal connection” with Shevchenko, raising concerns that she may also be declared a suspect. Nisanbekova said police “hinted” that she and another activist in Kazan, Dmitri Yegorov, could face criminal charges, as both had been fined in misdemeanor cases under the same law as Shevchenko.
Yegorov said that he was out of town on January 21, but his neighbors told him that they saw uniformed policemen and people in civilian clothes knock on his apartment door that morning and then leave.
Yegorov was first fined under the law in July on the basis of several media reports describing him as a member of the group. On December 27, police detained him for participation in a peaceful protest and a court sentenced him to 12 days in detention for violating regulations on public gatherings. A few hours before his anticipated release, police took him to court, where he received an additional fine on charges of involvement with an undesirable organization. The charge stemmed solely from the fact that the colors on his placard – yellow and black – were similar to the group’s colors.
Igor Toporkov from Ulyanovsk said his house was not searched but anti-extremism police interrogated him twice on January 22 and denied him access to a lawyer. Toporkov said that police questioned him about Shevchenko’s relation to the UK-registered “Open Russia” organization and implied that the Russian civic movement was a branch of that group.
Fifteen organizations, most of them American capacity-building groups and donor institutions, are on the Russian Justice Ministry’s list of “foreign undesirable organizations.” The list includes Open Russia Civic Movement (Open Russia) and Otkrytaya Rossiya, (a transliteration of “Open Russia” in Russian) based in the UK. The banned UK legal entities are affiliated with the exiled oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. ORCM activists in Russia have repeatedly objected to being treated as members of “an undesirable foreign organization,” emphasizing that their movement is neither registered nor foreign, and not associated with UK based entity.
Alexei Pryanishnikov, the group’s coordinator, told Human Rights Watch that courts in Russia rarely accept that argument. He said that at least 30 administrative cases have been brought against the movement’s members since April, and that courts quashed first instance rulings on that basis in only three of them. In many instances, charges were based solely on social media posts in which activists appear with posters bearing the words “Open Russia” or its symbols, or for their participation in the group’s events, including peaceful public assemblies. Pryanishnikov also said that he knows of at least five other members of the movement who have two or more fines for involvement with an “undesirable organization,” and could also be at risk of criminal prosecution.
The law violates the rights to freedom of expression and association set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia is a state party to both treaties.
“Russian authorities can try to use the ‘undesirables’ law to make political persecution look legal, but they will fool no one,” Denber said. “With Shevchenko’s prosecution, the authorities are emphasizing their message of intimidation that peaceful criticism of the government can land you in prison for years.”