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‘THE RUSSIA OF TOMORROW’: Antiwar & Human Rights Defense Digest / ISSUE 4, SEPT. 5 – 11, 2022

Dear readers, we are happy to offer you this new issue of our digest. It does not aim to be exhaustive but provides more granular detail on the antiwar and human rights struggle inside Russia than any other English-language publication. We seek to revive the tradition of the Soviet-era Chronicle of Current Events that was bringing international attention not just to the most famous and prominent dissidents but to everyday resistance to oppression at the grassroots level of Soviet society. Our title – with tongue-in-cheek toward ‘Russia Today’, the powerhouse of the Kremlin’s global propaganda – reflects our belief in Vaclav Havel’s “power of the powerless”, including the long-term power of those Russian citizens, of many ethnicities and faiths, who are putting themselves in harm’s way to bring about a peaceful and less oppressive tomorrow for their country, for Ukraine, and for the rest of the world.

This publication is currently produced on an entirely volunteer basis and requires serious funding to continue. We invite you to join us on this journey by donating toward this project to our parent organization, Russian-speaking Community Council, Inc., via PayPal: https://bit.ly/3DlUxy1.

I. Regional and local ‘elections’ & the antiwar movement

On Sunday Sept. 11 Russia held its nationwide “elections” to neighborhood (“municipal”) councils as well as gubernatorial “elections” in 14 regions and “elections” to legislative assemblies in 6 regions. According to official sources, the population of these electoral districts includes 43 million of eligible voters which is about 40 percent of Russia’s voters. In eight of the regions – including the most politically sensitive of all, Moscow City – traditional forms of voting are supplemented with online voting; it has been widely criticized by democratic opposition as the least transparent and the most vulnerable to rigging. Over 110,000 voters reportedly applied for electronic ballots. In some of the regions, both online and in-person voting was permitted not only on Sept. 11 but also one or two days prior. In Moscow, elections took place in 125 out of 146 neighborhood councils, with over 5,700 candidates for a total of 1,417 seats to be filled for the next 5-year term. It has been reported that at some of the Moscow precincts voters were turned away because they were allegedly ‘on the electronic voting list’, even though there was no such list in place. Observers have also reported abnormal electronic turnout in the night of Sept. 10, with an identical number of people allegedly voting every hour (https://bit.ly/3d6c6qZ).

Yabloko, the only antiwar party permitted to field candidates, was present on the ballot in 12 regions, including 43 out of 125 neighborhood council elections in Moscow. 47 of Yabloko’s 179 candidates in Moscow were removed from the ballot for various pretexts; in 11 cases, the pretext used was the alleged display of symbols associated with Alexey Navalny – even though Yabloko is highly critical of his politics (https://bit.ly/3B9QB0h). Candidates prohibited from running included Nikolay Kavkazsky, a leading LGBTQ+ rights advocate and former political prisoner in 2012-13; and Andrey Morev, chair of one of the neighborhood districts (each of them spent 1-2 weeks of arrest in the run-up to the voting). Among prominent oppositionists not belonging to any party, Vladimir Kara-Murza endorsed the Yabloko slate from his jail cell.

Navalny’s network – which is illegal in Russia and is coordinated from abroad by Leonid Volkov – issued once again a list of endorsements for its ‘Smart Voting’ ostensibly aimed at taking votes away from Putin’s United Russia; from his isolation cell, Navalny urged to support ‘Smart Voting’ candidates. ‘Smart Voting’ was criticized in the previous years for endorsing candidates from nationalist and ultra-nationalist parties whose views were indistinguishable from United Russia candidates or even to the right of them. This year, ‘Smart Voting’ made endorsements in Moscow City races only; Volkov commented that outside of Moscow ‘Smart Voting’ would have to endorse pro-war candidates which would be ‘morally unacceptable’. Opponents noted that most of the candidates endorsed by ‘Smart Voting’ in Moscow still represent pro-war parties, including Communists, whose candidates comprise 37% of ‘Smart Voting’ latest endorsements (https://bit.ly/3B5npYl).

Even though the overall results of these ‘elections’ were never in doubt, their symbolic significance for both the regime and the antiwar opposition was underscored by the antiwar and anti-Putin statements made in the last few days by members of two of the outgoing neighborhood councils – one in St. Petersburg and one in Moscow. In St. Petersburg, on Sept. 7, seven members of the municipal council of Smolninskoe (several of them elected on the Yabloko slate) issued an appeal to the Kremlin-controlled Duma, urging it to initiate Putin’s impeachment on charges of treason. “President Putin’s decision to launch the special military operation is harming the security of Russia and its citizens,” read the statement (https://bit.ly/3Byb0Oj). On the same day, all 7 councillors were summoned to the police via text messages and charged with ‘disparaging the military’ (https://bit.ly/3QycRGX). The pro-Kremlin head of the district also declared the appeal to be illegitimate on the grounds that a council session could have been called only by him, and that the meeting held to pass this appeal did not have a quorum (https://bit.ly/3RCqlme). On the next day, the council of the Lomonosovsky district in Moscow (adjacent to the Moscow State University) voted, in its final session (https://bit.ly/3RW2HAW), to appeal directly to Putin, urging him to resign and stating that his “views and the model of governance are hopelessly outdated and obstruct the development of Russia” (https://bit.ly/3Ddkgs7). The session was chaired by Yabloko’s Timofey Nikolaev.

In some locations, activists and election observers were being detained in advance of the elections, on trumped-up charges. Thus, on Sept. 9 in Krasnodar, a district court sentenced Vitaly Nemtsev, an independent observer at the elections, to five days of arrest (just enough to keep him in jail throughout the elections). He was detained on his way to the precinct and charged with having ‘extremist’ stickers on his car, one of which said, ‘No to war’ and two others displayed the symbols of the Ukrainian right-wing ‘Azov Battalion’, branded as ‘terrorist organization’ by Russia’s supreme court. Nemtsev denied having placed these stickers on his car and claimed they were planted on him (https://bit.ly/3L78KQX).

II. The week of reprisals against journalists

As news of Russia’s retreat from Ukraine’s Kharkiv region kept pouring in, the regime made crystal clear its intent of escalating the clampdown on the media, first and foremost in Moscow. On Sept. 5, the print version of Novaya gazeta that has been led by Nobel-Prize winning Dmitry Muratov (also a Yabloko member) and co-owned by Mikhail Gorbachev until his death, was de-registered by the infamous Basmanny district court, at the request of Roskomnadzor, the media oversight agency. The pretext was that Novaya gazeta allegedly failed to submit its by-laws within 3 months of changing its incorporators in 2006, even though this requirement was only introduced 11 years later (https://bit.ly/3xfM9fu). Muratov suspended the publication in March rather than complying with the censors’ demands after the start of the war. On the next day after Novaya, the same court de-registered its magazine, Novaya rasskaz-gazeta, that was registered in 2009 but published its first issue two months ago. Its website has already been blocked (https://bit.ly/3qvh9Eo). Both publications plan to appeal these decisions. The website of Novaya gazeta-Europe, published in Riga by some of Novaya’s staff who left Russia after the start of the invasion, has also been blocked; on Sept. 9, Yandex.Music, a part of Russia’s Yandex search engine, removed Novaya gazeta-Europe’s podcast (https://bit.ly/3DhmwyM). The regime is also seeking to block Novaya’s main website https://novayagazeta.ru/. Russia’s Supreme Court will hold a hearing on it on Sept. 15.

Also on Sept. 5, Moscow City court sentenced 32-year-old Ivan Safronov, a reporter of Kommersant and former employee of Roskosmos, Russia’s space agency, to 22-year jail term for alleged high treason. Safronov, who specializes in defense industry, worked for Kremlin-loyal institutions and was not an opposition activist. He was charged with passing information to Czech intelligence about Russian arms sales to Middle Eastern countries and unspecified secrets to a German agent. A recent detailed analysis of charges against Safronov showed their flimsiness, including the fact that almost all the so-called classified information had been available in open sources (https://bit.ly/3eJiepH). Safronov has already spent more than two years in pre-trial detention. Many groups of journalists and human rights organizations in Russia have been calling for his release. As noted in our previous issue, shortly before his sentencing Safronov was offered a plea deal by the prosecution but refused to plead guilty. On Sept. 6, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov stated that Safronov could appeal for presidential pardon but admitting his guilt is a necessary requirement; as noted by several commentators, Russia’s laws do not condition pardons on one’s admission of guilt.

On Sept. 8, police conducted simultaneous searches at the homes of a dozen of journalists across the country. Among the journalists searched were Ruslan Sukhushin in Moscow; Viktor Zyryanov, co-founder and administrator of ‘Orlets’ channel, in Reutov (Moscow region); Vladislav Khodakovsky in Voronezh; Sergey Nosov in the village of Baklanovo (Oryol region); Bella Nasibyan in Rostov-on-Don; blogger and urban planning expert Miroslav Valkovich in Krasnodar; Vladislav Postnikov, chief editor of Vechernie vedomosti in Yekaterinburg; and Yulia Glazova in Tyumen (https://bit.ly/3RLu6FQ; https://t.me/orlec/1598; https://bit.ly/3ByLad1).  Police seized their electronic devices and interrogated them as witnesses in the criminal case against Ponomaryov. Khodakovsky, Nasibyan and Valkovich also had their bank accounts frozen. Official sources claimed that these journalists were managing online channels of the so-called Freedom for Russia Legion, a putative underground militant group promoted online by Ilya Ponomaryov, a former Duma member who in 2014 cast the sole vote against sanctioning Putin’s annexation of Crimea and has since resided in Ukraine. RIA-Novosti claimed that the ‘Legion’ was formed by Ukrainian authorities for Russians willing to take up arms against the regime, and that Ponomaryov was “advising” the Legion (https://bit.ly/3RU0hmr). Others reported that these journalists were collaborating with Ponomaryov’s online media, ‘Utro Fevralya’ [‘February Morning’]; ‘Utro Fevralya’ officially denied these reports while denouncing the reprisals against independent media (https://t.me/rosanticenter/34170). Postnikov, who is reportedly former head of the branch of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia in the Urals, has denied his connection to Ponomaryov or support for his tactics. Postnikov’s Vechernie vedomosti have repeatedly been fined for ‘disparaging Russia’s military’ since the start of the invasion (https://bit.ly/3d2AEkP). Nasibyan said that, in her opinion, it was a signal for her to leave Russia, but that she did not want to emigrate and had nowhere to go (https://bit.ly/3DdrmNq). On the same day in Krasnodar, police searched the house of Miroslav Valkovich, not a journalist but an urban planner, reportedly also in connection with Ponomaryov’s case. Valkovich, who denied to the media having anything to do with Ponomaryov, was summoned for interrogation.

And on Sept. 9, in Elista, Badma Byurchiev, reporter for the Caucasian Knot, was beaten by unknown assailants. He believes this attack was in retaliation for his critique of the local authorities in his Telegram channel (https://bit.ly/3d7ebmC).

III. Opponents of the invasion

A. New reprisals

On Sept. 7, the Kremlin’s investigative committee announced a criminal case against an unnamed 60-year-old resident of Lipetsk, on charges of ‘spreading false information’ about the military via his media channel. The defendant is facing up to 3 years in jail (https://bit.ly/3RA28wV). This is the second such criminal case in the politically quiet Lipetsk: last month, same charges were brought against Ilya Danilov, former coordinator of the local office of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation – FBK (https://bit.ly/3ev5Pp1).

On Sept. 9, it was reported that blogger Askhabali Alibekov, also known as the ‘Wild Paratrooper’, was detained in his home in Novorossiysk (https://bit.ly/3qseiMH).  Alibekov gained recognition in 2018 for his video appeal to Putin accusing him of concealing the real number of Russia’s casualties in the then- ‘hybrid’ war in East Ukraine that the Kremlin waged via its proxies since 2014. After the publication of this video Alibekov was dismissed from the navy; his prior suspended term of imprisonment (for alleged act violence in the military) was converted into a real one, and he spent over a year in a high-security penal colony (https://bit.ly/3DdoIqY).

On the same day in Volgograd, 34-year-old Vitaly Gotra was fined 360,000 roubles – nearly $6,000 – for 12 instances of ‘disparaging armed forces. Last month, Gotra posted 12 antiwar stickers around his neighborhood. Gotra, who pleaded guilty to the charges, is a native of Ukraine where his parents still live (https://bit.ly/3B5Azos).

And in Kostroma, on Sept. 8, the staff of the investigative committee allegedly showed up at the workplace of the mother of Aleksandr Zykov who lives in The Netherlands, hinting that she would be fired for her son’s ‘misdeeds’ (https://t.me/Zykov_Aleks/12). Zykov is former head of the local branch of Navalny’s FBK; he has also been charged with ‘spreading false information’ about the military (https://t.me/sotaproject/45781).

B. Ongoing reprisals

Last week, the following pre-trial detentions related to antiwar activities were extended:

  • Ilya Yashin’s, on Sept. 9, by a court in Moscow, until Nov. 12; 39-year-old Yashin is a leading democratic politician and a neighborhood councillor in Moscow; according to Yashin, he was told by the prosecutor that if he pleads guilty or agrees to collaborate with the authorities, he could count on a house arrest (https://t.me/yashin_russia/522).
  • Vsevolod Korolev’s, on Sept. 8, by a St. Petersburg district court, until Oct. 11; Korolev’s appeal of his pre-trial detention, whereby he asked to replace it with house arrest due to his medical needs, was denied by city court. Korolev is a poet and a journalist, with prior conviction for taking part in ‘unsanctioned’ protest; he is charged with ‘spreading false information’ about the military because of his posts in VKontakte (https://mr-7.ru/articles/247282/).
  • Vladimir Rumyantsev’s, on Sept. 7, by Vologda city court, until Oct. 12; Rumyantsev is a 61-year-old fireman charged for his online posts about civilian casualties in Ukraine (https://bit.ly/3TZzjM1).
  • Sergey Mikhaylov’s, on Sept. 9, by Gorno-Altaysk city court, until Oct. 12 (https://bit.ly/3xbKd7x); Mikhaylov is the founding editor of the local paper Listok.

IV. Reprisals not directly related to the war

On Sept. 7, Alexey Navalny was ordered, for the fourth time, to spend another 15 days in isolation cell, immediately upon leaving it (https://bit.ly/3L7ShvP). And on the next day he announced on Twitter that the administration of his colony informed him that his attorney-client privilege with regard to his lawyers was being revoked. The reason was that Navalny was allegedly ‘committing crimes’ from jail and communicating with his ‘accomplices’ through lawyers. In his own words, “this leaves nothing of my right to a defense, which was already quite illusory” (https://bit.ly/3BzgzMq).

Also on Sept. 8, in Vladivostok, Yakut shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev won his appeal of an extension of his forced psychiatric treatment. The regional court returned his case to the lower district court for additional review for inconsistencies in his medical diagnosis (https://bit.ly/3QBWZ6q). Gabyshev became known in 2019 when he repeatedly marched from Yakutia to Moscow with the goal to ‘exorcise’ Putin from the Kremlin. Since then, he was detained several times, prosecuted for ‘extremism’, and his alleged psychiatric condition was reviewed by several commissions. The Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized him as a political prisoner. In July, Gabyshev’s supporters in Chita held a rally protesting his forced treatment.

On Sept. 7, in Grozny, a district court extended the pre-trial detention of Zarema Musaeva until Dec. 12. Musaeva is the mother of Ibragim and Abubakar Yangulbaevs, Chechen human rights activists. In January, she was forcibly transported from Nizhny Novgorod to Chechnya, allegedly for an interrogation as a witness in a fraud case. In the following months, she was charged with several more crimes. She was also denied her request to transfer her case to a court in another region for the sake of impartiality. Her sons and other activists say that reprisals against her are actually aimed at them, because they had exposed torture by Chechen law enforcement and had been critical of Ramzan Kadyrov’s rule (https://bit.ly/3RWWYLe).

On the same day, a district court in Yekaterinburg issued a guilty verdict against two men who staged protests next to the court’s building during the hearing on the case against Yevgeny Royzman on Aug. 25. One of the protesters, Andrey Deba, was sentenced to 30 hours of compulsory public works; another, Stanislav Kuryshov, to 20,000 roubles (circa $320) fine (https://t.me/ve4ved/63291). Royzman is awaiting trial on charges of ‘disparaging armed forces’ and has been banned from using internet and taking part in public meetings until Sept. 29.

On Sept. 5, in Moscow, Sergey Mitrokhin, Moscow City council member, a veteran of the democratic movement and one of the leaders of Yabloko, was denied his appeal in city court of his 200,000 roubles – over $3,200 – fine for ‘repeated violation of the rules of holding public protests’. Mitrokhin was fined in May after being detained during a meeting with his district residents (https://bit.ly/3TZDW8R).

V. Religious reprisals

On Sept. 5, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that two of its followers in Vologda, Nikolay Stepanov, and Yury Baranov, were found guilty of ‘setting up an extremist organization’ (Jehovah’s Witnesses were branded as ‘extremist’ by Russia’s supreme court in 2017). Stepanov was sentenced to 4 years in penal colony; Baranov got a suspended 4-year jail term (https://bit.ly/3S01XuV). A few days earlier, four other JW believers – Vladimir Myakushin, Konstantin Matrashov, Ilkham Karimov and Aydar Yulmetyev – lost their appeals of suspended jail terms with Tatarstan’s supreme court. In December 2021, they were sentenced to between 2.5 years and 3 years 1 month of suspended imprisonment with 2 years of probation. Since 2018, they were subjected to searches, arrests, and pre-trial detention (https://bit.ly/3DhN56I). Defendants both in the Vologda and in the Tatarstan cases pleaded not guilty. It is noteworthy that after religious rights defenders approached Putin, a plenum of Russia’s supreme court ruled, in October 2021, that JW’s meetings for religious services do not constitute a crime, and that courts hearing cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses ought to determine “what specific actions that would be dangerous for society were committed by the defendant”. In spite of this ruling, courts continue to equate religious services with organizational activities on behalf of the banned JW organization (https://bit.ly/3QvTkqx).

VI.      LGBTQ+ reprisals

On Sept. 7 in St. Petersburg, city court turned down the appeal against the decision to disband the Sfera [Sphere] Foundation. For 11 years, Sfera has provided legal and psychological support to LGBTQ+ persons. In 2016, it was added to the list of ‘foreign agents. In April, Sfera was disbanded at the request of the Ministry of Justice as its activities were allegedly “not compliant with the basic traditional and family values enshrined in the Constitution” (https://bit.ly/3xfaDpe).

VII. Occupied territories

On Sept. 7, the Russian-controlled supreme court of Crimea turned down the appeal of Irina Danilovich against her pre-trial detention. Danilovich is a nurse, a journalist, and an advocate for the labor rights of health care workers. As detailed in the previous issue of our digest, in April Danilovich was reportedly abducted by FSB operatives, was held for a week in the basement of a local FSB office without access to a lawyer, was threatened, and only after a week the FSB reportedly ‘found’ explosive in her handbag, which she says was planted on her. After the arrest, she was placed on the ‘foreign agents’ list by Russia’s ministry of justice. Last month, her detention was extended until February 2023. The next court hearing in her case will take place in Feodosia in October (https://bit.ly/3Uez00f).

On Sept. 7, a military court in Rostov-on-Don extended the pre-trial detention of five Crimean Tatars – Enver Ametov, Osman Arifmemetov, Yashar Muedinov, Ruslan Suleymanov, and Rustem Sheykhaliev – who were forcibly removed from Crimea and are being charged with ‘terrorism’ and affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir. They will stay in detention until at least Dec. 20. The prosecution is seeking jail terms between 15 and 17 years for each of them(https://bit.ly/3DhPdeI). Hizb ut-Tahrir, a UK-based Islamic organization, is banned in only a handful of countries, including Russia, where it is labeled as ‘terrorist’. All the defendants pleaded not guilty, asserting that they were persecuted for their beliefs and activism. Two days later, on Sept. 9, the same military court sentenced Yashar Shikhametov, a Crimean Tatar who worked as a cook in a café, to 11 years of imprisonment, including 7 years of high-security penal colony, on charges of ‘terrorism’, specifically, of affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Shikhametov had been in pre-trial detention since February 2021. Due to his health problems, he could not speak in court, and instead communicated with the judge and the prosecution in writing. In these writings, he proudly noted his Ukrainian citizenship along with his Muslim faith: “We are Crimean Tatars by ethnicity; Islam is our religion and our culture; Ukraine is our citizenship. Is this the proof of my guilt? We are not hiding this…” (https://bit.ly/3QJb8Pm) According to Memorial Human Rights Center (which was disbanded by court but has reorganized under a slightly different name), as of March 2022, at least 340 individuals were being prosecuted by Russian authorities for their actual or alleged affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Out of this number, at least 231 were sentenced by courts, including 176 to 10 years or more in penal colony. The largest number of defendants in these cases – 94 people – were Crimean residents (https://bit.ly/3DlHgVZ).

VIII.  Exodus from Putin’s Russia

On Sept. 5, Yury Scherbachyov, formerly the head of the Arkhangelsk branch of the PARNAS Party (Party of People’s Freedom) that was co-founded by the late Boris Nemtsov, announced on social media that he asked for political asylum in Norway and was currently in a refugee camp there (https://bit.ly/3RTzdnf). In Russia, Scherbachyov was repeatedly detained while protesting and prosecuted in 2019-20 for ‘offending a government official’ (https://bit.ly/3RzAoJ5).

This is all for today. Thank you for reading.  We always appreciate your feedback and collaboration proposals. You are most welcome to send them to rcc-ara@rcc-amrusrights.org.  

Project Director Dr. Dmitri Daniel Glinski and the project team

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