Increasing peaceful political protest was met with repression. New laws restricting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association were introduced. Human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers continued to face harassment, while investigations into violent attacks were ineffective. Torture and other ill-treatment remained widespread, and were seldom effectively prosecuted. Trials did not meet international standards of fairness, and the number of apparently politically motivated decisions grew. Insecurity and volatility in the North Caucasus persisted, and security operations launched in response were marred by systematic human rights violations with near-total impunity for the perpetrators.
Vladimir Putin’s return as President, following widely criticized elections, led to a surge in popular protest and demands for greater civil and political freedoms, particularly around his inauguration in May. The result was increased restrictions. Protests were frequently banned and disrupted. New laws were adopted, often without public consultation and in the face of widespread criticism, which introduced harsh administrative and criminal penalties that could be used to target legitimate protest and political and civil society activities, and to restrict foreign funding for civic activism.
The Russian Federation responded belligerently to international criticism of its human rights record. A law on travel and other sanctions on officials allegedly responsible for the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in custody in 2009 was passed in the USA and proposed in several other countries. The Russian authorities retaliated with reciprocal sanctions and by banning the adoption of Russian children by US citizens and prohibiting Russian NGOs from receiving funding from the USA.
Russia continued to enjoy economic growth, although this slowed with falling oil prices, the global economic downturn and the lack of structural reforms at home. Public protest decreased by the end of 2012, but so did public support for the political leadership, according to opinion polls.Top of page
Peaceful protests across Russia, including gatherings of small groups of people who presented no public threat or inconvenience, were routinely dispersed by police, often with excessive force. The authorities regarded every such event, however peaceful and insignificant in number, as unlawful unless expressly sanctioned, although gatherings of pro-government or pro-Orthodox Church activists were often allowed to proceed uninterrupted even without authorization. There were frequent reports of police brutality towards peaceful protesters and journalists, but these were not effectively investigated.
The law governing public events was further amended in June. It expanded the list of violations, introduced new restrictions and increased sanctions.Top of page
The right to freedom of expression was increasingly restricted. Most media remained under effective state control, except for some outlets with limited circulation. Prime-time national television was regularly employed to smear government critics.
Libel was re-criminalized, eight months after its decriminalization. Changes to the Criminal Code expanded the definitions of treason and espionage and made them vaguer by including sharing information with, or providing miscellaneous assistance to, foreign states and organizations whose activity is “directed against security of the Russian Federation”.
New legislation gave the government powers to blacklist and block websites publishing materials considered “extremist” or otherwise harmful to public health, morals or safety. By the end of the year, this legislation was already being used to shut down sites publishing content protected by the right to freedom of expression.
Discrimination on grounds such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion or political affiliation remained widespread. Discriminatory legislation targeting LGBTI individuals was introduced in several regions and proposed at the federal level. A law banning “propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism and transgenderness among minors” came into force in St Petersburg in April. Similar laws were also introduced in Bashkiria, Chukotka, Krasnodar, Magadan, Novosibirsk and Samara regions, and tabled before the State Duma. A number of public LGBTI events were forbidden and participants dispersed by police.
Across Russia, LGBTI individuals and members of various minority groups continued to face attacks. Such attacks were not effectively investigated by the authorities, and the perpetrators often unidentified.
Reports of harassment of human rights defenders continued. In the North Caucasus and elsewhere, activists, journalists and lawyers representing victims of human rights violations continued to face physical threats, including from law enforcement officials.
Investigations into many past attacks, including the killing of Natalia Estemirova, made no ostensible progress.
New legislation introduced further administrative hurdles and a legal obligation for NGOs to register as “organizations performing the functions of foreign agents” (language evocative of espionage) if they received foreign funding and engaged in broadly defined “political activities”. Failure to comply with these provisions might lead to heavy fines, and imprisonment for NGO leaders.
Public officials routinely sought to blacken the reputation of individual human rights defenders and specific NGOs, as well as the work of human rights NGOs in general.
Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment remained widely reported and effective investigations were rare. Law enforcement officials allegedly frequently circumvented the existing legal safeguards against torture through, among other things: the use of secret detention (particularly in the North Caucasus); the use of force supposedly to restrain violent detainees; investigators denying access to a lawyer of one’s choice and favouring specific state-appointed lawyers who were known to ignore signs of torture.
In March, one torture case in Kazan was widely reported in the media after a man died of internal injuries in hospital. He claimed that he had been raped with a bottle at the police station. Several police officers were arrested and charged with abuse of power, and two were later sentenced to two and two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment respectively. Many more allegations of torture by police in Kazan and elsewhere followed media reports of this case. In response to an NGO initiative, the Head of the Investigative Committee decreed to create special departments to investigate crimes committed by law enforcement officials. However, the initiative was undermined by the failure to provide these departments with adequate staff resources.
The need for judicial reform was widely acknowledged, including by senior officials. However, no effective steps were taken towards ensuring the independence of the judiciary. Reports of unfair trials were numerous and widespread. A range of court decisions, including those concerning extremism and economic and drug-related crimes, were affected by political considerations, and a growing number of convictions appeared politically motivated, including those of the Pussy Riot members (see above).
Allegations were frequently made of collusion between judges, prosecutors, investigators and other law enforcement officials resulting in unfair criminal convictions or disproportionate administrative penalties.
Lawyers across the country complained of procedural violations undermining their clients’ right to a fair trial. These included denial of access to clients, detention of individuals as criminal suspects without promptly informing their lawyers and families, appointment of state-paid lawyers as defence counsel who are known to raise no objections about procedural violations and the use of ill-treatment.
The region remained highly volatile. Human rights violations in the context of security operations remained widespread.
Armed groups continued to launch attacks against security forces, local officials and civilians. A double bomb attack on 3 May in Makhachkala, Dagestan, left 13 people dead (including eight police officers), and over 80 emergency and rescue workers were injured. On 28 August, an influential Dagestani Muslim cleric, Sheikh Said Afandi, and his five visitors were killed by a woman suicide bomber. Other attacks by armed groups took place across the North Caucasus.
Some republics sought to develop non-repressive responses to the threats posed by armed groups. Commissions for Adaptation were established in Dagestan and Ingushetia with the aim of encouraging the surrender and re-integration into society of former members of armed groups. The Dagestani authorities adopted a more tolerant attitude towards Salafi Muslims.
However, security operations continued to be conducted on a regular basis throughout the region. In the course of these, numerous human rights violations by law enforcement officials were reported, including enforced disappearances, unlawful detentions, torture and other ill-treatment, and extrajudicial executions.
The authorities systematically failed to conduct effective, impartial and prompt investigations into human rights violations by law enforcement officials, or to identify those responsible and bring them to justice. In some cases, criminal proceedings were initiated, but for the most part, the ensuing investigation either failed to establish the perpetrators or confirm involvement of officials in the relevant incidents, or concluded that there had been no violation by law enforcement officials. Only exceptional cases led to the prosecution of police officials for abuse of authority in connection with torture and other ill-treatment. Not a single case of enforced disappearance or alleged extrajudicial execution was resolved, and no perpetrators from any other law enforcement agency were brought to justice.