The Russian Federation has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin. The bicameral Federal Assembly consists of a directly elected lower house (State Duma) and an appointed upper house (Federation Council), both of which lack independence from the executive. The 2018 presidential election and the September 19 State Duma elections were marked by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process, including the exclusion of meaningful opposition candidates.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, Federal Security Service, Investigative Committee, Office of the Prosecutor General, and National Guard are responsible for law enforcement. The Federal Security Service is responsible for state security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism, as well as for fighting organized crime and corruption. The national police force, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for combating all crime. The National Guard assists the Federal Security Service’s Border Guard Service in securing borders, administers gun control, combats terrorism and organized crime, protects public order, and guards important state facilities. The National Guard also participates in armed defense of the country’s territory in coordination with Ministry of Defense forces. Except in rare cases, security forces generally report to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities maintained, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which are accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. There were credible reports that members of the Russian security forces committed numerous human rights abuses.
The country’s occupation and purported annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula continued to affect the human rights situation there significantly and negatively. The Russian government continued to arm, train, lead, and fight alongside Russia-led separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities; pervasive torture by government law enforcement officers that sometimes resulted in death and occasionally involved sexual violence or punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrest and detention; political and religious prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country; severe arbitrary interference with privacy; severe suppression of freedom of expression and media, including violence against journalists and the use of “antiextremism” and other laws to prosecute peaceful dissent and religious minorities; severe restrictions on internet freedom; severe suppression of the freedom of peaceful assembly; severe suppression of freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organizations”; severe restrictions of religious freedom; refoulement of refugees; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; severe limits on participation in the political process, including restrictions on opposition candidates’ ability to seek public office and conduct political campaigns, and on the ability of civil society to monitor election processes; widespread corruption at all levels and in all branches of government; serious government restrictions on and harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence and violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of ethnic and religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer persons.
The government failed to take adequate steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish most officials who committed abuses and engaged in corruption, resulting in a climate of impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports the government or its agents committed, or attempted to commit, arbitrary or unlawful killings. Impunity was a significant problem in investigating whether security force killings were justifiable (see section 1.e.).
Officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) poisoned opposition activist and anticorruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny in August 2020 with a form of Novichok, a nerve agent that was also used in the 2018 attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergey Skripal in the United Kingdom. In December 2020 investigations published by the independent outlets Bellingcat and The Insider identified eight FSB officers suspected to have been involved in Navalny’s poisoning based on telephone records and travel data as well as an inadvertent confession by one of the FSB officials. On June 11, Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation published the results of an investigation that alleged the doctors who treated Navalny at a hospital in Omsk falsified his original medical records to hide evidence of his poisoning. At year’s end Russian Federation representatives continued to reject requests to open an investigation into the circumstances of Navalny’s poisoning and repeated denials that he had been poisoned by a nerve agent.
In an investigation published on January 27, Bellingcat, The Insider, and Der Spiegel implicated several of the same FSB officials in the deaths of at least two other Russian activists between 2014 and 2019: Timur Kuashev, a journalist critical of Russia’s invasion of Crimea who died in 2014, and Ruslan Magomedragimov, an activist for the Lezgin ethnic minority group who died in 2015. According to reporting at the time, both died of apparent poisoning, although neither death was investigated by authorities as suspicious. In another joint investigation, Bellingcat, The Insider, and Der Spiegel reported on February 12 that some of the same FSB officials had followed opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza immediately preceding his poisoning with an unknown substance in two assassination attempts in 2015 and 2017. On June 10, Bellingcat and The Insider reported that the same FSB officers were also implicated in the 2019 poisoning and near death of writer, journalist, and Russian government critic Dmitriy Bykov.
Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media outlets continued to publish reports indicating that, from December 2018 to January 2019, local authorities in the Republic of Chechnya renewed a campaign of violence against individuals perceived to be members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community. In February the news outlet Novaya Gazeta published information corroborating previous reports that Chechen security officials extrajudicially executed 27 residents of the Republic of Chechnya in 2017. As part of its investigation into the abuses, Novaya Gazeta interviewed former Chechen police sergeant Suleyman Gezmakhmayev, who testified that his police regiment, the Akhmat Kadyrov Police Patrol Service Regiment, carried out mass arrests and some of the extrajudicial killings of the 27 residents between December 2016 and January 2017. Media reported that Chechen police officers subsequently sought to force Gezmakhmayev to recant his testimony by putting pressure on relatives who remained in Chechnya. On March 15, presidential press secretary Dmitriy Peskov told reporters that the government was aware of Novaya Gazeta’s investigations into the extrajudicial executions in Chechnya but did not have the prerogative to investigate. Media outlets reported that the former head of the regiment, Aslan Iraskhanov, was appointed head of Chechnya’s police at the end of March. According to human rights organizations, as of December authorities had failed to open investigations into the allegations or reports of extrajudicial killings and mass torture of LGBTQI+ persons in Chechnya and continued to deny there were any LGBTQI+ persons in the republic.
There were multiple reports that, in some prison colonies, authorities systematically tortured inmates (see section 1.c.), in some cases resulting in death or suicide. According to media reports, on February 27, a prisoner, Adygzhy Aymyr-ool, was found dead at the Irkutsk Penal Colony No. 25 (IK-25) prison with signs of torture on his body. Relatives of Aymyr-ool told media that he had previously complained of beatings and poor detention conditions. The Federal Penitentiary System Office of the Irkutsk Region told media it would investigate the cause of his death but denied reports detailing signs of a violent death. On October 5, the human rights group Gulagu.net announced it had obtained more than 1,000 leaked videos showing Russian prison officials torturing and sexually abusing inmates or forcing inmates to subject other inmates to such abuse in the Saratov region and elsewhere.
There were reports that the government or its proxies committed, or attempted to commit, extrajudicial killings of its opponents in other countries. On February 19, Ukraine filed a complaint against the Russian Federation in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for its role in the “political assassinations of opponents.” Ukraine claimed that “operations to target the alleged opponents of the Russian state are carried out in Russia and on the territory of other states, including the member states of the Council of Europe, outside the situation of armed conflict.” On December 15, a German court sentenced a Russian citizen, Vadim Krasikov, to life in prison for killing a former Chechen rebel commander of Georgian nationality, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, in a Berlin park in 2019. Prosecutors claimed that Krasikov traveled to Germany under an alias and belonged to a special unit of the FSB. The presiding judge concluded that “the central government of the Russian Federation was the author of this crime.”
The country continued to engage in armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, where human rights organizations attributed thousands of civilian deaths, widespread displacement of persons, and other abuses to Russia-led forces. Russian occupation authorities in Crimea also committed widespread abuses (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Since 2015 the country’s armed forces conducted military operations, including airstrikes, in the conflict in Syria. According to human rights organizations, the country’s forces took actions, such as bombing urban areas, that intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Syria).
Since 2017 the country provided the Central African Republic Army unarmed military advisors under the auspices of parameters established by the UN Security Council sanctions regime. According to a report presented by the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic to the UN Security Council Committee on May 20, the Russian advisors actively participated in, and often led, combat operations on the ground and participated in abuses against civilians, including cases of excessive use of force, harsh interrogation tactics, numerous killings of civilians, and looting of homes on a large scale (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for the Central African Republic).
The news website Caucasian Knot reported that violent confrontations with security forces resulted in at least 19 deaths in the North Caucasus during the first half of the year. Chechnya was the most affected region, with five law enforcement officers injured and six suspected armed insurgents killed.
There were reports of disappearances perpetrated by or on behalf of government authorities. Enforced disappearances for both political and financial reasons continued in the North Caucasus. According to the August 2020 report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, there were 896 outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances in the country.
There were reports that police committed enforced disappearances and abductions during the year.
Security forces were allegedly complicit in the kidnapping and disappearance of individuals from Central Asia, whose forcible return was apparently sought by their governments (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
There were continued reports of abductions and torture in the North Caucasus, including of political activists, LGBTQI+ persons, and others critical of Chechnya head Kadyrov. For example, in September 2020 Salman Tepsurkayev, a 19-year-old Chechen activist and moderator of 1ADAT, a social media channel that was highly critical of Kadyrov, was kidnapped and subjected to abuse and humiliation in a disturbing video, reportedly by officers of the Akhmat Kadyrov Post and Patrol Service Regiment of the Chechen Police. Media outlets reported in January that the Investigative Committee of Gelendzhik in Krasnodar Kray opened an investigation into Tepsurkayev’s disappearance. As of December, however, Tepsurkayev’s whereabouts were unknown. On October 19, the ECHR found Russian state agents responsible for the disappearance and torture of Tepsurkayev and ordered the Russian Federation to pay 26,000 euros ($29,900) in compensation.
On June 23, the ECHR ordered Russia to pay damages of almost two million euros ($2.3 million) to the relatives of 11 persons, mainly from the ethnic Avar minority, who went missing in Chechnya in 2005 during an operation by a military unit composed of ethnic Chechens. In its ruling, the ECHR stated that Russia had violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to life.
There were reports Russia-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in enforced disappearances (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, numerous credible reports indicated law enforcement officers engaged in torture, abuse, and violence to coerce confessions from suspects, and authorities only occasionally held officials accountable for such actions.
There were reports of deaths because of torture (see section 1.a., above).
Physical abuse of suspects by police officers was reportedly systemic and usually occurred within the first few days of arrest in pretrial detention facilities. Reports from human rights groups and former police officers indicated that police most often used electric shocks, suffocation, and stretching or applying pressure to joints and ligaments because those methods were considered less likely to leave visible marks. The problem was especially acute in the North Caucasus. According to the Civic Assistance Committee, prisoners in the North Caucasus complained of mistreatment, unreasonable punishment, religious and ethnic harassment, and inadequate provision of medical care.
There were reports that police beat or otherwise abused persons, in some cases resulting in their death. Police used excessive force and harsh tactics to encircle and detain protesters during countrywide protests in late January and early February calling for the release of Aleksey Navalny, who was detained on January 17 upon his return to Russia and sentenced to prison on February 2 (see section 1.d.). On April 26, the online news outlet Meduza published an article detailing multiple instances of excessive use of force and harsh treatment against detainees held in custody during the April 21 protests in St. Petersburg. In one example, police detained a protester for filming the arrests and shocked him with a taser on the way to the police van, “triggering symptoms of cardiac arrythmia,” according to Meduza.
There were reports that law enforcement officers used torture, including sleep deprivation, as a form of punishment against detained opposition and human rights activists, journalists, and critics of government policies. For example, on March 31, Navalny initiated a hunger strike to protest authorities’ failure to provide him a requested medical examination and treatment for pain and loss of mobility in his legs after he was transferred on March 15 to the Penal Colony No. 2 (IK-2) in the Vladimir region (see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest and Detention). Prison authorities also subjected Navalny for months to hourly wake-ups through the night by prison authorities on the pretense that he was a “flight risk.” Navalny likened this treatment to torture through sleep deprivation. On April 23, he ended his hunger strike after being permitted access to outside medical care. On June 28, a Moscow district court rejected Navalny’s request to be removed from the “prone to escape” list. Navalny continued to be treated as a flight risk until October 11, when he was instead designated an extremist and a terrorist.
Several activists affiliated with Navalny and his political activities or the Anticorruption Foundation also reported being tortured or abused by security officials while in their custody. Alena Kitayeva, a volunteer for Navalny associate Lyubov Sobol, who was issued a 12-day administrative arrest in February, accused police officers of torture after they placed a bag over her head and threatened her with a stun gun if she did not provide them her cell phone password.
In several cities police reportedly subjected members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious group banned without basis under antiextremism laws, to physical abuse and torture during and following their arrest. For example, on October 4, during coordinated home raids by Interior Ministry and National Guard forces targeting members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Irkutsk, four members of the group alleged that they were severely beaten, one of whom additionally alleged he was tortured. One member, Anatoliy Razdabarov, was allegedly kicked in the head and kidneys and threatened with rape, while his wife Greta was dragged by her hair before being beaten. Nikolay Merinov was hit in the face with a blunt object, breaking one of his teeth and knocking him unconscious. When he regained consciousness, an officer was sitting on him and beating him. Merinov’s wife Liliya reported she was also dragged by her hair and physically assaulted.
There were reports of the FSB using torture against young “anarchists and antifascist activists” who were allegedly involved in several “terrorism” and “extremism” cases.
In the North Caucasus region, there were widespread reports that security forces abused and tortured both alleged militants and civilians in detention facilities. For example, on October 24, newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on the case of Salman Mukayev, a Chechen man who was detained and allegedly tortured in 2020 because security forces, based on a text message, believed him to be gay. The officers reportedly suffocated Mukayev with a bag, kicked him, subjected him to electric shocks for hours and attempted to co-opt him to identify members of the LGBTQI+ community in Chechnya. After his release, Mukayev fled Russia.
There were reports of authorities detaining defendants for psychiatric evaluations to exert pressure on them or sending defendants for psychiatric treatment as punishment. Prosecutors and certified medical professionals may request suspects be placed in psychiatric clinics on an involuntary basis. For example, on January 27, authorities forcibly hospitalized Siberian shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev after he renewed his 2019 calls to “expel” Vladimir Putin from power and missed a court-mandated appointment related to his May 2020 detention (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Russia for 2020). In mid-March the Yakut psychiatric hospital declared Gabyshev insane. On July 26, the Yakutsk City Court ruled that Gabyshev be confined indefinitely to a psychiatric hospital for compulsory intensive treatment.
Reports of nonlethal physical abuse and hazing continued in the armed forces. Activists reported such hazing was often tied to extortion schemes. On May 27, the online media outlet 29.ru published an article describing the abuse of a 21-year-old conscript, Dmitriy Lapenkov, who was serving in the city of Yurga in Kemerovo Oblast. Lapenkov’s mother told the outlet he was subjected to severe hazing, including being forced to take an unknown tablet and call relatives to ask for large sums of money. He was subsequently transferred to a psychiatric hospital in the city of Novosibirsk in an incoherent state. His mother claimed he had sustained a brain injury because of beating.
There were reports that Russia-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region and Russian occupation authorities in Crimea engaged in torture (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. In most cases where law enforcement officers or other government officials were publicly implicated in human rights abuses, authorities denied internal and external requests for independent investigation and engaged in disinformation campaigns or other efforts to obfuscate such allegations. The government’s propensity to ignore serious human rights allegations along with the uneven application of the rule of law and a lack of judicial transparency resulted in impunity for most perpetrators.
The few investigations into official abuses that were conducted often concerned allegations of torture in detention and pretrial detention facilities that were exposed by whistleblowers or independent media. For example, on June 28, the Kanavinskiy District Court of Nizhny Novgorod sentenced former police officers Aleksey Khrulev and Nikolay Atamashko to two and one-half years in prison for abuse of office with violence. In 2015 the officers detained and beat Leonid Murskiy until he signed a confession for selling drugs.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in prisons and detention centers varied but were often harsh and life threatening. Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a serious problem. While the law mandates the separation of women and men, juveniles and adults, and pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners in separate quarters, anecdotal evidence indicated not all prison facilities followed these rules. In March 2020 Amnesty International stated that prisons’ overcrowding, poor ventilation, and inadequate health care and sanitation led to a high risk of COVID-19 infection among prisoners and detainees. According to a Council of Europe report released on April 8, the mortality rate of the Russian prison population in 2019 increased by more than 12 percent, compared with the previous year.
Physical and sexual abuse by prison guards was systemic. For example, on February 8, media outlets reported that the Russian Investigative Committee brought charges of torture and extortion against the former head and staff of detention center No. 1 in Makhachkala. According to an investigation conducted from 2015 to 2019, the former head of the center, Daud Davydov, and two of his subordinates regularly beat a former investigator of the Investigative Committee, who was himself accused of torture and illegal imprisonment. The detention center officials faced charges of abuse of power with the use of violence, extortion, fraud with the use of an official position, and bribery by a group of persons. As of October no date was set for the court case.
Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was also a problem. For example, the lawyer of Pavel Sheremet, a detainee in the regional tuberculosis hospital No. 1 in Saratov, told media that inmates at the facility beat and sexually assaulted Sheremet on June 3. Media outlets reported that the prosecutor’s office of the Saratov Region initiated an investigation into the allegations, although as of October no further information was available on the outcome of the case.
There were reports prison authorities recruited inmates to abuse other inmates. For example, on March 3, authorities detained the head of the Irkutsk penal colony No. 6 (IK-6) after reports emerged that he condoned the rape and beating of prisoner Takhirzhon Bakiyev by prison staff. According to media reporting, on January 20, after transferring to IK-6 from another facility, Bakiyev was placed in a “torture squad,” where, with the knowledge and complicity of the prison guards, his cellmates then proceeded to rape and beat him before tying him up. Videos obtained by the NGO Gulagu.net in October documented numerous cases of prisoners in the Saratov region being enlisted or coerced by prison officials to abuse and in some cases rape other inmates.
Overcrowding, ventilation, heating, sanitation, and nutritional standards varied among facilities but generally were poor. Opportunities for movement and exercise in pretrial detention were minimal. Potable water was sometimes rationed, and food quality was poor; many inmates relied on food provided by family or NGOs. Access to quality medical care remained a problem. For example, in early April the former governor of Khabarovsk Kray, Sergey Furgal, contracted COVID-19 while detained in the Lefortovo pretrial detention center, according to his lawyer. NGOs reported that approximately 50 percent of prisoners with HIV did not receive adequate treatment, with treatment provided only to inmates with a CD4 white blood cell count below a certain level. NGOs reported the supplies of some antiretroviral drugs were occasionally interrupted.
There were reports that political prisoners were placed in particularly harsh conditions and subjected to punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units. For example, on March 2, the New York Times reported that prisoners in the isolation unit of penal colony IK-2, including Aleksey Navalny, were forced to stand for hours with their hands clasped behind their backs and were forbidden from making eye contact with prison guards. Former political prisoners described having to carry out meaningless tasks multiple times a day and being sent to the “punishment brigade” for minor infractions, conditions that one prisoner described as psychologically harrowing. In March media outlets reported that authorities issued 20 violations to Navalny in his first month of prison, including for getting out of bed 10 minutes before the scheduled “wake up” command. On January 20, Navalny filed a complaint to the ECHR concerning the poor conditions of his detention center, which he characterized as a “friendly concentration camp.” On April 16, the ECHR gave the government of Russia notice it should respond by July 12. No public announcement concerning Russia’s response had been made by year’s end.
During the year media coverage of multiple allegations of torture at several penal colonies and testimony from victims and their family members prompted investigations by the Federal Penitentiary System. In one example, on February 23, the Investigative Committee opened an investigation into abuse of power after media published two videos of abuse at penal colony No. 1 (IK-1) in Yaroslavl. Staff at the prison had previously been convicted of torture-related crimes stemming from a separate 2018 video depicting the abuse of an inmate. In May media outlets reported that the Investigative Committee had detained 10 staff members of the IK-1 prison, although as of July, no information was available on the outcome of the investigation. On October 5, after the release of numerous videos depicting the torture and rape of inmates in the Saratov regional tuberculosis hospital No. 1, the Federal Penitentiary System opened an investigation into abuses at the facility.
Administration: While prisoners may file complaints with public oversight commissions or with the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, they often did not do so due to fear of reprisal. Prison reform activists reported that only prisoners who believed they had no other option risked the consequences of filing a complaint. Complaints that reached the oversight commissions often focused on minor personal requests.
Convicted inmates and individuals in pretrial detention have visitation rights, but authorities may deny visitation depending on circumstances. By law prisoners with harsher sentences are allowed fewer visitation rights. The judge in a prisoner’s case may deny the prisoner visitation. Authorities may also prohibit relatives deemed a security risk from visiting prisoners. Some pretrial detainees believed authorities sometimes denied visitation and telephone access to pressure them into providing confessions.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted representatives of public oversight commissions to visit prisons regularly to monitor conditions. According to the Public Chamber, there were public oversight commissions in almost all regions. Human rights activists expressed concern that some members of the commissions were individuals close to authorities and included persons with law enforcement backgrounds.
By law members of oversight commissions have the right to videotape and photograph inmates in detention facilities and prisons with their written approval. Commission members may also collect air samples, conduct other environmental inspections, conduct safety evaluations, and access prison psychiatric facilities. The law permits human rights activists not listed in public oversight commissions to visit detentions centers and prisons. The NGO Interregional Center for Women’s Support, working with detained migrants, noted that only after a specific detainee submits a request and contacts the NGO may the organization obtain permission to visit a given detention center.
Authorities allowed the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture to visit the country’s prisons and release some reports on conditions but continued to withhold permission for it to release all recent reports.
There were reports of authorities prosecuting journalists and activists for reporting torture. For example, Vladimir Taranenko, an employee of the human rights organization Siberia Pravovaya detained in pretrial detention facility No. 1 of the Kemerovo region on extortion charges, told media on July 6 that he had been tortured by prison authorities who sought access to the Siberia Pravovaya YouTube channel. Siberia Pravovaya provides legal assistance to convicts and prisoners and publishes accounts of prison abuse on its YouTube channel, and human rights defenders alleged that Taranenko was prosecuted on fabricated charges because of his activism.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but judges remained subject to influence from the executive branch, the armed forces, and other security forces, particularly in high-profile or politically sensitive cases, as well as to corruption. The outcomes of some trials appeared predetermined. Acquittal rates remained extremely low. In 2020 courts acquitted 0.34 percent of all defendants.
There were reports of pressure on defense attorneys representing clients who were being subjected to politically motivated prosecution and other forms of reprisal. According to a 2019 report from the Agora International Human Rights Group, it was common practice for judges to remove defense attorneys from court hearings without a legitimate basis in retaliation for their providing clients with an effective defense. The report also documented a trend of law enforcement authorities using physical force to interfere with the work of defense attorneys, including the use of violence to prevent them from being present during searches and interrogations.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but executive interference with the judiciary and judicial corruption undermined this right.
The defendant has a legal presumption of innocence and the right to a fair, timely, and public trial, but these rights were not always respected. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of charges and to be present at the trial. The law provides for the appointment of an attorney free of charge if a defendant cannot afford one, although the high cost of legal service meant that lower-income defendants often lacked competent representation. A Yekaterinburg-based legal and human rights NGO indicated many defense attorneys did not vigorously defend their clients and that there were few qualified defense attorneys in remote areas of the country. Defense attorneys may visit their clients in detention, although defense lawyers claimed authorities electronically monitored their conversations and did not always provide them access to their clients. Prior to trial, defendants receive a copy of their indictment, which describes the charges against them in detail. They also may review their file following the completion of the criminal investigation.
Non-Russian defendants have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals, although the quality of interpretation was typically poor. During trial the defense is not required to present evidence and is given an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and call defense witnesses, although judges may deny the defense this opportunity. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right of appeal.
The law provides for trial by jury in criminal cases if the defendant is charged with murder, kidnapping, narcotics smuggling, and certain other serious crimes. Nonetheless, trials by jury remained rare, and most verdicts and sentences were rendered by judges. The acquittal rate in trials by jury was higher (23 percent in 2019) than in trials before a judge (0.34 percent in 2020), although acquittals by jury were sometimes overturned by judges in appellate courts.
The law allows prosecutors to appeal acquittals, which they did in most cases. Prosecutors may also appeal what they regard as lenient sentences.
Authorities particularly infringed on the right to a fair trial in Chechnya, where observers noted that the judicial system served as a means of conducting reprisals against those who exposed wrongdoing by Chechnya head Kadyrov.
In some cases judicial authorities imposed sentences disproportionate to the crimes charged. For example, on January 15, Pavel Zelenskiy, an employee of Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation, was detained and charged with “public calls for extremist activities” for writing a pair of tweets in response to the October 2020 suicide of journalist Irina Murakhtayeva (known professionally as Irina Slavina; see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Russia for 2020). A Moscow court sentenced Zelenskiy to two years in prison on April 16. Memorial considered Zelenskiy to be a political prisoner.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were credible reports of political prisoners in the country and that authorities detained and prosecuted individuals for political reasons. Charges usually applied in politically motivated cases included “terrorism,” “extremism,” “separatism,” and “espionage.” Political prisoners were reportedly placed in particularly harsh conditions of confinement and subjected to other punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units.
As of December 7, Memorial’s list of political prisoners contained 426 names, including 343 individuals who were allegedly wrongfully imprisoned for exercising freedom of religion or belief. Memorial estimated that the actual number of political prisoners in the country could be three to four times greater than the number on its list. Memorial’s list included opposition activists and politicians, including Aleksey Navalny and his associates (see section 1.d.); journalists jailed for their work, such as members of the student publication DOXA and Chernovik editor Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev (see section 2.a.); human rights activists jailed for their work, such as Yuriy Dmitriyev; many Ukrainians (including Crimean Tatars) imprisoned for their vocal opposition to the country’s occupation of Crimea; individuals jailed for participating in the 2019 Moscow protests as well as the nationwide protests during the year; and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, certain Muslim groups, and other religious groups.
Memorial noted the average length of sentences for the cases on their list continued to increase, from 5.3 years for political prisoners and 6.6 years for religious prisoners in 2016 to 6.8 and 9.1 years, respectively, in 2018. In some cases sentences were significantly longer, such as the case of Aleksey Pichugin, a former security official of the Russian oil company Yukos, imprisoned since 2003 with a life sentence for conviction of alleged involvement in murder and attempted murder; human rights organizations asserted that his detention was politically motivated to obtain false evidence against Yukos executives.
On January 17, authorities detained anticorruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny at the Sheremetyevo Airport upon his return to Moscow from Berlin where he had been recovering from his poisoning by a Novichok nerve agent (see section 1.a.). Russian authorities justified the detention with a December 2020 order for Navalny to “register” with authorities to stay in compliance with the terms of the suspended prison sentence he received following conviction in the Yves Rocher “money laundering” case, which was set to expire December 30. The ECHR had previously characterized Navalny’s conviction in the Yves Rocher case as “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” and ordered the Russian government to pay Navalny compensation.
Alleging Navalny had violated the terms of his probation when he failed to appear, the Simonovskiy District Court of Moscow scheduled a hearing on January 29 to adjudicate the prison authorities’ request that he serve out his suspended sentence – for which he had already served his time – in prison. Human rights experts believed at the time that authorities sought to discourage Navalny from returning to Russia ahead of the State Duma elections on September 19. Navalny nonetheless voluntarily returned on January 17. Independent Russian and international journalists accompanied him on his return flight and live-streamed his trip, including the plane’s diversion from its original destination airport in an apparent attempt to avoid his awaiting supporters, as well as his detention by security authorities at customs control.
After being delayed access to his lawyer, Navalny was sentenced on January 18 in a makeshift court hearing at the Khimki police station to 30 days in pretrial detention. Independent observers characterized the hearing as a “mockery of justice.” On February 2, the Simonovskiy District Court of Moscow ruled to convert Navalny’s suspended sentence into a prison sentence of three and one-half years, which was subsequently reduced to two years and eight months to account for the time he had previously spent under house arrest. During the hearing the prosecutor and prison authorities claimed not to know Navalny’s whereabouts in the fall of 2020, when he had been in a well publicized coma and receiving medical care in Germany following his poisoning by the Russian government.
On February 16, the ECHR issued a ruling that obliged Russian authorities to release Navalny from pretrial detention due to threats to his safety. Russian authorities dismissed the ECHR ruling as undue interference in the Russian judicial system and claimed it was without merit after a 2020 constitutional amendment gave Russian law primacy over international law or any treaty to which Russia is a party. On March 2, authorities transferred Navalny from the SIZO-1 detention center near Moscow to the penal colony No. 2 in the Vladimir Region, a prison notorious for having some of the harshest conditions in the country. In the subsequent months, Navalny’s associates reported that his health deteriorated and that prison authorities routinely restricted his access to his lawyers. The courts repeatedly denied Navalny’s efforts to appeal the basis for his detention or challenge the conditions of his detention. In response to the conditions of his detention, Navalny went on a hunger strike from March 31 to April 23 (see section 1.c.). At year’s end Navalny remained in prison. Memorial, Amnesty International, and other prominent human rights organizations considered Navalny to be a political prisoner.
According to Memorial, Navalny had been charged in 11 other politically motivated criminal cases since 2011. In one case, on February 20, a Moscow court found Navalny guilty of defamation after he criticized participants in a propaganda video supporting President Putin’s constitutional amendments package on social media (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Russia for 2020). The court fined Navalny 850,000 rubles ($11,500).
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: On August 6, a court in Austria sentenced an ethnically Chechen Russian citizen, Sarali Akhtayev, to life in prison after finding him guilty of murdering Chechen dissident Mamikhan Umarov near Vienna in July 2020. Investigators were unable to establish a definitive motive for the crime, although some members of the Chechen exile community in Austria believed the murder was politically motivated. In addition to maintaining a blog critical of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Umarov had given testimony in murder trials involving Chechens. Soon after Umarov’s death, purported relatives of Umarov released a video in which they took responsibility for Umarov’s killing and called on Austrian authorities to release suspects held in connection with his murder.
On September 21, the ECHR ruled in favor of the widow of Russian whistleblower Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was fatally poisoned with the radioactive isotope polonium-210 in the United Kingdom in 2006, finding that the Russian government was responsible for Litvinenko’s death. The court concluded there was a strong prima facie case that the two men who poisoned Litvinenko, Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitriy Kovtun, had been acting as agents of the Russian state. It noted that the Russian government had failed to provide any other satisfactory and convincing explanation of the events or to counter the findings of the British inquiry. The court also found that Russian authorities had not carried out an effective domestic investigation capable of leading to the establishment of the facts and, where appropriate, the identification and punishment of those responsible for the murder.
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: On March 26, authorities detained Yuriy Zhdanov, the father of Navalny associate Ivan Zhdanov, for alleged abuse of office. On May 19, the Investigative Committee for the Arkhangelsk Region instead charged Zhdanov with the more serious charges of forgery and fraud on a large scale that carry up to 10 years in prison if convicted. On July 19, Zhdanov’s pretrial detention was extended, and his trial did not commence until October 25. On December 20, Zhdanov was given a three-year suspended sentence and released nine months after his initial detention. Memorial recognized Zhdanov as a political prisoner.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were credible reports that authorities attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. For example, on February 10, a Moscow court ordered the arrest of a prominent Navalny associate, Leonid Volkov, who resided in Lithuania at the time, on charges of encouraging minors to participate in unauthorized rallies, an offense that could be punished by up to three years in prison. The warrant was sent via Interpol to Lithuanian authorities, who refused to enforce it on the grounds that it was politically motivated.
On July 21 in Warsaw, Polish authorities detained Yevgeniy Khasoyev, a human rights activist from Buryatiya, at the request of Moscow’s Interpol office. Khasoyev’s lawyer told media that he was detained for 48 hours while a Polish court decided on Russia’s extradition request. Khasoyev had left Russia in March after authorities charged him with “threatening violence against a government official.” Khasoyev characterized the case as politically motivated and an effort to hinder his activism in Buryatiya, where he defended the interests of victims of police violence and those detained during pro-Navalny protests earlier in the year. On October 26, a Warsaw district court declined to extradite Khasoyev to Russia. According to Khasoyev, the judge said it was obvious Russian authorities were trying to defame Khasoyev because he had provided legal support to pro-Navalny protesters.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Although the law provides mechanisms for individuals to file lawsuits against authorities for human rights violations, these mechanisms often were not effective. For example, the law provides that a defendant who has been acquitted after a trial has the right to compensation from the government. While this legal mechanism exists in principle, it was very cumbersome to use. Persons who believed their human rights were violated typically sought redress in the ECHR after domestic courts ruled against them. Amendments to the constitution that were approved in a nationwide vote in July 2020 and signed into law in December 2020 established the primacy of Russian domestic law over international law by providing that decisions by interstate bodies interpreted in a manner contrary to the constitution are not enforceable in the country. Many experts interpreted the provision as giving Russian courts greater power to ignore rulings from international human rights bodies, including the ECHR; the courts had already set a precedent by declaring such bodies’ decisions “nonexecutable.”
Property Seizure and Restitution
The country has endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Restitution but declined to endorse the 2010 Guidelines and Best Practices. No legislation or special mechanism in the country addresses the restitution of or compensation for private property; the same is true for heirless property. The government has laws in place providing for the restitution of cultural property, but according to the laws’ provisions, claims may only be made by states and not individuals.
The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly in July 2020, can be found on the Department’s website at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
The law prohibits discrimination based on nationality, but according to a 2017 report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, officials discriminated against minorities, including through “de facto racial profiling, targeting in particular migrants and persons from Central Asia and the Caucasus.” Activists reported that police officers often stopped individuals who looked foreign and asked them for their documents, claiming that they contained mistakes even when they were in order, and demanded bribes.
Hate crimes targeting ethnic minorities continued to be a problem. According to a 2018 report by the human rights group Antidiscrimination Center Memorial, Roma faced widespread discrimination in access to resources and basic utilities; demolitions of houses and forced evictions, including of children, often in winter; violation of the right to education (segregation of Romani children in low-quality schools); deprivation of parental rights; and other forms of structural discrimination.
During the year the government sought to repress expressions of ethnic identity, including calls for the preservation of minority languages and cultures. In February the City Court of Naberezhnye Chelny fined the writer and public figure Fauziya Bayramova for incitement to violate the territorial integrity of Russia. Bayramova was convicted after authorities reviewed the translated transcript of her speech at a scientific conference organized by the All-Tatar Public Center of Kazan in 2020 in which she had spoken of the need to preserve Tatar culture and identity. In another example, in 2019 law enforcement authorities forcibly broke up a protest in Ingushetiya against government efforts to cede disputed territory to Chechnya and detained 51 individuals on charges related to use of violence against security forces. According to Memorial, as of July, 38 individuals had been convicted in relation to the protest, including Magomed Khamkhoyev, who was sentenced to three and one-half years in prison in February. On December 15, seven leaders of the Ingushetiya protest movement were found guilty of forming an extremist group and assaulting law enforcement, and they received prison sentences ranging from seven to nine years. Memorial considered them to be political prisoners.
The constitution and various statutes provide support for members of “small-numbered” indigenous groups of the North, Siberia, and the Far East, permitting them to create self-governing bodies and allowing them to seek compensation if economic development threatens their lands. The government granted the status of “indigenous” and its associated benefits only to those ethnic groups numbering fewer than 50,000 and maintaining their traditional way of life. A 2017 report by Antidiscrimination Center Memorial noted that the major challenges facing indigenous persons included “seizure of territories where these minorities traditionally live and maintain their households by mining and oil and gas companies; removal of self-government bodies of indigenous peoples; and repression of activists and employees of social organizations, including the fabrication of criminal cases.”
Indigenous sources reported state-sponsored harassment, including interrogations by security services as well as employment discrimination. Such treatment was especially acute in areas where corporations wanted to exploit natural resources. By law indigenous groups have exclusive rights to their indigenous lands, but the land itself and its natural resources belong to the state. Companies are required to pay compensation to local inhabitants, but activists asserted that local authorities rarely enforced this provision. Activists stated that interests of corporations and indigenous persons were in constant conflict.