Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted those rights. The government instituted several new laws restricting both freedom of expression and of the press, particularly in regards to online expression. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous problems, especially the situation in Ukraine and Syria, LGBTI problems, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as problems of secessionism or federalism. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media, and on the internet was increasingly widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television.
Freedom of Expression: Government-controlled media frequently used terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a climate intolerant of dissent.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of November 13, the Ministry of Justice expanded its list of extremist materials to include 4,294 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of nearly 300 items from 2016. According to the Investigative Committee, detectives referred more than 500 extremism cases to prosecutors in 2015, a number of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere. According to the SOVA Center, as of August courts issued eight inappropriate verdicts against 27 individuals for participating in activities of an organization declared extremist and issued seven inappropriate verdicts against seven persons for inciting hatred.
On August 11, the Tverskoy District Court of Moscow found journalist Aleksandr Sokolov of the independent news company RBK guilty and sentenced him to three and one-half years in a penal colony on charges of organizing an extremist group and attempting to overthrow the government. Authorities arrested Sokolov in 2015 on a charge of participating in the activities of the People’s Will Army, which the Moscow City Court declared an extremist organization. Sokolov maintained he simply provided professional services to the group, such as registering its website. Sokolov had previously reported on state corruption and embezzlement in connection with the construction of the Vostochnyy space center. In 2015 the Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Sokolov as a political prisoner and called for the court to drop its prosecution of him.
Several persons, including in some instances minors, were charged with extremism under the criminal code for comments and images posted in online forums. On March 16, a municipal court in Chebaksary fined Dmitriy Semyonov 1,000 rubles ($17) for “distributing extremist materials” by posting information about his 2014 conviction for “distributing extremist materials.” The first case began in 2013 when Semyonov posted a photograph on VKontakte (a social media platform) of former St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaliy Milonov wearing a shirt with an Orthodox slogan that authorities ruled extremist.
On August 17, the Vyborg City Court ruled that a Jehovah’s Witness publication, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, a translation of the Bible, and three Jehovah’s Witness brochures were extremist. The court relied on the findings of an “expert panel” that determined the book was not a Bible. The case against the publication dated to 2015, when customs officials stopped and impounded a shipment of the books from Finland at the border on suspicion of extremism. On December 20, the Leningrad Regional Court upheld the ruling. On April 20, the Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization (see section 2.c.).
By law, authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet sources suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.
During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations to minors to restrict the free speech of LGBTI persons and their supporters. On July 26, authorities charged LGBTI activist Evdokia Romanova of Samara under the law. According to Human Rights Watch, Romanova was accused of sharing information on Facebook in 2015 and 2016 about the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, an international group that advocates for young persons’ access to accurate information about health and sexuality. On October 18, a Samara court convicted Romanova and fined her 50,000 rubles ($857), making her the seventh LGBTI activist convicted under the “propaganda” law.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech allegedly violating a 2013 law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” In one such case, on August 2, a Sochi court fined Viktor Nochevnov 50,000 rubles ($857) for posting satirical images of Jesus Christ on his social media pages.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated a 2013 law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” In June a Trans-Baikal regional court convicted a 36-year-old citizen of Krasnokamensk for justification of Nazism. On his personal page in social networks the man posted comments justifying the Holocaust, Nazism, and Hitler. He received two years’ imprisonment with a probation period of two years, as well as a fine of 350,000 rubles ($6,000).
The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols.
Press and Media Freedom: The government continued to restrict press freedom. As of 2015, the latest year for which data was available, the government and state-owned or state-controlled companies directly owned more than 60 percent of the country’s 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals. Most other outlets were owned by government-friendly oligarchs. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all of the so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings. At many government-owned or controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. In January 2016 a law came into effect that restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent. Another provision of the ambiguously worded law seemingly bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that still retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. The Glasnost Defense Fund reported numerous such actions against journalists. As of September incidents of violence and harassment included three killings, 40 attacks, 82 detentions by law enforcement officers, 14 prosecutions, 42 threats against journalists, 21 politically motivated firings, and one attack on media offices. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered various forms of government malfeasance or who expressed criticism of the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
On March 9 in St. Petersburg, unknown assailants severely beat journalist Nikolay Andrushchenko. He was found several hours later and placed in a medically induced coma. He never regained consciousness and died on April 20. Andrushchenko had been subjected to two prior attacks, in 2007 and 2016. Independent reporting connected the attacks to Andrushchenko’s investigations into local government corruption and links between St. Petersburg city officials and organized crime networks. Authorities opened an investigation but did not identify any suspects as of year’s end. Andrushchenko’s colleagues expressed doubts about the rigor and objectivity of the investigation.
On October 23, an assailant broke into the studios of the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy and stabbed journalist Tat’yana Felgengauer in the neck with a knife. Authorities detained the assailant; a government newspaper reported that investigators believed the assailant to be psychologically unstable and saw no other motivation for the attack, although state television directly linked his alleged psychosis to his extensive listening to Echo Moskvy. Weeks earlier Felgengauer had been targeted in a series of reports on a state-run news channel alleging she took money from a foreign government to train bloggers and citizen journalists opposed to the government.
On September 9, independent journalist Yuliya Latynina announced she had left the country after suffering a string of attacks. On September 3, unknown individuals set fire to her car. On July 20, unknown individuals sprayed an unidentified noxious-smelling poisonous substance through the windows of her home in the suburbs of Moscow, sickening her and her family members. In August 2016 an unknown attacker threw feces at her as she left the radio station where she worked. Authorities opened investigations into the attacks, but no arrests were made as of year’s end.
Journalists reporting on the North Caucasus remained particularly vulnerable to physical attacks or prosecution for their reporting. Following their expose on the large-scale violations of human rights against gay men in Chechnya, Chechen officials made threats against the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which first broke the story. At an April 3 gathering of some 15,000 men at a mosque, Chechen presidential adviser Adam Shahidov called Novaya Gazeta journalists “enemies of our faith and our motherland” and threatened “vengeance.” A resolution adopted at the gathering included a promise that “retribution will catch up with the hatemongers wherever and whoever they are, without a statute of limitations,” which Novaya Gazeta believed to constitute a call to violence against its journalists. On April 15, Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina announced that the she had left the country following threats against her life. On April 19, Novaya Gazeta reported that it received an envelope mailed from Chechnya containing an unidentified white powder.
In April a Chechen court upheld the 2016 conviction in Chechnya of Caucasian Knot journalist Zhalaudi Geriyev on drug possession charges, which resulted in a three-year prison sentence. In July the Supreme Court refused to consider the case. Human rights groups maintained the verdict was politically motivated and in direct retaliation for Geriyev’s independent reporting on Chechnya.
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova. In November, Ukrainian authorities arrested Magomed Dukuzov, the chief suspect in the, 2004 killing of Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov, reportedly at the request of authorities. Klebnikov’s relatives emphasized that authorities still have never adequately investigated and identified the person who ordered the killing.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Self-censorship in independent media was reportedly widespread. For example, on June 24, journalist Ilya Rozhdestvenskiy announced his resignation from the RBC news outlet because it refused to publish his investigative report about the existence of an FSB secret prison near Moscow where torture was reportedly used against detainees. Rozhdestvenskiy reported his editors rejected the article six times, claiming that it was in the incorrect format. A different newspaper subsequently published the article.
On November 25, the government approved legislation expanding the scope of the Foreign Agent Law to include media organizations that receive funding from foreign sources. The amendments will potentially restrict designated organizations’ ability to operate freely in Russia. On December 4, the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and seven of their affiliate media organizations received notices from the Ministry of Justice requiring that they register as “foreign agents.” On December 6, the State Duma (the lower house of Russia’s parliament) banned reporters credentialed by media organizations registered as foreign agents from its premises.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority, sometimes publicly, to restrict the work of journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel. In one such case, on June 26, a Kursk court fined local journalist and opposition legislator Olga Li 90,000 rubles ($1,540) for allegedly defaming a local judge. The charges stemmed from a series of online videos in which Li criticized national and local politicians belonging to the United Russia party.
The government took significant new steps to restrict free expression on the internet. Threats to internet freedom included: physical attacks on bloggers; politically motivated prosecutions of bloggers and social media users for “extremism,” separatism, treason, libel, or other crimes; blocking of specific sites by national and local service providers; distributed denial-of-service attacks on sites of opposition groups or independent media, including on the site of the independent pollster Levada Center less than two weeks before State Duma elections; monitoring by authorities of all internet communications; and attempts by national, local, and regional authorities to regulate and criminalize content.
The internet was widely available to citizens in all parts of the country, although connection speeds varied by region. According to data compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 73 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2015.
A report issued by the legal services NGO Agora stated that the number of cases in which authorities infringed the rights of internet users increased dramatically in 2016, from 15,022 cases in 2015 to 116,103. The majority of cases (111,498) involved content filtering and blocking in one form or another. The report attributed some of the surge in cases to improved data published by Roskomnadzor, the country’s communications authority, but reported a substantial increase in pressure on internet freedom overall. The number of regions in the country in which internet users were subjected to serious pressure remained at 30 in 2016. The report stated that 82 million residents lived in areas where internet users faced severe pressure.
A law passed in July requires that commercial virtual private network (VPN) services and internet anonymizers block access to websites and internet content prohibited in Russia. Under the law Roskomnadzor can block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB to identify VPN services that do not comply with the subsequent ban by Roskomnadzor. When the law came into force on November 1, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in Russia had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. As of mid-December, there were no reports Roskomnadzor blocked specific VPN services.
Another law passed in July prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing unidentified users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts can be blocked. The law was scheduled to come into force in January 2018.
On August 11, according to press reports, the communications ministry published a draft order outlining the kinds of user data “organizers of information dissemination” will have to share with the FSB. Beginning in July 2018, the law will require these companies to store and provide to the FSB in-depth user information, including user name; full real name; date of birth; exact address; internal passport number; lists of relatives, friends, contacts, all foreign languages spoken; date and time of account’s creation; date and time of all communications; full text of all communications; full archives of all audio and video communications; all shared files; records of all e-payments; location for use of each service; IP address; telephone number; email address; and software used.
Human rights activists and NGOs widely criticized both laws. Human Rights Watch noted that journalists, human rights activists, students, and others often use VPNs to protect the privacy and security of their online activity as well as to circumvent internet censorship. On August 11, the social media application Snapchat registered as an “organizer of information dissemination.” A spokesperson for the company stated it did not know whether information provided to Roskomnadzor would be used for the law’s purpose. On May 4, Roskomnadzor blocked the Chinese messaging application WeChat for not complying with its registration request. On April 10, Roskomnadzor blocked the mobile push-to-talk messaging application Zello, frequently used by truck drivers and first responders, on the grounds that it failed to register as an “organizer of information dissemination.” A group of long-haul truckers had used Zello to organize a strike.
On January 1, amendments to the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies, and Protection of Information and to the administrative code came into force requiring owners of internet search engines (“news aggregators”) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities can demand that content deemed in violation be removed, and they can also impose heavy fines for noncompliance. Dunja Mijatovic, the special representative on freedom of the media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), raised concerns the law “could result in governmental interference of online information and introduce self-censorship in private companies.”
In June 2016 the Ministry of Telecommunications and Mass Communications published amendments to the Information Society State Program, drafted by order of the Security Council, according to which domestic networks must handle 99 percent of internet traffic by 2020.
The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Critics expressed concern the law would have negative commercial effects and provide the government with further access to citizens’ private information. In November 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked the U.S.-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law, the first social networking site targeted under the law. On March 7, Roskomnadzor released a statement confirming LinkedIn would remain blocked.
In April, Roskomnadzor blocked three online messaging applications: BlackBerry Messenger, LINE, and Imo.im, as well as the video chat application Vchat, for failing to share data about their users with authorities. A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to block search engine companies from showing search results that contain information about them.
Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information or “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” The NGO Roskomsvoboda reported that, as of October, more than four million domains were blocked without a legitimate basis. On December 12, Roskomnadzor blocked the website of the opposition movement “Open Russia” along with several related sites including “Open Elections,” “Open University,” and khodorkovsky.ru, the website of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former oligarch who founded Open Russia, on the grounds that they were “undesirable foreign organizations.” On December 14, Roskomnadzor threatened to block Twitter.com in Russia if it did not block Open Russia’s twitter feed.
In 2016 the State Duma passed the “Yarovaya package” of security-related amendments to the law that require telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies used by applications such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram. Providers face fines of one million rubles ($17,140) for noncompliance.
In August 2016 the FSB announced it had the capability to collect encryption keys from internet companies that could decrypt unreadable data on the internet. Although many experts doubted it was possible to decrypt all forms of encryption, particularly end-to-end encryption, it was believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept messages on at least some messaging platforms. On October 16, the Meshchanskiy District Court of Moscow fined Telegram 800,000 rubles ($13,715) for refusing to pass to the FSB keys for decoding user messages. According to the case file, on July 12, the FSB sent a request to Telegram’s office, giving the company until July 16 to provide information on six telephone numbers. As of December the case was still being litigated.
In August the communications ministry published a draft order outlining the kinds of user data that would be collected by the security services from “organizers of information dissemination” as part of implementation of the 2016 Yarovaya Law. Beginning in July 2018, the law requires companies to store in-depth user information that could be collected by the FSB through the System of Operative Investigative Measures (SORM) equipment that the law requires to be connected to the data storage servers.
During the year authorities blocked or threatened to block some websites and social network pages that either criticized government policy or violated laws on internet content. On April 2, the Prosecutor General’s Office requested that Roskomnadzor block five websites that were calling for participation in protests the government considered “unsanctioned.”
During the year authorities prosecuted individual bloggers for alleged illegal content published online, including other users’ comments on their pages. According to media reports, on July 21, authorities in Kurgansk Oblast opened an administrative case against 14-year-old Dmitry Morozov for displaying banned symbols after another minor posted a swastika on Morozov’s social media page. Authorities claimed Morozov did not delete the symbol with sufficient speed.
The government continued to employ its longstanding use of SORM, which requires ISPs to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enabled police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government took new steps during the year to restrict academic and cultural freedom.
On March 21, authorities revoked the license of the European University at St. Petersburg, which was known for its liberal views, in a move observers believed to be politically motivated. Local authorities terminated the university’s lease in September. The university came under criticism from nationalist politicians in 2016 because of a gender studies course it had offered.
On August 22, authorities arrested well-known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov on embezzlement charges punishable by up to 10 years in prison, alleging he took state funds for a Shakespeare play that was never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times. Observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies.
Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays that they considered offensive or that expressed views in opposition to the government and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. According to state-controlled press reports from July 11, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinskiy ordered the last-minute cancellation of a ballet at Moscow’s Bolshoy Theater about the life of Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nuriyev because it addressed the topic of Nuriyev’s sexual orientation. Medinskiy denied the allegations of censorship, but noted that he supported the theater’s decision to “postpone” the ballet. The ballet was later staged at the Bolshoy for two performances in December.
Persons expressing views of historical events that run counter to officially accepted narratives faced harassment. For example, some Russian Orthodox and nationalist political figures led a campaign to ban the film Matilda, which depicted Tsar Nikolas II’s romance with a ballerina. On August 31, unknown individuals threw Molotov cocktails at the studio of the film’s director, Aleksey Uchitel. On September 11, unknown individuals set fire to two cars outside the legal firm that represents Uchitel’. Screenings of the film around the country were cancelled after bomb threats. News outlets linked a September 6 arson attack on the Cosmos cinema in Yekaterinburg to opposition to the film.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities increasingly restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While numerous public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located.
The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of the law on public assembly up to 300,000 rubles ($5,140) for individuals, 600,000 rubles ($10,290) for organizers, and one million rubles ($17,140) for groups or companies.
The law requires that “motor rallies” and other “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. It requires gatherings that would interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. As a consequence single-person pickets remained the sole form of public protest that do not require official approval.
Under the law the government may punish “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about the organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law provides that authorities may prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings and levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events. Protesters who violate the regulations multiple times within a six-month period may be fined up to one million rubles ($17,140) or imprisoned for up to five years.
In the 2015 case of activist Ildar Dadin, who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for participation in four protests, the Supreme Court ruled on February 22 to revoke the verdict and release him. On May 12, police detained at least 11 activists, including Dadin, for reading aloud the country’s constitution on Red Square. On June 12, the Tverskoy District Court of Moscow fined Dadin 20,000 rubles ($340).
In March, Moscow’s Zamoskvoretskiy District Court convicted protester Maxim Panfilov of taking part in a mass riot and assaulting a police officer and sentenced him to psychiatric treatment. Panfilov was arrested in April 2016 in connection with the 2012 Bolotnaya Square case, which observers widely believed was politically motivated. In June a Moscow City Court upheld the ruling, and in July authorities transferred Panfilov to a psychiatric hospital.
There were reports activists were subject to threats and physical violence in connection with organizing or taking part in public events or protests. On April 28, opposition Yabloko Party member Natalia Fyodorova temporarily lost her vision after an unknown assailant splashed chemicals on her face. The party reported that the attack was believed linked to Fyodorova’s opposition to Moscow city authorities’ plan to demolish 8,000 five-story Soviet-era apartment buildings.
Police often broke up demonstrations that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. On March 26, Moscow authorities arrested as many as 1,000 protesters participating in an anticorruption protest organized by opposition leader Aleksey Navalny. Police beat many detainees, and authorities arrested and subsequently convicted at least five protesters, including Aleksandr Shpakov, for violating the laws on assembly. Authorities charged Shpakov with violence against a police officer. On May 24, a judge sentenced him to 18 months in prison. Observers believed the case against Shpakov was politically motivated.
On August 22, St. Petersburg governor Georgiy Poltavchenko prohibited unsanctioned rallies and other public events on the Field of Mars, the only free assembly area in central St. Petersburg where rallies of up to 200 participants could be held without a permit. On November 2, a city court in St. Petersburg refused to reinstitute the status of the Field of Mars as a free assembly area.
On May 10, President Putin signed a decree limiting protests in connection with enhanced security surrounding the 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup soccer tournaments. During the tournaments, protests in seven cities will only be possible with the approval of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB.
Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted single-person pickets, requiring that there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. On March 27, the Constitutional Court published a decree that allows police officers to stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer. On June 14, Moscow police arrested the opposition Yabloko Party’s Moscow leader, Sergey Mitrokhin, for conducting a single-person picket outside the Federation Council building in protest of a bill on the renovation of Moscow housing. On August 8, the Tverskoy District Court of Moscow fined Mitrokhin 15,000 rubles ($257) for violating procedures for holding a mass event.
Authorities continued to deprive LGBTI individuals and their supporters of free assembly rights. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that LGBTI individuals are a “protected class” and should be allowed to engage in public activities, the law prohibiting so-called propaganda of homosexuality to minors (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) provides grounds to deny LGBTI activists and their supporters the right of assembly and was used on multiple occasions to interrupt public demonstrations by LGBTI activists. In June Moscow municipal officials refused an application by representatives of the LGBTI community to hold a parade, upholding a 2012 decision to prohibit gay parades in Moscow for 100 years, notwithstanding an ECHR ruling that the ban contravened the European Convention on Human Rights.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association. During the year, however, the government instituted new measures and expanded existing restrictive laws to stigmatize, harass, fine, close, and otherwise raise barriers to membership in organizations that were critical of the government.
Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.
The government continued to use a 2012 law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as foreign agents, to harass, stigmatize, and in some cases halt the operation of NGOs, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. The Ministry of Justice revised its official website listing domestic “foreign agent” NGOs, which resulted in a reduction in the number organizations on the list. The ministry removed from the list NGOs that closed or that successfully petitioned for removal from the list by refusing foreign funding and not engaging in so-called political activity. These organizations previously remained on the ministry’s website with a date noting when they “ceased performing the functions of a foreign agent.” As many as 20 organizations successfully petitioned for removal from the “foreign agent” list. At least 30 organizations shut down their operations rather than work under the “foreign agent” label. On November 30, President Putin signed legislation to expand the potential application of the “foreign agent” designation to foreign media working in the country as well as Russian news publications receiving funding from abroad (see section 2.a.).
During the year the Ministry of Justice designated 16 new NGOs as well as nine media organizations as “foreign agents” (see section 2.a.). As of December the Ministry of Justice’s registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 86 NGOs and nine media organizations.
In May 2016 at the behest of President Putin, the government clarified and ultimately expanded the definition of political activities covered under the “foreign agent” law. Putin signed the related amendments in June. Under the new definition, political activities include: organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions or presentations; participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempts to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.
To be delisted, an NGO must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving that it did not receive any foreign funding or engage in any political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list.
In addition to continued inspections of NGOs designated as foreign agents, authorities began to levy heavy fines against NGOs for failing to disclose foreign agent status on websites or printed materials. According to Human Rights Watch, while authorities inspected a wide range of designated civil society groups from nearly every region of the country, groups that were warned, fined, or prosecuted generally were those active in areas such as election monitoring, human rights advocacy, anticorruption work, and environmental protection. On February 21, the Basmannyy District Court fined the SOVA Center 300,000 rubles ($5,140) for neglecting to register as a “foreign agent.”
During inspections of NGOs, law enforcement agencies typically brought representatives from as many as a dozen different bodies, including fire, tax, health, and safety inspectors, to issue citations. In addition, state-controlled media crews frequently accompanied authorities during such inspections.
Organizations the government deemed as “foreign agents” reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press. As a result some organizations discontinued their work and closed their doors.
Use of the law on “undesirable” foreign organizations expanded during the year with the addition of Open Russia, Open Russia Civic Movement, the Institute for Modern Russia (all organizations tied to exiled former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky), and the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. The organizations joined the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Media Development Fund, the National Endowment for Democracy, Open Society, Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation, and the U.S.-Russia Foundation. According to the definition of the law, a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if that group is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities have not clarified what specific threats the “undesirable” NGOs posed to the country.
In accordance with the law, any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” must cease its activities, any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found to be continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison. In March the State Duma amended the law to prohibit “undesirable” foreign organizations from establishing legal entities in the country. In July a Krasnodar court fined Open Russia coordinator Jan Antonov 15,000 rubles ($257) for carrying out activities of an “undesirable” organization. On September 7, SOVA Center director Aleksandr Verkhovskiy reported that the Moscow Prosecutor General’s Office opened an investigation into his NGO because of web links on their website to the “undesirable” National Endowment for Democracy and Open Society. The SOVA Center published links to both “undesirable” organizations as past donors. On December 25, a Moscow court ruled that the statute of limitations had run out since the web links had been discovered and ordered the administrative case against the organization to be closed. In November, President Putin signed into law amendments to legislation allowing for extrajudicial blocking of websites that include links to the materials of “undesirable” organizations.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that “pose a threat to the country” that receive support from U.S. citizens or organizations are also subject to suspension under the “Dima Yakovlev” law, which prohibits these NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle freedom of association. On April 20, the Supreme Court criminalized the activity of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision prohibited all activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country, effectively banning their worship. On July 17, the Appellate Chamber of the Supreme Court upheld this decision. On August 17, the parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and 395 regional branches were formally placed on the justice ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, a procedural move following the Supreme Court’s decision. There were as many as 171,000 members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country.
There were multiple reports that civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. For example, on August 15, activist Ivan Skripnichenko was tending to a makeshift memorial erected at the site of the 2015 killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. According to press reports, an unknown assailant saying, “You don’t like Putin, or something?” attacked Skripnichenko and punched him in the face. Skripnichenko was treated for a broken nose and was rehospitalized a few days later for complications. He died on August 21, apparently of a pulmonary embolism connected to the injury. As of the end of the year, no criminal case was opened in connection with the attack.
In multiple cases authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work. For example, on June 1, a trial began in the case against human rights activist and historian Yuriy Dmitriyev, known for his decades of work documenting the mass repression of the Stalin era. Dmitriyev was arrested in December 2016 and charged with possession of child pornography. In late December, Dmitriyev was unexpectedly transferred to Moscow to undergo psychiatric evaluation at the Serbskiy State Scientific Center. Observers and rights activists contended Dmitriyev was framed and that the case is in retaliation for his work.
There were reports that authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the government acknowledged difficulty in enforcing the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.
Corruption: Corruption was widespread throughout the executive branch, including within the security sector and migration management agencies, as well as in the legislative and judicial branches at all levels. Its manifestations included bribery of officials, misuse of budgetary resources, theft of government property, kickbacks in the procurement process, extortion, and improper use of official position to secure personal profits. While there were prosecutions for bribery, a general lack of enforcement remained a problem. Official corruption continued to be rampant in numerous areas, including education, military conscription, health care, commerce, housing, social welfare, law enforcement, and the judicial system.
There were reports of corruption by government officials at the highest level. For example, on March 2, the Anticorruption Foundation published an investigative report into the assets of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, alleging that Medvedev employed a network of charitable foundations and shell companies to channel more than one billion dollars in bribes towards the purchase and maintenance of multiple luxury real estate properties and yachts within the country and abroad. On May 24, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it had examined the allegations in the report and found that no violations of law had occurred.
On December 15, a court convicted former minister of economic development Alexey Ulyukayev of bribery and sentenced him to eight years in prison and a fine of 130 million rubles ($2.2 million). Ulyukayev was arrested in November 2016 and charged with soliciting a bribe of two million dollars from Rosneft head Igor Sechin in exchange for facilitating government approval of Rosneft’s purchase of the oil company Bashneft. Ulyukayev argued in court that he was framed.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires government officials to file extensive declarations of all foreign real estate they own and any large expenditure involving land, vehicles, and securities, as well as their incomes. The law was inconsistently and selectively enforced, and investigative bodies rarely acted upon media reports of undeclared assets held overseas and other alleged violations. According to Transparency International and investigative reporters, the information officials provided often did not reflect their true income or that of close family members.