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.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
While the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, authorities engaged in these practices with impunity. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention, but successful challenges were rare.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
By law authorities may arrest and hold a suspect for up to 48 hours without court approval, provided there is evidence of a crime or a witness; otherwise, an arrest warrant is required. The law requires judicial approval of arrest warrants, searches, seizures, and detentions. Officials generally honored this requirement, although bribery or political pressure sometimes subverted the process of obtaining judicial warrants.
After an arrest, police typically took detainees to the nearest police station, where they informed them of their rights. Police must prepare a protocol stating the grounds for the arrest, and both the detainee and police officer must sign it within three hours of detention. Police must interrogate detainees within the first 24 hours of detention. Prior to interrogation, a detainee has the right to meet with an attorney for two hours. No later than 12 hours after detention, police must notify the prosecutor. They must also give the detainee an opportunity to notify his or her relatives by telephone unless a prosecutor issues a warrant to keep the detention secret. Police are required to release a detainee after 48 hours, subject to bail conditions, unless a court decides, at a hearing, to prolong custody in response to a motion filed by police not less than eight hours before the 48-hour detention period expires. The defendant and his or her attorney must be present at the court hearing, either in person or through a video link. In May the State Duma adopted and President Putin signed into law amendments to the penal code that prohibit lawyers from bringing “communications technologies on the grounds of a correctional institution,” effectively barring lawyers from bringing their cell phones or other recording devices into detention facilities when meeting with their clients.
Except in the North Caucasus, authorities generally respected the legal limitations on detention. There were reports of occasional noncompliance with the 48-hour limit for holding a detainee. At times authorities failed to issue an official detention protocol within the required three hours after detention and held suspects longer than the legal detention limits.
By law police must complete their investigation and transfer a case to a prosecutor for arraignment within two months of a suspect’s arrest, although an investigative authority may extend a criminal investigation for up to 12 months. Extensions beyond 12 months need the approval of the head federal investigative authority in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, or the Investigative Committee and the approval of the court. According to some defense lawyers, the two-month time limit often was exceeded, especially in cases with a high degree of public interest.
Detainees had trouble obtaining adequate defense counsel. While the law provides defendants the right to choose their own lawyers, investigators sometimes did not respect this provision, instead designating lawyers friendly to the prosecution. These “pocket” defense attorneys agreed to the interrogation of their clients in their presence while making no effort to defend their clients’ legal rights. For example, on July 6, Aleksey Vorsin, an opposition activist and former head of Aleksey Navalny’s Khabarovsk headquarters, was denied his request to replace his court-appointed public defender with legal representation of his choosing on procedural grounds. Vorsin was charged with repeated participation in protests and received a three-year suspended sentence. Moscow-based international human rights organization Memorial, which regularly publishes a list of political prisoners in Russia, considered Vorsin’s incarceration politically motivated.
In many cases, especially in more remote regions, defense counsel was not available for indigent defendants. Judges usually did not suppress confessions taken without a lawyer present. Judges at times freed suspects held in excess of detention limits, although they usually granted prosecutors’ motions to extend detention periods.
There were reports that security services sometimes held detainees in incommunicado detention before officially registering the detention. This practice usually coincided with allegations of the use of torture to coerce confessions before detainees were permitted access to a lawyer. The problem was especially acute in the Republic of Chechnya, where incommunicado detention could reportedly last for weeks in some cases.
Media reported that police used facial recognition technology to detain several individuals days after public demonstrations, with some instances of misidentification leading to the arrest of the wrong individuals. For example, the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda published an interview on July 16 with a Moscow municipal deputy, Vladimir Zalishchak, who, after attending the January 23 demonstrations in Moscow as a representative of the state, was arrested by police based on facial recognition software placing him at the protest. A court quickly sentenced Zalishchak to 15 days’ detention without permitting him access to a lawyer. Media outlets reported that Moscow police also detained several activists and journalists identified using facial recognition technology as attendees of the peaceful rally in support of Navalny on April 21. The director of Amnesty International’s Moscow office, Natalia Zviagina, characterized the use of facial recognition technology to identify and target protesters as “extremely disturbing.”
There were also reports that authorities targeted lawyers involved in the defense of political prisoners. For example, on April 30, security forces searched the hotel room of human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov and detained him for allegedly disclosing data related to the case of former Kommersant journalist Ivan Safronov (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Russia for 2020), a charge he denied. On July 17, Komanda 29 (Team 29), the lawyer’s association led by Pavlov, announced its decision to legally dissolve after the Prosecutor General’s Office blocked its website on July 16 for allegedly affiliating with the Czech NGO Spolecnost Svobody Informace (Freedom of Information Society), which was designated an “undesirable foreign organization” on June 29 (see section 2.b.).
Arbitrary Arrest: There were many reports of arbitrary arrest or detention, often in connection with demonstrations or single-person pickets, such as those organized January 23 and 31 and February 2 and 14 calling for Navalny’s release (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees, and section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly).
On February 4, police in the city of Nizhny Novgorod arrested 20-year-old Salekh Magamadov and 17-year-old Ismail Isayev and forcibly transferred them to Chechnya, where their whereabouts were unknown to their lawyers and family members for several days. According to human rights organizations, the two men were targeted for having operated a social media channel critical of the government and for their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. As of December, Magamadov and Isayev remained in detention in Chechnya’s capital Grozny for having allegedly aided an illegal armed group, charges that human rights organizations called fabricated.
Police detained single-person picketers in Moscow and other regions of the country. In one example, on February 2, police in Mari El opened a case against the leader of the For New Socialism movement, Dmitriy Mishin, for “violating the procedure for holding a picket” after he hung banners expressing support for Navalny on several snowmen. The charge was dropped on April 9. On August 21, at least eight journalists were detained while conducting separate single-person protests against the “media foreign agent” law outside FSB headquarters in Moscow.
During the year human rights monitoring groups reported an increase in so-called carousel arrests, in which police immediately rearrest protest participants upon exiting detention facilities after having completed court-ordered administrative sentences. In contrast to earlier cases of protesters being arrested multiple times, the new charges filed against these activists and journalists stemmed from the same underlying activities or events, allowing authorities to impose lengthy periods of detention for minor infractions. For example, OVD-Info reported that from May to July, members of the Pussy Riot movement were repeatedly sentenced up to the 15 days’ maximum administrative detention for disobeying a police officer. One of the activists, Veronika Nikulshina, was sentenced three times in three months to 15-day detentions, including on July 2, the day after her release from a June 16 detention. Her lawyer speculated that the systematic detentions were intended to prevent the movement from organizing demonstrations during a European soccer championship match hosted in Russia.
There were reports that Russia-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in arbitrary detention (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Pretrial Detention: Observers noted lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, but data on its extent were not available. By law pretrial detention may not normally exceed two months, but the court has the power to extend it to six months, as well as to 12 or 18 months if the crime of which the defendant is accused is especially serious. For example, Yuriy Savelyev, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was held in pretrial detention from October 2019 to December 2020 prior to being sentenced to six years in prison for participating in the activities of a “banned extremist organization.” Media outlets reported that the Eighth Cassation Court of Kemerovo ruled on March 29 that his lengthy pretrial detention was illegal.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law a detainee may challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court. Due to problems with judicial independence (see section 1.e.), however, judges typically agreed with the investigator and dismissed defendants’ complaints.
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/.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law forbids officials from entering a private residence except in cases prescribed by federal law or when authorized by a judicial decision. The law also prohibits the collection, storage, utilization, and dissemination of information about a person’s private life without his or her consent. While the law previously prohibited government monitoring of correspondence, telephone conversations, and other means of communication without a warrant, those legal protections were significantly weakened by laws passed after 2016 granting authorities sweeping powers and requiring telecommunications providers to store all electronic and telecommunication data (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). Politicians from minority parties, NGOs, human rights activists, and journalists alleged that authorities routinely employed surveillance and other measures to spy on and intimidate citizens.
Law enforcement agencies required telecommunications providers to grant the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB continuous remote access to client databases, including telephone and electronic communications, enabling them to track private communications and monitor internet activity without the provider’s knowledge. The law permits authorities with a warrant to monitor telephone calls in real time, but this safeguard was largely pro forma. The Ministry of Information and Communication requires telecommunications service providers to allow the FSB to tap telephones and monitor the internet. On July 1, President Putin signed into law a bill that allows security services to obtain data on the location of mobile telephones without a court order for a period of 24 hours, or 48 hours in the case of a missing minor. Prior to the adoption of this amendment, even though the Ministry of Information and Communication maintained that authorities would not access information without a court order, the FSB was not required to show it.
Law enforcement officials reportedly accessed, collected, or used private communications or personal data arbitrarily or unlawfully or without appropriate legal authority.
The law requires explicit consent for governmental and private collection of biometric data via facial recognition technology. Laws on public security and crime prevention, however, provide for exceptions to this consent requirement. Human rights activists claimed the law lacks appropriate safeguards to prevent the misuse of these data, especially without any judicial or public oversight over surveillance methods and technologies.
Authorities punished family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives. On January 27, police detained Aleksey Navalny’s brother Oleg (see section 1.d.) the same day as police searched the houses of at least 13 Navalny associates, including those of his wife Yuliya and his colleague Lyubov Sobol, as well as the headquarters of “Navalny Live,” Navalny’s anticorruption YouTube channel. Critics characterized the police tactics as efforts to punish or pressure Navalny, who remained detained at the time. In subsequent months authorities exerted similar pressure on the families of Navalny’s associates residing outside of the country, such as Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s former campaign manager, and Ivan Zhdanov, the former director of the Anticorruption Foundation.
According to a December 2020 study by the information and analytical agency TelecomDaily, the country had more than 13 million closed-circuit television cameras in 2020, with approximately one-third of these installed by the government and the rest by businesses and individuals to protect private property. By the end of 2020, approximately 200,000 government surveillance cameras were installed in Moscow and equipped with Russian-developed automated facial recognition software as part of its “Safe City” program. The system was initially installed in key public places, such as metro stations and apartment entrances, to scan crowds against a database of wanted individuals. During the demonstrations on April 21 (see section 1.d.), authorities used facial recognition data to identify protesters, sometimes incorrectly, days after the demonstration.
In 2020 the State Duma adopted a law to create a unified federal register containing information on all the country’s residents, including their names, dates and places of birth, and marital status. According to press reports, intelligence and security services would have access to the database in their investigations. There were reports that authorities threatened to remove children from the custody of parents engaged in political activism or some forms of religious worship, or parents who were LGBTQI+ persons. Several families reportedly left the country due to fear of arrest, although as of October no related arrests were reported.
The law requires relatives of terrorists to pay the cost of damages caused by an attack, which human rights advocates criticized as collective punishment. Chechen Republic authorities reportedly routinely imposed collective punishment on the relatives of alleged terrorists, including by expelling them from the republic.
Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups operating in the country investigated and published their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their concerns. Official harassment of independent NGOs continued and, in many instances, intensified, particularly of groups that focused on monitoring elections, engaging in environmental activism, exposing corruption, and addressing human rights abuses. Some officials, including Tatyana Moskalkova, the high commissioner for human rights, and her regional representatives regularly interacted and cooperated with NGOs.
Authorities continued to use a variety of laws to harass, stigmatize, and in some cases halt the operation of domestic and foreign human rights NGOs (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association). In an investigation published in February, the investigative outlet Proyekt reported that the harassment of renowned historian of the gulag and human rights activist Yuriy Dmitriyev had been supervised by Anatoliy Seryshev, an assistant to President Putin and former head of the FSB in Karelia. Proyekt noted that Dmitriyev began to receive threats after Memorial, the human rights organization he led, published a list in 2016 of individuals who had participated in the Stalinist repressions, which included Vasiliy Mikhailovich Seryshev, a suspected relative of Anatoliy Seryshev. On February 16, a court rejected Dmitriyev’s appeal and ordered him to serve out his 13-year prison sentence on charges that many observers assessed to be in retaliation for his work to expose Stalin-era crimes. Memorial considered Dmitriyev to be a political prisoner (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Russia for 2020).
Officials often displayed hostility toward the activities of human rights organizations and suggested their work was unpatriotic and detrimental to national security. Authorities continued to apply several indirect tactics to suppress or close domestic NGOs, including the application of various laws and harassment in the form of prosecution, investigations, fines, and raids (see sections 1.e. and 2.b.).
Authorities generally refused to cooperate with NGOs that were critical of government activities or listed as a foreign agent. International human rights NGOs had almost no presence east of the Ural Mountains or in the North Caucasus. A few local NGOs addressed human rights problems in these regions but often chose not to work on politically sensitive topics to avoid retaliation by local authorities. One NGO in this region reported that the organization’s employees sometimes had to resort to working in an individual capacity rather than as representatives of the organization.
In November authorities initiated legal proceedings to close two key branches of the country’s most prominent and widely cited human rights association, Memorial. On November 8, the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office filed suit in Moscow City Court to liquidate the Memorial Human Rights Center on the grounds that the group had “hidden information about the performance of the function of a foreign agent.” The center was also accused of “justifying extremism and terrorism” by maintaining its widely referenced list of political prisoners, which included individuals Memorial assessed had been labeled as extremists or terrorists for political reasons.
On November 11, the Prosecutor General’s Office filed a parallel lawsuit seeking to liquidate International Memorial for alleged “systemic” violations of the country’s “foreign agent” NGO law. On December 28, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of International Memorial, and the Moscow City Court concluded its proceedings and ordered the Memorial Human Rights Center to close the next day. Russian and international human rights organizations widely decried the moves to close the branches of Memorial as politically motivated, incommensurate to the alleged offenses, and a grave blow to independent civil society in the country.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Authorities refused to cooperate with the OSCE Moscow Mechanism rapporteur investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya in 2018 and did not permit him to visit the country. Three years after the release of the rapporteur’s report, the government had not provided the OSCE a substantive response to the report.
Government Human Rights Bodies: Some government institutions continued to promote human rights and intervened in selected abuse complaints, despite widespread doubt as to these institutions’ effectiveness.
Many observers did not consider the 168-member Civic Chamber, composed of government-appointed members from civil society organizations, to be an effective check on the government.
The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights is an advisory body to the president tasked with monitoring systemic problems in legislation and individual human rights cases, developing proposals to submit to the president and government, and monitoring their implementation. The president appoints some council members by decree, and not all members operated independently. Experts noted that the head of the council and senior member of the ruling United Russia party, Valeriy Fadeyev, worked closely with government authorities and often echoed their assessment of well known human rights cases. The high commissioner for human rights, Tatyana Moskalkova, was viewed as a figure with very limited autonomy. The country had regional ombudspersons in all regions with responsibilities similar to Moskalkova’s. Their effectiveness varied significantly, and local authorities often undermined their independence.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, and the law provides the same punishment for a relative, including a spouse, who commits rape as for a nonrelative. The penalty for conviction of rape is three to six years’ imprisonment for a single offense, with additional time imposed for aggravating factors. According to NGOs, many law enforcement personnel and prosecutors did not consider spousal or acquaintance rape a priority and did not encourage reporting or prosecuting such cases. NGOs reported that local police officers sometimes refused to respond to rape or domestic violence calls unless the victim’s life was directly threatened. Authorities typically did not consider rape or attempted rape to be life threatening.
Domestic violence remained a significant problem. There is no domestic violence provision in the law and no legal definition of domestic violence, making it difficult to know its actual prevalence in the country. The law considers beatings by “close relatives” an administrative rather than a criminal offense for first-time offenders, provided the beating does not cause serious harm requiring hospital treatment. The anti-domestic-violence NGO ANNA Center estimated that 60 to 70 percent of women who experienced some form of domestic violence did not seek help due to fear, public shame, lack of financial independence from their partners, or lack of confidence in law enforcement authorities. Laws that address bodily harm are general in nature and do not permit police to initiate a criminal investigation unless the victim files a complaint. The burden of collecting evidence in such cases typically falls on the alleged victims. The law prohibits threats, assault, battery, and killing, but most acts of domestic violence did not fall within the jurisdiction of the Prosecutor’s Office. The law does not provide for protection orders, which experts believed could help keep women safe from experiencing recurrent violence by their partners.
Open Media reported in January that the government “drastically cut” funding for domestic violence initiatives in the previous year, from 16.5 million rubles ($223,000) in 2019 to two million rubles ($27,000) in 2020. During the year the government provided a grant to only one NGO of dozens of domestic violence crisis centers and legal aid organizations that sought government funding. According to Open Media, the government instead funded projects aimed at preventing divorce or promoting “Orthodox Christian traditions to strengthen families.”
In December 2020 the Ministry of Justice added the prominent women’s rights NGO Nasiliu.net – Russian for No to Violence – to the registry of “foreign agents,” a move media attributed to the organization’s support of a draft bill to recriminalize domestic violence introduced to the State Duma in 2019. Director Anna Rivina characterized the designation as a political reaction by the government and an effort to silence dissent and criticism of its stance on domestic violence, which experts said was influenced by conservative “traditional values.”
COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders and general restrictions on movement trapped many women experiencing domestic violence in the same space as their abusers. Many survivors noted they could not leave their homes due to fear of being punished for violating the stay-at-home order.
There were reports that women defending themselves from domestic violence were charged with crimes. In March authorities recognized three sisters accused of murdering their abusive father in 2018 as victims after the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against the father on charges of sexual assault, coercion into sexual acts, and torture. Their lawyers expressed hope this “breakthrough” in the case would result in the dismissal of the sisters’ murder charges.
According to the ANNA Center, when domestic violence offenses were charged, articles under the country’s criminal law were usually applied that employed the process of private prosecution. The process of private prosecution requires the victim to gather all necessary evidence and bear all costs after the injured party or his or her guardian took the initiative to file a complaint with a magistrate judge. The NGO noted that this process severely disadvantages survivors. Experts estimated that seven of 10 such cases were dropped due to reconciliation of the parties as a result of the abuser pressuring, manipulating, and intimidating the survivor who often had to continue living in the same house.
According to NGOs, police were often unwilling to register complaints of domestic violence, saying that cases were “family matters,” frequently discouraged survivors from submitting complaints, and often pressed victims to reconcile with abusers.
Most domestic violence cases filed with authorities were either dismissed on technical grounds or transferred to a reconciliation process conducted by a justice of the peace whose focus was on preserving the family rather than punishing the perpetrator. NGOs estimated that only 3 percent of such cases eventually reached the courts. Survivors of domestic violence in the North Caucasus experienced difficulty seeking protection from authorities.
NGOs noted government-operated institutions provided services to affected women such as social apartments, hospitals wards, and shelters. Access to these services was often complicated, since they required proof of residency in that municipality, as well as proof of low-income status. In many cases these documents were controlled by the abusers and not available to survivors. A strict two-month stay limit in the shelters and limited business hours of these services further restricted survivors’ access to social services. After COVID-19-related restrictions forced many shelters to close temporarily, NGOs rented out apartments and hotels to shelter the survivors.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not specifically prohibit FGM/C. NGOs in Dagestan reported that FGM/C was occasionally practiced in some villages. On October 23, media outlets reported that the first case of FGM/C to be prosecuted in a Russian court was likely to end without resolution due to procedural delays that extended proceedings beyond the two-year statute of limitations for the offense stipulated by law. Criminal charges of “causing minor harm to health” were brought against a doctor in Ingushetiya who performed an FGM/C operation on a nine-year-old girl at her father’s request in 2019.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Human rights groups reported that “honor killings” of women persisted in Chechnya, Dagestan, and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, but the cases were rarely reported or acknowledged. Local police, doctors, and lawyers often collaborated with the families involved to cover up the crimes. In some parts of the North Caucasus, women continued to face bride kidnapping, polygamy, forced marriage (including early and child marriage), legal discrimination, virginity testing before marriage, and forced adherence to Islamic dress codes. Women in the North Caucasus often lost custody of their children after the father’s death or a divorce due to traditional law that prohibits women from living in a house without a man.
Sexual Harassment: The law contains a general provision against compelling a person to perform actions of a sexual character by means of blackmail, threats, or by taking advantage of the victim’s economic or other dependence on the perpetrator. There is no legal definition of harassment, however, and no comprehensive guidelines on how it should be addressed. Sexual harassment was reportedly widespread, but courts often rejected victims’ claims due to lack of sufficient evidence.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities during the year, although there had been such reports in previous years.
There were significant social and cultural barriers to family planning and reproductive health in the North Caucasus republics, including cases of FGM/C.
There are no legal restrictions on access to contraceptives, but very few citizens received any kind of sexual education, hampering their use. Senior government officials and church and conservative groups in the country stridently advocated for increasing the birth rate, and their opposition to family planning initiatives contributed to a social stigma that also affected the use of contraceptives.
Access to family planning and skilled medical attendance at birth varied widely based on geography and was often extremely limited in rural areas.
According to various human rights groups, COVID-19 restrictions negatively affected accessibility for the full range of reproductive health services.
The government did not deny access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, but survivors did not always seek needed treatment due to social stigma. Emergency contraception was readily available as part of clinical management of rape in urban centers, but not necessarily in rural areas.
Discrimination: The constitution and law provide that men and women enjoy the same legal status and rights, but women often encountered significant restrictions. Women experienced discrimination in the workplace, in pay, and in access to credit. At the start of the year, the government lifted Soviet-era gender-based employment restrictions, enabling women to do approximately 350 types of jobs that had previously been forbidden, such as truck driving. The Ministry of Labor ruled 100 jobs to be especially physically taxing, including firefighting, mining, and steam boiler repair, which remained off-limits to women.
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.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
During the year there were reports state actors committed violence against LGBTQI+ individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, particularly in Chechnya (see section 1.b.).
There were reports that government agents attacked, harassed, and threatened LGBTQI+ activists. For example, Meduza reported that Dagestani police forcibly returned Khalimat Taramova, a 22-year-old woman and victim of domestic violence, to Chechnya after she escaped to a women’s shelter in Makhachkala following threats by her family and local police due to her sexual orientation. In a statement on June 12, Chechen minister Akhmed Dudayev praised law enforcement for having “foiled an attempted kidnapping” by “instigators.” On the same day, the Russian LGBT Network said it would file a complaint with the ECHR about Taramova’s abduction and expressed concern that her sexual orientation placed her at risk of further abuse in Chechnya.
LGBTQI+ persons were targets of societal violence, and police often failed to respond adequately to such incidents. For example, in March an LGBTQI+ activist from Murmansk, Valentina Likhoshva, reported to police that she had received threats after receiving an international award recognizing her contributions to social justice and human rights in the Barents region. Media outlets reported that police subsequently refused to investigate her claims, commenting that because the threats came by email, their validity could not be determined.
During the year authorities acted on a limited basis to investigate and punish those complicit in societal violence and abuses by the state. For example, on January 12, a court in Yekaterinburg sentenced Pavel Zuyev to five years in prison on robbery charges after he beat and robbed two gay men in September 2020. The court determined that Zuyev assaulted the men due to their sexual orientation and ordered him to compensate them financially for emotional damages.
In 2020 the Russian LGBT Network released a report that showed 12 percent of LGBTQI+ respondents in a survey had experienced physical violence, 4 percent had experienced sexual violence, and 56 percent had experienced psychological abuse during their lifetime. The report noted that LGBTQI+ persons faced discrimination in their place of study or work, when receiving medical services, and when searching for housing. The report also noted that transgender persons were uniquely vulnerable to discrimination and violence. The Russian LGBT Network claimed that law enforcement authorities did not always protect the rights of LGBTQI+ individuals and were sometimes the source of violence themselves. As a result, LGBTQI+ individuals had extremely low levels of trust in courts and police.
A homophobic campaign continued in state-controlled media in which officials, journalists, and others derided LGBTQI+ persons as “perverts,” “sodomites,” and “abnormal,” and conflated homosexuality with pedophilia.
There were reports police conducted involuntary physical exams of transgender or intersex persons. In April a St. Petersburg court ordered a transgender man, Innokentiy Alimov, to undergo a gynecological examination to determine his gender, on the basis of which he was transferred to a women’s detention center. Alimov was sentenced to four and one-half years in prison in a drug trafficking case and spent at least two months in a “punishment cell,” which prison authorities argued was a safer place than among the general population.
The Association of Russian-speaking Intersex reported that medical specialists often pressured intersex persons (or their parents if they were underage) into having so-called normalization surgery without providing accurate information about the procedure or what being intersex meant.
The law criminalizes the distribution of “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors and effectively limits the rights of free expression and assembly for citizens who wish to advocate publicly for LGBTQI+ rights or express the opinion that homosexuality is normal. Examples of what the government considered LGBTQI+ propaganda included materials that “directly or indirectly approve of persons who are in nontraditional sexual relationships” (see section 2.a.). Authorities charged feminist and LGBTQI+ rights defender Yuliya Tsvetkova with the criminal offense of disseminating pornography online after she shared images depicting female bodies on her social media accounts. Tsvetkova’s trial began on April 12 and continued as of December.
The law does not prohibit discrimination by state or nonstate actors against LGBTQI+ persons with respect to essential goods and services such as housing, employment, or access to government services such as health care.
LGBTQI+ persons reported significant societal stigma and discrimination, which some attributed to official promotion of intolerance and homophobia. In July a large health-food retail chain, VkusVill, ran and later apologized for an ad featuring a gay couple shopping in the store, which was part of a campaign featuring shoppers who visit the chain. Media outlets reported that the initial reaction to the ad was generally positive. As responses became increasingly critical, however, the chain was accused of promoting homosexuality. Its leadership removed the ad and apologized for “hurting the feelings of a large number of buyers, employees, partners and suppliers.”
High levels of employment discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons reportedly persisted. Activists asserted that the majority of LGBTQI+ persons hid their sexual orientation or gender identity due to fear of losing their jobs or homes, as well as the risk of violence. LGBTQI+ students also reported discrimination at schools and universities.
Medical practitioners reportedly continued to limit or deny LGBTQI+ persons health services due to intolerance and prejudice. The Russian LGBT Network’s report indicated that, upon disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBTQI+ individuals often encountered strong negative reactions and the presumption they were mentally ill. According to a poll conducted in July by the government-controlled Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 23 percent of respondents considered members of the LGBTQI+ community to be “sick people who need help,” an opinion mainly held by men and persons older than age 60.
Transgender persons faced difficulty updating their names and gender markers on government documents to reflect their gender identity because the government had not established standard procedures, and many civil registry offices denied their requests. When documents failed to reflect their gender identity, transgender persons often faced harassment by law enforcement officers and discrimination in accessing health care, education, housing, transportation, and employment.
There were reports LGBTQI+ persons also faced discrimination in parental rights. The Russian LGBT Network reported LGBTQI+ parents often feared that the country’s prohibition on the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation” to minors would be used to remove custody of their children. On February 15, the ECHR inquired with Russian authorities on behalf of a transgender man who lost guardianship of his two foster children when authorities in Yekaterinburg learned that he had begun to change his gender. The man was granted asylum in Spain.