The Russian Federation has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin. The bicameral Federal Assembly consists of a directly elected lower house (State Duma) and an appointed upper house (Federation Council), both of which lack independence from the executive. The 2016 State Duma elections and the 2018 presidential election were marked by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process, including the exclusion of meaningful opposition candidates. On July 1, a national vote held on constitutional amendments did not meet internationally recognized electoral standards.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service, the Investigative Committee, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the National Guard are responsible for law enforcement. The Federal Security Service is responsible for state security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism, as well as for fighting organized crime and corruption. The national police force, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for combating all crime. The National Guard assists the Federal Security Service’s Border Guard Service in securing borders, administers gun control, combats terrorism and organized crime, protects public order, and guards important state facilities. The National Guard also participates in armed defense of the country’s territory in coordination with Ministry of Defense forces. Except in rare cases, security forces generally report to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities have, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which are accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Members of the Russian security forces committed numerous human rights abuses.
The country’s occupation and purported annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula continued to affect the human rights situation there significantly and negatively. The Russian government continued to arm, train, lead, and fight alongside Russia-led separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Credible observers attributed thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as numerous abuses, to Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine). Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured.
Significant human rights issues included: extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances; pervasive torture by government law enforcement officers that sometimes resulted in death and occasionally involved sexual violence or punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrest and detention; political and religious prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country; severe arbitrary interference with privacy; severe suppression of freedom of expression and media, including the use of “antiextremism” and other laws to prosecute peaceful dissent and religious minorities; violence against journalists; blocking and filtering of internet content and banning of online anonymity; severe suppression of the right of peaceful assembly; severe suppression of freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organizations”; severe restrictions of religious freedom; refoulement of refugees; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; severe limits on participation in the political process, including restrictions on opposition candidates’ ability to seek public office and conduct political campaigns, and on the ability of civil society to monitor election processes; widespread corruption at all levels and in all branches of government; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; coerced abortion and forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against persons with disabilities, members of ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.
The government failed to take adequate steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
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.
In December 2019, for the first time, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation published data on the use of torture in prisons and pretrial detention centers. The data showed that between 2015 and 2018, for every 44 reports of violence perpetrated by Federal Penitentiary Service employees, only one criminal case was initiated.
There were reports of deaths as a result of torture (see section 1.a.).
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. For example, media reported that members of Russia’s National Guard forcibly dispersed a peaceful political rally in Khabarovsk City on October 12. Several participants reported being beaten by police during the rally’s dispersal, at least one with a police baton; one victim suffered a broken nose. Two detained minors said they were “put on their knees in a corner, mocked, had their arms twisted, and were hit in the eye.”
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 May 11, Russian media reported Vladimir Vorontsov, the creator of the Police Ombudsman project, was hospitalized after being kept in an isolation ward in a prison. According to his lawyer, authorities detained Vorontsov on May 7, denied his request for medical assistance, and interrogated him into the evening, after which he was placed in solitary confinement and not allowed to sleep. On May 8, Vorontsov was charged with extorting money from a police officer. Vorontsov alleged the charges against him were revenge for his social activism, which involved reporting on officials’ labor rights violations of law enforcement officers.
In several cities police reportedly subjected members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious group banned under antiextremism laws, to physical abuse and torture following their arrest. For example, on February 10, officers from the Russian National Guard handcuffed Chita resident Vadim Kutsenko and took him to a local forest, where they beat his face and neck, suffocated him, and used a Taser to force him to admit to being a practicing member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When Kutsenko reported the incident to authorities, he was ignored and sent to a temporary detention center along with three other members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to media reports, Kutsenko sought medical treatment upon his release, which confirmed the physical trauma.
There were multiple reports of the FSB using torture against young “anarchists and antifascist activists” who were allegedly involved in several “terrorism” and “extremism” cases. For example, on February 10, a court in Penza found seven alleged anarchists and antifascist activists supposedly tied to a group known as “Set” (“Network”) guilty of terrorism and sentenced them to between six and 18 years in prison. Authorities claimed they were plotting to overthrow the government, but human rights activists asserted that the FSB falsified evidence and fabricated the existence of the organization known as “Set/Network.” Several of the sentenced men claimed that the FSB forced them to sign admissions of guilt under torture; one of them claimed he had marks on his body from electric shocks and asked for medical experts to document them but was denied the request. Memorial considered all seven men sentenced to be political prisoners.
In the North Caucasus region, there were widespread reports that security forces abused and tortured both alleged militants and civilians in detention facilities. On January 20, Aminat Lorsanova became the second individual to file a complaint with federal authorities asking for an investigation into abuses against the LGBTI community in Chechnya. In 2018 she was forcibly detained at one psychiatric clinic for 25 days and at another for four months. She was beaten with sticks and injected with tranquilizer to “cure” her of her bisexual identity. Dzhambulat Umarov, Chechnya’s minister of national policy, foreign relations, press, and information, publicly denied Lorsanova’s claims and accused the LGBTI community of deceiving “a sick Chechen girl.”
There were reports of rape and sexual abuse by government agents. For example, media reported on Mukhtar Aliyev’s account of his five years in IK-7 prison in Omsk region from 2015 until his release during the year, where he was subjected to torture, including sexual assault. Aliyev told media that prison officials would beat him, tie him to the bars for a prolonged length of time causing his legs and arms to swell up, and force other inmates to assault him sexually while recording their actions. Aliyev said that the officials threatened to leak the recording to other inmates and officials if he did not behave.
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 May 12, approximately two dozen riot police stormed the home of Aleksandr Gabyshev, a Siberian shaman who announced in 2019 that he and his supporters planned to walk from Yakutsk to Moscow to “expel” Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin. Police detained Gabyshev and forcibly hospitalized him for psychiatric treatment. On May 29, Gabyshev filed a claim refusing further hospitalization, after which the clinic’s medical commission deemed him a danger to himself and others and filed a lawsuit to extend his detention there. The clinic released Gabyshev on July 22.
Reports of nonlethal physical abuse and hazing continued in the armed forces. Activists reported such hazing was often tied to extortion schemes. On January 22, the online media outlet 29.ru published an interview with the mother of conscript Ilya Botygin, who claimed that he was a victim of repeated hazing in his Nizhny Novgorod-based unit. The mother said that her son’s superiors locked him up for several days at a time, fed him irregularly, and beat him. When she visited him in January, she took him to the emergency room for a medical examination, but his unit did not accept the paperwork documenting his injuries on the grounds it could be forged. She and Botygin filed a case with the Nizhny Novgorod military prosecutor’s office but told media they had not received any updates about an investigation.
There were reports that Russian-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. According to a July 25 investigation published by independent news outlet Novaya Gazeta, tens of thousands of cases of beatings and torture by the military, police, and other security forces could have gone unpunished in the previous 10 years. The report assessed the Investigative Committee’s lack of independence from police as a key factor hampering accountability, because the organization failed to initiate investigations into a high number of incidents.
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.
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.
Problems existed related to detainees’ ability to obtain adequate defense counsel. The law provides defendants the right to choose their own lawyers, but 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. 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 such incommunicado detention could reportedly last for weeks in some cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were many reports of arbitrary arrest or detention, often in connection with demonstrations and single-person pickets, such as those that preceded and succeeded the July 1 national vote on constitutional amendments (see section 2.b.). The independent human rights media project OVD-Info reported that during the first six months of the year, police detained 388 single-person picketers in Moscow and St. Petersburg alone, although single-person pickets are legal and do not require a permit. After Novaya Gazeta journalist and municipal deputy Ilya Azar was arrested and sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest on May 26 for holding a single-person picket in Moscow, law enforcement authorities detained an estimated 130 individuals who took part in protests supporting him in three cities. Many of them were fined for violating the laws on staging public demonstrations.
There were reports that Russian-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, Yuliy Boyarshinov, described by Memorial as an antifascist and left-wing activist, was in pretrial detention from 2018 until the resumption of his trial in February; he was convicted and sentenced to 5.5 years in prison in June. He was accused of illegally storing explosives and participating in a terrorist organization because of his purported association with the “Network,” an alleged antifascist and anarchist group that relatives of the accused claim does not really exist. Memorial considered Boyarshinov to be a political prisoner.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law a detainee may challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court. In view of problems with judicial independence (see section 1.e.), however, judges typically agreed with the investigator and dismissed defendants’ complaints.
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 Memorial’s list of political prisoners contained 358 names, including 295 individuals who were allegedly wrongfully imprisoned for exercising religious freedom. Nevertheless, Memorial estimated that the actual number of political prisoners in the country could be two to three times greater than the number on its list. Memorial’s list included journalists jailed for their writing, such as 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; Anastasiya Shevchenko, the first individual charged under the “undesirable foreign organizations” law; students and activists jailed for participating in the Moscow protests in July and August 2019; and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious believers. 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 murder attempts; human rights organizations asserted that his detention was politically motivated to obtain false evidence against Yukos executives.
Politically Motivated Reprisal Against Individuals Located Outside the Country
There were credible reports that the country attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. Authorities used their access to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to target political enemies abroad. For example, the religious freedom rights organization Forum 18 reported that the country issued Interpol red notices in January to secure the extradition of at least two individuals facing “extremism” charges for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. Ashurali Magomedeminov, who studied the work of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, left Russia in 2016; the Investigative Committee launched a criminal case against him in 2017 after accusing him of sharing “extremist literature.”
There were credible reports that, for politically motivated purposes, the government attempted to exert bilateral pressure on another country aimed at having it take adverse action against specific individuals. For example, on February 21, Belarusian police detained Nikolay Makhalichev, a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the request of the Russian authorities. Makhalichev said that Belarusian police told him that Russian authorities had put him on an interstate wanted list after they opened a criminal case against him for “extremism” for his religious affiliation. Russian prosecutors brought forth a request for extradition, but on April 7, the Belarusian courts determined that he would not be extradited.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored. 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 topics, especially of Belarus, LGBTI persons, the environment, elections, COVID-19, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as secessionism or federalism. 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. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters further stifled freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of Speech: Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism, under which citizens may be punished for certain types of peaceful protests, affiliation with certain religious denominations, and even certain social media posts, as a tool to stifle dissent. As of August the Ministry of Justice had expanded its list of extremist materials to include 5,080 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of approximately 80 items from 2019. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 585 extremism cases in 2019, the majority of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
On March 27, the State Duma passed legislation criminalizing the dissemination of false “socially significant information” online, in mass media, or during protests or public events. This law in effect toughened a March 2019 law that prohibited the dissemination of “incorrect socially meaningful information, distributed under the guise of correct information, which creates the threat of damage to the lives and health of citizens or property, the threat of mass disruption of public order and public security, or the threat of the creation of an impediment to the functioning of life support facilities, transport infrastructure, banking, energy, industry, or communications.” Authorities used the law to target human rights defenders and civil society activists in criminal investigations, most recently by accusing them of spreading unreliable information related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 15, Agora International Human Right Group published a report showing that over the course of 450 days, authorities initiated approximately 200 cases against the dissemination of “unreliable socially significant information.” A total of 33 of the cases were filed between April 3 and June 9 and involved criminal complaints that mainly targeted activists, journalists, bloggers, and legislators.
In early May prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the activities of Grigoriy Vinter, the head of the Vologda chapter of the NGO For Human Rights, after posts criticizing authorities for transporting prisoners who showed COVID-19 symptoms were published on a social media page that he administered. Vinter had previously faced similar politically motivated investigations for his human rights advocacy.
By law authorities may close any organization 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 outlets it 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 distribution of “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, Russian media reported that on July 10, LGBTI artist and activist Yuliya Tsvetkova was fined by a local court in the Russian Far East for social media posts and drawings depicting same-sex couples with their children, rainbow-colored cats, and matryoshka dolls holding hands. Tsvetkova was also under investigation for spreading pornography among minors for her body-positive projects in 2019. On September 22, her case was returned to the Investigative Committee for Khabarovsk Kray for further investigation in what experts believe was an attempt to prolong the trial.
Authorities investigated individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” For example, at the end of January, popular stand-up comic Aleksandr Dolgopolov left the country after police opened an investigation into one of his performances from 2019. Media reported that an audience member complained that Dolgopolov had insulted his religious feelings, possibly with a joke about Jesus and his mother Mary. In March, Dolgopolov announced that he had returned to Russia; the status of the investigation was unclear.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated the law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” On August 8, media reported that the Investigative Committee opened a case against Voronezh resident Aleksandr Khoroshiltsev for posting a photo of Adolf Hitler on the website of the Immortal Regiment, the name given to the yearly procession of individuals with portraits of relatives who fought in World War II. Authorities told journalists that posts such as Khoroshiltsev’s were aimed at rehabilitating the Nazi regime.
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. On May 15, a district court in Kemerovo sentenced Vladislav Koretskiy, an 18-year-old student, to 10 days incarceration for publishing social media posts in 2016 and 2017 containing images of swastikas.
The law prohibits showing “disrespect” online for the state, authorities, the public, flag, or constitution. For example, on March 3, a district court in Tomsk fined activist Sergey Chaykovskiy, the executive director of the National Bureau for the Development of Democracy, for an Instagram post that showed a speech by Nancy Pelosi accusing Putin of interfering in the conflict in Ukraine. Chaykovskiy captioned the post “Vladimir Putin will answer for his crimes in Ukraine” and was found guilty of disrespecting authorities online.
During the year authorities enforced a law prohibiting the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute or threaten to block independent outlets. For example, in January the Supreme Court upheld lower court orders to block the distribution of an article by independent journalists chronicling the story of a heroin user. Free speech advocates expressed concern that the law allowed the government to ban any nonfiction article on drug use it deemed inappropriate.
During the year authorities used a law banning cooperation with “undesirable foreign organizations” to restrict free expression. For example, in March authorities opened an administrative case against the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for publishing a text from the Open Russia movement on its website. Prosecutors accused the foundation, which aids drug addicts and advocates for changes to laws on narcotics, of cooperating with an “undesirable foreign organization.”
Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a societal climate intolerant of dissent.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government continued to restrict press and media freedom. More than 80 percent of country’s mass media was funded by the government or progovernment actors. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets, which are permitted to determine what they publish within formal or informal boundaries set by the government. In the regions each governor also controlled regional media through direct or indirect funding or through affiliated structures. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all 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, and a preferential tax rate. On a regional level, state-owned and progovernment television channels received subsidies from the Ministry of Finance for broadcasting in cities with a population of less than 100,000 and on the creation and production of content. At many government-owned or -controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law apparently 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 retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”
By law the Ministry of Justice is required to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of August there were 11 outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents may be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.
The law allows authorities to label individuals (both Russian and foreign citizens) as “foreign agents” if they disseminate foreign media to an unspecified number of persons and receive funding from abroad. Human rights defenders expressed concern that this legislation would be used to further restrict the activities of or selectively punish journalists, bloggers, and social media users. Individuals labeled a “foreign agent” are required to register with the Ministry of Justice, and those living abroad also must create and register a legal entity inside the country in order to publish materials inside the country. All information published by the “foreign agent” individual must be marked as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Fines for noncompliance with the law range from 10,000 to five million rubles ($133 to $66,500).
A parliamentary commission investigated alleged foreign interference into Russian domestic affairs. After the September 13 regional elections, the commission reported that “foreign agent” NGOs tried to discredit the election and undermine the confidence of Russians in the democratic procedures. According to the commission, the interference tactics were diverse and included disinformation on social networks and round-the-clock hacker attacks on the servers of the Russian Central Election Commission.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, as of December incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included one killing, 42 attacks, 97 detentions by law enforcement officers, 46 prosecutions, 27 threats, and six politically motivated firings. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by government officials and police. For example, according to press reports, on June 30, a police officer severely injured David Frenkel, a journalist with the independent MediaZona outlet, as he was reporting on the nationwide vote on constitutional amendments in St. Petersburg. Frenkel was at a polling station investigating alleged violations of voting procedure. The head of the local voting commission requested that police remove Frenkel from the premises for purportedly interrupting the polling station’s work. A video widely circulated on social media showed the police officer tackling Frenkel, breaking his collarbone in the process. Frenkel was charged with three administrative offenses for allegedly interfering with the election commission’s work, ignoring police orders, and violating COVID-19 restrictions. Frenkel was eventually fined a nominal sum for the violations. His fines were upheld on appeal. Frenkel filed a lawsuit against the police officer involved; a preliminary investigation of the officer’s actions was reportedly launched but found no grounds for the opening of a case.
There were reports of police briefly detaining journalists to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, on May 5, OVD-Info reported that police detained journalist Sergey Poznyakov as he was traveling to the editorial office of the newspaper Communists of Russia, where he worked as a correspondent. Police claimed they detained him because he did not show his documents, although Poznyakov asserted that he did. Police allegedly blocked the entrance to the newspaper’s office for five days, possibly in retaliation for its staff releasing red balloons, a symbolic gesture to communism, during a May Day celebration.
There were reports of police framing journalists for serious crimes to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, Ivan Safronov, a former national security journalist for major national daily newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, was arrested by the FSB and charged with treason in July. Safronov was working as an aide to the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, at the time of his arrest. The charges alleged Safronov was recruited by Czech intelligence agents in 2012 to pass sensitive Russian military information to another foreign government. Observers speculated the charges might be related to a 2017 Kommersant article coauthored by Safronov, detailing the potential sale of Russian military aircraft to Egypt. Safronov also provoked a strong reaction from the government for a 2019 article in Kommersant speculating on a shakeup of the leadership in the Federation Council. Safronov was subsequently fired from Kommersant, according to some accounts, due to government pressure on the publisher. Safronov’s supporters noted the treason charges complicated his defense in that independent examination of the evidence would likely be impossible. If convicted, Safronov faces up to 20 years in prison. As of December Safronov remained in custody.
There were reports of police raids on the offices of independent media outlets that observers believed were designed to punish or pressure the outlets. For example, in July police raided the offices and private homes of the opposition organization MBK Media and its associated human rights foundation, Open Russia. These raids were ostensibly connected to the continuing investigation of the Russian groups’ founder, Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, for alleged tax violations in 2003. Independent journalists believed the raids were actually tied to planned protests against recent constitutional amendments. MBK Media representatives pointed out that many of the staff members were only children in 2003, emphasizing their view that the raids were intended to interfere with their work.
In another example, in January Leonid Krivenkov, a retired cameraman for a major Russian state television broadcaster, was severely beaten by two unknown assailants. The attack came several weeks after Krivenkov gave multiple interviews detailing political censorship and corruption at the broadcaster. Krivenkov alleged the two men disparaged him for not respecting his homeland as they beat him. He was treated for a broken nose and severe bruising.
On October 15, journalist Sergey Plotnikov was abducted and beaten by unidentified persons in Khabarovsk, where he had been reporting on continuing protests in the city. He was reportedly handcuffed, driven into the forest outside the city, and threatened by shooting live rounds of ammunition into the ground near his feet. Plotnikov sustained a wound on his temple and was released the following morning.
Journalists reported threats in connection with their reporting. On April 13, Chechnya head Kadyrov posted a video statement on social media condemning Novaya Gazeta over an article alleging that local authorities’ response to COVID-19 was abusive. Kadyrov made death threats against the newspaper, stating that Russian authorities needed to stop Novaya Gazeta journalists before Chechen authorities would be forced to “commit a crime.” The article’s author, Yelena Milashina, had previously suffered an attack in Chechnya in February after she was ambushed and beaten by unknown assailants at her hotel. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov dismissed Kadyrov’s statement by saying that there was nothing out of the ordinary in Kadyrov’s reaction to Milashina’s reporting. On September 29, a Moscow court fined Novaya Gazeta for disseminating “fake” information in the article.
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored media, much of which occurred online (also see section 2.a., Internet Freedom and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
There were reports that the government retaliated against those who produced or published content it disliked. For example, the founder and editor of the independent news site Koza.Press, Irina Murakhtayeva (known professionally as Irina Slavina), was subjected to various forms of harassment and substantial fines by law enforcement in recent years. On October 1, law enforcement officers forcibly entered her Nizhny Novgorod apartment, ostensibly with a search warrant related to the civil society organization Open Russia. On October 2, Murakhtayeva committed suicide by self-immolation outside a regional Ministry of Internal Affairs building, writing on Facebook, “For my death, please blame the Russian Federation.”
There were reports that the government placed restrictions on printing presses to prevent them from printing materials for the political opposition. For example, on June 23, the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ center for combating extremism searched a printing house in St. Petersburg. Authorities detained three activists who ordered leaflets that opposed proposed constitutional amendments and criticized President Putin. The activists were charged under an article on production or distribution of campaign materials in violation of the law during elections and referenda.
Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of and to retaliate against journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel, which are criminal offenses. For example, on June 15, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal libel case against anticorruption crusader, opposition activist, and prominent blogger Aleksey Navalny after he used social media to criticize a WWII veteran’s participation in a propaganda video supporting President Putin’s constitutional amendments package. Navalny faced penalties ranging from a substantial monetary fine to 240 hours of community service if convicted.
National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. For example, on September 9, Russian military historian Andrey Zhukov was convicted of high treason and sentenced to 12.5 years in prison. Zhukov was arrested in 2018 on allegations linked to “the history of the Russian Armed Forces and his vigorous activity online.” According to Zhukov’s colleagues, his interests included the formation, reassignment, and deployment of the country’s military units from World War I to the present. Before his arrest, Zhukov was also researching participants in World War II, their relatives, and their military awards.
There were reports that authorities charged journalists with terrorism offenses in retaliation for their reporting. For example, in June 2019 security services in Dagestan arrested Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev, a journalist and head of the religious affairs section of the independent newspaper Chernovik. Chernovik had long reported threats, politically motivated prosecutions, and other pressure for its work uncovering corruption and wrongdoing by local officials. In 2012 the newspaper’s editor in chief fled the country after receiving death threats, and its founder was shot 14 times outside the newspaper’s office in 2011, a crime that remained unsolved. Authorities charged Gadzhiyev and 10 codefendants with “taking part in the activities of a terrorist organization” and “organizing the financing of a terrorist organization” for purportedly diverting charitable donations to support the Islamic State in Syria. Conviction on the charges may result in up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Human rights defenders emphasized the charges were entirely based on a confession by a suspect who subsequently maintained that it was false and coerced, that Gadzhiyev had written critically of the Islamic State, and that there were other contradictions in the state’s case. They maintained that the case against him was fabricated. Gadzhiyev has remained in detention awaiting trial after a court repeatedly extended his pretrial detention. In April additional charges were filed against Gadzhiyev in Dagestan accusing him of participating in an extremist organization. The charges carry up to an additional 10 years in prison if Gadzhiyev is convicted. Memorial declared him to be a political prisoner.
There were reports that critics of the government’s counterterrorism policies were themselves charged with “justifying terrorism.” For example, on July 6, Pskov-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva was convicted of “justifying terrorism” and fined in relation to a 2018 radio piece that delved into the motivations of a teenage suicide bomber who had attacked a regional FSB office. In the piece Prokopyeva discussed whether the country’s repressive political environment might have influenced the attack. Prosecutors sought a six-year prison sentence for Prokopyeva, who was ultimately required only to pay a fine and was able to avoid incarceration. As she had been charged under antiterrorism laws, however, Prokopyeva was placed on a government list of “terrorists and extremists,” barring her from foreign travel as a result.
The government monitored all internet communications (see also section 1.f.).
The law requires internet providers to install equipment to route web traffic through servers in the country. The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enables police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity. Internet advocates asserted the measure allows for surveillance by intelligence agencies and enables state authorities to control information and block content. The law also envisions the creation of an independent domain name system (DNS) for the country, separate from the global DNS. In July the Account Chamber announced that the proposed plan to create an independent DNS did not meet its deadline, citing COVID-19 related delays.
The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Companies that ignore this requirement risk being fined, blocked, or both. The law provides that companies refusing to localize Russian users’ data may be subject to penalties ranging from 5,000 rubles ($66) to six million rubles ($78,700), with fines of up to 18 million rubles ($236,000) for repeat offenses. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked access to the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law; the service remained unavailable in the country without a virtual private network (VPN) service. In February a Moscow district court fined Twitter and Facebook 4.7 million rubles ($62,800) each for refusing to store the data of Russian users on servers located inside Russia. The two companies were also reportedly at risk of further fines for noncompliance with this requirement.
Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. Companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months, and electronic correspondence (audio, images, and video) for three months.
Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. Companies are fined up to six million rubles ($79,300) if they refuse to provide the FSB with decryption keys that would allow them to read users’ correspondence. The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required 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 and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of September a total of five million websites were unjustly blocked in the country. On August 10, a Moscow court fined Google for repeatedly failing to filter contents prohibited in Russia.
The law requires 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 may demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal.
A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search-engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom on the Net report, the law was “routinely applied to require search engines to delete links to websites that contain personal information about an individual if it is no longer considered relevant.”
There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press).
The government prohibited online anonymity. The law requires commercial VPN services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. By law Roskomnadzor may also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In March, Roskomnadzor announced the launch of an automated system for checking proxies, VPNs, and search engines for compliance with the requirements for blocking access to prohibited sites.
The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts may be blocked. In June 2019 authorities demanded that dating app Tinder provide messages and photos exchanged by users of the service.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. In March the Digital Revolution hackers group announced that the FSB had purchased the Fronton program, which allows for cyberattacks to crash servers and hack smart devices. On May 5, a political activist in St. Petersburg, Denis Mikhailov, reported a spam attack on the anniversary of an anti-Putin protest. Mikhailov noted that he received several hundred telephone calls from unknown numbers on that day.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, citizens could not fully do so because the government limited the ability of opposition parties to organize, register candidates for public office, access media outlets, and conduct political campaigns.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: On July 1, the government conducted a national vote on a package of constitutional amendments. This vote was not legally a referendum and was considered by most experts to be extraconstitutional. As such it was not bound by Russia’s normal election laws, and domestic observers were not provided a role in monitoring the poll’s conduct. Authorities mobilized administrative resources to drive up voter participation, which in effect functioned as a de facto campaign in favor of the government’s proposed amendments, while those seeking to campaign publicly against the amendments were denied the opportunity. Because the vote was not legally a referendum, no international observers were present to monitor the process.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the 2018 presidential election “took place in an overly controlled environment, marked by continued pressure on critical voices” and that “restrictions on the fundamental freedoms, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition.” The OSCE also noted that “television, and in particular broadcasters that are state funded, owned, or supported, remains the dominant source of political information. A restrictive legislative and regulatory framework challenges freedom of media and induces self-censorship. Voters were thus not presented with a critical assessment of the incumbent’s views and qualifications in most media.” Observers widely noted that the most serious potential challenger, Aleksey Navalny, was prevented from registering his candidacy due to a previous politically motivated criminal conviction.
In a statement on the 2016 State Duma elections, the OSCE’s election observation mission noted, “Democratic commitments continue to be challenged and the electoral environment was negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society…Local authorities did not always treat the candidates equally, and instances of misuse of administrative resources were noted.”
The September 13 elections of 18 governors and 11 regional legislative bodies were marked by similar allegations of government interference and manipulation. Independent election monitors logged thousands of reported abuses during these elections at the regional and local levels. For example, in a case that was emblematic of many others, the election commission of the Arkhangelsk region announced on August 4 that environmental activist Oleg Mandrykin, nominated by the opposition Yabloko Party to run in the gubernatorial election, had failed to pass the municipal filter. The election commission claimed he had not collected the required number of signatures from the municipal districts and thus was disqualified from running for the post of governor. Mandrykin reported that his supporters had faced “unprecedented pressure” from regional authorities.
Authorities sought to restrict the work of independent election monitors and promoted government-sponsored monitoring instead. Observers were prohibited from being accredited to more than one polling station, limiting the ability of civil society to monitor elections. Critics contended that the law made it difficult for domestic election monitors to conduct surprise inspections due to provisions requiring observers to register with authorities, including the polling station they intended to monitor, three days before elections. Burdensome registration regulations also hampered the work of journalists wishing to monitor elections as well as independent or nonpartisan groups.
The election-monitoring NGO Golos announced that the September 13 election took place under the worst electoral regulations in 25 years, with greater limits on the electoral rights of citizens and increased attacks on the rights of election observers. For example, on September 9, in the Ivanovo and Novgorod regions, security officials searched the apartments of public observation organizers, including Ruslan Zinatullin, the head of the Tatarstan branch of the Yabloko Party. Authorities continued to hamper the efforts of Golos to take part in the election process, since its work was made more difficult by a law prohibiting NGOs listed as “foreign agents,” as well as by continuing harassment and intimidation by authorities.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The process for nominating candidates for office was highly regulated and placed significant burdens on opposition parties and their candidates. While parties represented in the State Duma may nominate a presidential candidate without having to collect and submit signatures, prospective self-nominated presidential candidates must collect 300,000 signatures, no more than 7,500 from each region, and submit the signatures to the Central Election Commission for certification. Presidential candidates nominated by parties without State Duma representation must collect 100,000 signatures. An independent presidential candidate is ineligible to run if the commission finds more than 5 percent of signatures invalid.
Candidates to the State Duma may be nominated directly by constituents, political parties in single-mandate districts, or political parties on their federal list, or they may be self-nominated. Political parties select candidates for the federal lists from their ranks during party conventions via closed voting procedures. Party conventions also select single mandate candidates. Only political parties that overcame the 5 percent threshold during the previous elections may form federal and single-mandate candidate lists without collecting signatures, while parties that did not must collect 200,000 signatures to register a candidate for the Duma. Self-nominated candidates generally must gather the signatures of 3 percent of the voters in their districts.
Gubernatorial candidates nominated by registered political parties are not required to collect signatures from members of the public, although self-nominated candidates are. The law also requires gubernatorial candidates not nominated by a registered party to meet a “municipal filter” requirement. Such candidates must obtain signatures of support from a defined portion of municipal deputies, the portion of which varies by region, as well as collect signatures from at least one deputy in each of a specified portion of municipal council districts.
Observers and would-be candidates reported the municipal filter was not applied equally and that authorities pressured municipal deputies not to provide signatures to candidates who were not preapproved by authorities. They asserted that no independent candidate with the potential to defeat authorities’ favored candidates was permitted to pass through the municipal filter, while progovernment candidates were passed through the filter without fulfilling technical requirements.
In some cases opposition parties were repeatedly denied registration or faced court-mandated suspensions of their activities. On January 14, the Supreme Court ruled to suspend for three months the work of opposition leader Dmitriy Gudkov’s political party, Party of Change (officially known as Civic Initiative). The Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit against the party after refusing to register its charter because the party purportedly failed to provide the minutes from its meeting.
Authorities continued to engage in a pattern of harassment, including threats of violence, against Navalny and his supporters. On July 23, Dmitry Nizovtsev, the host of the YouTube channel for Navalny’s headquarters in Khabarovsk, was assaulted after he broadcast from a march organized to support ousted Khabarovsk Kray governor Sergey Furgal. He claimed that his attackers were linked to authorities and beat him because of his reporting and association with Navalny.
Systemic opposition parties (i.e., quasi-independent parties permitted by the government to appear on the ballot) also faced pressure. For example, media outlets reported on August 31 that representatives of the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party were attacked in Novosibirsk in the run-up to the September 13 regional election, including the headquarters of Roman Yakovlev, a candidate from the Communist Party. On July 26, the Communist Party also reported that its candidates had problems with passing the municipal filter in at least three regions.
State entities or entities closely aligned with the state also influenced their employees to vote a certain way. In Omsk workers from Russian Railways told journalists they were encouraged to photograph themselves with their completed ballots for the July 1 national vote on constitutional amendments. In Yekaterinburg the clergy of some Russian Orthodox Churches encouraged their parishioners to vote in favor of the constitutional amendments.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women held less than 20 percent of elected seats in the national legislature. As of January women held approximately 5 percent of ministerial positions. While members of national minorities took an active part in political life, ethnic Russians, who constituted approximately 80 percent of the population, dominated the political and administrative system, particularly at the federal level.