Defending human rights in Russia has become ever more dangerous in recent years. Human rights defenders have long faced harassment, intimidation, physical attacks and arbitrary arrests because of their work. However, the level, extent and complexity of the obstacles they face have increased significantly, to the point that human rights work now entails greater risks for defenders, including attacks on their personal reputation, physical integrity and freedom.
Always a dangerous occupation, the situation of human rights defenders in Russia has deteriorated significantly since 2012, the year Vladimir Putin began his third presidential term. The Russian authorities responded to a wave of public protests against alleged electoral irregularities in 2011-2012 by passing a series of laws that impose severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
They have also sought to discredit individuals and NGOs involved in human rights work. Several mainstream media providers in Russia have mounted a smear campaign against human rights defenders, portraying them as people working for foreign paymasters to undermine the country’s security and “traditional values”.
Criminal proceedings have been launched against several prominent human rights defenders, some of whom have been convicted and imprisoned. At the same time, human rights defenders have been the targets of routine physical attacks and death threats, including from senior officials, particularly in the North Caucasus. Neither the attacks nor the threats have been effectively investigated. This raises concerns regarding the lack of political will, including at the highest levels of power, to address this issue. Not only do the perpetrators of these offences evade justice, but possible official complicity in these crimes is not addressed. Whether perpetrated directly by officials or tolerated through inaction and impunity, they constitute human rights violations for which the Russian authorities bear responsibility.
This document, which draws on interviews with human rights defenders, trial observations and desk research, provides a brief overview of the current situation of human rights defenders in Russia and includes illustrative cases that show the very real obstacles and dangers they face.
The current treatment of human rights defenders in Russia represents a clear violation of a range of human rights which Russia has committed itself to respect, protect and fulfil. This document sets out what the Russian authorities must acknowledge, and what they must do to ensure that they put an end to these violations and fulfil their human rights obligations.