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The Status of Human Rights in Russia

This post has been originally published on 25.11.2018.

Ever since the Russian lawyer and politician Aleksey Navalnyy (Алексей Навальный) has called the ruling party of Russia “United Russia” (Единая Россия) the “Party of Crooks and Thieves” (Партия жуликов и воров) on national radio in early 2011 he is widely regarded as one of the main opponents of Russia’s current president Vladimir Putin (Владимир Путин). Navalnyy considers himself as a “nationalist democrat” and is the party leader of the opposition movement “Russia of the future” (Россия Будущего) the former “Party of Progress” (Партия Прогрeсса) which was founded as “Peoples Alliance” (Народный Альянс) in 2012.

Navalnyy has been portrayed in Russian and international media as a harsh critic of corruption in general and president Putin’s political agenda in particular. He is very present online where he hosts a blog as well as a Twitter and YouTube account with over 2 million followers. Recently he ran for office during the 2013 mayoral elections in Moscow in which he lost to the incumbent Sergey Sobyanin (Сергей Собянин) of “United Russia”. Although Navalnyy attempted to run for President of Russia in the elections on 18 March 2018, he was barred from partaking by Russia’s Central Electoral Commission in late 2017. The commission disqualified his candidacy because he was convicted for minor crimes in several cases and sentenced to multiple short-term imprisonments. The main conviction of corruption/embezzlement in the so called “Kirovles case” had been previously annulled by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) but the Russian courts, including the supreme court, upheld their judgment anyways. Navalnyy’s exclusion from the 2018 presidential elections caused international criticism, most prominently by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) which looked at the proceedings against him as politically motivated.

The presidential elections are over now, and Putin was confirmed as president, but the conduct and treatment of opposition politicians raise serious questions about the status of human rights in Russia. Especially regarding the freedom of expression, assembly and association as well as the right to liberty and security, and the right to a fair Trial.

This question was recently evaluated by the ECtHR which pronounced a grand chamber judgment in the case of “Navalnyy v Russia” on 15 November 2018. Mr. Navalnyy lodged five applications complaining about seven arrests by Russian police forces between 2012 and 2014. All incidents appeared to be some kind of similar: Mr. Navalnyy attended a political event/gathering after which he was seized by the police claiming that he violated administrative procedures concerning the lawful conduct of public events or disobeying police orders. Most of the times, he was arrested for a few hours, had to appear before court, and was sentenced to pay a fine. Two times he was kept in pre-trial Detention.

Mr. Navalnyy felt oppressed by the Russian police and argued that the government interfered with his political activity in an arbitrary and unjustified manner. Therefore, he filed a complaint before the ECtHR claiming that his rights under the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) were violated by the Russian Federation.

After an initial chamber judgment in February 2017 the case was referred to the grand chamber under art. 43 ECHR. The Court found that Russia violated art. 5 (right to liberty) and 6 ECHR (right to fair trial) because there was no good reason to arrest Navalnyy for several hours for minor administrative offences. In relation to art. 11 ECHR (freedom of assembly) the Court argued that Russia violated this fundamental right when arresting someone without a “legitimate aim” (e.g. prevention of a crime) which has to be “necessary in a democratic society” at the same time. Furthermore, the Court holds the opinion that the arrests of Mr. Navalnyy were somehow politically motivated which constitutes a violation of art. 18 in conjunction with art. 5 and 11 ECHR.

The Court, acting under art. 46 (binding force and execution of judgments), reiterated its claim from “Lashmankin and Others v Russia” and “Kasparov and Others v Russia” that Russian legislation on demonstrations, protests, and gatherings is insufficient in providing for the freedom of assembly enshrined in the ECHR. Interfering with and dissolving a demonstration simply because of a lack of proper authorization is against the very notion of ‘freedom of assembly’ in a democratic society. Mr. Navalnyy’s case clearly shows a “structural inadequacy” of the regulatory framework. Thus, Russia shall provide for a better legal regulation of unauthorized peaceful gatherings. It remains unclear if Russia is planning to implement the judgment.

While this case is clearly not enough evidence to establish a structural crisis of human rights, “Navalnyy v Russia” at least raises doubts concerning the role of human rights in the political discourse of this country. Keeping in mind that the majority of cases pending before the ECtHR is against Russia (10.950 as of 10/31/2018) the status of human rights demands to be observed. Therefore, we encourage all researchers interested in human rights, Russia, or the ECtHR to further investigate this issue.


Jan-Phillip Graf, Geneva


Credit: Navalny arreste durgint the 2017 Russian protests on March 26 2017, captured by Evgeny Feldman, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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