Russian Courts: An Instrument for Crushing Dissent, Not for Rule of Law
Freedom House condemns the harsh sentence imposed today on political activist Konstantin Lebedev by a Russian court for allegedly organizing civil unrest during the May 6, 2012 protests in Moscow. Lebedev, a defendant in the Bolotnaya Square case, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in a penal colony. He was arrested in October 2012 after a pro-government documentary alleged that he was paid by a Georgian parliamentarian to recruit, train, and coordinate activists for the May 6 events.
Seventeen individuals remain on trial in the Bolotnaya Square case, according to RosUznik.org. The first verdict in November 2012, sentenced Maksim Luzyanin to four-and-a-half years in a penal colony for allegedly hitting a police officer and damaging his tooth enamel.
“Lebedev’s plight demonstrates the Putin regime’s utter disdain for rule of law and its manipulation of the court system,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House. “More broadly, the Bolotnaya Square case is a highly troubling example of how Russia’s government sees courts as political instruments of the Kremlin which can be wielded against critics or other perceived enemies.”
Lebedev’s speedy trial went largely unnoticed as two other cases drew substantial attention this week. The GOLOS Association, Russia’s largest elections watchdog, and its executive director Lilia Shibanova, were fined today for failing to register as a “foreign agent,” in accordance with Russia’s most dubious recent law aimed to restrict civil society activity. The charges followed a massive raid of GOLOS’s offices around the country by Russia’s Investigative Committee officers, who demanded financial paperwork and governance documents. The court found GOLOS guilty of violating the law by not registering as an agent of a foreign government after they were awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, despite the fact that GOLOS rejected the monetary portion of the award. According to the law, a nonprofit organization has to register as a foreign agent if it receives financial support from abroad and engages in political activities, which in GOLOS’s case was working on a new draft electoral code over the last several years.
In addition, this week the trial continues against Russia’s most famous blogger and civic activist, Alexey Navalny, who has been charged with embezzling 16 million rubles ($515,000) from a state-owned timber company in Kirov. In April 2012, the investigation was closed for lack of evidence, only to be reopened a month later by the Russian Investigative Committee in Moscow. In his court statement, Navalny underscored the political nature of the case, which he sees as a revenge for his vocal criticism of the government and exposure of government corruption. This is only one of the five criminal cases opened recently against Navalny, who has indicated presidential ambitions after openly ridiculing the ruling United Russia party.
“Not only are the Bolotnaya, Navalny, and GOLOS cases a gross travesty of justice, they are an indicator of the blatant effort by Putin’s government to crush civil society in Russia,” continued Kramer. “The West must emphasize the deterioration in Russia’s human rights situation by pushing back against the crackdown and focusing attention on the regime’s corrupt, authoritarian nature. The Obama administration must stop looking the other way amid the worst crackdown against civil society and opposition forces since the break-up of the USSR.”
Russia is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2013, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2012 and Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2012.