As protests rage across Russia in response to a Kremlin-backed law to erect a digital Iron Curtain, authorities are preparing a “cyber-defence test” to shut down the Russian Internet – a step that may result in isolating the country from the rest of the online world.
At risk: Russia’s fundamental freedom of speech. As one human rights activist told international journalists, “The [Russian] government is battling freedom…, I can tell you this as somebody who spent a month in jail for a tweet.”
For those of us born in Russia who seek a regime that respects human rights, the Putin regime’s aggression abroad has its parallel in repression at home. Last month, Russian civil society activist Anastasia Shevchenko faced a parent’s worst nightmare: her special-needs teenage daughter had been hospitalized and was near death. But Shevchenko – under house arrest for the absurd charge of collaborating with an “undesirable” foreign organization – was prevented by the local Russian court from visiting her dying daughter until just hours before the girl passed away.
What were the charges against Shevchenko? Organizing debates, coordinating educational lectures for voters, and participating in pro-democracy meetings. Though these activities are internationally guaranteed rights — and protected by the Russian Constitution itself — Shevchenko could face six years in a Russian jail.
This type of senselessly cruel treatment from Russian authorities against human rights defenders and activists in Russia is increasingly common. Just two months ago, 77-year-old Lev Ponomarev, a veteran rights defender, served 16 days in prison for the crime of sharing a Facebook blog. Despite strong international condemnation over his arbitrary detention, the judge who convicted him showed no leniency, refusing to let him attend the funeral of his friend and activist Ludmila Alexeyeva.
In fact, human rights are under assault in Russia in nearly every way, as President Putin and his allies have used their power to pass repressive laws that ensnare citizens of Russia and other areas it occupies. One of the Kremlin’s preferred methods of repression is to detain political opponents and activists on spurious criminal charges. We are jailed for exercising our fundamental rights, for peaceful protest, for texting our friends, and for holding dissenting political opinions. This is part of a larger campaign by the authorities to crush civil society and stifle dissent in my home country.
Six years ago last December, I fell victim to this brutal campaign. I was given 48 hours to leave Russia, or spend twenty years in jail for state treason for my work for an American democracy-promotion organization. Now my son cannot see his father and friends and I do not know when I will be able to watch the sunset again over Lake Baikal, near my birthplace. But I continue to fight tirelessly for this day to come – and for the day when Russia will no longer have political prisoners.
While my organization, Free Russia Foundation, and other rights groups in Russia and abroad have worked on behalf of these victims to bring rights violations to the public’s attention and help them through legal action, there are limits to what our advocacy can achieve. We ourselves often become targets – imprisoned, exiled, or even murdered.
Discrete actions by the broader international community alone will not be enough to make a fundamental change in Russia. There is a need for a common and coordinated advocacy strategy among civil society organizations around the world in order to make the Kremlin heed our calls to release political prisoners.
A dozen rights groups across Russia, Europe, and North America have now joined together as a Coalition to say “enough.” From Moscow, Kyiv and Tallinn to Berlin, Ottawa, and Washington, D.C., the newly-launched “Coalition to Free the Kremlin’s Political Prisoners” will organize collectively to call out abuses of authority and push for the release of the Kremlin’s political prisoners. At a time in which attacks on civil society are at an all-time high, our goal is to join together across borders to stand up for the future of Russia’s people.
The Coalition is hitting the ground running. According to the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, Russian authorities currently hold 233 political prisoners, with targeted groups including rights defenders, such as Shevchenko and Oyub Titiev, who headed the Memorial branch in Chechnya when he was arrested last year; Ukrainian hostages held by the Kremlin, including Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film-maker imprisoned because he opposed Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea; and Alexey Pichugin, who – after being framed for several murders and attempted murders and having served more than 15 years in prison on a life sentence – has become Russia’s longest-serving political prisoner.
As Russia seeks increasingly to cut itself off from the world, one of the Coalition’s primary tasks will be to shed light on the stories of these and other prisoners with targeted media campaigns. For the sake of all political prisoners held by the Kremlin, we will stand as one – and we urge other civil society organizations to join our efforts and governments worldwide to support our cause.