Repression and Arrests Soar in Russia: UN Report

UN Report Sounds Alarm on Russia’s Worsening Human Rights – Disturbing findings revealed by the UN Special Rapporteur.

On September 21, 2022, in Moscow, police detain a man during protests against President Vladimir Putin's partial mobilization announcement. Alexander NEMENOV / AFP captured the moment.
On September 21, 2022, in Moscow, police detain a man during protests against President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization announcement. Alexander NEMENOV / AFP captured the moment.

Geneva, September 23, 2023 – In a landmark development, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) appointed Mariana Katzarova, a prominent Bulgarian human rights expert, as the special rapporteur to conduct an in-depth investigation into the human rights conditions in the Russian Federation. The results of her comprehensive report were unveiled during the 54th session of the HRC in Geneva on Thursday.

This historic initiative marks the first time the UN has undertaken such an investigation within one of its permanent Security Council member states.

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Russia’s response to this critical inquiry was notable for its reluctance. The Russian authorities denied Katzarova entry into the country and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of her mandate. Although they attended the HRC session, they chose not to engage with her report or participate in the ensuing debate.

Katzarova’s report drew upon nearly 200 sources, both domestic and international, which collectively painted a distressing picture of the human rights challenges confronting Russian society today. Of particular concern was the erosion of judicial independence and the right to a fair trial.

The report highlighted a disturbing pattern of mass arbitrary arrests, detentions, and harassment targeting a wide range of individuals, including human rights defenders, peaceful anti-war activists, journalists, opposition leaders, cultural and religious figures, minorities, and those who dared to criticize the government’s actions or speak out against Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

Katzarova emphasized that the roots of this repression extended beyond the conflict in Ukraine, citing a decades-long progression of incremental restrictions on human rights that had culminated in the current state policy of criminalizing any form of dissent, whether real or perceived.

One of the most alarming revelations in the report was the detention of over 20,000 individuals between February 2022 and June of the same year during largely peaceful anti-war protests. Many of these detainees reported enduring persistent torture and ill-treatment while in custody, including instances of sexual violence and rape, perpetrated by law enforcement officials who specifically targeted anti-war protesters.

Katzarova further noted that Russian authorities had escalated the use of propaganda and rhetoric to incite hatred and violence against Ukrainians, resulting in the filing of more than 600 criminal lawsuits against those engaged in so-called “anti-war activity.” Even children in schools faced repercussions for producing articles and drawings considered remotely “anti-war.”

The special rapporteur concluded that Russia was responsible for the effective closure of civic space, silencing public dissent, suppressing independent media, and stifling any dissenting voices, actions she described as “unprecedented in recent history.” She pointed to the introduction of laws targeting foreign agents and “undesirable organizations” as instrumental in suppressing independent voices, citing the closure of Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s last remaining independent media outlets.

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These laws were often enforced through a systematic crackdown on civil society organizations, leading to the persecution of members of independent groups, many of whom were forced into exile or imprisoned.

During the ensuing debate, the UN expert called on Russia to undertake comprehensive human rights reforms to address the damage inflicted over the past two decades. This call was echoed by numerous member states present.

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