Beyond Pussy Riot: slow death of freedom in Putin's Russia

The jailing of Pussy Riot members is only the latest attack on civil liberties in Russia

BY Louisa Loveluck LAST UPDATED AT 14:06 ON Wed 29 Aug 2012

THE RUSSIAN government's distaste for freedom of expression has been in the headlines recently thanks to the trial and subsequent imprisonment of three members of punk collective Pussy Riot. But the persecution of these women forms only a small part of a much broader crackdown on civil liberties in President Vladimir Putin's Russia:

TARGETING ACTIVISTS

Yesterday, opposition activist Taisiya Osipova was jailed for eight years on drugs charges, despite claims that police planted the substance after she refused to testify against her husband in court. Chess-grandmaster-turned-Kremlin-critic Garry Kasparov was also arrested earlier this month, charged with participation in an ‘unsanctioned protest’ against Pussy Riot’s conviction. According to Chatham House’s Katia Glod, the decision to target these activists has proved counterproductive: “The authorities shot themselves in the foot by taking a stance on what would have otherwise gone relatively unnoticed.”

CRIMINALISATION OF LIBEL

The reintroduction of criminal libel to Russian law has been a blow against free expression, according to Human Rights Watch. The new law includes a special article “on libel against judges, jurors, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials,” punishable by a fine of up to 2 million roubles. Critics see the new law as an attempt to silence critics of Russia’s judicial system. Initiatives such as the blacklist of ‘Russian Untouchables’, which details judges and investigators with alleged links to the death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, have immediately fallen foul of the new law.

WEBSITE BLACKLIST

A new law allows authorities to demand that Russian internet service providers (ISPs) block websites - without the need for judicial oversight. The law has been justified on the basis that it will limit access to child pornography, but critics suspect that this is another way of limiting freedom of expression by the back door. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, “the new bill creates more questions and opens more loopholes than it addresses. Politicians like [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev have pointed to [Russia’s] uncensored internet as proof their country respects a free press. That Russia will so quickly abandon that standard shows how fragile its respect can be.”

CRACKDOWN ON NGOS

In July, a new law came into force requiring foreign NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’. Critics claim the legislation poses a serious threat to organisations such as Amnesty International, Transparency International and independent election monitor Golos. Human Rights Watch has described the laws as a clear attempt to “marginalise and discredit foreign-funded groups that advocate for change in Russia”. The new regulations will not apply to religious organisations, something which comes as no surprise to critics such as Pussy Riot, who say Putin’s government is establishing increasingly close links to the Russian Orthodox Church. Writing for The Guardian, Ilana Ozernoy describes the church as an “enthusiastic accomplice” in much of this new wave of repression.

FINES FOR STREET PROTESTS

Russian law was recently changed to dramatically raise the fine for taking part in an unauthorised protest to 300,000 rubles (£6,000). A source in Putin's office reportedly explained that the rapid progress of the law reflected the Kremlin's desire to have the restrictive amendments in place before a planned mass protest. · 

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