Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly remained severely restricted. The authorities dominated the print and broadcast media, and further extended their control over the internet. NGOs faced further harassment and reprisals under the “foreign agents” law, while their access to foreign funding was further restricted by a new law banning “undesirable” organizations. Growing numbers of individuals were arrested and criminally charged for criticizing state policy and publicly displaying or possessing materials deemed extremist or otherwise unlawful under vague national security legislation. Four people faced prosecution under the 2014 law that made repeated violations of the law on public assemblies a criminal offence. Deep flaws in the judicial system were further exposed through several high-profile cases; a new law gave the Constitutional Court the authority to overrule decisions by the European Court of Human Rights. Refugees faced numerous obstacles in accessing international protection. Serious human rights violations continued in the North Caucasus, and human rights defenders reporting from the region faced harassment.
In the face of Russia’s growing international isolation and mounting economic problems, the authorities sought to consolidate public opinion around the notions of unity and patriotism, “traditional values” and fear of the country’s purported enemies abroad and within. Opinion polls showed a consistently high level of support for President Putin’s leadership. Government critics were smeared as “unpatriotic” and “anti-Russian state” in the mainstream media, and were occasionally assaulted. On 27 February, one of Russia’s most prominent opposition activists, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead within sight of the Kremlin. Mourners wishing to commemorate him at the site of his death were harassed by city authorities and pro-government supporters.
The government continued to dismiss mounting evidence of Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, while President Putin decreed in May that human losses among the military during “special operations” in peacetime were a state secret.1
The authorities estimated that as of November, 2,700 Russian citizens had joined the armed group Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, the majority of them from the North Caucasus. Independent experts gave higher estimates.
On 30 September, Russia began air strikes in Syria with the stated aim of targeting IS, but also frequently targeted other groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Numerous civilian casualties were reported, which Russia denied. On 24 November, Turkey shot down a Russian military jet for allegedly entering its airspace, leading to mutual recriminations and a diplomatic stand-off between the two countries.
Media freedom remained severely restricted, through direct state control and self-censorship. The editorial policy of most media outlets faithfully reproduced official views on key domestic and international events.
The authorities extended their control over the internet. Thousands of websites and pages were blocked by internet providers on orders from the media regulator Roskomnadzor. Those targeted in violation of the right to freedom of expression included political satire, information shared by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activists, information on public protests and religious texts. A growing, but still small, number of individuals faced criminal prosecution for online postings, usually on charges under anti-extremism legislation; most of them received fines.
Yekaterina Vologzheninova, a shop assistant from Yekaterinburg, was put on trial on 27 October for her satirical posts on social media in 2014 which criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military involvement in eastern Ukraine. The prosecution alleged that she had incited violence and “promoted hatred and enmity towards the Russian government officials, Russian volunteers fighting in eastern Ukraine and the specific ethnic group, the Russians”. Her trial was ongoing at the end of the year.2
Harassment of independent media outlets and journalists continued. Past incidents of violence against independent journalists were rarely effectively investigated. Two men were arrested in connection with the beating of journalist Oleg Kashin in November 2010, and a third put on a wanted list. One suspect claimed he had proof that the beating had been ordered by the Governor of Pskov region, which tallied with Kashin’s suspicions, but the authorities declined to investigate the allegation further.
Elena Milashina, a journalist from the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, reported that a 17-year-old Chechen girl was being forcibly married to a senior police officer three times her age and reportedly already married. The story was widely reported and caused a public outcry. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov publicly supported the senior police officer and accused Milashina of lying and interfering in the private lives of the Chechen people. On 19 May, the Chechen government-owned online news agency Grozny-Inform published an article containing thinly veiled death threats against Milashina.
The clampdown on freedom of expression extended beyond journalists and bloggers. Natalya Sharina, director of the state-run Library of Ukrainian Literature in the capital Moscow, was detained on 28 October under extremism-related charges. The investigators claimed that works by Ukrainian nationalist Dmitry Korchinsky had been found at the library, in a pile of literature that had not yet been catalogued. She was detained at a police station without bedding, food or drink until 30 October when she was placed under house arrest, pending possible charges.3
On 15 September, Rafis Kashapov, an activist from Naberezhnye Chelny, Republic of Tatarstan, was convicted of inciting inter-ethnic hatred and threatening the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation; he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. He had been under arrest since 28 December 2014 in connection with posts on social media that criticized Russia’s role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the treatment of Crimean Tatars in Russian-occupied Crimea.
On 10 November, the Kirsanovski District Court ruled that the environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko should be released. He had served over half of his sentence following his conviction on trumped-up charges in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. However, on 20 November, a day before the court’s decision came into force, the Prosecutor’s Office appealed against the decision; Vitishko was finally released on 22 December after an appeal hearing.
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly remained severely curtailed. Protests were infrequent, their number having declined following restrictions introduced in earlier years. Organizers were regularly refused permission to hold street rallies or only allowed to hold them in non-central locations. Those who defied the ban or the rules were penalized through fines and detention.
Monstration, a humorous annual street event in Novosibirsk mocking the pomposity of the May Day march, was disallowed for the first time since 2005. Its organizer, Artem Loskutov, was arrested and sentenced to 10 days’ detention for violating the law on assemblies after he and several other “monstrators” joined the official May Day march instead.
For the first time, a peaceful street protester was convicted under the 2014 law which criminalized repeated participation in unauthorized assemblies.
On 7 December, a Moscow court sentenced Ildar Dadin to three years in a prison colony for his repeated participation in “unauthorized” assemblies between August and December 2014. He had been placed under house arrest on 30 January, after serving a 15-day detention for joining a peaceful protest in Moscow against the politically motivated conviction of Oleg Navalny, the brother of anti-graft campaigner and opposition leader Alex Navalny.
Two other peaceful protesters from Moscow, Mark Galperin and Irina Kalmykova, also faced criminal prosecution under the same law at the end of the year.
Prisoners of conscience Stepan Zimin, Aleksei Polikhovich and Denis Lutskevich, who had been detained in 2012 in connection with the Bolotnaya Square protests, were released during the year, having completed their prison sentences. Another prisoner of conscience, Sergey Krivov, remained in prison; the authorities brought criminal proceedings against at least two further individuals in connection with the Bolotnaya protests.
Freedom of association was further restricted. By the end of the year, the Ministry of Justice’s register of NGOs considered “foreign agents” contained 111 entries, requiring the NGOs concerned to put this stigmatizing label on all their publications and observe onerous reporting requirements. NGOs that defied these requirements faced hefty fines. Not a single NGO succeeded in challenging their inclusion on the register in court. Seven were struck off the register after giving up all foreign funding, and a further 14 NGOs included on the register chose to close down.
The Human Rights Centre (HRC) Memorial was fined Rub 600,000 (US$8,800) in September after its sister organization, the Historical and Educational Centre Memorial – which was not on the register – did not mark its publications with the label “foreign agent”. The HRC Memorial lost its court appeal against the decision. Following a regular inspection of the HRC Memorial in November, the Ministry of Justice concluded that criticism by its members of the Bolotnaya Square trials and of Russian policies in Ukraine “undermined the foundations of the constitutional system” and amounted to “calls for the overthrow of the current government and change of the political regime”. The Ministry submitted its “findings” to the Prosecutor’s Office for further investigation.
In May, a law was passed authorizing the Prosecutor’s Office to designate any foreign organization as “undesirable” on the grounds of posing a “threat to the country’s constitutional order, defence or state security”, with the immediate effect of rendering its presence, and any activity on its behalf, unlawful. In July, the US-based National Endowment for Democracy was declared “undesirable”. Three more donor organizations, the Open Society Foundation, the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation and the US Russia Foundation for Economic Advancement and the Rule of Law, were declared “undesirable” in November and December.
LGBTI activists continued to operate in an extremely hostile environment. Discrimination against LGBTI individuals continued to be widely reported.
On 25 March, a court in St Petersburg ruled that the Children-404 group – an online community set up by journalist Elena Klimova to support LGBTI teenagers – be blocked. In July, a court in Nizhny Tagil, Sverdlovsk region, fined Klimova Rub 50,000 (US$830) for “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors”. On 2 October, a court in St Petersburg ruled that the page should be unblocked.
The authorities continued to violate LGBTI individuals’ right to peaceful assembly. In May, LGBTI activist Nikolay Alekseev attempted to hold an unauthorized Pride march in Moscow. It resulted in clashes with anti-LGBTI protesters and 10 days’ detention for three LGBTI activists, including Nikolay Alekseev. In St Petersburg, LGBTI activists were able to conduct some public activities without interference from police.
Several high-profile trials exposed deep-rooted and widespread flaws in Russia’s criminal justice system, including the lack of equality of arms, the use of torture and other ill-treatment in the course of investigations as well as the failure to exclude torture-tainted evidence in court, the use of secret witnesses and other secret evidence which the defence could not challenge, and the denial of the right to be represented by a lawyer of one’s choice. Less than 0.5% of trials resulted in acquittals.
Svetlana Davydova was one of the growing number of cases of alleged high treason and espionage, under vague offences introduced in 2012. She was arrested on 21 January for a phone call she had made to the Ukrainian Embassy eight months earlier, to share her suspicions that soldiers from her town Vyazma, Smolensk region, were being sent to fight in eastern Ukraine. Her state-appointed lawyer told the media that she had “confessed to everything” and declined to appeal against her detention because “all these hearings and the fuss in the media [create] unnecessary psychological trauma for her children”. On 1 February, two new lawyers took up her case. She complained that her initial lawyer had convinced her to plead guilty to reduce her likely sentence from 20 to 12 years. On 3 February, she was released; on 13 March, in marked contrast to all other treason cases, criminal proceedings against her were terminated.
In September, the trial of Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian citizen and member of the Aidar volunteer battalion, began. She was accused of deliberately directing artillery fire to kill two Russian journalists during the conflict in Ukraine in June 2014. She insisted that the case against her was fabricated and the testimonies against her, including by several secret witnesses, were false. Her trial was marred by myriad procedural flaws.
On 15 December, President Putin signed a new law under which the Constitutional Court can pronounce the European Court of Human Rights’ and other international courts’ decisions “unimplementable” if they “violate” the Russian Constitution’s “supremacy”.
According to official figures, in the first nine months of the year, 130,297 people were given temporary asylum, 129,506 of them fromUkraine and 482 from Syria. Only 96 of the 1,079 applications for permanent refugee status were granted, none of them to Syrian nationals. NGOs reported numerous obstacles, including corruption and deliberate misinformation, intended to discourage those seeking international protection from applying for permanent or temporary asylum.
A family of six refugees from Syria, including four children, were stranded in the international transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for over two months. On 10 September, border officials denied them entry claiming their travel documents were fake. On 19 November, Khimki City Court fined them Rub 10,000 (US$150) for trying to enter the country under forged documents; the following day, they were registered as asylum-seekers and relocated to Tver region, with help from the NGO Civic Assistance Committee.
There were regular reports of forcible return of individuals to Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, where they risked being subjected to torture and other serious human rights violations.
Fewer attacks by armed groups were reported in the North Caucasus than in previous years.
Law enforcement agencies continued to rely on security operations as their preferred method of combating armed groups, and continued to be suspected of resorting to enforced disappearances, unlawful detention, as well as torture and other ill-treatment of detainees.
Human rights reporting from the region visibly declined, due to a severe clampdown on human rights defenders and independent journalists, who regularly faced harassment, threats and violence, including from law enforcement officials and pro-government groups.
On 3 June, an aggressive mob surrounded the office building of the human rights group Joint Mobile Group in Chechnya’s capital Grozny. Masked men forced their way into the office, destroying its contents and forcing staff to evacuate.4 No suspects had been identified by the end of the year.
On 6 November, the office and residence in the Republic of Ingushetia of human rights defender Magomed Mutsolgov were searched by armed law enforcement officers, who seized documents and IT equipment. According to Mutsolgov, the warrant authorizing the search stated that he was “acting in the interests of the USA, Georgia, Ukraine and the Syrian opposition”.
There was no accountability nor remedy for crimes under international law committed in the secret detention programme operated by the CIA. Scores of detainees remained in indefinite military detention at the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, while military trial proceedings continued in a handful of cases. Concern about the use of isolation in state and federal prisons and the use of force in policing continued. Twenty-seven men and one woman were executed during the year.
In March, September and November respectively, the USA provided its one-year follow-up responses to the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), the CERD Committee and the UN Committee against Torture on their 2014 priority recommendations after scrutiny of the country’s compliance with the ICCPR, the CERD and the UN Convention against Torture.
In May, the USA’s human rights record was examined under the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. In September, the USA accepted about three-quarters of the 343 recommendations made under the UPR process. As in 2011, the USA said it supported calls for the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and CEDAW, and for accountability for torture. None had been implemented by the end of the year.
In its one-year update to the HRC, the USA said that it prohibited torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention of “any person in its custody wherever they are held”, and that it held “accountable any persons responsible for such acts”. Yet by the end of the year, no action had been taken to end the impunity for the systematic human rights violations committed in the secret detention programme operated by the CIA, under authorization granted by former President George W. Bush after the attacks of 11 September 2001 (9/11).
The USA also told the HRC that it “supports transparency” in relation to this issue. Yet by the end of the year, more than 12 months after the publication of the declassified summary of the report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into the CIA programme, the Committee’s full 6,700-page report, containing details of the treatment of each detainee, remained classified top secret. Most, if not all, of the detainees were subjected to enforced disappearance and to conditions of detention and/or interrogation techniques which violated the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Classification of the report continued to facilitate impunity and the denial of remedy.1
During the year, military prosecutors reportedly learned of a cache of some 14,000 photographs relating to CIA “black sites” in Afghanistan, Thailand, Poland, Romania, Lithuania and possibly elsewhere, including images of naked detainees being transported. The photographs had not been made public by the end of the year.
Detainees held at the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay continued to be denied their human rights under the USA’s flawed “global war” framework and its views on the non-applicability of international human rights law to the detentions. In its one-year follow-up response to the HRC’s call for administrative detention and military commissions against Guantánamo detainees to be ended, the USA reiterated its erroneous position on extraterritoriality that “obligations under the Covenant apply only with respect to individuals who are both within the territory of a State Party and within its jurisdiction”. To the CERD call to end Guantánamo detentions “without further delay”, the USA responded that it did not agree that the “request bears directly on obligations under the Convention”.
At the end of the year, 107 men were held at Guantánamo. The majority were held without charge or trial. About half had been approved for transfer for at least five years. Twenty-one detainees were transferred out of the base during the year to Estonia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and the UK.
Hearings by the Periodic Review Board (PRB) continued. These administrative review proceedings, undermining ordinary criminal justice processes, apply to detainees who are not facing military commissions and have not been approved for transfer by other administrative reviews.
Pre-trial military commission proceedings continued against five detainees accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks and charged under the Military Commissions Act (MCA) for capital trial in 2012. The five – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, ‘Ali ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and Mustafa al Hawsawi as well as ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was arraigned for capital trial in 2011 on charges relating to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 – were held incommunicado in secret US custody for up to four years prior to their transfer to Guantánamo in 2006. Their trials had not begun by the end of the year.
Pre-trial proceedings also continued in the case of Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, who was reportedly arrested in Turkey in 2006 and transferred to US custody, held in secret by the CIA and transferred to Guantánamo in 2007. He was formally charged on 18 June 2014. His trial was pending at the end of the year.
Majid Khan and Ahmed Mohammed al Darbi were still awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in 2012 and 2014 respectively while agreeing not to sue the USA for their prior treatment in custody. Ahmed Mohammed al Darbi was arrested by civilian authorities in Azerbaijan in June 2002 and was transferred to US custody two months later. He has alleged that he was ill-treated. Majid Khan was held in the secret CIA detention programme from 2003 and subjected to enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment before being transferred to Guantánamo in 2006. Further details of his treatment in CIA custody emerged during the year, including of rape, sexual assault, beatings, subjection to prolonged darkness and solitary confinement, hanging for days from a wooden beam, and threats against him and his family.
In June, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals nullified the conviction by a military commission of Guantánamo detainee Ali Hamza Suliman al Bahlul. The conviction was for conspiracy to commit war crimes, but the Court threw it out on the grounds that the charge was not recognized under international law and could not be prosecuted before a military tribunal. In September, the authorities’ appeal to the Court to rehear the case was accepted and oral arguments were held on 1 December, with the ruling pending at the end of the year.
At least 43 people across 25 states died after police used Tasers on them, bringing the total number of Taser-related deaths since 2001 to at least 670. Most of the victims were not armed and did not appear to pose a threat of death or serious injury when the Taser was deployed.
The death of Freddie Gray in April and the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death sparked protests in Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri respectively. Similar protests against police use of force occurred in cities including Cleveland, Ohio and St. Louis, Missouri, among others. The use of heavy-duty riot gear and military-grade weapons and equipment to police the demonstrations served to intimidate protesters who were exercising their right to peaceful assembly.
Authorities failed to track the exact number of people killed by law enforcement officials each year – estimates range from 458 to over 1,000 individuals. According to the limited data available, black men are disproportionately victims of police killings. State statutes on the use of lethal force are far too permissive; none limit the use of firearms to a last resort only after non-violent and less harmful means are exhausted, and where the officer or others are faced with an imminent threat of death or serious injury.
The City of Chicago, Illinois, passed an ordinance to provide reparations to over 100 survivors of torture committed by members of the Chicago Police Department from 1972 to 1991. The ordinance includes a US$5.5 million fund for survivors, a formal apology from the Chicago City Council, free college education for survivors and their families, an educational component in Chicago Public Schools on the history of torture by the Chicago Police Department, a public memorial to torture survivors and a counselling centre for torture survivors.
More than 35,000 unaccompanied children and 34,000 families were apprehended crossing the southern border during the year, many fleeing violence and insecurity in Mexico and Central America. Families were detained for months while pursuing claims to remain in the USA; many were held in facilities without proper access to medical care, sanitary food and water and legal counsel. Transgender individuals were routinely detained according to their gender at birth, leaving them susceptible to abuse, or held in solitary confinement and without access to hormone therapy.
Despite legislative gains in the reauthorized Violence against Women Act, including provisions that address the high levels of violence against Indigenous women and provide protection and services for survivors of domestic violence, Native American and Alaska Native women who were raped continued to lack access to basic care, including examinations and other essential health care services such as emergency contraception. Native American and Alaska Native women continued to experience disproportionate levels of violence; they were 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the country.
There were broad disparities in women’s access to sexual and reproductive health care, including maternal health care. African-American women remained nearly four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women. Over 230 bills were introduced across multiple US states seeking to restrict access to safe and legal abortion.
Over 80,000 prisoners at any given time were held in conditions of physical and social deprivation in federal and state prisons throughout the country.
In September, a landmark settlement to a class action lawsuit, Ashker v. Brown, virtually eliminated prolonged and indefinite isolation in California’s Security Housing Units (SHUs). Under the terms of the settlement, the overwhelming majority of prisoners held in SHUs were due to be released to general prison population units. In recognition of the harmful effects of long-term solitary confinement, prisoners who have been held for over 10 years in SHUs will be immediately transferred to a Restricted Custody General Population Unit, to begin a two-year programme to reintegrate them into the general prison population.
The release in March of an “independent” audit into the use of solitary confinement in Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities reported a number of inadequacies in the system, including in mental health provision and re-entry programmes for those held for long periods in isolation. Its recommendations did not go far enough to improve the harmful effects the isolation regime exerts on prisoners’ physical and mental health, or to bring the BOP in line with its international obligations.2
Twenty-seven men and one woman were executed in six states, bringing to 1,422 the total number of executions since the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1976. This was the lowest number of executions in a year since 1991. Approximately 50 new death sentences were passed. Almost 3,000 people remained on death row at the end of the year.
The Nebraska legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, overriding the State Governor’s veto against the bill. However, the repeal was on hold at the end of the year after opponents gathered enough signatures to a petition to have the issue put to the popular vote in November 2016. Momentum against the death penalty continued in February with the announcement of a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania by the State Governor. Moratoriums also remained in force in Washington State and Oregon at the end of the year.
Warren Hill was executed in Georgia on 27 January. All the experts who assessed him, including those retained by the state, agreed that he had an intellectual disability, rendering his execution unconstitutional. Cecil Clayton, a 74-year-old man, was executed in Missouri on 17 March. He had been diagnosed with dementia and a psychotic disorder stemming from a serious brain injury.
The Governor of Missouri commuted the death sentence of Kimber Edwards shortly before he was due to be put to death in October. The man who shot the victim and is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty in return for avoiding the death penalty had signed a statement recanting his post-arrest statements implicating Kimber Edwards in the murder.
Kelly Gissendaner was executed in Georgia on 30 September for the murder of her husband. The man who pleaded guilty to shooting the victim and testified against his co-defendant is serving a life sentence. Numerous inmates and former correctional officials supported clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, pointing to her rehabilitation and her positive impact on prison life and prisoners.
States continued to face litigation on lethal injection protocols and problems in acquiring execution drugs. On 29 June, in Glossip v. Gross, the US Supreme Court upheld the use of midazolam as the sedative drug in Oklahoma’s three-drug protocol. Two dissenting judges argued that the Court should revisit the constitutionality of the death penalty. Their dissent argued that the death penalty was now “highly likely” unconstitutional, including on the grounds of arbitrariness and unreliability.
After the ruling, Oklahoma scheduled the execution of Richard Glossip, one of the plaintiffs in the lethal injection challenge. Hours from execution on 16 September, and then minutes before his rescheduled execution on 30 September, the State Governor stopped the execution after it was revealed that the prison authorities had the wrong drug. It was later found that this drug had been used in at least one execution, that of Charles Warner in January. The State Attorney General sought and obtained an indefinite stay of executions and in October, his office said that it would not seek any new execution dates until at least 150 days after the completion of investigations into the execution protocol.
In October, the Ohio prison authorities announced that 11 executions scheduled for 2016 were being rescheduled for 2017, 2018 and 2019 as the state continued to seek “legal means” to obtain lethal injection drugs.
During the year, six inmates were exonerated of the crimes for which they were originally sentenced to death, bringing to 156 the number of such cases since 1973.