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(Moscow) – Russian authorities have placed a prominent human rights defender under a travel ban and may soon formally bring criminal charges against him in relation to the “foreign agents” law, Human Rights Watch said today.
Semyon Simonov, head of the Southern Human Rights Center, based in Sochi, could face up to two years in prison if charged and convicted for unpaid fines levied against the center. The criminal charges follow years of harassment and intimidation against Simonov for his human rights work. The authorities should immediately drop the case and repeal the abusive “foreign agents” law that is the source of the fines.
“This attack against a human rights defender demonstrates how the Russian authorities continue to use the repressive foreign agents law to criminalize the important work of independent groups,” said Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Not only should the case against Semyon Simonov be dropped immediately, but the foreign agents law needs to go.”
One area of Simonov’s work was documenting the exploitation and other abuse against migrant workers involved in construction for Russia’s Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The 2012 “foreign agents” law requires any Russian group accepting any amount of foreign funding and carrying out activities deemed to be “political” to register as a foreign agent, a term that in Russia implies “spy” or “traitor.” Simonov refused to register the Southern Human Rights Center.
However, in December 2016, the Justice Ministry added the center to the “foreign agents” registry, according to Simonov, because of its report on the rights of stateless people and its campaign to improve the work of local police.
Simonov told Human Rights Watch that in February 2017, the authorities fined the group 300,000 rubles (approximately US$4,230) for not registering as a “foreign agent.” The group’s appeal failed. In September, court marshals set a January 2018 deadline to pay the fine. Simonov repeatedly submitted documentation showing that the organization did not have funds or property to pay the fine.
After two years, the maximum time for enforcing such penalties, in July 2019, the court marshals petitioned a local court to discontinue the enforcement proceedings. Instead, the court ordered Simonov be held personally liable for the fine. It referred to him as a foreign agent, a designation reserved in law exclusively for legal entities, not individuals, and cited his participation in a marathon as alleged proof of his financial resources to cover the fine.
Simonov successfully appealed that decision in August 2019, but by then the case had moved to another local court marshal’s office, which withdrew the request to discontinue the enforcement proceedings and opened new proceedings on “malicious evasion.”
Between 2018 and 2019, courts issued three administrative fines against Simonov ranging from 10,000 rubles (US$140) to 20,000 rubles (US$280) for failing to comply with other court marshals’ requests regarding this case.
In October 2019, the police informed Simonov that they had opened a criminal investigation against him as the head of the center “for failure to comply with the court ruling” to pay the 300,000-ruble fine. On July 13, 2020, they imposed a travel ban on him.
The criminal case was opened following a report by the local department of the Federal Security Service (FSB). The police informed Simonov that he could be formally charged on July 20.
This is not the first time the police and the FSB have harassed Simonov. Since at least 2013, police have detained and questioned him numerous times under various bogus pretexts, including at train stations when he was traveling or buying tickets. Tax authorities once even questioned him, in the context of a tax inspection, about his English language proficiency. The police department specializing in economic crimes once called him to inform him that he was involved with a “banned organization.”
In April 2017, Simonov was detained by police in Volgograd, where he traveled to interview workers about their treatment and working conditions on the FIFA World Cup stadium site.
In January 2018, Simonov learned that he was on the FSB’s list of “persons under special monitoring,” apparently as a result of his human rights work on behalf of workers ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Simonov said that law enforcement harassment coincided with his human rights work, for example when the center issued publications, organized meetings, or made public comments. He said that “Any public activity leads to reaction from their side.”
In September 2019, police raided the center’s office, breaking a door and confiscating documents and electronic equipment. Simonov said that the formal pretext was a report by an FSB agent alleging that the minutes of one of the group’s board meetings were forged.
Currently, the Justice Ministry’s registry of “foreign agents” includes 68 organizations. Under the law, offenses such as refusal to declare and register one’s organization as “foreign agent,” to submit reports as “foreign agents,” or to put a “foreign agent” marker on all publications, websites, and even staff business cards are punishable by fines of up to 500,000 rubles (US$8,000).
Human Rights Watch and multiple other human rights organizations and bodies have repeatedly condemned the “foreign agents” law as a violation of human rights norms and called for its repeal.
More than 30 organizations have shut down rather than accept the false and stigmatizing label of “foreign agent.”
In June 2019, the authorities in Kaliningrad opened five separate criminal cases against Alexandra Koroleva, a prominent environmental rights activist, on the same charges as in Simonov’s case, forcing her to flee the country to escape the risk of imprisonment.
Human Rights Defenders are afforded specific recognition and protection in international law to enable them to carry out their human rights work without undue interference. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders underscores that everyone performing activities in defense of human rights has the right to seek the protection and realization of human rights at the national and international levels, to conduct human rights work individually and in association with others, to form associations and nongovernmental organizations, and to be protected in the event of violations. The declaration sets out a series of principles and rights drawn from international human rights instruments that are legally binding. It was adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly.
The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights noted that “[s]tates have an obligation to protect human rights defenders and to create a safe and enabling environment for their activity,” whereas the Russian legislation on foreign agents is “open to the possibility of misuse as a repressive tool against human rights defenders,” and violates several human rights norms including freedom of expression and association.
“The case against Simonov is clearly meant to punish him for his human rights work and prevent him from continuing it,” Aitkhozhina said. “It is not too late for the Russian authorities to withdraw these charges and stop trying to intimidate and deter civic activism.”