Congressional Hearing: Intimidation and Retaliation against Environmental Defenders in the Russian Federation

On February 27, 2020, Crude Accountability participated in a Congressional hearing at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on the state of human rights in Russia.

In her remarks, Crude Accountability executive director Kate Watters concentrated on reprisals against environmental activists and organizations in Russia. The transcribed text on the remarks is below.

The hearing commemorated five years after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a high-profile Russian democracy advocate.

Crude Accountability’s remarks start at 52:28.

The Russian government uses a variety of weapons to attack environmentalists, including legal, administrative, and physical threats. In addition, environmental defenders are also at risk from governmental “proxies,” who threaten them in a variety of ways, and are rarely prosecuted for their crimes. Pro-government media marginalize and discredit environmental defenders, accusing them of pursuing political agendas or undermining the country’s economic growth. Often this occurs when environmentalists expose vanity projects of bureaucrats and oligarchs.

Today I will focus on four key ways in which environmental defenders experience significant pressure, reprisals, and retaliation. These include: 1) the creation of onerous laws designed to pressure environmental defenders; 2) legal harassment, using existing laws to create administrative and criminal legal difficulties; 3) character assassination and smears in the media; and 4) violence.

Who Are the Environmental Defenders?

First, I want to provide some information about the two types of environmental work we are looking at. One is the organized civil society organization, which has been operating for years, and the other is less formally organized activists gathering around a specific issue.

The first type includes registered organizations with a mandate, a leader, and a history of engaging in environmental activity. These include groups like Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, based in Krasnodar; Ecodefense, an anti-nuclear group based in Kaliningrad region; and the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North. These groups are comprised of activists who have been protecting the environment for years, and have formal structures.

The other type of environmental defender, which has emerged in the past couple of years, is that of the common citizen, organizing with others around an immediate threat to the community. The so-called “garbage protests” (also called waste-management protests) are an example of this. Individuals in a community learn of a new or worsening threat to their home, organize, and protest against it, filling the streets as they exercise their right to assembly and freedom of expression.

In 2018-2019, the “garbage protests,” including in Shiyes in the Far North, organized against the operation of existing landfills and construction of new ones across Russia. They gained unexpected momentum, and also suffered harsh reprisals, with protesters threatened, arrested, and physically attacked by the authorities. These protests have grown into a broad grassroots movement including people who represent broad political interests covering, according to various estimates, some 25-30 of Russia’s 85 constituent regions, and growing.[1]

They are an expression of fatigue with corruption and perceived disregard for the welfare of citizens living outside of the capital.

Repressive Legislation

Legislation designed to limit the activity of civil society broadly has severe impacts for environmental defenders. The 2012 law on “foreign agents[2] has been used widely against environmental organizations in an effort to stop their activity. The environmental NGO Sakhalin Environmental Watch, which was labeled a foreign agent in 2015, returned funding it received from the DiCaprio Foundation in order to be taken off the list.[3]

Since 2015, Russia has also instituted legislation regarding “undesirable organizations,” international groups forbidden from working inside Russia. Russian citizens who work with these organizations can face penalties.”[4]

In 2018, the US environmental nonprofit, Pacific Environment, was designated an undesirable organization, sending a chilling signal to environmental defenders working in partnership internationally.[5]

In 2019, for the first time, individual Russian environmentalists were accused of being members of an undesirable organization.[6], [7]

Legal Threats and Harassment

Russian authorities also use criminal and administrative legal threats to impede the work of environmental defenders in violation of their right to assembly. Crude Accountability has documented 43 cases involving violations of Environmental Watch’s right to freedom of assembly; 31 of these cases resulted in arrests or detentions.

Offices of environmental NGOs are raided by the authorities. In 2019 alone, EWNC was raided three times by the local authorities who broke down the door and raided the space carrying automatic weapons, and wearing riot gear and balaclavas. They confiscated equipment, forced open the safe, destroyed furniture, and were violent with members of EWNC.[8] In one raid, they claimed they were seeking information about members of Open Russia, an “undesirable organization.” EWNC has no connection to Open Russia.

Some of the “garbage protesters” were criminally charged in connection with their activism. Nikita Baryshnikov was arrested in Shiyes and required to undergo a psychiatric examination, although criminal charges against him were eventually dropped. Another activist from Shiyes was charged with organizing an unsanctioned rally and sentenced to 400 hours of compulsory labor.

Character Assassination and Smears in the Media

Environmental defenders are subject to character assassination in the media and on social media. Accusations of pedophilia, working for a foreign government, undermining the national interests, and other smears are common.

Violence

Defenders face physical violence, threats to their families and themselves, damage to property, and verbal violence in the media, including on social media.

On December 28, 2017, Andrey Rudomakha was brutally attacked as he returned from an environmental inspection. Rudomakha spent over two weeks in the hospital, where he was treated for a concussion, fractured skull, broken nose, and other injuries. The attack was captured on video and provided to the police, but no-one has been arrested.

Less than two weeks later, Rudomakha and a colleague received death threats by email.[9] Rudomakha’s lawyer requested state protection. Unfortunately, that protection was not provided.

Conclusion

Prior to 2012, it was pretty clear what the “rules of the game” were and what sort of activity was likely to result in a negative response from the authorities. Currently, however, environmentalists appear to be fair game for corrupt officials and businesses, and for the thugs who carry out their dirty work.

The US should remain vigilant in holding firm on sanctions regimes, visa restrictions for those found in violation of human rights and corruption laws, and in demanding compliance with international human rights and other standards and the rule of law.


[1] https://www.rbc.ru/business/12/10/208/5bbf1ff49a794f4167dfd2

[2] Federal Law No 121-FZ of 20 June 2012, on Amending Certain Federal Laws in Regard of Regulating the Activities of Nonprofit Organisations Performing the Functions of Foreign Agents (the “foreign agents” law), published by Rossiiskaya Gazeta on 23 July 2012. See https://rg.ru/2012/07/23/nko-dok.html, with amendments at http://www.consultant.ru/document/cons_doc_LAW_132900/

[3] https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-leonardo-dicaprio-environmental-group-forced-to-return-donation/27266457.html

[4] https://meduza.io/en/feature/2019/04/24/the-trials-of-open-russia.

[5] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-politics-group/russia-bans-undesirable-u-s-environmental-group-as-security-threat-idUSKCN1LE0VQ

[6] https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/12092019-environmental-watch-on-the-north-caucasus

[7] https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/russias-undesirable-organization-law-marks-new-level-repression

[8]https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video;_ylt=A2KLfS00CZFdeg8ArBhXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTB0N2Noc21lBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNwaXZz?p=%D0%BE%D0%B1%D1%8B%D1%81%D0%BA+%D0%AD%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%BE%D0%B3%D0%B8%D1%87%D0%B5%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B0%D1%8F+%D0%92%D0%B0%D1%85%D1%82%D0%B0&fr2=piv-web&fr=mcafee#id=2&vid=683e0e6c8de4b532d1697c7e3ceaf818&action=view

[9] https://es-la.facebook.com/ewnc.russia/posts/death-threats-against-ewncless-than-two-weeks-after-the-brutal-attack-on-ewnc-co/10156183802209434/