Russia's respect for human rights on trial after Navalny's return

The leader of the Russia of the Future Party – formerly Russia’s Progress Party – and Novichok poison victim Alexey Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17th where he was immediately arrested at Sheremetyevo airport on charges of alleged probation period violations.

International leaders have denounced these charges as baseless, demanded Navalny’s release, and publicly accused Putin of targeting yet another government opposition activist. Amidst these claims, looming tensions between the European Union and the Russian Federation continue to grow. As Baltic Member States push for renewed sanctions, their cries for a stronger stance against the Kremlin will not materialize into policy without the support of Germany and France.

Following Navalny’s arrest, large protests broke out in several Russian cities demanding that he be freed. The protests resulted in over 3,000 arrests, including that of Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnya. With tens of thousands of citizens gathering in cities ranging from Moscow to the small city of Yakutsk in East Siberia, Putin may no longer be able to claim that he does not know who Navalny is. The EU has yet to vote on further sanctions to impose on Russia, but Navalny has filed a new complaint with the European Court of Human Rights over the Russian government’s refusal to open an investigation into his poisoning.

On August 20th, Navalny fell unexpectedly ill during his return flight to Russia after campaigning for Putin opposition politicians in Siberia, and eventually fell into a coma. He was immediately airlifted to Berlin Charite Hospital where he has spent the past five months recovering. Laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden as well as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague have now confirmed that Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok.

Novichok, originally developed by the Soviet Union in the ‘70s as a chemical weapon, has been found as the cause for a number of Putin-critics’ mysterious illnesses and even deaths. Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian researcher working in Vienna, also presented evidence that confirms that Navalny had been followed by a team from Russia’s Federal Security Service for 40 flights leading up to the poisoning.

Despite growing EU criticism and Navalny’s increasingly vocal domestic base, the current Russian government’s persecution of opposition voices has not faced any legal repercussions. Where does international human rights law come into play amidst political friction? What rights do Navalny and his allies have? More importantly, will any of it make a difference?

Russia holds the second highest number of violations of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) despite being one of the Convention’s newer signatories, having ratified its signature to the ECHR in 1998, under the Yeltsin presidency. While some claim that the accession to the Convention was a step in the right direction towards accentuating its citizens’ fundamental human rights, others, not least amongst them Navalny, disagree. Such skepticism has been reinforced by the blatant persecution of political rivals.

Citizens of parties to the ECHR, like Navalny, have the opportunity to present cases against their countries before the European Court of Human Rights located in Strasbourg. Navalny, in fact, won an ECHR case against Russia in 2018 due to human rights violations to which he has now been subjected to once again. 94.5% of the cases made against the Russian Federation between 1998 and 2019 have resulted in a judgment that found at least one violation of the ECHR. Turkey, the only ECHR Member State with more violations than Russia, only had a mere 88.4% of judgments against its government find Convention violations.

Given that Navalny has already pleaded a case before the Court, it is clear that the international Court’s judgments can only go so far in making a difference. Even the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has directly called on the Russian government to open investigations into Navalny’s poisoning, but to no avail.

Although ECHR law is unlikely to deliver measurable results, it does create pillars around which international critics and domestic activists can gather. A Russian ECHR case can gain international attention. The Magnitsky Act, a law passed in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and the Baltics that bars human rights abusers from entering their respective countries, emerged from events that led up to a 2009 case at the Strasbourg Court.

These countries, which each have their own version of the Magnitsky Act, also bar said human rights abusers from doing any banking or holding assets in their territories. The European Union is currently working to implement its own version of the Magnitsky Act.

Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian tax auditor who discovered that a significant sum of tax money going through his investment fund had been diverted to government officials. After reporting his findings, Magnitsky was arrested on two counts of aggravated tax fraud in 2008.

He was found dead in prison in November 2009. Russian penitentiary police reported that on the day of this death, Magnitsky became aggressive despite being severely ill and needed to be restrained with the use of handcuffs and a baton, but was later found dead. Campaigners and opposition groups claim that he was beaten to death.

Alexey Navalny is currently being held at Matrosskaya Tishina, the same prison where Magnitsky was held and mysteriously passed away in; a chilling statement of Putin’s disregard for past transgressions and a foreboding sign for Navalny’s safety.

Despite the Magnitsky tragedy gaining international attention, the European Court of Human Rights’ judgment on the case had a limited effect. The Court ruled in Magnitsky’s favour, finding the Russian government to have deprived him of, among other ECHR laws, his rights to life, to the prohibition of torture, and to a fair trial.

The Court ordered the Russian government to pay the Magnitsky family €34,000 in damages. Unfortunately, international European law could only provide this sum and a sense of justice for the applicants. The Magnitsky judgment did not guarantee any structural change in Russia that could protect the lives of future government opposition activists.

While we wait to hear the fate of Alexey Navalny, relations between Russia and European institutions simmer. Despite the fact that the current Russian constitution recognizes bodies of international law, Putin has proposed a number of legislative acts to overturn any international rulings that could threaten domestic law. Putin’s efforts to move away from international law indicates his unswerving stance on how Kremlin critics are treated in Russia.

While European human rights law can start a conversation about Navalny, it cannot necessarily save his life. EU foreign ministers are currently meeting in Brussels to discuss renewed sanctions, with those countries bordering Russia pushing for a clear, strong response to Putin’s actions. Europe must appear united if it wants its condemnation of recent actions to echo globally, and invigorate Russians that have expressed their abandon from the current Putin government.

European legislators’ and judicial figures’ efforts must be matched by national leaders and the general populations of Europe, who must ask themselves just how comfortable they are neighbouring a country that denies its citizens the same fundamental human rights they hold to be true.