Fairness report on the trial of Anastasia Shevchenko in Russian Federation

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 

Katerina Hadzi-Miceva Evans, who is a member of the Trial Watch Experts Panel, assigned this trial a grade of D: while it is positive that the court hearings were open, the low grade is because of the arbitrariness, conditions, and length of Shevchenko’s house arrest; the violation of her right to privacy, the arbitrary application of laws inconsistent with domestic and international standards on freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of peaceful assembly; and her criminal conviction, as the result of which she will continue to live in uncertainty and fear. The process in its entirety resulted in serious harm to her and her family, as well as the deprivation of her fundamental rights. 

From June 17, 2020 to February 18, 2021 Human Rights Embassy monitored the trial of Anastasia Shevchenko before the Oktyabrsky District Court in the Russian Federation as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative. Shevchenko is a well-known activist and former coordinator of Public Network Movement Open Russia (PNM Open Russia), a civic association that advocates for human rights, rule of law, and political change through democratic processes. She was prosecuted and convicted under Russia’s Law on Undesirable Organizations, which, among other things, provides for up to six years in prison for participation in what the authorities deem an “undesirable” organization. The case against Shevchenko constituted a severe violation of numerous rights, including her right to security of person, right to privacy, right to the presumption of innocence, right to freedom of expression, right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and right to freedom of association. More broadly, Shevchenko’s prosecution reflects the narrowing of civic space in Russia pursuant to legislation that violates Russia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both treaties to which Russia is party. 

The Law on Undesirable Organizations is ripe for abuse. The term “undesirable” is vaguely defined as anything threatening Russia’s constitutional order, security, or defense. The law’s imprecision affords the authorities unfettered – and thus dangerous – discretion, permitting the de facto criminalization of movements and opinions that diverge from the government’s agenda. This was borne out by Shevchenko’s case. 

At trial, the prosecution argued that PNM Open Russia had been designated as undesirable under the Law on Undesirable Organizations (more on this below). According to the law, the authorities can pursue criminal charges following two administrative convictions in one year for participation in an “undesirable” organization. The prosecution alleged that Shevchenko had “participated” in PNM Open Russia by: i) explaining the non-violent civic activities of PNM Open Russia at a civil society meeting; and ii) holding a flag with the political message (“#FEDUP”) at an authorized and peaceful political rally. 

Although the Oktyabrsky District Court found that through such actions Shevchenko intended to “infringe on the foundations of the constitutional order and security of the state, posing a threat to the protection of the interests of Russian citizens,”[1] it never explained how exactly Shevchenko had sought to undermine State security and order. Likewise, nowhere in the prosecution’s presentation was it alleged that Shevchenko had planned specific acts of violence against the State, had incited or participated in acts of violence against the State, or had otherwise conspired to overthrow the ruling government outside of lawful processes. Rather, the specific acts that formed the basis of Shevchenko’s criminal conviction were common manifestations of civic activism and corresponded with PNM Open Russia’s stated aims and activities: namely, achieving positive change through peaceful democratic processes. Given the nature of the acts Shevchenko was engaged in and the lack of evidence of her participation in acts of violence against the State and/or attempts to overthrow the government, it appears that the objective of her prosecution was to punish her for her criticism of the authorities and protest activities – a violation of her right to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. 

The punitive nature of the proceedings was further demonstrated by the arbitrary imposition of two years of extremely restrictive house arrest prior to and throughout her trial, during most of which Shevchenko, a single mother and caretaker of her elderly family members, was not allowed to leave her home for even the most basic of activities. She was also refused the opportunity to visit her terminally ill daughter until the day before her death. The investigators and prosecutors requesting extensions of Shevchenko’s house arrest and the many levels of the judiciary that granted such requests consistently failed to adequately justify her deprivation of liberty. Indeed, there was no evidence that Shevchenko was a flight risk, would interfere with the proceedings, or would engage in criminal activities. 

The courts’ authorization of five months of intrusive video and audio surveillance of Shevchenko’s residence (including a video camera directly above her bed), for which there was no justification, similarly indicated that the proceedings were a form of retaliation. The footage captured Shevchenko conversing with family members about civic activities, internal PNM Russia disputes, and personal matters. At points she was filmed in her underwear. The lack of a reasonable basis for this surveillance was evidenced by the fact that the recordings presented by the prosecution in court were not probative of the charged offense: namely, intentional participation in an undesirable organization. Indeed, the prosecution relied on publicly available information to make its case. The surveillance thus constituted a violation of Shevchenko’s right to privacy. 

Shevchenko’s trial reflects the expansiveness of and corresponding uncertainty generated by the Law on Undesirable Organizations. Namely, the prosecution failed to prove that the law even applied to PNM Open Russia. At trial, the defense presented witnesses and other evidence showing: i) that PNM Open Russia was different from the “Open Russia” UK organizations that had previously been deemed undesirable by the Prosecutor General’s Office, as confirmed in a statement explicitly made by a representative of said office; ii) that PNM Open Russia was not an organization but an association; and iii) that PNM Russia was not foreign but composed of Russian members and created in accordance with Russian law. The prosecution did not provide concrete evidence in rebuttal of any of these points; instead, a number of prosecution witnesses provided evidence supporting the defense case. A prosecution witness representing the Ministry of Justice, for example, stated that PNM Russia appeared to be a domestic association. Nonetheless, the court’s convicting verdict ignored all evidence in this regard (sometimes explicitly on the basis that it contradicted the State’s position), indicating that the outcome of the case was predetermined. This violated Shevchenko’s right to the presumption of innocence. 

Shevchenko’s case demonstrates how the Russian authorities are using the Law on Undesirable Organizations to achieve whatever outcome they desire, in line with the aims of the ruling party. With the judiciary acting in concert with the executive, such legislation can functionally extend to any individuals and/or entities deemed an irritation or obstruction to Russian President Putin and his allies. Recent efforts to expand the Law on Undesirable Organizations suggest that Shevchenko’s case may be the tip of the iceberg: it is likely that politically-motivated retaliation carried out under this law will escalate unless the international community takes stronger action. 

Consequently, despite increasing pressure and obstacles, the international community should continue to condemn Russian laws that negatively impact the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association; to fund local human rights defenders and civil society groups to litigate such cases, with a focus on training and funding of defense lawyers; and to support local actors to undertake measures to protect themselves against surveillance and attack. States should either initiate or expand on human rights sanctions against high-level Russian officials to ensure rapid, coordinated and targeted responses to violations of the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, expression, and information. These should include travel bans and asset freezes on officials responsible for violations of these rights as part of crackdowns on civil society. 

For a full Fairness report on the trial please see HERE

The link to the Clooney Foundation for Justice's press statement on the report is HERE

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[1] Oktyabrsky District Court of Rostov-on-Don, Verdict [in the case of Anastasia Shevchenko], February 18, 2021, pg. 60.