COVID-19 and Human Rights: Interview with Anna Dobrovoloskaya, Executive Director of Memorial Human Rights Center

News 26.05.2020

Usually under the spotlight for its restriction of civil society space, freedom of expression and democratic values, the Russian Federation has seemingly been taking the “right measures” to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, similar to those taken by many other countries. However, as it remains unclear what the impact of COVID-19 measures could have on human rights in Russia, we decided to catch up with Anna Dobrovoloskaya, Executive Director at Memorial Human Rights Center, a member organisation of the 2004 Laureate International Memorial. 

At the moment of writing, the Russian Federation is the country with the 3rd most number of cases, with approximately 200,000 active cases. The government has, in appearance, taken the right measures by closing all land borders on March 30th and started a “non-working month” which has been slowly easing since May 11. Mass-public events are banned and Russians are asked to stay home, while an important constitutional referendum has been postponed. The government has also passed a law which imposes severe punishment (up to 5 years in prison) for anyone convicted of spreading false information about the coronavirus.

It is in this context that we contacted Ms. Anna Dobrovoloskaya, Executive Director at Memorial Human Rights Center, a member organization of Memorial. MEMORIAL, short for “MEMORIAL Historical, Educational, Human Rights and Charitable Society,” received the Right Livelihood Award in 2004 for showing, in traumatic times, the importance of understanding the historical roots of human rights abuse, to secure respect for them in the future.

What is the current situation in Russia and what are the major concerns? Is access to health guaranteed? 

The situation in Russia is very different from region to region as they are also responsible for setting the lockdown measures. In Moscow, for example, the lockdown will be in place until the end of May. There is a very good increase in test systems but we don’t know if they are 100% reliable. Travelling between regions is very limited and there is mandatory two-weeks quarantine for anyone who moves across them. Some regions have been hit really badly. For example, Dagestan, in Northern Caucasus, is a region with a wide history of internal conflicts and anti-terrorism operations. Right now, it is one of the most affected regions and the statistics are being played with. The level of assistance is very low and numerous doctors are getting sick. This is actually a very big problem here, numerous healthcare professionals are getting sick and the level of professional mortality is higher than in other countries, although it is unclear yet why this happens. Concerning access to healthcare in general, numerous planned operations, including oncology treatments have been put on hold and people are scared to go to the hospital if they feel unwell. There are no statistics on how many people have been affected by this policy.

You mentioned statistics that are being played with. Are the right to information & freedom of expression protected? Is the law concerning “spreading false news about COVID-19” enforced? 

There is indeed the “COVID fake news law” but I am not sure that there have been any cases tried under this. There are independent newspapers who publish all kind of research and statistics but the problem is that the expertise on the virus is still low. We see contrasting information from one newspaper to another, for example, the Financial Times say that statistics in Russia are not credible but other research says the opposite. There is definitely a problem but the data is actually available on open source so people can check it and see that there is some misconduct with official reports. Probably the authorities do play with the statistics but more as a habit and not because they try to hide some horrible situation.

And how is privacy protected? We are starting to see some countries using tracking apps, is it the case also in Russia? 

It is probably one of the worst features of the response to this pandemic. In Moscow when someone is officially diagnosed with COVID, they are obliged to download an application on their smartphone which constantly monitors their geolocalisation. As soon as the app detects a position that is more than 50 meters away from their house, it will automatically fine the person. Some people have been getting fines for enormous amounts of money, sometimes equivalent to 10,000 euros. It often happens not because they violate the quarantine but because the GPS is sometimes not accurate. This violates the basic right of presumption of innocence because if the system suspects a violation of quarantine, there should then be administrative proceedings and the person should appear in court before being obliged to pay such a fine. Many people who have been victims of this application are now applying to courts or approaching activists, who will try to oppose those fines. Hopefully, it will work, because there is a lot of public awareness being spread about these applications and many are asking for their deletion. At the same time, those fines were already issued and there probably won’t be enough lawyers for everyone to obtain their cancellation.

How is the situation in prisons? Have any prisoners of conscience been released? Or on the contrary, have any human rights activists been imprisoned on COVID-19 related charges?

The answer to both questions is: no one. No prisoner of conscience has been released, there was no planned amnesty on regular prisoners and no human rights defender has been imprisoned because of COVID. There has been a riot in one of the prisons in Siberia, as prisoners were getting sick and not receiving treatment, which resulted in a fire where inmates died. The Colony was then locked down with no access from lawyers and doctors. An investigation is ongoing about this. Concerning Human Rights defenders, a campaign was launched to release Yury Dmitriev, former head of Memorial in the Karelia Republic, who has been detained for more than 2 years already. As he found himself in a prison where COVID-19 cases were diagnosed, we requested the authorities to put him under house arrest. The request was denied and the lawyers are now checking if it will be possible to undergo proceedings under European Court. Generally speaking, the situation in prison is precarious and because of the pandemic, lawyers don’t have access.

Prisoners are therefore one of the most vulnerable groups with regards to access to care in this crisis. Other vulnerable groups include labour migrants, including illegal migrants, and ethnic minorities such as the Roma. There is a huge movement of activists who are buying food to deliver to those groups as these families are left without any resources or support.

…And how has your work been impacted by this crisis? 

During the lockdown, there were almost no major challenges and difficulties for us because we work with courts, which have been closed. They are starting to reopen now and will probably be going at full capacity again during the summer, so we will be able to go back. It will be a challenge because since all trials have been postponed there will be a wave of them. Our work also slightly changed as we had to pay attention to what was going on with the pandemic, on top of our regular work. We discussed the possibility of opening a hotline for the questions related to COVID measures but we are not sure whether we will have enough resources to combine this with our regular work. So right now not much has changed, except that our whole team is working from home.

What do you see as potential long term effects of the measures taken to fight COVID-19 both on your work and on the human rights situation in Russia?

I think that it will be very difficult for us to operate in an environment where we are not able to travel between different regions. For example, Chechnya, one of Memorial’s regions of interest, has been on complete lockdown and is banning entry to anyone, which makes it difficult for us to continue our usual activities there. If this continues further it will require additional resources. We also expect travel to become more expensive, which will put a strain on our resources in a time when fundraising will also become more difficult.

From a human rights perspective, mass protests and riots will be banned until probably September if not the end of the year, but there will continue to be protesting in the street. We also have a project with another organisation which focuses on that, as we expect more people to be detained during protests in the streets. Since people will be concerned with the virus, the fines and the sanctions will most probably be higher than usual. We will have to fight for them, but this may be more complicated than usual as they will use public health arguments. The protests and travel ban also mean that people will not be able to oppose controversial policies. For example, before the lockdown, there was supposed to be a voting on an amendment to the police law which would allow officers to use more violence on people in detention. Because of the lockdown, the possibility for society to protest against this law was almost non-existent. While this has not been voted yet, when they decide to put this amendment back on the agenda we won’t be able to do much because it is not possible to travel to different cities or to protest publicly. Because of the COVID-19 measures, it will thus be possible for the government to promote more restrictive policies, which would stay with us also after the epidemic.

In terms of tracking, experts have also warned about measures taken. In Moscow and some other cities, we have to obtain special authorisation to go out, which includes a lot of personal details. This is a worrying trend as well and a lot of experts predict that this is the beginning of a system similar to the Chinese facial recognition…

Something which could be used easily against activists and human rights defenders I guess… 

Yes, even though right now the tracking system applies only to those who have been officially diagnosed with COVID. There has been no proper response from society right now. Some experts are saying that it is very wrong to use it and it violates fundamental human rights, but at the same time, the majority of society agrees that some restrictive measures can also be good. However, they might pose serious challenges for the future.

Lastly, given these potential long-term effects, in your opinion, what could be the contribution of the international community, including the Right Livelihood Foundation, to raise awareness and react to such risk?

It is very hard to predict this right now. We, as human rights defenders within the country, would appreciate any kind of support, be it informational or financial. With the borders closed, it makes all societies be more isolated than before. I am also afraid that borders in Europe will open soon, but borders with Russia will remain closed for longer, which will make it complicated for us, as we will be cut off from our colleagues. It would be of great help if there could be some advocacy action for further opening of borders, but at the same time, I see that there are currently a lot of challenges with solidarity and openness within the European Union. Concerning the tracking,  we would really appreciate some international advocacy campaign if something bad was to happen, but right now it is difficult to predict any misuse of this technology, which I suspect will be a rather general trend. Probably the dangerousness of COVID-19 is less compared to the potential dangerousness of tracking tools.

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