'Break the silence': Human rights group urges Ottawa to help free Russian political prisoners

Ottawa should do more to help political prisoners in Russia as President Vladimir Putin’s regime accelerates a crackdown on dissent, says an international coalition of human rights activists.

Group testifies before Commons foreign affairs committee about human rights in Putin's Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Independent Trade Union Federation congress in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. A recently-released report says the number of political prisoners in Russia has increased rapidly over the past four years. (Alexei Nikolsky/Associated Press)

Ottawa should be doing more to defend political prisoners in Russia as President Vladimir Putin's regime accelerates its crackdown on dissent, says an international coalition of human rights activists.

Members of the Global Coalition to Free the Kremlin's Political Prisoners gathered in Ottawa Monday to cite a recently-published investigative report that found the number of political prisoners detained in Russian prisons climbed from 46 in February 2015 to 236 by March of this year.

The number of political prisoners held in Russia has since risen to 296, former federal justice minister Irwin Cotler told the House of Commons' foreign affairs committee today.

"While we know of Russia's external aggression — Ukraine, Crimea, Venezuela — we are largely unaware of the domestic repression that is taking place," said Cotler, president of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

Cotler's orgnization, along with some of the other NGOs that make up the coalition, commissioned a human rights-focused consulting firm called Perseus Strategies to write the 280-page report.

Targeting civil society

The report concluded that political activists, journalists, religious and sexual minorities, opposition politicians and other members of civil society have been the targets of a wide-ranging campaign of official political persecution since Putin returned to power in 2012.

"Behind these statistics are real people who are being held in prisons, penal colonies, detention centres and under house arrest, having committed no crime against the law, only crossing the imposed lines of Vladimir Putin's regime," Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian pro-democracy activist, told the committee.

The report only counted those who meet the Council of Europe's strict definition of political prisoner — so the actual number could be higher, Kara-Murza said.

Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police and accused of drug offences, stands inside a defendants' cage as he attends a court hearing in Moscow, Russia June 8, 2019. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Just last week, police in Moscow arrested Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist for the online news outlet Meduza, on drug charges. His friends and colleagues say the charges are bogus and are connected to his anti-corruption journalism.

In a show of defiance on Monday, three major Russian newspapers published nearly identical front pages featuring the headline "I am/We are Ivan Golunov" and called for a transparent investigation into the case.

International pressure needed, activists say

Kara-Murza said Western governments, including Canada's, used to regularly raise the plight of political prisoners with Kremlin officials during the Soviet era, but have since stopped doing so. International pressure, Kara-Murza said, often led to prisoners being released.

He encouraged Canada and other nations to step up their support for the prisoners by raising their cases at bilateral meetings with Russian officials and targeting those responsible with sanctions.

Vladimir Kara-Murz, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, urged the Canadian government to put pressure on Russia to release political prisoners. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

"[Canada] should raise the issue of political prisoners, not in general terms, but with specific names and specific cases, in every contact with Russian officials, from top-level summits to ministerial meetings to parliamentary assemblies," said Kara-Murza. "It's time to break the silence."

Beyond that, the activists called for actions to hold Russian officials accountable.

The report identifies 16 "perpetrators" allegedly responsible for the persecution of dissidents, either through the decisions they've taken or through their willing participation in the arrest, prosecution or imprisonment of dissidents. The list includes judges, prosecutors, police investigators, two ministers and Putin himself.

Magnitsky sanctions

The group encouraged the committee to make use of the so-called Magnitsky Act, or the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act — a 2018 law that allows federal government to impose sanctions or travel bans on foreign officials responsible for human rights violations.

The legislation was inspired by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in 2009 in a Moscow prison after accusing Russian officials of a massive tax fraud scheme.

As of March 2019, Canada had in place sanctions against 435 Russian individuals and entities. The sanctions were imposed for a number of reasons, including Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its arrest of Ukrainian sailors in the Black Sea.

But the list did not include some — such as Russia's Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika — who were identified as perpetrators in the report, Kara-Murza said.

"When it comes to Russia, Canada has been very clear about our concerns," Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said at a press conference in Montreal on Monday. "We have imposed Magnitsky sanctions on an extensive list of Russian officials and we are constantly reviewing our Magnitsky sanctions."

With files from The Associated Press