GENEVA (31 August 2021) – Russia must overturn the conviction of human rights defender Semyon Simonov and must stop using its “foreign agents” law to punish people whose legitimate work is standing up for human rights, a UN expert said today.
Mr. Simonov, head of the Southern Human Rights Centre in Sochi, was convicted of failing to register as a “foreign agent” under a 2012 law that affects any Russian group accepting any amount of foreign funding and carrying out activities the authorities deem political.
“This law is vaguely worded, is applied arbitrarily and carries crushing fines, issues we have repeatedly raised with the Russian government,” said Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders. “Mr. Simonov’s conviction must be overturned.”
Lawlor said that “far too often the “foreign agents’ law is used to punish journalists and human rights defenders for doing the valuable work of monitoring human rights abuses. In Russia the term ‘foreign agent’ is understood to mean ‘traitor’ or ‘spy,” so this label can be very damaging.”
Mr. Simonov raises awareness of human rights and provides free legal assistance in cases of human rights violations. His “political activity,” according to the Russian Ministry of Justice, was writing a report on stateless people and participating in a nationwide human rights campaign.
A judge in Sochi’s Central District sentenced him on 12 July to 250 hours of community service for his organisation’s failure to pay a fine of 300,000 Russian roubles (about €3,900 or US$4,575) imposed in 2017 for failure to register as a “foreign agent.” He had repeatedly submitted documents showing the organisation did not have funds or property to pay the fine.
“Mr. Simonov’s verdict is a culmination of almost a decade of harassment for his human rights work,” said Lawlor. He has been repeatedly detained and interrogated under various pretexts since 2013, and was placed on a list of “persons under special monitoring.” He has also been under a travel ban since July 2020.
Lawlor also expressed concern about numerous irregularities in the criminal case, the fact that the trial was effectively closed to the public, and allegations by Mr. Simonov’s lawyer that some case materials were falsified.
“The very fact that he was convicted is a very ominous signal for Russian civil society,” Lawlor said.
The Rapporteur is in contact with the Russian authorities on this issue.
Her call was endorsed by Mr. Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association.