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25th Feb 2024

Pressure mounts on EU to coordinate visas for Russian rights-defenders

  • Olga Gnezdilova: the human rights lawyer is also working on getting justice for Ukrainians sexually-assualted by Russian soldiers (Photo: EUobserver)
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Pressure is mounting for EU states to ease multiple-entry visas for human rights defenders from Belarus and Russia.

But with individual national capitals in charge of issuing the visas, the possibilities for a coordinated EU approach appears limited. The demand comes as Russian authorities continue to crackdown on people fighting for basic rights.

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Among them is Olga Gnezdilova, a Russian lawyer and human-rights defender.

On Wednesday (25 January), she told EUobserver that people defending rights in Russia are under intense risk of persecution.

"They want to continue their work, but things are changing dramatically in Russia every day," she said.

On Thursday, a day later, the Russian state liquidated the country's oldest human rights organisation, the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Human Rights Watch called the shut down a disgrace. And the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, described it as yet another attack on human rights in Russia.

"The Kremlin is extending its aggression in Ukraine into political repression at home," he tweeted.

Gnezdilova worked as a project manager for the Moscow Helsinki Group, as well as a legal director for the Stichting Justice Initiative.

She left Russia for Germany three years ago on a visa following the first wave of repressions against jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Today, she represents victims of the Russian state at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

This includes cases involving victims of torture, gender based violence, judicial executions, and LGBTI rights. In February, the court is set to deliver a verdict in one of her cases involving sexual violence against an 11-year old child.

Russian police questioned the child 23 times, including why she hadn't screamed during the assault, said Gnezdilova.

"She got post traumatic stress disorder, not because of the violence but because of the investigation," she said.

Although Russia was booted out of the Council of Europe, cases that predate September 2022 can still be heard at the Strasbourg court. The workload is intense — with some 17,000 cases pending.

'Undesirable'

The liquidation of the Moscow Helsinki Group does not come as a surprise.

Only earlier this week, the Russian authorities labelled the Andrei Sakharov Foundation "undesirable." It means people who worked or volunteered for the foundation face possible jail.

The European Commission last September had also recommended EU states ease Russian visas for family members of EU citizens, journalists, dissidents and civil society representatives.

Rights defenders from Belarus and Russia are hoping those suggestions are put into greater practice.

Although Russians can also travel to Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan, Gnezdilova said they too are not safe. Humanitarian visas are also welcomed but require those applying to have a connection with the future host country, she said.

Sergey Lagodinsky, a German MEP and spokesperson on Russia for the Greens, says such visa options for Russian rights defenders need to be expanded.

"It is even more worrisome to see how some EU countries hinder Russian dissidents to apply or extend their visas. We should support those who raise their voices for civil rights in Russia, not push them away," he said, in an email.

Strasbourg rights watchdog seeks Russian accountability

The Strasbourg-based human rights watchdog Council of Europe wants Russia to pay for its crimes in Ukraine. Its secretary general Marija Pejčinović Burić says this includes setting up a new claims register to gather evidence for eventual prosecution and reparations.

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