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Russia: Free Semyon Simonov and stop criminalising human rights defenders for legitimate work – UN expert

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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 and he must be set free."

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.

ENDS

Ms. Mary Lawlor is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Ms. Lawlor is currently Associate Professor of Business and Human Rights at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) at Trinity College Dublin Business School. In 2001 she founded Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders to focus on human rights defenders at risk. As Executive Director between 2001 and 2016, Ms. Lawlor represented Front Line Defenders and played a key role in its development. Ms. Lawlor was previously Director of the Irish Office of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000, after becoming a member of the Board of Directors 1975 and being elected its President from 1983 to 1987.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For further information and enquiries please contact Orsolya Toth (email : ototh@ohchr.org ) or defenders@ohchr.org.

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact: Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / jlaurence@ohchr.org).

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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