Human rights activist and lawyer Semyon Simonov was convicted under Russia’s foreign agents law in a controversial criminal trial on Sunday.
In December 2016, Russia designated the Southern Human Rights Center (SHRC) as a foreign agent, considering it to be engaging in political activity. The SHRC is an organization providing pro bono legal services on human rights issues in Russia. Given this status, Russian law required the SHRC to register as a foreign agent. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “foreign agent” connotes being a traitor or spy.
In February of 2017, Russia fined the SHRC for its failure to register. A Russian court determined Simonov, the President of the SHRC, would be held liable to pay the fine in July of 2019 following the SHRC’s non-payment. Sunday’s ruling imposed a sentence of 250 hours of community service onto Simonov for failure to pay the fine.
Simonov has a long history of championing for human rights. He has documented the human rights violations endured by migrant workers preparing for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Simonov’s criminal case has been heavily criticized by the human rights community. HRW’s Russia Researcher, Damelya Aitkhozhina, said “The criminal case against Semyon Simonov has been a sham from start to finish. It’s shocking and abhorrent that the authorities wasted so much time and resources on a case in which the accused did nothing but help people protect their rights.”
Similarly, the country’s foreign agents law itself has faced calls for repeal. It has been criticized for quashing dissent and undermining the United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights Defenders which provides in article one that everyone has the right “to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights”.
“The ‘foreign agents’ law is nothing more than a tool of repression,” said HRW. “[I]t should be immediately repealed.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty echoes HRW’s calls. In May it filed a lawsuit challenging the country’s foreign agents law, citing concerns about the controversial law’s “profound chilling effect”.