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Archive for the ‘Injustice of Russia’ Category

Russian rights group says over 1,000 detained at protests

September 10, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — More than 1,000 people were detained at anti-government protests across the country in what the Kremlin on Monday called a legitimate response to unauthorized rallies. The OVD-Info group, which tracks police detentions and posts the names of the detainees on its website, said that 1,018 people were detained during Sunday’s demonstrations against a government plan to increase the ages at which Russians collect their state pension.

Nearly half of those detained were rounded up in St. Petersburg, according to the OVD-Info. Russia’s second-largest city arguably saw the most robust response with riot police charging at protesters with batons. Minors and elderly people were among those arrested.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the police acted in accordance with the law in response to unauthorized protests. He added that “hooligans and provocateurs” mixed up with protesters and assailed police.

In Moscow, authorities charged two men with assailing police. On Monday, several activists tried to launch another protest in a tree-lined boulevard in central Moscow but they were quickly rounded up by police.

Sunday’s rallies, which had been called by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, were held in dozens of towns and cities across Russia. Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who is Putin’s most visible foe, had called for protests against the government’s pension proposal before he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for organizing an unsanctioned January protest over a different issue.

The government’s plan calls for the eligibility age for retirement pensions to be raised by five years, to 65 for men and 60 for women. It has irked both older Russians, who fear they won’t live long enough to collect significant benefits, and younger generations worried that keeping people in the workforce longer will limit their own employment opportunities.

The government’s proposal has dented Putin’s popularity. The president responded by offering some concessions, but argued that the age hike is necessary because rising life expectancy in Russia could exhaust pension resources if the eligibility age remains the same.

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Ungodly espionage: Russian hackers targeted Orthodox clergy

August 28, 2018

LONDON (AP) — The Russian hackers indicted by the U.S. special prosecutor last month have spent years trying to steal the private correspondence of some of the world’s most senior Orthodox Christian figures, The Associated Press has found, illustrating the high stakes as Kiev and Moscow wrestle over the religious future of Ukraine.

The targets included top aides to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who often is described as the first among equals of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christian leaders. The Istanbul-based patriarch is currently mulling whether to accept a Ukrainian bid to tear that country’s church from its association with Russia, a potential split fueled by the armed conflict between Ukrainian military forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The AP’s evidence comes from a hit list of 4,700 email addresses supplied last year by Secureworks, a subsidiary of Dell Technologies. The AP has been mining the data for months, uncovering how a group of Russian hackers widely known as Fancy Bear tried to break into the emails of U.S. Democrats , defense contractors , intelligence workers , international journalists and even American military wives . In July, as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, a U.S. grand jury identified 12 Russian intelligence agents as being behind the group’s hack-and-leak assault against Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The targeting of high-profile religious figures demonstrates the wide net cast by the cyberspies. Patriarch Bartholomew claims the exclusive right to grant a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” or full ecclesiastic independence, sought by the Ukrainians. It would be a momentous step, splitting the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox denomination and severely eroding the power and prestige of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has positioned itself as a leading player within the global Orthodox community.

Ukraine is lobbying hard for a religious divorce from Russia and some observers say the issue could be decided as soon as next month. “If something like this will take place on their doorstep, it would be a huge blow to the claims of Moscow’s transnational role,” said Vasilios Makrides, a specialist in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Erfurt in Germany. “It’s something I don’t think they will accept.”

The Kremlin is scrambling to help Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill retain his traditional role as the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and “the more they know, the better it is for them,” Makrides said.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it had no information about the hacking and declined comment. Russian officials referred the AP to previous denials by the Kremlin that it has anything to do with Fancy Bear, despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko flew to Istanbul in April in an effort to convince the patriarch to agree to a split, which he has described as “a matter of our independence and our national security.” Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill is flying to Turkey later this week in a last-ditch bid to prevent it.

Hilarion Alfeyev, Kirill’s representative abroad, has warned that granting the Tomos could lead to the biggest Christian schism since 1054, when Catholic and Orthodox believers parted ways. “If such a thing happens, Orthodox unity will be buried,” Alfeyev said.

The issue is an extraordinarily sensitive one for the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Reached by phone, spokesman Nikos-Giorgos Papachristou said: “I don’t want to be a part of this story.” Other church officials spoke to the AP about the hacking on condition of anonymity, saying they did not have authorization to speak to the media.

Bartholomew, who is 78, does not use email, those church officials told AP. But his aides do, and the Secureworks list spells out several attempts to crack their Gmail accounts. Among them were several senior church officials called metropolitans, who are roughly equivalent to archbishops in the Catholic tradition. Those include Bartholomew Samaras, a key confidante of the patriarch; Emmanuel Adamakis, an influential hierarch in the church; and Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, who heads a prestigious seminary on the Turkish island of Halki. All are involved in the Tomos issue; none returned recent AP messages seeking comment.

Spy games have long been a part of the Russian Orthodox world.

The Soviet Union slaughtered tens of thousands of priests in the 1930s, but the Communists later took what survived of the church and brought it under the sway of Russia’s secret police, the KGB, with clerics conscripted to spy on congregants and emigres.

The nexus between Russia’s intelligence and religious establishments survived the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the KGB’s reorganization into the FSB, according to Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.

“Our church leaders are connected to the FSB and their epaulettes stick out from under their habits,” Oreshkin said. “They provide Vladimir Putin’s policy with an ideological foundation.”

That might make one target found by the AP seem curious: The Moscow Patriarch’s press secretary, Alexander Volkov.

But Orthodox theologian Cyril Hovorun said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a Russian group spying on targets close to home, saying, “they’re probably checking him out just in case.”

Volkov did not return AP emails seeking comment.

Hovorun is unusually qualified to speak on the issue. In 2012 he — like Volkov — was an official within the Moscow Patriarchate. But he resigned after someone leaked emails showing that he secretly supported independence-leaning Ukrainian clergy.

Hovorun has since been targeted by the Russian hackers, according to the data from Secureworks, which uses the name Iron Twilight to refer to the group.

Hovorun said he believes that those who published his emails six years ago weren’t related to Fancy Bear, but he noted that their modus operandi — stealing messages and then publishing them selectively — was the same.

“We’ve known about this tactic before the hacking of the Democrats,” Hovorun said, referring to the email disclosures that rocked America’s 2016 presidential campaign. “This is a familiar story for us.”

The Russian hackers’ religious dragnet also extended to the United States and went beyond Orthodox Christians, taking in Muslims, Jews and Catholics whose activities might conceivably be of interest to the Russian government.

John Jillions, the chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America, provided the AP with a June 19, 2015, phishing email that Secureworks later confirmed was sent to him by Fancy Bear.

Fancy Bear also went after Ummah, an umbrella group for Ukrainian Muslims; the papal nuncio in Kiev; and an account associated with the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, a Byzantine rite church that accepts the authority of the Vatican, the Secureworks data shows.

Also on the hit list: Yosyp Zisels, who directs Ukraine’s Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities and has frequently been quoted defending his country from charges of anti-Semitism. Zisels said he had no knowledge of the attempted hacking. Vatican officials did not return messages.

Protestants were targeted too, including three prominent Quakers operating in the Moscow area.

Hovorun said Protestants were viewed with particularly intense suspicion by the Kremlin.

“There is an opinion shared by many in the Russian establishment that all those religious groups — like Quakers, evangelicals — they are connected to the American establishment,” he said.

Secureworks’ data shows hacking attempts on religious targets that took place in 2015 and 2016, but other material obtained by the AP suggests attempts to compromise the Ecumenical Patriarchate are ongoing.

On Oct. 16, 2017, an email purporting to come from Papachristou, who was just being appointed as spokesman, arrived in the inboxes of about a dozen Orthodox figures.

“Dear Hierarchs, Fathers, Brothers and Sisters in Christ!” it began, explaining that Papachristou was stepping into his new role as director of communications. “It’s a very big joy for me to serve the Church on this position. Some suggestions on how to build up relations with the public and the press are provided in the file attached.”

The file was rigged to install surveillance software on the recipients’ computers.

The email’s actual sender remains a mystery — independent analyses of the malicious message by Secureworks and its competitor CrowdStrike yielded nothing definitive.

Church officials told the AP they were disturbed by the hacker’s command of church jargon and their inside knowledge of Papachristou’s appointment.

“The one who made this is someone who knows us,” one official said.

Priests and prelates don’t make obvious targets for cyberespionage, but the stakes for the Kremlin are high as the decision on Tomos looms.

Granting the Ukrainian church full independence “would be that devastating to Russia,” said Daniel Payne, a researcher on the board of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Texas.

“Kiev is Jerusalem for the Russian Orthodox people,” Payne said. “That’s where the sacred relics, monasteries, churches are … it’s sacred to the people, and to Russian identity.”

Francesca Ebel and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny gets month in jail

August 27, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — A Moscow court sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Monday to a month in jail for an unsanctioned protest, a move that puts President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent political rival behind bars and not in the streets for the next nationwide anti-government protest.

Navalny’s arrest Saturday outside his home came as a surprise, since police were detaining him over a protest rally held in January. Navalny has been jailed multiple times for organizing demonstrations, but that typically happens soon after the event.

Navalny has called for nationwide rallies on Sept. 9 to protest the Russian government’s plans to raise the retirement age for both men and women. The issue has created widespread outrage, uniting Russians with widely varying political views against the proposal.

After the Tverskoy district court ruled Monday to put Navalny in custody for 30 days, he urged his supporters to still take to the streets for the pension protest. In a tweet posted shortly after the ruling, Navalny said the Kremlin “shouldn’t think that my arrest changes anything.”

Navalny rose to prominence thanks to his investigations into official corruption. On Friday he published another investigation, alleging that at least $29 million had been stolen in procurement contracts for Russia’s National Guard, which is headed by Putin’s former bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov.

Russia: Thousands more fleeing eastern Ghouta via corridor

March 17, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s military says more than 11,000 people have left Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta outside the capital Damascus in the past few hours as government forces step up an offensive on the rebel enclave.

Maj. Gen. Vladimir Zolotukhin was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that some 3,000 people have been leaving every hour Saturday through a government-run humanitarian corridor monitored by the Russian military.

Zolotukhin is spokesman for the Russian center for reconciliation of the warring parties in Syria. Airstrikes in Syria killed more than 100 people on Friday as civilians fled en masse. Under cover of allied Russian air power, Syrian government forces have been on a crushing offensive for three weeks on eastern Ghouta.

The weekslong violence has left more than 1,300 civilians dead and 5,000 wounded.

Pussy Riot members who disrupted WCup re-arrested in Moscow

July 30, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Four members of the Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot who disrupted the World Cup final have been detained just after being released from jail in Moscow. Three female activists were clearly surprised when they walked out of a Moscow detention center Monday evening and were re-arrested. Pyotr Verzilov, the fourth protester, said on Twitter that he was also detained again and was going to be held overnight.

He tweeted, “What a turn of events!” The four activists had just served 15-day sentences for the World Cup protest. It was unclear what prompted the new detentions. The activists dressed in police uniform and ran onto the soccer field to briefly disrupt the match between France and Croatia. Pussy Riot said they were protesting policing powers and demanding reforms in Russia.

3 arrested after Russian opposition rally on pension age

July 29, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Three Russian opposition leaders were detained by police minutes after a demonstration to protest a government plan to raise the age for receiving state retirement pensions ended Sunday.

The demonstration in central Moscow had been authorized by city authorities and attracted thousands of people. No reason for the arrests was immediately given. Oleg Stepanov, a top aide to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, reported his detention on Twitter. He posted a photo of himself and the two others sitting in what appeared to be a police vehicle.

The Libertarian Party of Russia organized the demonstration. Kirll Samodurov, the party’s deputy chief, told the Interfax news agency that party chairman Sergei Boiko and rally leader Mikhail Chichkov were the other detainees.

The government’s proposal to raise the pension age for men from 60 to 65 and from 55 to 63 for women has sparked dissent across the political spectrum. The Communist Party sponsored a Moscow rally attended by an estimated 10,000 on Saturday.

The Bely Schetchik organization, which tracks attendance at public rallies, estimated the crowd at Sunday’s event at about 6,000. Navalny, who is President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent foe, attended the demonstration, but did not address the crowd. He has been arrested multiple times for calling unauthorized protests.

The government says increasing the age for collecting pensions is necessary because of rising life expectancy rates, but opponents characterize it as robbery. “This is not some hypothetical robbery. It’s not even corruption. It’s blatantly taking hundreds of thousands of rubles or even up to a million ($16,000) from some people,” Navalny said while standing in the crowd Sunday.

The average pension currently is about 14,000 rubles ($230) a month.

Beyond World Cup: Advocates call attention to Russian abuses

June 23, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Wrapped in national flags, jubilant fans dance at midnight in the streets of Moscow, smiling, laughing and cheering. While foreign spectators from all over the world are having a blast at the World Cup being hosted by Russia, human rights activists are urging them not to overlook the other side of Vladimir Putin’s nation: political prisoners and the harassment of critical voices.

Friday marked the 40th day that Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov has been refusing food in a Russian prison. Sentsov, an outspoken opponent of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, was sentenced in 2015 to 20 years for conspiracy to commit terror acts. He calls the case against him politically motivated and went on a hunger strike in mid-May to demand his release, as well as that of other Ukrainians held by Russia. Western nations have been calling for Sentsov’s release.

Sentsov’s lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, visited him in a prison clinic Friday and said his client has lost about 20 kilograms (44 pounds) and was very frail. “His condition is bad. He is very weak, very pale,” Dinze told The Associated Press by telephone. Dinze said Sentsov is able to walk, but talking is difficult and he has kidney and heart problems. Sentsov is receiving vitamins and other nutrients through an intravenous line and is refusing to be force-fed.

“He has stated his position firmly. Nobody will be able to talk him out of it, he will continue until his demands are met,” Dinze said. Russian officials have been saying Sentsov is in satisfactory condition and his health has not suffered.

“This is a double picture of a very bright, very sparkling celebration, but on the other hand, there is an entire abyss of despair,” said Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “It is very important that today those who watch Russia, film Russia, write about Russia see not only this celebration, beautiful by itself, which will come and go, understand even a little bit what today’s Russia is in terms of human rights and basic freedoms.”

Ukrainian rights activist Maria Tomak was among about a dozen people who staged a rally Friday outside the Russian consulate in Kiev, urging Putin to exchange Sentsov and other Ukrainians jailed in Russia for Russians detained in Ukraine.

“The situation around Oleg Sentsov is a threat to everyone,” Tomak said. “If there is some kind of fatal incident with Oleg in Russia during the World Cup, this will look awful, this will lead to (Russia’s) isolation.”

On the opening day of the World Cup, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny walked out of a Moscow jail after 30 days behind bars on charges of organizing an authorized rally and resisting police. Two days later, Navalny’s press secretary was released after a 25-day stint in prison.

In the Chechen capital of Grozny, where Egypt’s national team set up its base, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov was posing for photos with the Egypt star soccer forward Mohamed Salah. All the while, across town, the region’s top human rights activist Oyub Titiev was in a prison on drug charges that he calls fabricated.

International human rights organizations have dismissed the charges against Titiev as fake and have called on FIFA to intervene and seek his release. Beyond soccer, movie theaters across Russia are playing “Summer,” a romantic period drama about the budding rock scene in the waning years of the Soviet Union that received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film festival in May. But its director, Kirill Serebrennikov, is under house arrest on embezzlement charges, which he denies. The case is viewed by many in Russia as punishment for Serebrennikov’s iconoclastic views and has raised fears of a return to Soviet-style censorship.

Before hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Russia freed its most prominent prisoners, the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two women from the Pussy Riot punk band. Lokshina called for the same for Sentsov, Titiev and others.

“If this doesn’t happen, the legacy of the World Cup will be clouded by these awful, horrible cases,” Lokshina said. Independent political analyst Masha Lipman welcomed the festive and positive atmosphere of the World Cup, given that relations between Russia and the West had sunk to their lowest point in recent history. Lipman said that Western leaders have already made their position clear by not attending World Cup games but she says regular fans who have spent a lot of money and effort to come to come to Russia should focus on soccer and enjoy their stay.

“Do you think it would be better if everybody was walking around somber and angry, for tourists and fans to come here and to be looking for what else would upset them? Of course it is better when there is a friendly attitude toward the country,” Lipman said. “At least for a change.”

Inna Varenytsia contributed to this report from Kiev.

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