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Indigenous Leaders Speak Out About Criminalization and Silencing by Putin Administration

Photo: Andrei Danilov (Sámi)

Indigenous organizations in Russia, allied organizations, and Cultural Survival have released an Open Letter to the Putin administration sounding an alarm about the growing intimidations and reprisals against Indigenous activists and rights defenders in Russia. 

These attacks are exemplified by the recent illegal detention of activist Andrei Danilov (Sámi) in the Murmansk region. Danilov, Director of the Sámi Heritage and Development Foundation, was detained on August 29, 2021. Andrei Danilov was unlawfully detained by the police after, fearing for his safety, he refused to present his belongings for inspection without witnesses. He was detained for five days, charged with “failure to comply with the lawful order of a police officer.” 

Danilov’s arrest is just one of the latest incidents in a series of acts of harassment against Indigenous activists and rights defenders in Russia in recent years. Days before, another Indigenous rights defender Stepan Petrov was declared a “foreign media acting as a foreign agent” in the Republic of Sakha on August 20, 2021. The 2012 Russian law on foreign agents, originally created to restrict international funding to Russian NGOs, is now being used to target individuals. Stepan Petrov (Sakha) is the first Indigenous person in Russia to receive the “foreign agent” label. Petrov chairs the nonprofit group Yakutia – Our Opinion, which is well-known in the region of the Republic of Sakha for their human rights work. The activist submitted numerous appeals to the United Nations calling on the Russian government to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and to support civil society in Russia.

On July 26, 2021, Indigenous activist Alexander Gabyshev (Sakha) was sentenced to compulsory treatment in a mental hospital in the Republic of Sakha.  A well-known spiritual leader, Gabyshev has been detained numerous times since his spring 2019 march on Moscow. His detention in May 2020 resulted in his involuntary placement in a psychiatric program. The premier human rights group, Memorial, declared Gabyshev a political prisoner. After his release in July 2020, he was once again forced into hospitalization. In February 2021, Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against Gabyshev under the pretense of violence against a government official, and the following month he was declared insane on the basis of a state psychiatric examination. In July 2021, a Yakutsk municipal court found him guilty of harming a police officer during an earlier arrest and sentenced him to compulsory treatment in a psychiatric clinic as a danger to others. Gabyshev will likely spend the next two years in a mental health institution as a tactic to silence his activism.

Other cases of reprisals and harassment of Indigenous activists, rights defenders, and organizations in Russia are listed below:

  • September 15, 2021: The authorities opened a criminal case against Sergei Kechimov (Khanty) in Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, according to media reports. The local shaman and elder campaigns to protect the sacred lake Imlor from oil extracting giant, Surgutneftegaz.  According to Kechimov, he was beaten by three company employees, yet he was the one charged by the police.
  • August 31, 2021: Eiko Serotetto (Nenets), a reindeer herder and Indigenous activist from the Yamal Peninsula in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, was sentenced to three months of personal restraint for fighting with another person in an Indigenous village. Despite the fact that Serotetto did not initiate the fight and that the brawlers subsequently reconciled, the police opened a criminal case against the activist. In 2019, Serotetto was investigated by police for organizing a meeting of Yamal reindeer herders where they discussed rights violations by oil companies.
  • August 24, 2020: Vyacheslav Krechetov (Shor), a well-known filmmaker from Kemerovo Oblast, was detained by police for organizing a public event during which the Indigenous community of Cheremza protested a new coal facility near the village. Krechetov was found guilty and fined 20,000 rubles (275 USD) for filming the event. The fine and charges were later dismissed by a local court. 
  • August 10, 2020: Arsenty Nikolaev (Evenk), deputy of the Republic of Sakha regional parliament and head of the Indigenous Tyanya community association, was arrested and placed under house arrest for speaking out in opposition to the activities of the Neryungri Metallik gold-mining company. After almost a year of house arrest, the regional court freed Nikolaev. However, the court did not close the criminal case against him despite the appeal court’s finding that business relations among stakeholders were legal.
  • November 2019: a Moscow city court ordered the closure of the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North/Russian Indigenous Training Center (CSIPN/RITC) on the grounds that its legal documentation was incomplete.  CSIPN was the most important independent Indigenous rights group in Russia. Human rights defenders consider the organization’s closure as the final act in a long campaign by the authorities to silence the organization. CSIPN’s leader Rodion Sulyandziga (Udege) was arrested in 2016, preventing his participation in a seminar on Indigenous Peoples' rights in Moscow. Earlier in 2014, Russian border guards stopped Sulyandziga from participating in a UN conference on Indigenous peoples’ rights by damaging his passport at the airport. Several other Indigenous activists were also stopped from traveling to the same event under questionable circumstances. 

This list, though not exhaustive, shows the trend of government reprisal cases against Indigenous activists in Russia and an increasing pattern of intimidation and repression facing these activists and rights defenders. Cultural Survival and Batani Foundation also denounced this trend in a May 2021 report to the UN Commission for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, detailing cases of surveillance, censorship, arson, and the silencing of Indigenous women by obstructing their participation in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples in New York. 

The Open Letter, addressed to Putin as well as political representatives, UN officials, and human rights bodies across Russia, Europe, and the United States, demands an end to intimidation and harassment of Indigenous activists and Indigenous rights defenders in the Russian Federation.


Sign on to the Open Letter:

Open Letter in support of Mr. Andrei Danilov and other Indigenous activists in Russia affected by reprisals and harassment organized by police and governmental bodies