European Court vs. Russian Constitution

by Tanya Cooper Researcher at Human Rights Watch 03.08.2015

Last week Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s main investigative agency, said the constitution should be changed so it will no longer give international legal standards priority over the constitution. Previously, Bastrykin had claimed that international legal mechanisms were “working against Russia” and were “skillfully manipulated by [Russia’s] Western opponents.”

Bastrykin’s statement, sadly, reflects the broader Russian official narrative that the West is out to undermine Russia. And Russia’s courts are unfortunately often on the government’s side.

Several days before Bastrykin’s most recent comments, Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled that “[n]either the European Convention on Human Rights, nor the legal positions of the European Court of Human Rights based on it, can take priority over the constitution” and that Russia would only carry out rulings that don’t contradict the constitution.

These recent government moves will further Russia’s isolation and may leave people in Russia without an effective means to find justice at home when the Russian court system doesn’t deliver it.

Behind Bastrykin’s comments, presumably, is the Kremlin’s anger over a European Court ruling ordering Russia to pay 1.9 billion euro in compensation to shareholders of the oil company Yukos, formerly owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The oil tycoon is Vladimir Putin’s arch-nemesis.

The government’s statements that it won’t implement European Court rulings that are at odds with the Russian Constitution are of particular concern especially in light of the government’s sweeping assault on fundamental freedoms in recent years. The government has busied itself trying to gut Russia’s vibrant civil society, persecuting the LGBT community, and placing draconian restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly.

Accompanying this assault has been an anti-Western campaign of hysteria unprecedented in its scale and pitch since the Soviet era. Refusing to implement European Court rulings would be yet another step toward preventing Russians from seeking justice for abuses at the hands of the authorities.

© 2015 Human Rights Watch. All rights reserved.

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Tanya Cooper is Russia researcher with the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. She works on issues related to freedom of assembly, association, and expression, LGBT rights and discrimination.  Cooper previously worked for Human Rights Watch's office in Moscow. Before joining Human Rights Watch, she worked as a casework coordinator for Amnesty International USA, as a human rights monitor with an OHCHR mission in the aftermath of the interethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, and as Central Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group. Cooper is a graduate of the Institute d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), American University and Northern Kazakhstan State University. She speaks Russian and French.

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