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Russia 'no longer governed by rule of law,' says activist

A new decree making the number of Russian war dead a state secret could have serious consequences for freedom of speech and human rights in Russia, human rights activist Sergey Krivenko has told DW.

All Russian military deaths during special operations in peacetime are to be considered an official state secret, according to an official declaration by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday. Previously, the number of military dead had only been classified in times of war. In Russia, revealing state secrets is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Speaking to journalists, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the move was connected to ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine. The Russian government has consistently maintained that no soldiers currently enlisted in the Russian military are taking part in the conflict.

Russian human rights activists, however, have been concerned the move will further restrict their ability to report on possible Russian involvement in the Ukraine crisis. They said the language of the presidential decree could allow the Kremlin to clamp down on the work of journalists and other investigators.

DW spoke to Sergey Krivenko, a Russian human rights activist and member of Russia's Human Right Council, to discuss activists' concerns.

DW: What consequences will this decree have?

Sergey Krivenko: From the point of view of the Russian government, this is a completely logical step. If the government is still denying the presence of Russian soldiers in the conflict in Ukraine then of course they will also deny that there are casualties in the conflict.

Ukraine Russland gefangen genommener Soldat in Kiew

Two Russian soldiers were captured in Ukraine this month

Classifying the data of military personnel serving in Ukraine, allows the Defense Ministry to simply ignore quests from journalists and human rights organizations. They can simply say that the data is now a state secret.

What effect do you think this decree will this have on your work as a human rights activist and a member of Russia's Human Right Council?

I hope that this decree won't have an effect on the work of human rights organizations at all. We aren't in politics, we work in human rights.

Russian law concerning state secrets clearly states that cases of human rights violations can't be classified. According to Russian and international law, the death of any soldier requires the government to carry out an investigation into the circumstances of that death. In any case, we will continue to protect the rights of military personnel, just as we did before.

Why do you think Putin signed this decree now?

That's hard to say. The law could have been a long-term plan. Or it could be a reaction to the report by Boris Nemtsov, which published the number of Russian casualties [in Ukraine] according to data he and his colleagues collected. Maybe it's yet another attempt to intimidate the journalists and human rights activists who are working on the subject.

If we lived in a country governed by the rule of law, this decree would only affect government employees. But since we don't, law enforcement agencies can use this decree to put pressure on journalists, human rights activists and even normal citizens.

The Russian criminal code's statute on treason is so vague that it allows the government to apply the decree even to a blogger writing about Russians serving in Ukraine. It can be applied to anyone. This decree is a threat to the whole of society. It says that the deaths of Russian soldiers in armed conflict are a taboo topic.

The decree follows the law on "foreign agents" and the more recent law on "undesirable organizations." What does this mean for Russia?

What this shows is that in the last two years, Russia has completely moved away from the idea of being a country governed by the rule of law. That's what the vague phrasing of all of these measures shows. And that's without even mentioning [the annexation of] Crimea, which violates international law.

The situation in Russia is very serious and I don't see how it will improve. Nevertheless, at this point we at the Human Rights Council are still able voice our opposition to all of these laws - starting with the law on "foreign agents" and continuing with this new decree - and to advise the government against them.

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