A decree signed this week by Russian President Vladimir Putin making deaths of Russian forces “in peacetime” a state secret is yet another attack on freedom of expression in the country and indicates that President Putin has something to hide in Ukraine, Amnesty International has said.
The new decree, which bans all information about losses of Russian troops “during special operations” in peacetime, comes amid longstanding accusations - despite Kremlin denials - that President Putin has sent military assistance to separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Until yesterday, only losses of Russian troops during war were considered a state secret.
“Not only is this decree a blatant attack on freedom of expression, it also has sinister undertones that will intensify speculation President Putin has something to hide - specifically losses incurred by Russia’s military in Ukraine,” Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia Director John Dalhuisen said, adding that the new decree raises some disturbing questions, such as whether journalists and civil society activists reporting on alleged losses in Ukraine in future might be criminally prosecuted for treason.
“The move also increases fears for the safety of Russian media workers and civil society activists who have already faced harassment for trying to independently cover the conflict in Ukraine. It also means families of soldiers killed during "special operations" will be deprived of the truth about the fate of their loved ones,” Dalhuisen added.
The Russian government has tightened its control over mainstream Russian media in recent years, with several media outlets and journalists targeted over their coverage of the Ukraine conflict. Last August, several journalists were assaulted in separate incidents as they attempted to report on secretive funerals of Russian military servicemen allegedly killed in Ukraine. In one attack on August 29, Lev Shlosberg, publisher of Pskovskaya Guberniya - the first newspaper to report on the secret funerals - was brutally beaten and hospitalized with head injuries. A subsequent police investigation failed to identify his three assailants.
According to the report started by the late opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Russia is estimated to have allocated over a billion euros in last year to fight a war in Ukraine, most of it spent on troops' salaries. The report calls the Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine “mercenaries”, rather than “volunteers”, as the Russian authorities and media have portrayed them. A Russian recruiter from Yekaterinburg said that on average, 350,000 rubles (about 6,000 euros) per month is spent on a soldier. Russia has reportedly sent 6,000 of its soldiers to fight on behalf of Ukraine separatists. At least 200 Russian soldiers have died in the war and families of the deceased were given 2 million rubles (35,000 euros) by the Russian government for signing a promise to keep the matter quiet.
NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg warned on Wednesday, after his meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, that Russia is conducting yet another snap exercise near Ukraine this week that involves 250 aircraft and 700 pieces of heavy equipment.
Amnesty International is a non-governmental organisation focused on human rights with over 7 million members and supporters around the world. The stated objective of the organization is "to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated."
Editor: S. Tambur