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2017: Annual report of the Human Rights Ombudsman in Saint Petersburg


In accordance with Article 1 of the Law “On the Human Rights Ombudsman for Saint Petersburg” the Ombudsman is responsible for protection of fundamental civil and political rights listed in Articles 2-21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other human rights in case of their systematic or large scale violation in Saint Petersburg. Fundamental civil and political rights are guaranteed by the Russian Constitution and are a necessary condition for respect of all other human rights.

In 2017 serious problems persisted as to respect of the right to freedom of expression, of assembly and association, of the right to information, and other fundamental constitutional rights. The number of applications to the Ombudsman seeking protection of social and health rights has raised. As in previous years, there were a lot of complaints about inaction and red-tapery of law enforcement agencies.**

There was a raise of complaints about violation of rights of foreign nationals in the context of reforms of migration agencies. 

To a large extent these problems are due to federal law and its application. However, as practice shows, many human rights problems can be resolved in Saint Petersburg. For instance, in 2017, declared in Russia a year of environment, city agencies in Saint Petersburg activated their work on securing environmental human rights.

The State Hermitage, 07.11.2017

2017 was a year of anniversaries of tragic events in our history. It has been 100 years since the October coup. It brought forth the Bolshevik system, which, in its turn, led our country to the tragedy of the Great Terror. It has been 80 years since the State killed thousands of its nationals daily…The revolution in Russia gave a strong impetus to global change in XX century, to building legal mechanisms allowing realization of a quest for freedom and justice natural for every human being. Sadly, positive consequences of this impetus were visible mostly in other countries, whereas in Russia we still did not fully comprehend tragic lessons of the revolution – denial of the supreme value of a human life, attempts to put law at the service of the totalitarian state which ignores such concepts as the rule of law, human rights, free democratic elections and independent tribunal. Realisation of these concepts promotes prosperity of the society and the country, whereas their disregard leads to stagnation and failure.

Shall we able to overcome a centenary national rupture, shall we be able to reconcile with our history, to comprehend and assess tragic events of the past whose repercussions we feel almost daily? Today these questions remain open, and we observe with concern human rights violations engendered by a growing rapture between the power and society, by unwillingness to hear, to listen and to understand each other, by intolerance, aggression and violence which had once led our country to disaster.

On 3 April 2017 Saint Petersburg faced a tragedy – 103 people fell victims of a terrorist attack, 16 of them died. Saint Petersburg citizens showed then the best human qualities, unselfishness and self-organisation. They helped the victims and each other, providing first aid, food, offering lift and creating support groups through social networks.

Solidarity of people gives hope that it is society who will bring change in the attitude to human life and its supreme value.

Human Rights Ombudsman for Saint Petersburg
Alexander Shishlov


* The Report is submitted in accordance with the Law of Saint Petersburg of 17 December 1997 No 227-77 “On the Human Rights Ombudsman for Saint Petersburg”. The Report is a core document on respect of human rights and freedoms in Saint Petersburg. It outlines the most important human rights issues, contains information about activities of the Ombudsman and his Office, and gives recommendations for improvement of the law and practices in order to protect human rights. The Report is based on different sources: complaints brought to the Ombudsman, results of inspections, statistics, expert opinions, information provided by State agencies, NGOs and media. The Report was presented to the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg, and then published and transmitted to State agencies responsible for implementation of measures aimed at respect of human rights. Many recommendations given in previous reports were implemented. However, a number of recommendations were not properly taken into account and remain relevant.

 A full version of the Report in Russian

** In 2016 the Federal migration service was abolished by a presidential decree, and its functions were transferred to the Main Directorate on migration of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Complaints to the Ombudsman in 2017

  • Written complaints – 2182
  • Complaints brought at face-to-face meetings – 967
  • Applications through hot lines – 66
  • Application to public assistants of the Ombudsman – 73

Right to housing

As in previous years, the highest number of complaints to the Ombudsman concerned the exercise of the right to housing. Compared to 2016, the number of families who received from the budget of Saint Petersburg non-repayable subventions for improvement of their housing conditions dropped by 40 %. Budget funds for social payments to young families also shrunk significantly. The number of participants of targeted programs (“Available housing for youth”, “Development of long-term housing financing”) also dropped. Housing plan for providing social housing to persons included to waiting lists was performed only by one third.

Hence, despite the work done, efforts of the authorities aiming at ensuring housing rights of Saint Petersburg citizens appear to be insufficient.

Right to labour

The problems of the exercise of the right to labour, and, first of all, to it timely remuneration, are of a particular importance in the current difficult economic conditions.

According to official statistics, on 1 January 2018 the amount of registered salary arrears exceeded 189 million rubles, which is 90% higher than in 2016. These data do not reflect unregistered salary arrears which are significantly higher.

For instance, according to the Prosecution of Saint Petersburg, in November 2017 salary arrears of Saint Petersburg companies were 405 million rubles; according to the State inspection of labour in Saint Petersburg, in December 2017 they amounted to 380 million rubles.

However, general unemployment in Saint Petersburg is 1,7 % which is lower than the average in Russia (5,1 %).

Protection from discrimination

Overcoming xenophobia and discrimination on the ground of nationality requires consolidated efforts of society, authorities and expert community. In 2018 Saint Petersburg welcomes a major international event – the FIFA World Cup, which makes creation of discrimination free environment in Saint Petersburg even more relevant.

According to analytical centre “Sova”, in 2017 in Saint Petersburg 25 persons fall victims of racial violence, one of them died.

There were cases of violence on the ground of hate against LGBT community. Organisation “Coming Out” reported 17 attacks on LGBT people in 2017, and 46 survivors thereof.

On 2 June 2017 three unidentified individuals, uttering homophobic abuse, beat up a member of LGBT community. The victim was hospitalized and brought a complaint to the police. However, no meaningful actions were taken, and the police refused to open criminal proceedings. Criminal proceedings were open only upon request of a member of the Russian State Duma Mikhail Romanov, and the victim was granted official victim status.

On 12 August 2017 a staff member of the Ombudsman’s Office witnessed an attack on a member of LGBT community during a public event on the Field of Mars. A group of individuals attacked a participant of the event, spraying pepper spray into her face. Police officers reached the attackers but did not apprehend them. Later on, the same individuals chased participants of the LGBT event and, again, sprayed pepper spray. This attack was accompanied by homophobic verbal abuse. Around 10 participants of the event fell victims, as well as journalists who were present at the event. One person was hospitalized. Criminal proceedings were open into this incident but investigation is still ongoing.


The Ombudsman stressed on numerous occasions that inaction of law enforcement agencies, refusals to open criminal proceedings into the violence against LGBT people, and the failure to take into account hate against LGBT community as a social group as an aggravating circumstance, strengthen the perpetrators’ perception of their impunity.

Domestic violence is one of the forms of gender discrimination. The Ombudsman noted in his annual reports that a major role in changing attitudes of the state and society to domestic violence might play accession of Russia to the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. This recommendation remains relevant.

In late 2017 in Saint Petersburg a new project focused on assistance to women was launched with support of the Ombudsman – help-woman.com. It was funded by a presidential grant. Its author, centre “Enlightment”, together with lawyers of the Ombudsman’s Office, will provide legal assistance to vulnerable women.

Persons with disabilities still face discrimination.

Over the last years in Saint Petersburg significant efforts are being made to create inclusive environment for persons with disabilities. However, the Ombudsman’s inspections show that, despite some positive changes made in 2017, persons with disabilities are still unable to exercise their right to tribunal, and to get access to medical and social establishments without assistance.

One of the most vulnerable and unprotected groups are people with mental disability who live in state-run social institutions. According to experts, the system of these institutions is too expensive and does not correspond to the requirements of social integration provided by the law. To the contrary, it results in isolation of persons with disabilities. It is necessary to develop alternative forms of support for these people, such as assisted living. In Saint Petersburg NGOs “Perspectives” and “GAOORDI” put in place projects of such assisted living.

The problem of the lack of adequate medical assistance to prisoners is still relevant. It is mainly due to the absence of medical supervision independent from the penitentiary system, insufficient financing, and the lack of medical staff.

In his Report for 2016 the Ombudsman mentioned the deaths of three female prisoners from cancer occurred in penitentiary institutions in Saint Petersburg. Tribunals refused to release these women, and a penitentiary medical institution, F.P. Gaaza hospital, did not provide them adequate medical assistance. In October 2017 the European Court of Human Rights delivered a judgment concerning one of these women. It held that the failure to provide adequate medical help to the prisoner suffered from an oncological disease amounted to a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment). The Court granted 20 000 euros to the minor daughter of the diseased woman.

In 2017 the practice of medical assistance to prisoners suffering from serious conditions began to change. The number of convicted persons released by tribunals due to their state of health, has tripled (in 2017 there were 8 persons released, in 2017 – 25).

As in previous years, in 2017 there was a lack of warming centers for homeless persons, where they could be admitted regardless of certificates of their registration in Saint Petersburg and other documents. Unfortunately, the Ombudsman’s recommendation to include warming centers in the list of urgent social services and to fund them accordingly, was not taken into account by the city authorities.

In 2017 a new problem was revealed – discrimination of conscripts who reached 18 years of age at school*. They cannot benefit from deferring their military service for the period of studies in technical colleges or at Master’s programs.

This violates the constitutional principle of equality: the right to continuous education becomes subjected to the date of birth and the year of starting school**. This position of the Ombudsman is confirmed by the jurisprudence.

To avoid such discrimination, it is necessary to amend Article 24 § 2 of Federal Law “On military service”. For the time being, recruitment commissions should directly apply Articles 15, 19 and 43 of the Russian Constitution.

* Article 10 § 7 of the Federal Law of 29 December 2012 No 273-FZ “On education in the Russian Federation”.
** In accordance with the law on education, primary school should be started when a child reaches 6 years and 6 months of age (in the absence of medical counter-indications), and no later than at 8 years of age.

Right to participate in managing state affairs

In 2017 Saint Petersburg actively prepared presidential elections. For instance, a working group created by the Ombudsman and Saint Petersburg election commission contributed to this work. It formulated proposals in order to improve legislation on elections and practices.

As a result of this work, many technical problems were resolved.

However, there is a lot to be done in order to overcome such reality of political life in Russia as the absence of political competition, including in federal media, instability of the electoral system, the use of “administrative resources” for influencing the citizens’ will.

Right to association

There were positive changes in state support to NGOs. A new procedure of allocation of presidential grants is more transparent and simpler.

174 Saint Petersburg NGOs received presidential grants in 2017 (this number has tripled compared to 2016). The amount of granted funds also raised, and a third of them were allocated to NGOs engaged in human rights advocacy, social support, and development of civil society institutes.

There were also positive changes in legislation of Saint Petersburg – a mechanism of advancing of funding of NGO’s projects.

Despite enhancing of budgetary support, funds from Russian sources are still insufficient for realization of socially important projects. At the same time, receiving grants from foreign sources is risky for an NGO, since it can be included in the list of NGOs carrying out functions of a foreign agent.

In 2017 the Saint Petersburg office of the Bellona Foundation and “Association of carriers of Russia” were included in the list of “foreign agents”. In total, nine Saint Petersburg NGOs are now labeled “foreign agents”. As the practice shows, the label “foreign agent” leads to stigma of an NGO.

The Ombudsman is concerned by a judgment of the Saint Petersburg City Court granting a civil action of the Prosecutor of Saint Petersburg requesting dissolution of a transregional trade union “Labour Association” which allegedly carried out political activities, received foreign funds and failed to register as a “foreign agent”. An appeal against this decision is now pending before the Russian Supreme Court.

In 2017 the Law on “undesirable foreign and international non-governmental organisations” was for the first time applied to Saint Petersburg NGOs earlier included in the list of “foreign agents” (“Centre for Independent Social Research” and “Regional Press Institute”). Court decisions on administrative liability of these NGOs under Article 20.22 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offences are now challenged in appeal.

NGOs perceive the above actions of the authorities as a pressure on civil society.

State agencies should not perceive NGOs only as “providers of social services”, or consider with suspicion their human rights activities. The work of NGOs is one of safeguards for securing in Saint Petersburg human rights and freedoms, participation of citizens in managing state affairs, development of civil society and public monitoring.

Applications of NGOs and civil initiatives (in which more than 200 thousands Saint Petersburg citizens are involved) to the Ombudsman show that their proposals are often ignored by the authorities (despite the existence of a procedure for examination and taking into account public initiatives, adopted by a presidential decree in 2013).

The Ombudsman thinks that it is time to adopt in Saint Petersburg a law on public monitoring. The experience of the Perm region, where such law was passed in 2011, could be useful in this regard. According to the Perm law, public monitoring of the authorities’ activities and independent expertise can be carried out not only by public boards and councils (as provided by the federal law), but also by citizens and their associations.

Right to freedom of assembly

All Ombudsman’s reports stressed problems of exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and contained recommendations for their solving. Most of those recommendations are still relevant, whereas the number of violations of the freedom of assembly is only growing.

The main problem is unjustified interference with holding public events. To a large extent it is due to current practices.

Formalistic and invented grounds are often used to refuse a public event, as well as organization of fake events, proposals of alternative places obviously unsuitable for achieving the goals of an event.

Refusals to approve public events organized by Alexey Navalny, widely advertised, got the most of publicity. However, organisers of events with other different goals received much more refusals.



Refusals were received by organisers of major public events (such as a march for the defence of Saint Petersburg), as well as by organisers of uncrowded pickets (action of the Memorial society in front of the Kresty remand prison, picket in the memory of Anna Politkovskaya near Solovetskiy stone). 


The executive authorities should change their approach to approval of public events. At the same time, amendments to Saint Petersburg legislation are also needed. It is first of all applicable to dedicated locations for holding public events in a simplified form (so-called “Hyde parks”) – they are regulated by the Saint Petersburg Government, but basic principles could and should be established by a law of Saint Petersburg. In particular, it is necessary to raise the number of such locations and to make obligatory their creation in the city centre, in line with the ruling of the Russian Constitutional Court.

The only dedicated location on the Field of Mars, popular among organisers and participants of public events, was abolished in August 2017.

The limit of participants of public events held in dedicated locations should also be raised. Today it is limited to 200 participants – too little for a five-million city. There should be dedicated locations with moderate, as well as with considerable (up to several thousand people) capacity. In the city centre there are some suitable places – for example, Lenin Square, Konushennaya and Pionerskaya Square.


It would be reasonable to allow to submit a notification about a public event on shorter notice. Now it is four days, which does not permit people to publicly gather and lawfully express their position when a matter arose unexpectedly.

Double standards on approval of public events, incapacity and unwillingness to find lawful solutions respecting the freedom of peaceful assembly, including demonstrative refusals of their approval, lead to radicalization of public moods, and de facto instigate active people, first of all the youth, to hold unapproved events. All this destroys the trust in law.

However, it should be reminded that non-approval of a public event or its spontaneity do not in themselves mean their unlawfulness, and does not necessarily require their dispersal. The Russian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights stressed on numerous occasions that liability for violation of rules for holding public events should be engaged only when this created a real danger to public security, to life and health of people.

Unfortunately, in 2017 the practice of dispersal of non-approved events gave many examples of indiscriminate arrests of people, including journalists, excessive use of force and other large-scale violations of human rights. The most dramatic examples concern the action of 12 June 2017, when hundreds of people were apprehended, detained in unhuman conditions and then arrested.


Examination of cases in a summary manner, violation of the rights of defence and of the right to a public hearing are particularly acute problems.

Upon the Ombudsman’s initiative, in October 2017 the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg held a public hearing. Following this meeting its Committee on legislation started the work on analysis of proposals for improvement of legislation of Saint Petersburg on public events.

It is the Ombudsman’s opinion that unjustified interference with the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of expression not only violates the Russian Constitution but creates obstacles to development of the country.

Right to fair trial

In May 2017 the Ombudsman’s Office, together with students of the Herzen University, carried out a pilot project of monitoring of access to justice in Saint Petersburg. This project was initiated by “Leonid Nikitinsky’s Centre of Legal Programs”. Participants of the project visited 33 circumscriptions of justices of the peace, four district courts and the Saint Petersburg City Court. They also tested websites of 22 district courts of Saint Petersburg, of the Saint Petersburg City Court and of three circumscriptions of justices of the peace.

They found satisfactory the access to courts when examination of cases was in accordance with a schedule. However, after this monitoring there were court proceedings concerning administrative liability of participants of a public event on the Field of Mars held on 12 June 2017. That day more than 500 people were apprehended, and 1071 reports on administrative offences were drawn by the police. In these cases the courts held unscheduled hearings at the evening and night time.

The first day of examination of these cases, on 13 June 2017, court buildings were inaccessible for public, and court hearings were held behind closed doors (including in the evening and the night time). The Ombudsman personally documented inaccessibility for public of the Dzerzhinskiy District Court. Following his negotiations with the president of this court, the public and the press were admitted to the court building. However, examination of similar cases in other district courts where the police brought cases since there was an uncertainty as to their territorial competence, was, as a general rule, behind closed doors. Information about hearings of 13-14 June 2017 was published on the courts’ websites only few days after the hearings had been held.

Unpreparedness of law enforcement agencies and the judiciary for processing cases in the context of mass arrests at public events cannot be justified. It resulted in violation of the rights of apprehended people (right to open hearing, to be assisted by a lawyer etc.), but it did not preclude from holding them responsible for administrative offences. When there is a conflict between the need to engage someone’s liability for an administrative offence and impossibility to secure his or her rights, the choice should be made in favour of this person. Holding someone liable in violation of this persons’ rights does not correspond to basic principles of fair trial.

The Saint Petersburg City Court published its rules on attendance of visitors. Rule 2.4 stipulates that visitors may stay in the court building after working hours only upon approval of the president of the court, of judges or the registrar, and this is controlled by court ushers. It appears that this rule is in breach of procedural law and constitutional provisions on public hearings.

Cultural rights

Saint Petersburg is the major kipper of cultural heritage in Russia. According to the Committee on control, use and protection of historical and cultural monuments in Saint Petersburg, on 1 January 2018 there were 9244 objects of cultural heritage. The Committee keeps this list updated.

St. Isaac's Cathedral

Monitoring of securing the right to access to cultural heritage was one of important fields of the Ombudsman’s work in 2017.

Access to cultural heritage is an important condition for personal fulfilment. It also serves to preserve cultural heritage through the exercise of regular public supervision of the state of cultural and historical monuments.

In 2017 the Ombudsman focused on accessibility of historical buildings occupied by state agencies of Saint Petersburg. On 18 April 2017, International Day for Monuments and Sites, the Ombudsman, together with volunteers, visited historical buildings occupied by three committees of Smolny. Despite legal requirements, there was no information on visiting hours of these buildings. The Ombudsman recommended to the heads of committees to publish such information on the committees’ websites. Only one of these committees followed this recommendation so far.

The Ombudsman also revealed the problem of access to monuments which are in possession of foreign states and international organisations. Access to such monuments is regulated by international treaties*. According to information provided by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are no special provisions on access to monuments in international treaties on transfer of real estate to foreign states and international organisations.

The Ombudsman is also concerned by preservation of monuments transferred to religious organisations. For instance, from 2013 to 2017 16 objects were transferred to religious organisations, but preservation orders were issued only with regard to six of them. Only eight of them are included in the Register of encumbrance with obligations to preserve and maintain them. Out of 11 objects of cultural heritage transferred for free use to religious organisations, only three had preservation orders.

* Article 47.4 § 7 of the Federal Law of 25 June 2002 No 73-FZ “On objects of cultural heritage (historical and cultural monuments) of people of the Russian Federation”.

Education in the law

The Ombudsman runs the Saint Petersburg competition of student papers “Human Rights”. It is the main project aiming at encouraging the youth to learn more on human rights. The interest to this competition raises every year. Over the six last years, students of all leading Saint Petersburg universities participated in this competition.

The award ceremony of this competition is held in the State Museum of Political History of Russia, within the framework of events organized to commemorate the International Human Rights Day (10 December).

In 2017 the Ombudsman, together with internet-portal “CARTOONBANK.RU” and art-centre “Pushkinskaya-10” organised another educational project to celebrate the International Human Rights Day – an exhibition of cartoons “Human Rights”. Saint Petersburg cartoonists Victor Bogorad and Viacheslav Shilov were curators of this exhibition.

There were more than 90 pieces of ironic, humoristic and satiric graphics and paintings on human rights topics created by artists from Russia, Belarus, Israel, Kazakhstan, USA and Ukraine. The exhibition was held from 6 to 17 December 2017 in “Art-Ligue” gallery of art-centre “Pushkinskaya -10”, and sparked great interest of visitors.

In 2017 the Ombudsman continued his collaboration with cartoonist Viacheslav Shilov on a satiric “Human Rights calendar”. The sixth issue – calendar for 2018 – was dedicated to Russian writers of XX century whose work, civic stance and destiny influenced, according to the artist, the development of social thinking, sense of justice, respect for human rights and human dignity.

Development of the Institution of Human Right Ombudsman

In 2017 it has been 20 years since adoption of the law “On the Human Rights Ombudsman in Saint Petersburg”, and creation of a consultative gubernatorial board – Human Right Commission for Saint-Petersburg; and ten years since election of a first Ombudsman and creation of a Human Rights Council in Saint Petersburg.

Each of the human rights institutions currently functioning in Saint Petersburg has its own particularity, but all of them have a common cause – human rights protection. Their collaboration and a direct dialogue with the executive and legislative branches, as well as with civil society, are beneficial to Saint Petersburg citizens.

Collaboration with federal and international human rights ombudsman institutions (Coordinating Council of Russian Human Rights Ombudsmen, Presidential council on development of civil society and human rights, and European Ombudsman Institute) also contributes to strengthening the human right institution.

The Saint Petersburg Ombudsman is a co-chair of the Coordinating Council of Russian Human Rights Ombudsmen and a vice-president of the European Ombudsman Institute.

In 2017 the Office of the federal ombudsman, together with regional ombudsmen, prepared a draft federal law “On general principles of organization and activities of regional human rights ombudsmen in the Russian Federation”. This draft law was further elaborated together with the Federation Council’s Committee on constitutional law and state construction. This draft law aims at enhancing efficiency of the public human rights protection.


In December 2017 this draft law was discussed at parliamentary hearings organized by the Federation Council. It is planned that in 2018 it will be ready to be submitted as a legislative initiative of the Federation Council.

A growing role of ombudsmen in today’s difficult socio-economic situation is determined by problems that they daily solve – deescalating tensions in the society, transferring of a conflict into a dialogue, orienting the authorities and the citizens on legal ways of securing the rights and interests.