Russia’s treatment of military deserters and political dissidents

Asylos and the Dutch Council for Refugees collaborated in December to publish two country-of-origin information reports on Russia, focusing on the treatment of military deserters and political dissidents. Russian men who flee conscription and avoid military service will not be automatically granted asylum. Those seeking asylum on this basis will need to demonstrate more than just a risk of prosecution upon return, as prosecution does not always imply persecution. In this context, current evidence on potential risks to return is critical.

The Asylos report provides an overview of the relevant criminal code provisions and potential criminal sentences faced by deserters for failing to report for military service. Depending on the circumstances, sentences can range from one to ten years in prison. While both reports acknowledge that there is little evidence of deserters being prosecuted in Ukraine, the Asylos report goes further.

The Asylos report also provides some background evidence, albeit brief, on the state of Russian prisons. The report emphasises how Russian prisons are overcrowded, hygiene conditions are deplorable, and prisoners are frequently mistreated, tortured, and sexually assaulted while detained. This is important background evidence because, even if an asylum seeker cannot prove that they meet the definition of a refugee under the Convention, they can potentially argue that they would face ill-treatment upon return to Russia if imprisoned, and thus they may be granted humanitarian protection.

Following the publication of the Asylos report, the EUAA issued a comprehensive report on military service in Russia. The section emphasises the gravity of the Russian army’s war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

This is especially important because if an individual can demonstrate that they objected to military service in order to avoid committing war crimes, they may be granted asylum based on their political beliefs. While the decision will be made on a case-by-case basis, this objective evidence will undoubtedly be useful.

In June 2022, the EUAA report on the treatment of protestors, journalists, and human rights defenders in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine was published. The report, like the Home Office CPIN, outlines the increased risks that those who oppose the Russian government and speak out against the invasion of Ukraine face. The report focuses on the dangers that those who actively protest and report to the authorities face.

The Asylos report adds to this by addressing a broader range of dissidents and the risks they face. It claims that people have faced high fines, harassment, and arbitrary detention simply for criticising the Ukraine invasion on social media. It essentially makes the point that people do not have to be journalists or activists to face persecution and that even acts that would not normally be considered protest (such as posting a comment on social media or carrying a blank piece of paper in the streets) can pose a real risk of harm. Those accused of spreading false information may face criminal charges and possible prison sentences. The Asylos report discusses the specific dangers faced by children, students, artists, feminist activists, and people who oppose the war on religious grounds.

The Asylos report concludes with some additional background evidence of police violence in response to protests, as well as evidence of torture and ill-treatment suffered by those detained by Russian authorities.

Conclusion

In light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the number of asylum applications made by Russian nationals in the UK is increasing (according to Home Office statistics for the last quarter, the figure has more than doubled compared to 2021), though the figures remain relatively low in comparison to other nationalities. With reports of many soldiers deserting their posts and seeking asylum across the continent in recent months, applications from former soldiers may become more common.

Given the circumstances in Russia and the evidence available, military deserters may be able to succeed if they can demonstrate that they avoided service in order to avoid committing war crimes. Detention conditions should also be investigated and argued in these cases, as there is ample evidence of prisoners subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

The arguments may be slightly easier for political dissidents. The evidence discussed in these reports clearly shows that individuals can be perceived as opposing the government and face prosecution and persecution simply for posting critical comments on social media or being near an anti-war protest.

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