Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on Russian authorities to engage in "constructive dialogue" with critics instead of "abusing" counterterrorism laws to silence them.
The New York-based watchdog issued the call on February 12 after Russian military courts earlier this month handed down "harsh" guilty verdicts in three "deeply flawed" terrorism cases in which the defendants claimed that they were detained incommunicado, tortured, and received other "ill-treatment to extract confessions."
A total of 18 defendants in the separate cases on February 5 and 10 were sentenced to prison terms of up to 23 years.
HRW said in a statement that the trials were also marred by the prosecution and judges' refusal to investigate the defendants' "credible claims of abuse," and by their reliance on "dubious expert analysis and use of anonymous, 'secret witnesses.'"
"These defendants didn't get a fair trial. The verdicts should be quashed, and allegations of fabrications and ill-treatment adequately investigated," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.
In one of the cases, a district court in the town of Penza on February 10 found seven men guilty of planning terrorist attacks to destabilize the country and sentenced them to prison terms of between six and 18 years.
Authorities said the accused belonged to a group called "Set" (Network), but the men all claimed such a group does not exist and that, although they share antifascist views, they mainly play outdoor war games together.
Several defendants claimed that they were tortured while in custody, but the Investigative Committee rejected the claims.
Also on February 10, a Yekaterinburg court sentenced an alleged leader of the Russian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group banned in Russia as a terrorist organization, to 23 years in a maximum security prison. The convict, Eduard Nizamov, said that staff at the detention center had ill-treated him and caused him to be harassed while he was in custody, HRW said.
Five days earlier, 10 people were found guilty on charges related to their alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, including creating or membership in a local cell of a terrorist organization, assisting terrorism, and propaganda for terrorism. They were handed prison terms ranging from 11 to 22 years.
All of the Hizb ut-Tahrir defendants denied the accusations, saying the case against them was fabricated. Their lawyers challenged the prosecution's use of anonymous "secret witnesses" and the use of statements by people who were exonerated after plea bargains, according to HRW.
Williamson said that "abusing counterterrorism laws to silence critics and deny fundamental human rights is unlawful and risks fomenting more resentment against the government."
"Instead of steamrolling the dissidents, the authorities urgently need to learn to engage them in constructive dialogue," he added.