Advisory Council (Russia)

On this page you will find statements and opinions by members of Rights in Russia's Advisory Council (Russia).

Lev Ponomarev: Russia, it’s time to put a stop to arbitrary rule! - Rally in Moscow on 10 June

posted 18 Jun 2018, 11:10 by Rights in Russia

4 June 2018

On 10 June 2018, in the run-up to Russia Day, a protest rally will be held against the widespread infringement of citizens’ rights and freedoms in Moscow on Sakharov Prospect.

All should gather at 12 o’clock at the intersection of Kalanchevskaya and Masha Poryvaeva streets (nearest metro Komsomolskaya). The rally begins at 13.00.

· If you want to live in a country where there are no political prisoners

· If you are concerned about the impunity of law enforcement agencies who practice beatings and torture

· If you want to live in a city without rubbish dumps where your children can breathe clean air

· If you are fighting against the demolition of your home, the destruction of your park, or against in-filling building projects

· If you hate the corruption, lies, and double-dealing of the servamts of the authorities

· If you support social justice

· If you are against censorship and blocking internet access

· If you want Russia to be a country of Freedom, and not a country of slaves


Aleksei Simonov: "The methods of combatting journalism have improved, the need to kill individual journalists has lessened"

posted 11 Jun 2018, 01:43 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 11 Jun 2018, 01:52 ]

29 May 2018 

Extract from an interview with Aleksei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: 7х7]

At a seminar held by the Glasnost Defence Foundation near Kostroma on 25-27 May, Aleksei Simonov, President of the Foundation and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, invited Kostroma journalists and bloggers to interview him […]. The internet magazine “7x7” published the most interesting questions from the general interview.

Why is the Glasnost Defence Foundation funded from abroad?

We have not succeeded in replacing foreign money with presidential grants: they do not want to finance what we offer, but what they are ready to finance, we will not do. We’re not interested in it.

Is the Foundation you head prepared to defend the journalist and TV presenter Vladimir Solovev?

There is no such journalist.

If regional journalists don’t ask the Foundation for help, does that mean that everything is ok with journalism there?

If journalists in some regions don’t conflict with authorities, it means that there are no journalists there. Unfortunately, journalism has become more ready to be subject to discipline, more obedient, less penetrating.

How do honest journalists in Russia today fit into the political system and not suffer from it?

A journalist that wants to do his job well, but not suffer, cannot exist in the Russian Federation. He must be prepared to give up some part of the truth or suffer for the truth.

What, for you, is the press?

Firstly, it is a body that is arrogant, secondly, curious, and thirdly, aggressive. Without these things, we are talking about something that is very far from being "the press."

What role does journalism play today?

In this country, there is so much that is in a state of turbulence, on the one hand, and on the other hand so much that has been put into a state of order. But this turbulence on the one hand and order on the other are very difficult to bring together. And at their intersection there is journalism, which must try to translate the turbulence into order. That’s why journalism is a very unprofitable profession today.

Won’t journalism disappear with the development of the blogosphere?

I don’t think that will happen. The blogosphere is a very good source of information for the media. But there is a serious boundary between journalists and bloggers: the journalist is responsible for his own words, and the blogger is only just starting to learn this.

What is the relationship between journalism and public relations – PR?

If a journalist wants to remain a journalist, he should not engage in PR. But in this country, there is a tendency to entangle these two professions. In dozens of universities, journalists and PR experts are trained at the same time in one faculty. It is believed that these are two sides of the same coin, but that is a savage mockery of the meaning of journalism.

What problems do smaller regional media have?

There are successful projects among small regional media. For example, in Severodvinsk, the Severnaya Nedelya holding publishes some newspapers of interest. Some quite interesting journalists work for them. Although, being friends with their editor, I can say that the crazy journalists nonetheless leave are leaving. And it is the crazy ones who write the best journalism.

What are the prospects for investigative journalists in Russia?

Investigative journalism as a genre today is dying. After all, the very minute the authorities stop reading and listening to the press, investigative journalism becomes meaningless.

What accounts for the reduction in the numbers of murders of journalists in contemporary Russia compared with the 2000s?

The methods of combatting journalism have improved, so the need to kill individual journalists has lessened. Deaths are, thank God, fewer. But this doesn’t mean that journalism has won, rather the opposite. The lack of freedom of speech in journalism is becoming more and more habitual. And the fact that journalists themselves get used to it is the most dangerous of all symptoms.

What sort of relationship do you have with the current Russian authorities?

I have a single photograph with Vladimir Putin, which I love. It was taken during his first meeting with the members of the Human Rights Council. Putin is looking at me as if we’re at the start of a judo competition, and I’m looking at him like we’re at the start of a boxing match. I have a very tense, not very friendly facial expression.

Do you consider yourself to be a member of the opposition?

I have always been a member of the opposition, I was born into the opposition – it took my mother four days to give birth to me. When I started defending journalists, I joined the open opposition. It was clear to me that they could be defended, and had to be defended - in the first place from the authorities.

How would you characterize the current state of Russian society?

In a sociological sense, I would call it not really thought through, in a sociological sense. Here’s an evocative example. To the question “do you like how you live?”, 47 percent of Russian citizens give a positive answer. But 75 percent vote for Putin. My question: how is it possible not to connect these things?

Do you support Russia’s buildup of military power that’s taken place over the last few years?

I don’t see any build-up of military power. All these fake replicas they drive on Red Square don’t convince me personally. It all seems like a large bubble that will burst sooner or later. And that will be incredibly unpleasant for both the standing of the country and, even more so, for the standing of its leadership.

What do you think of the idea that Russia has a “special path”?

Since we lacked the spirit to do as well as all the others, we are trying to explain our lack of authentic spirit by a certain special characteristics. Therefore, we’re aggressive when most people are more or less tolerant, and inclined to benevolence when people are waiting for some sort of decisive action.

Do you want it to be in Russia like it is in Ukraine?

In Ukraine today, people feel themselves to be freer than they do in Russia. On the other hand, in Ukraine there is an enormous number of people who are ready to beat up on journalists. I don’t want the situation to be the same for us. For me, Ukraine isn’t an exotic enough example. I want things to be here like they are, let’s say, in England.

Is it possible for Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian director who announced a hunger strike, to achieve what he is demanding – the release of all Ukrainians jailed in Russia?

Unfortunately, no. His goal is absurd. The paradoxical nature of his courageous and humanly understandable action is, in fact, absolutely obvious.

To whom does Crimea belong?

The Tatars. The Tatars traditionally owned Crimea. We took it from them in our time, then we ruled together. Then Crimea supposedly became a part of Ukraine; now, it’s supposedly a part of Russia. In reality, Crimea is Tatar. […]
Aleksei Kirillovich Simonov is the son of the writer Konstantin (Kirill) Simonov and literary editor Evgeniya Laskina. A film director by profession, he is also an author, translator and journalist. 

Aleksei Simonov is a member of the Union of Journalists of Russia, the Union of Filmmakers of Russia, the Nika Academy of Cinematographic Arts, the Public Council for Press Complaints, and the Moscow Helsinki Group. He is founder and president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation and chair of the jury of the Andrei Sakharov prize for courageous journalism.

The nonprofit Glasnost Defence Foundation was registered on 27 September 1999. The main goal of the Foundation is furthering the preservation and development of the legal framework in which the domestic print and electronic mass media operate, and through this, advancing the democratization of the realms of media, research, politics, and education in contemporary Russia. After an unplanned inspection by the Ministry of Justice on the basis of a statement by an individual who “forbid the dissemination of their personal information,” the Foundation was designated a “nonprofit organization fulfilling the function of a foreign agent.” On 19 November 2015 the organization was added to the list of foreign agents. The Foundation has been unable to successfully challenge this decision in Russian courts, and has therefore appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

Translated by Julie Hersh and Nathalie Corbett

Sergei Lukashevsky: Sakharov Centre Dedicates Festival to Oyub Titiev and Oleg Sentsov

posted 5 Jun 2018, 12:16 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 5 Jun 2018, 12:20 ]

25 May 2018 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Novaya Gazeta]

Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Centre and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, has published a video message in support of the Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, sentenced to 20 years in Russia and Oyub Titiev, head of Memorial in Chechnya. Lukashevsky announced that this year’s Sakharov Festival would be dedicated to them. Sentsov and Titiev today ‘symbolize the struggle for freedom and justice in Russia.’ All funds received by the Festival and cards signed by those attending the event will be sent to the lawyers, relatives and colleagues of Oleg Sentsov and Oyub Titiev.

Sergei Lukashevsky’s Statement

Oleg Sentsov is already on the twelfth day of his hunger strike. Oyub Titiev will soon have another court hearing, the fairness of which is open to doubt. Oyub personifies the courageous and dangerous work of human rights defenders in Chechnya, work which cost Natalia Estemirova her life. Oleg’s hunger strike, for the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners, is a tragic reminder of the death of Anatoly Marchenko, in Chistopol prison in December 1986, who died after a 117-day hunger strike while demanding freedom for Soviet political prisoners.

All prisoners of conscience and those unjustly convicted need our support. However, it seems to us that it is Titiev and Sentsov who symbolize the struggle for freedom and justice in Russia today.

It is impossible to imagine that Sakharov would remain silent about the cases of Titiev and Sentsov. The Festival of Freedom, which traditionally honours Andrei Dmitrevich Sakharov, we dedicate to Oyub Titiev and Oleg Sentsov this year.

We will send the all the cards and letters signed during the Festival to Oyub and Oleg, collect signatures in their defence and send money to their relatives to pay for lawyers.

Translated by Matthew Quigley

Dmitry Makarov: Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov declares hunger strike

posted 4 Jun 2018, 10:49 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 4 Jun 2018, 10:59 ]

18 May 2018 

By Dmitry Makarov, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group: 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Facebook]  

I find it very difficult to write about Oleg Sentsov's hunger strike. For me a hunger strike is the last step of despair when there is no hope that demands, expressed by other means, will be heard – a measure taken when there is an inner readiness to die.

There is an episode in the film "Rights of Memory" where Roginsky speaks about the meaning of Anatoly Marchenko's hunger strike. The hunger strike with an uncompromising demand for political prisoners' liberty ended in the Marchenko's death, but incredibly had a practical impact, pushing Gorbachev to liberate Soviet political prisoners.

The Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov is a political prisoner in the new Russia who protested against the annexation of Crimea and who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for "organizing a terrorist group" (for the alleged arson of a door of the office of the Russian Community of Crimea). He has declared a hunger strike demanding the release of Ukrainians held in Russia who are political prisoners. Those who know Sentsov say that he is ready to go to the very end.

I don't know whether Oleg know's about Antaloly Marchenko's deed but we - unlike the society of that period – knew of his demands and about his hunger strike as soon as it was declared. It is hard and unpleasant to think about this - especially amidst celebrations and festivities around the World Cup. A great number of famous film directors and actors have spoken out in support of Oleg, and all leading international organizations have issued statements in his support. Now a very large number of people around the world will be watching what happens to him, and, God willing, this international will bring about Oleg's release, and the release of the near 70 other Ukrainian political prisoners before it is too late.

Translated by Anna Dvoryanchikova

Liudmila Alekseeva: To Tatyana Moskalkova on her birthday

posted 4 Jun 2018, 10:40 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 4 Jun 2018, 10:43 ]

30 May 2018 

By Liudmila Alekseevna, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group 

Today is the birthday of Tatyana Moskalkova, the Russian Federation’s Ombudsperson for Human Rights.

When Tatyana Nikolaevna was elected to the post by the Duma, she really knew little of the human rights activists and, at the time, I was doubtful that she could carry out the responsibilities of the Human Rights Ombudsperson in an appropriate way. But she quickly showed that to a remarkable degree she is well fitted for what is a very difficult position.

Tatyana Nikolaevna Moskalkova works, one can say, without sparing herself, and works very effectively: she knows how to talk to all kinds of leading officials in the penitentiary service, in the prosecutor's office, in the police, and so on, and she is more successful in defending citizens’ rights than were her predecessors.

Thanks to her, not only was Ildar Dadin acquitted but, and this was almost unbelievable, so was Yury Dmitriev, chair of the Karelian Memorial society. Although the charge of child pornography was absurd, Dmitriev faced the threat of a long prison sentence, and Tatyana Nikolaevna saved him. I cannot list all the successes of Tatyana Nikolaevna Moskalkova, the Russian Ombudsperson – there are too many.

I am convinced that one should support someone occupying such a difficult post for each of their good deeds and, if the individual works as selflessly as does Tatyana Nikolaevna, all the more so.

Good health, and persistence, to you, Tatyana Nikolaevna, in our joint endeavour to defend human rights in Russia. Unless basic human rights and freedoms are upheld, our country cannot be considered to be a democratic state, based on the rule of law.

Translated by Mary McAuley

An interview with Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Andrei Sakharov Centre in Moscow [ASI]

posted 21 May 2018, 11:24 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 21 May 2018, 11:49 ]

4 May 2018

An extract from an interview with Sergei Lukashevsky by Elena Visens

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: ASI]

How an historian and archivist who had dreamt of studying the Middle Ages instead went on to lead and to modernise one of the oldest human rights centres in Russia.

This interview with Sergey Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharovsky Centre and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, is part of a joint project by the Agency for Social Information, the Vladimir Potanin Charitable Fund and STADA Russia. “NGO-Pro” is a series of interviews with professional NGO-workers about their careers in civil society. Its cross-media output is published in partnership with the jobs portal “Vacancies for good people” and the Russian Reporter magazine.

In my preparation for this interview, I had a look online to see what has been written about you and what you say about yourself. I learnt that on the whole, you don’t say much about yourself and what you do say usually covers your work, the Sakharov Centre, problems facing civil society, and human rights movements. How did you personally first become involved in human rights work?

A more fitting question would probably be how I ended up in this sector at all, since I don’t have a background in human rights as such. I came to the third sector above all as a historian. It all started like this: when I was at school, an opportunity to work on something real, serious, grown-up and professional fell into my lap. This opportunity was a programme on the history of dissident movements, run by the NGO Memorial. It was headed up by Aleksandr Iulievich Daniel, who was a friend of my parents. At just 15, I was introduced to him as a young man with an interest in history, and he offered me a job. As a result, everything I have done since has been connected with NGOs. After that, I was offered a job at the Moscow Helsinki Group by Liudmila Alekseeva. By that time, I had already graduated with a degree in historical archiving.

So you approached Alekseeva with a conscious desire to work on human rights or, rather, on that aspect of history in the broader sense of the word?

Not entirely, no. I was still deciding between the different historical subdisciplines; at first, I was mainly interested in ancient history and in the Middle Ages. But working with Memorial appealed to me not only in terms of the topics covered, but also because of the professional opportunities offered. I knew that if I were to become a Medieval historian, then I would mainly be working with sources that a large number of researchers already knew. That meant that I would have to work on very small, narrow issues. And here I am at 15 years old, in a room packed from floor to ceiling with boxes of documents, material from Radio Free Europe, the so-called Leningrad Samizdat collections. The project was staffed by Daniel and others who were highly professional, either because of their formal education or through practical experience. Then there were student interns who had to un-learn several years’ worth of university education. There were also others like me, teenagers with an interest in history. Most notably, there was Sasha Polivanova, who now works for Memorial. [...] 

I get the impression that “rights defendant” nonetheless means something broader than the defence of individuals’ rights in court.

Yes, that’s right. I received an offer from Liudmila Mikhailovna [Alekseeva] that I found particularly attractive, precisely because it wasn’t human rights work in the narrow sense of the word. It involved preparing reports on the human rights’ situation – in other words, rights-based analyses. I didn’t know that term yet, but now I would call it modern history. Essentially, it was modern history in that it involved looking beyond what was immediately visible. Back then, politics was supposedly much more open, the media were freer, and pure politics and political intrigues were out in the open. And here I was discovering an alternative version of life, seeing what was happening at that time in the country at grassroots level and behind closed doors. So it wasn’t such a big surprise for me when our political regime started limiting democratic freedoms, because I had already seen that on a regional level. What everyone else saw in the year 2000, I had already known for a long time. That was just the surfacing of trends that had been gathering strength throughout the 1990s. So, working with Alekseeva was also an opportunity for me to see what was really happening in the country. That really fascinated me. […]

And what has changed in the almost 10 years that you have headed the Sakharov Center?

Several programmes have been added: discussion, education, theater, and exhibition. There is the FOTODOC project— documentary photography, which seems to me to be more relevant because it nevertheless deals more consistently with the reality that surrounds us, with the problems around us. Modern art is — right now, let’s say — a very elitist form of expression, but documentary photography is more understandable, more accessible, and it is a lot easier to frame within thematic boundaries. After all ,we don’t work with just any documentary photography, we don’t do exhibitions of landscapes or city views, we work with those photographs that portray something connected with societal problems.

Our theatre—it’s not just any kind of theatre, but either theatre that is connected directly with our themes, or documentary theatre, that we participate in as an experiment, trying to address topics that we think are important or interesting And we use our space here for such experiments.

What project is the closest to your heart, for you the most valuable and interesting?

For me personally there isn’t enough time for historical work. I regret that our archive does too little historical work. I regret that our archive does not put out enough academic publications, but we just don’t have the resources — financial or human. If we had twice as many people, we could do many more projects.

I really like to think up ideas for our discussion platforms. It is really fun to conceptualize a long term cycle, to try to think up interesting approaches and unexpected topics.

I really like how our educational programmes work, especially the “Human Rights School” — an excellent, totally surprising project. It is really a living demonstration how we, in spite of our current situation [the Sakharov Centre is on the register of “foreign agents”— ASI], are functioning normally as we should. Twice a year 150-180 people come to seminars for the first time. In addition, about 50 people participate in our full programme, which lasts five months. It is training sessions, lectures on the philosophy of the concept of human rights, internships. We do these projects together with teams from the International Youth Human Rights Movement and the International School of Human Rights and Civic Action. And young people, 20-23 years old, come to us regularly—in general they are in the final courses at their institutes - and it is surprising. It works year in and year out, and it attracts people.

How would you judge your place in the third sector now, looking back at all your experience?

The nearly 30 years that have passed since the breakup of the USSR have been for our country a time when society tried to build a new country, to go down a path of development and renewal. Some things didn’t turn out at all as intended, others only partially. But it is obvious to me that Russia has managed to create a modern civil society. Nongovernmental organizations and activists have become engines of social progress — from the defence of human rights to the creation of a comfortable urban milieu. They demonstrate the possibility of a humanistic and responsible approach to the arrangement of the social sphere: they implement new technologies, form moral standards. And I am happy to be part of this process, it’s important for me to recognize that I also contributed what I could to this movement.

I am convinced that although civic activity is now described using foreign terminology (monitoring, crowdfunding, advocacy), it is nevertheless a natural continuation of the Russian humanistic tradition (Andrei Sakharov) and attention to the "little man” (the great Russian literature of the nineteenth century and to a large extent of the twentieth).

For my own life, participation in the human rights movement is an attempt to process my family history. Both of my grandfathers were repressed in the Stalin years, and in my own civil activism I am striving to say “Never again.” A country and a state exist for the general well being and for the well being of each person. And a citizen, and in general every person, should be defended from injustice and arbitrary rule.

Translated by John Tokolish and Judith Fagelson

Boris Altshuler: Children in danger; Russia in deep trouble. Marking the 40th day since the tragedy in Kemerovo

posted 20 May 2018, 09:10 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 20 May 2018, 09:29 ]

4 May 2018

By Boris Altshuler, chair of the board of the nonprofit Rights of the Child, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group 

The country, as it is, is bountiful. It is just order that is lacking. 
Count A.K Tolstoy, 1868

I see why your system is stalling. Because no one monitors anyone. But here someone is constantly monitoring someone else. Constantly. I have 40 detectives standing over me from different bureaus who can throw me in jail if I do something wrong. You don’t have that. 
From an interview with a New York policeman of Russian heritage Peter Grinevesky, Moskovskie Novosti, 22 June 1994. 

Forty days ago in Kemerovo’s Winter Cherry shopping centre dozens of children and adults burned and suffocated. I express my deepest condolences and compassion for the loved ones of the victims. And I think our shared task is to do everything to minimise the possibility of this horror happening again, that is to correct the root causes of such tragedies.

An accidental fire can happen at any time but a catastrophe occurs only when there have been gross violations of the rules on fire safety. Pervasive violations, such as those that lead to people dying in Kemerov, are not observed infrequently, including at the official state level. However, I know of only one commentary clearly indicating how these violations are possible. It’s a publication in Novaya Gazeta titled, ‘In the Kemerovo fire the guilty are the security officials’, where ‘security officials’ of course means not armed forces or the National Guard but the agencies of law enforcement and supervisory oversight of law enforcement. The very agencies that should expose those violators of the rules and severely punish them. The shopping centre ‘Winter Cherry’ should have been closed down a long time ago but stayed open for some reason.

Such paradoxical inaction on the part of the overseers and law enforcement officials I would call criminal negligence, which alas, is not confined to one department but an overarching occurrence. Why is no one controlling the quality of products in our shops, and as a result we don’t we know what we are feeding to our children? Because Rospotrebnadzor is not a body but a non-entity. Why are millions of citizens not living but just surviving, which is especially acute for families with children? Because the prices of essential products and for the square meters of essential living space are sky-high. Why is it like this? Because, as President of Russia Vladimir Putin explained at the State Council for the Development of Competition on 5th April, the Russian economy is hampered by price fixing. Yet a report by the Federal Antimonopoly Service board from 31st October 2017 states, ‘a specific feature of anti-competitive agreements in Russia is the participation of state bodies... with all the features inherent to organised criminal groups and criminal communities,’ and it is also noted that the Ministry of internal Affairs of Russia actually sabotages application of Article 178 of the Russian Criminal Code on “restriction of competition” to these organised criminal groups and communities.

Such criminal negligence on the part of law enforcement can also be linked directly to corruption - they get a cut and therefore turn a blind eye to flagrant violations of the law. Indeed, children in the suburbs of Moscow breathe the miasma of illegal dumping grounds for the same reason that children died in Kemerovo - ‘the guilty are the “security officials”’. The problem of corruption in law enforcement agencies - in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Investigative Committee, and so on - is a burning issue, which is repeatedly stated at the highest level. Take for example the recent publications, ‘Police throughout Russia pay tributes to their superiors’ and ‘Bribes, total protection and protection rackets, the sins of the Russian security services.’ And the President of Russia Vladimir Putin recently spoke harshly about the egregious corruption in the courts of the Russian Federation. And all this hits the children, the citizens of Russia, the whole country hard, depriving Russia of a future.

But beyond the criminal negligence and corruption, there is an additional terrible threat – law enforcement abusing their power, working not for the law but for themselves. Who knows how many prosecutions among the hundreds conducted for “extremism” offences are real, and how many were fabricated by the FSB itself? Such as, for example, the case of the “new nobility,” the organization that was formed by provocateurs from the intelligence services with the goal of imprisoning youths who got involved. As in the 1930s, when the NKVD itself carried out explosions in factories in order to later expose and shoot the “subversive elements.” It makes you want to says: Don’t come near me! After all today it is usually children who are the victims, or the children of yesterday – the young people who were born and grew up in the New Russia and don’t know anything about Soviet imprisonments “for things said” and conduct themselves in an open and relaxed manner, especially on social media. Lev Ponomarev wrote about this in detail in his blog of yesterday on the Ekho Moskvy website: “Save yourself, if you can: The FSB is on the attack!”

And the suicide of the talented girl from the Moscow suburbs – after riot police brutally broke in to her apartment on the basis of a report by her neighbour – is along the same lines as the deaths of the children at the Winter Cherry.

What can we do? “The future is happening now” (Arseny Tarkovsky), and the many messages about planned reforms of the law enforcement and investigative systems give hope for cardinal improvement in their work, of overcoming their demonstrated criminal negligence, corruption, and abuse of their positions. Just as necessary is a cardinal improvement of the entire system of supervision and oversight of the Russian Federation.

There’s no “squaring the circle” here. Why, in other countries, do owners of stores and various types of complexes strictly ensure the quality of the products they sell, the observance of safety rules, and so on? Because independent inspectors go to these stores incognito, in the guise of customers. And if they find violations, there’s a court summons – and an end to the whole business. And cartel price collusion is one of the most serious crimes in other countries, as the president of Russia recently said, while our Federal Anti-Monopoly Service can punish them only with the greatest difficulty and under the Code of Administrative Offences.

And so, several concrete (though obviously incomplete) suggestions for necessary reforms:

1. An off-premises oversight brigade needs to be formed under the Federal Service for Consumer Protection, which would visit the regions without warning and anonymously. In the event of violations to safety laws, etc., not only do the direct violators need to be punished, but the officials staffing the oversight department of that region of the Russian Federation also need to be thrown out. That is, they should all quake and fear – in the same way that all businessmen and officials in the West are scared to death of being found in violation.

2. The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation needs to create a hotline for judges across the country, who will be obliged to use it to inform of any attempts to influence them. And if they do not inform within half an hour after the attempt, then – as in Germany – the judge will be disbarred for life. Yes, judges should quake and fear as well.

3. And the members of all law enforcement agencies – the FSB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Investigative Committee, etc. – should live in fear of breaking the law, as well. Consider the quotation from an American police officer in the epigraph. I also used this quotation 18 years ago in a January 2000 article, “What should you do when you can’t just do nothing? Constructive commentary on Vladimir Putin’s article ‘Russia at the turn of the century.’” You can find further concrete recommendations on how to achieve order in the law enforcement system in my recent article “Human rights and the coming elections: If I became president.”

Translated by Julie Hersh and Tatjana Duff

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: The NGO report as a way of saying “Let’s get acquainted”

posted 16 May 2018, 12:11 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 16 May 2018, 12:13 ]

3 May 2018 

By Vyacheslav Bakhmin, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, expert on the Committee for Civic Initiatives, and expert for the competition “Starting Point” 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group  [original source: ASI

How an NGO report can be an instrument of communication and in searching for partners

Applications to the competition “Starting Point” opened on 1 May 2018. 

In 2017, 325 applications were sent in to the “Starting Point” competition. The organisers hope that this year they will receive even more reports, since the project has many regional partners. But there are more than 100,000 socially-oriented NGOs in the country! And even if the statistics deceive and the working organisations are in fact an order of magnitude fewer, we’re still talking about tens of thousands of organisations that could participate in the competition with their reports. So where are they?

Somewhat surprisingly, the majority of socially-oriented NGOs simply don’t have public annual reports. And it’s not just the small organisations, working in the middle of nowhere and with no resources whatsoever, but also quite prosperous, successful NGOs, with sufficient means and capabilities to produce some kind of report each year. The question is, quite simply, why is it necessary for them? We’re trying to understand this.

Practically every non-profit organisation working in public welfare, solving different social problems, is faced with a range of clear, though challenging tasks. Every organisation wants to have adequate resources for its work; to be beneficial to its intended audience, i.e. those for whom the NGO works; and to be sure that it does what’s necessary, making a positive contribution and working effectively. Certainly, every organisation wants to have a good reputation, and wants to be loved and valued by colleagues, the authorities, clients and journalists. The organisation that achieves all of this thrives, is well-known, finds it easy to get funding, and has many friends, partners and followers.

In order to be so respected and successful, certain efforts need to be made, of course. Above all it is necessary to enter into communication and relationships with the surrounding community, with stakeholders (or interested parties), so that they know you and so that your activity is recognised and endorsed. Confidence in the organisation must arise, and it does so when you are open and transparent, when information about you and your achievements is accessible to anyone that wants to find out more about you. It’s precisely this goal that regular and reliable reports help achieve: reports that contain basic information about both the organisation itself, and the results of the activity in the given period. Usually, these reports cover a year.

Precisely this annual report demonstrates the organisation’s achievements to the wider public, showing how useful and effective it has been. It’s as if to say: let’s get acquainted, look how amazing we are, how much important and necessary work we do, join us, let’s be partners!

The material which is presented and how it is structured, as well as the language and visuals used, will of course differ depending on the report’s primary target audience. Yet even if you expect your report to be read only by your donors or colleagues, it must still be accessible to a wider group of readers, since organisations do not generally produce multiple public annual reports. Certain foundations and high-profile organisations print their reports on glossy paper with colourful illustrations, but this is expensive and by no means always necessary – the majority of NGOs content themselves with publishing their reports electronically. All the same, the task of drawing up the report is one which merits proper attention, since it showcases the fruits of your labours over the past year. Making such a report available on your homepage, for example, or another publicly accessible Internet site, can provide interested parties with a great deal of information about what you are doing.

Although annual reports are generally intended for external use and communicating with the wider world, they can sometimes be enormously beneficial to the organisation itself. After working together with his team to produce their first annual report, the head of an NGO once admitted to me, "For the first time I’ve realised exactly how much we do and what a great job we do!" The process of gathering data for an annual report forces you to identify and summarise all the things you might have missed in the general hubbub of day-to-day activity, and can reveal impressive figures and significant achievements. It is also worth noting that an annual report, like any debriefing exercise, should not be merely a list of the measures and programmes which have been implemented and the sources of funding which have been leveraged. The real value of a good report lies in its analysis of the work that has been done; what has happened, what went well and why, how the organisation grew over the course of the year, whether it succeeded in introducing any new technologies or ways of working, and whether the organisation is on an upward trajectory.

The substance of the report is a whole separate topic of conversation, and I would merely like to make the point that ongoing efforts should be made over the course of the entire year to gather pertinent information, highlights and specific headings, rather than waiting until the last minute when the deadline for publication has already passed. Incorporating these efforts into the organisation’s standard working procedures will mean that preparing the document itself requires very little time or effort. And once the report is complete, there is no reason why you should not submit it to the Russia-wide competition “Starting Point” in order to find out how skilled you are at talking about yourself and presenting the outcomes of your work to the public and your colleagues. Participants in the competition whose reports comply with the competition’s criteria for the presentation of information will receive a certificate which will no doubt also come in useful.

Donors are increasingly making financial awards dependent on the presentation of annual progress and financial reports, which is a purely pragmatic reason for producing such a report. The main benefit of doing so however is that it helps NGOs tackle the vital or even critical tasks faced by every organisation and discussed at the very start of the report. A compilation of an organisation’s annual outcomes ultimately represents an impressive chronicle of its evolution, and makes apparent the scope of its impact on specific groups of people and society as a whole. Any efforts in this respect are therefore likely to be handsomely rewarded.


More details about the competition, training courses and a helpline for NGOs can be found in a special section of the Donors Forum’s official website. The competition rules can be downloaded here.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds and Mercedes Malcomson

Galina Arapova on how the Mass Media Defence Centre became a "foreign agent" and the state of the media in contemporary Russia

posted 13 May 2018, 09:30 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 14 May 2018, 12:12 ]

2 May 2018

An interview with Galina Arapova, director of the Mass Media Defence Centre, a media rights organisation based in Voronezh

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda]

The Mass Media Defence Centre is located in Voronezh. Journalists from around the country turn to the Centre when they face threats of a criminal prosecution or high fines. Three years ago, this non-profit was given the status of "foreign agent."

Galina Arapova, director and leading lawyer at the Centre and laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group award for human rights, spoke with Radio Svoboda about what has changed in the organisation’s work since the government began its ongoing battle with non-profit organizations. 

In 2016, Galina Arapova became the first lawyer in Russia to receive an award “For Outstanding Contribution of a Practising Lawyer to the Defence of Human Rights” from the International Bar Association. In a congratulatory message, Governor Aleksei Gordeev wrote: "Thanks to you, the Mass Media Defence Centre has gained a reputation as one of the most authoritative legal organizations in Russia and abroad."

In the 22 years of the Centre's operation, thousands of journalists and editors throughout Russia have received legal assistance.

In the defamation cases taken on last year by the Centre's lawyers, prosecutors demanded 25 million roubles from journalists and editors as "compensation for psychological damage." In total, 95,000 roubles were paid, or 0.38%.

This number shows how important the Mass Media Defence Centre is to the Russian press.

Like many nonprofits in Russia, the Centre is financed by grants. Russian donors, however, prefer to direct funds toward helping the environment, sick children, and cultural and scientific projects. Support for human-rights causes comes last for them. Since the beginning of the 2000s, after Vladimir Putin's rise to power, the conditions for financing the Third Sector have become stringent, says Galina Arapova:

First, business owners lost the ability to allocate 3% of profits to charity. This percentage was tax-deductible. Now, officially you cannot donate even pennies; this is punished as tax evasion. This was a blow to the development of philanthropy in Russia. Then the number of charitable foundations, whose donations were exempt from taxation when given as a grant for projects in the public interest, shrunk. There used to be 128, and only 12 are left. Of them, only the European Commission gives money for human rights causes. 

Then came the laws on "foreign agent" NGOs and "undesirable organizations." Now, foreign media sources are considered "foreign agents," and by the looks of it soon individuals too will be called "foreign agents."

There's a proliferation of bureaucratic paranoia. I can't explain it any other way: it's the feeling that people in power sincerely believe that everyone around them is their enemy and is working against them. We didn't have a chance to prove that we're not "foreign agents." My comments on legal matters in newspapers were considered "political activity," although this is part of a lawyer's job: publications often ask me to comment on new laws and cases. I was the chairperson of the Public Advisory Council of the Voronezh subdivision of the Ministry Internal Affairs for a long time. This was also considered "political activity."

So you were expecting to be put on the list of foreign agents?

We knew that it would happen to us. Our Justice Department lumped everything together as "politics," and they did this not just diligently, but with gusto. True, the director and their immediate subordinate aside, other rank and file staff members understood exactly what was going on. The woman who was charged with signing the protocol on behalf of the Justice Department was so ashamed she had to take Valium. I cried, and she was hysterical. NOD (National Liberation Movement) members stood outside holding posters against me although, when I walked right past them they didn’t react at all - they didn't even know what I looked like or what the Centre actually does. It was theatre of the absurd from start to finish. The woman who signed the protocol fainted in the courthouse while answering our questions. We called an ambulance and gave her water. She resigned after a few days.

People can be made to sign what needs to be signed, but it's clear that some find it disgusting to be involved in this spectacle.

What changes did the status of foreign agent bring? Did it get harder for you to work?

We lost the ability to work with government bodies, to conduct seminars for employees in the press offices of municipal and law enforcement agencies and regional courts. For instance, how do you issue a press release so that you don’t get sued afterward? People were standing in line for this training. They organized everything themselves, paid for everything, waited for openings in my schedule. I’ve held trainings for all the press offices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the country, and for the Legal Department of the Supreme Court. Lipetsk, Ivanovo, Tula, Moscow, Voronezh, Kemerovo. . . . But they’ve put us on the registry, so Chelyabinsk, which has been waiting for six months, has canceled its seminar. Everyone is continuing to consult individually.

And you’re still giving these consultations?

Naturally. Why not? They need legal advice, and I’m giving it to them without any difficulty, and so are my lawyers. But unofficially now. We’ve stopped our publishing activity. Our series of twelve handbooks for editors and lawyers in editorial offices dealing with various aspects of media law has gone through several new editions. Defamation in the media, coverage of matters of private life, issues of election law, how to report on extreme situations, crime reporting, legal reporting. Many judges still use them.

And a new edition is possible only if stamped “foreign agent”?

Yes. Judges won’t even be able to put it on their desk. We put a disclaimer on our site saying, “We are performing the functions of a foreign agent. We consider the decision to add the Mass Media Defence Centre to the registry of foreign agents illegal and are seeking its repeal.” But in the book, this disclaimer has to be in the bibliographical information, and we find that terribly offensive.

The decision to halt publication of the books coincided with a growth in online education and a sharp increase in the volume of work. The number of consultations has grown from fifteen hundred to 4,500!

Courts can no longer call us in to hold seminars for judges on Russian media law and the European Convention. They were extremely popular. You could see a clear dynamic in how judges view cases differently and refer to the practice of the European court. They’d started to understand it, and they liked that. After all, this is a completely different level of legal thought, analysis, and skill.

Many regional newspapers working under the roofs of state media holdings could not renew contracts with us for legal assistance. We are continuing to provide them with help free of charge charge.

One bank refused to service our account, so we closed it.

Does your ‘foreign agent’ status bother those coming to you for the first time or returning?

There are probably people who have not come to us because we are “foreign agents.” But how can we know for certain? Those who know us haven’t rejected working with us. They’ve taken the verdict against us as a personal blow, as the loss of an opportunity to acquire legal support, and they’ve supported us and organized a Russian-wide campaign. They built us a support site in a week’s time. Hat’s off, thanks to everyone. Banners of support for the Centre are still on social networks and on the sites of several online publications. I don’t think the Justice Ministry was expecting anything of the kind.

Governor Aleksei Gordeev has expressed a high opinion of you. And now they have slandered the Centre with the status of foreign agent. How are officials reacting?

Many of them have behaved much more decently than might have been expected. For example, at a strategic government conference, Vladimir Orlov, at the time head of the Justice Ministry, began recounting how he had “heroically” exposed a “cesspool of spies.” He was interrupted: “If you’re talking about Arapova, then you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. This is utter nonsense.” They wouldn’t even let him finish his fiery speech.

You mean some people in state structures are unhappy with the situation?

I think they’ve at least seen the contradiction. They’ve accepted me as a professional and a decent person, and when this nasty label was hung on me, they realized that something was wrong here and refused to participate in the defamation. I have to give the governor his due. He has publicly supported us from the moment we were added to the registry. At a press conference, he told reporters that he was prepared, if necessary, to testify in court to the fact that we are not engaged in any political activity whatsoever and are an authoritative organization. He has pedantically congratulated me on every holiday with a government telegram, has given us an award, and has called the pride of Voronezh region. Given that we have already been deemed a “foreign agent,” this was brave. And we are sincerely grateful for this. But this is not a typical example. It was all much harsher in other regions.

Galina, does the centre still take foreign money?

There’s no other money! If there is an activity that requires resources (taxes, salaries) and there are fifteen employees then what other options are there? The first thing to do is to generate money. The second is to raise money from charitable sources. We were registered as a non-profit from the beginning, we didn’t intend to make any money. There is no money to be made in the protection of human rights – we’re not selling tyres or cosmetic procedures. Lots of journalists can’t afford to pay eve 500 roubles for a consultation. This was never a condition of whether or not we would help.

Can you not take money for legal aid?

No, we can and sometimes do take money when it’s not a question of freedom of speech, but something like advertisement legislation. In this we are unlike other NGOs, who work with victims of violence, torture, the parents of conscripts who have died in the army, who obviously cannot pay for all the legal processes whilst they are dealing with their grief. When we’re talking about human rights you can’t take money from those being protected in every case. That is why the world over, protection of human rights is based upon non-commercial principles.

We work with foundations so that a journalist won’t think twice about whether he can afford the help of a lawyer when he’s been thrown out of a building, been forbidden from filming, beaten up, or taken to court for something. Many editorial boards consult with us on issues of advertising and copyright – we have contracts with them on a subscription service basis. They have access to six experienced lawyers twenty-four hours a day. They write almost around the clock. Lawyers from editorial offices consult with us but paid consultations make up only 7% of our budget.

Now some NGOs have turned to crowdfunding: the cry goes out, support us, however much you can, we are doing good work.

Yes, but firstly it’s seen in our society as “begging.” Secondly, people in Russia, if they donate, they do so only for three things: sick children, homeless animals and the construction of churches. Last year we received from ‘Yandex Wallet’ 12,000 roubles. Crowdfunding is good when you’re appealing to a wide audience and it understands the value of what you’re protecting. But here the average citizen wants censorship brought in. They have no idea what freedom of speech is, they think that it is a total absence of authority and child porn on the internet.

Media legislation is getting tougher. What problems linked with journalists and the media in general do you now have to work with most frequently?

At the end of the nineties there was more violence against journalists, murders. Issues about publications that weren’t liked were dealt with by crowbar. At the beginning of the millennium people started to file more suits in court and conflicts began to be resolved in a civilised manner. In the years before 2008 there were on average 4,500 defamation lawsuits concerning per year. Now there are around 700 cases like these as other means of catching journalists have appeared.

The number of criminal cases has increased, and many are absolutely cynical and wild in nature, they result in terms in prison or hellish fines. Cases of paedophilia, extortion, commercial bribery, false denunciation are filed. At our invitation, the lawyer Tumas Misakyan defended Sergei Reznik, a journalist in Rostov-on-Don recognized as a political prisoner who served three years. He was investigating corruption in law enforcement agencies. He wrote on Live Journal and was even more sharp and harsh there than he had been in the press. He called the chairman of the court a “feathered donkey” and a policeman a “c*ntstable” [the Russian original of this insult is also a play on the sound of the word: 

In order to remove him from the internet, they came up with an easy option: they hit him with other charges, “Offending government officials” being the last of these. He was accused of attempted commercial bribery for having allegedly arranged a fake MOT certificate. The only witness was the investigating officer who wrote the official report. Reznik is an impulsive person. He read the report and said, "Have you lost your mind? Did the officer see me talking to the car service manager? Well, maybe I saw him bothering a small child. That would be just as crazy." When a person is defending him or herself against a criminal charge, they might say all manner of things. It’s a form of defence. But, on top of that, he was accused of making a false accusation of paedophilia against the officer. Then he ended up in intensive care after he had been assaulted with a baseball bat. As part of the investigation, he was asked, "Who do you think it was?" He named a few people who might have had a grudge against him. They noted this down as though he was just making another false accusation. They put it to him that he had staged his own attack in order to improve his ratings. In all, he was charged with commercial bribery, making a false accusation and, to cap it all, offending a public official.

The same thing happened to the Kaliningrad editor of the Novye Kolesa magazine, Igor Rudnikov. He stands accused of extorting $50,000 from the regional head of the Investigative Committee. He was arrested on 1 November and carted out onto the street in his underwear and crocs. Rudnikov was driven around that way for days, when taken for questioning and out on searches. Plus, it was raining outside. The man was fifty. They wanted to humiliate him. They put him in handcuffs, seriously injuring his hand, and beat him. He is getting 15 years for grand larceny. All because six months earlier, he had written that the head of the Investigative Committee was discovered to own a 200 million-rouble house in a conservation area. His editorial office stopped issuing the paper, and no publishing house would take them. The editor has been in Lefortovo for six months now.

The press has come under mass state control. Publishing houses and holding companies have been set up to encompass all regional papers, which have in turn lost their independence and control of content. The level of self-censorship has risen sharply.

Roskomnadzor's powers have expanded dramatically. Whereas it originally dealt with media registrations for the most part, now Roskomnadzor has crept into content. It is responsible for monitoring compliance with media legislation and maintains a register of proscribed information and an anti-piracy register. It exercises control over bloggers and 'foreign agents' (insofar as it labels entities as such), and it blocks websites. It governs compliance with the Law on Personal Data and legislation on extremism.

You cannot write about methods and motives for suicide or identify child victims of offences. You may well believe that you are fighting the good fight, and then – bam! Roskomnadzor will demand a million-rouble fine. Everywhere you look, the list of grounds for blocking is growing longer. That is why seminars for journalists are needed. If you write down the personal details of a missing child the whole world is looking for, then you should delete those details from the internet afterwards (all posts and reposts). The number of claims against editors is skyrocketing. They are beginning to be afraid to write about issues of public interest, including human rights violations, rallies and violence against children. Such issues are being covered up, and there is now this illusion that life is wonderful, and children aren't getting killed and don't get lost, so there is no need to search for the missing.

The subject of Crimea still comes up a lot. If you write anything about issues in that region, other than the fact that a magnificent bridge is being built there, then you risk being prosecuted under the article of the Criminal Code on “separatism.” There are plenty of criminal cases like these.

Then there is a whole raft of issues that nominally come under 'extremism'. There is a very long list of activities that are considered extremism, from offending religious feelings, to justification of terrorism, incitement to ethnic and religious hatred, and the display of Nazi symbols – even trivial criticism of the government. It really is a minefield. It is difficult to write about international issues. Criticism or challenging views in this area are particularly dangerous. If you so much as post a poster by the 'Kukryniksy' [a Soviet-era cartoonists' collective] or a wartime photo from the archives that has a swastika on it - "Eat this hand grenade, you Fascist!" – then you're an extremist.

They scour hyperlinks, blogs and comments left on the websites of media publications for obscenities. Editors don’t know how to deal with it all and what other issues to avoid in order to survive. 

Translated by Lindsay Munford, Marian Schwartz, Matthew Quigley and Nina de Palma

Lev Ponomarev: Run for your lives. The FSB’s on the offensive!

posted 7 May 2018, 11:42 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 7 May 2018, 11:45 ]

3 May 2018

By Lev Ponomarev, leader of the movement “For Human Rights” and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Ekho Moskvy]

“They’ll simply steamroll over you;” such was the promise of an FSB general to Serpukhovsky district head Aleksandr Shestun, who had called for the closure of the Lesnaya landfill site and refused to resign voluntarily. To add credibility to his threat, the general cited examples of high-ranking civil servants who had refused to comply with the security forces’ demands: they were “beautifully, firmly and decisively mown down.” He also added that the case would be taken up by the Moscow regional director of the FSB, who “is in charge of both the prosecutor and the cops […] by then you’ll have lost the case in court.” We learnt all these shocking details from an audio-recording that Shestun posted online.

Last December, in an interview with the newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta, FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov enumerated the various iterations of the Russian security services: Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, FSB. To anyone who still has a sense of historical memory, this sounded like a sinister warning. Now, we can already confirm that this warning is beginning to come true. The FSB is taking control of Russia’s domestic political processes, right in front of our eyes.

This does not frighten everyone. According to the latest survey from research group Levada Centre, only 5% of Russian citizens are worried by the curbing of rights and freedoms in the country. For this reason, I would like to give a few clear examples of what could happen to each of us if we do not stop this repressive steamroller that is moving in all directions and is capable of crushing anyone.

In the Moscow region on the 23 April Denis Lebedev – on his seventeenth birthday – threw himself out of the window of a high-rise building. His suicide note contained the following words: “You have left me without the only pastime which brought me joy and distracted me from my problems… you don’t want a people… you want a mere crowd… zombies who’ll follow your orders.” Denis’s pastime was chemistry. He had won the Olympiad in the capital; he was planning to go to Moscow State University; and he had been conducting experiments in his small home laboratory. Following a complaint from his neighbours, a group of officers from the OMON special riot police broke into his flat. They acted as if he were a terror suspect: they turned the whole house upside down, seizing his computer, telephone and lab equipment. Finally, they made Denis and his family sign a non-disclosure agreement. A young man has died as a result of this “counter-terrorist operation.” Not only was this young man not a terrorist; he was not even a political oppositionist. He could have gone on to become a poster-boy for Russian science.

Totalitarianism has many attributes. But for me, its primary distinguishing feature is that the most ordinary of people, with no designs against the regime, fall victim to its steamroller. I doubt that the security forces’ visit to Denis Lebedev was authorised by the top levels of law enforcement. But the steamroller of repression has been set in motion and its movement, which began with members of the political opposition, is picking up strength.

All across the country, the intelligence services are conducting operations to instil fear in young oppositionists, seeking out potential victims on social networks and sometimes even deliberately provoking them in order to create a pretext for mass arrests. This is precisely why the so-called Yarovaya law was adopted: to facilitate access to citizens’ personal data. An amendment to the law requires all mobile network operators to store data about our calls and messages, and to hand them over to the FSB on demand. The intelligence services are trawling through social networks to suppress any attempts at forming a unified opposition and, along the way, to earn themselves brownie points.

Let me give two illuminating examples.

A few months ago, the FSB announced that it had exposed a terrorist group called “The Network” (Set’ in Russian) whose members had allegedly planned to commit terrorist acts on the day of the Russian presidential elections and during the football World Cup. A group of young anti-fascists, united by their mutual enjoyment of airsoft, were arrested: five from the city of Penza and two from St Petersburg. They were tortured into admitting to “participation in a terrorist organisation” – a charge carrying a sentence of 10 to 15 years imprisonment. In the course of the conversations with lawyers that immediately followed their arrests, three of the accused – independently from one another – described the abuse to which they had been subjected: they had been tortured with electric shocks, hung upside-down, had electric devices attached to their fingers, been threatened with sexual assault…one of the detainees, Viktor Filinkov, was lucky in that members of the St Petersburg Public Monitoring Commission (OНK) were able to document the physical signs of his torture.

The case was picked up by online and traditional media and struck a chord with the general public. What followed was a unique occurrence in today’s Russia: despite colossal pressure and intimidation, the detainees’ relatives turned to rights defenders for help and came together to form a civic organisation which they called “The Parents’ Network” (Roditel’skaya Set’). They met with Russia’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Tatiana Moskalkova, and the chair of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov. They called for them to conduct an impartial investigation, without any involvement from the current sadistic group of investigators. Meanwhile, the case continues to evolve. In April in St Petersburg yet another person was arrested.

We are also seeing another falsified legal case unfold. It concerns the founding of an extremist organisation called “New Greatness” (Novoe Velichie). This time, 10 young people were arrested in Moscow. Four of them are currently under house arrest, while six – including two girls – are being held in pre-trial detention facilities. Their relatives have also united and have held a press conference. Other than the 10 detainees, the organisation’s membership included three security agents. These security agents were the ones who founded the organisation and they, too, were the ones who exposed it. Clearly, this is a new tool that the FSB is trying out. As Anya Pavlikova’s mother said at the press conference, “these nets were very skilfully set up and our children just happened to fall into them.” Masha Dubovik’s father was more explicit: “It looks to me like this was launched to serve the career advancement of certain people from entities that are incomprehensible to me.” Anya was not even 18 when she was arrested (she came of age in detention). Both girls were interested in environmentalism and caring for animals. They helped veterinarians, and that brought them closer together. One was already studying at university and the other was about to start. They used message forums to communicate with the others and talked about a range of issues, including the situation in their country. It was in McDonalds when Ruslan D., a new entrant to the group, suggested creating a formal organisation, came up with a name, and took it upon himself to draw up a constitution and agenda. These documents then formed the basis of the prosecution. He was also the one who divided he organisation into departments (two people in each) and this was used to reinforce the prosecution’s case. He rented a meeting space and secretly took audio and video recordings of all their meetings. The case file makes it plain that Ruslan D. is actually A. A. Konstantinov – most likely one of the three operatives introduced to the group by the security forces and who fabricated the extremism case. All three are currently free, while the adolescents – including girls – are suffering poor health in detention.

To help demonstrate quite how brazen the security forces are, I will describe how the arrest happened, based on the words of the girls’ parents. At around 5.00 am, OMON riot police broke into the apartment and masked gunmen ordered everyone to lie face down on the floor. Picture the scene for yourself: Anya’s sister hid her infant child under the bed in fear. The interrogation in the house lasted a few hours and was punctuated with coarse language and threats. It was followed by a search. They found nothing at the girls’ homes other than some documents that had been concocted by Konstantinov and then denounced as extremist, and a few pages of writings by [opposition leader Aleksei] Navalny (they had been planning to act as observers at the presidential elections). The accused were then taken to a detention facility where they were interrogated for several hours under intense pressure and subjected to degrading treatment.

This begs the question: why were these cynical falsifications undertaken? Some are of the opinion that this is how the security forces demonstrate their vigilance and account for the work they have been doing in the lead-up to the presidential elections and the World Cup. But I think there are deeper reasons.

The security forces – especially the FSB – feel that there are no limits to what they can do, they try to please the president, they fit themselves into the current zeitgeist in the country, and they are dictating their model for life in Russia. They go after civil society activists, bring fabricated cases based on posts and likes on social media, and initiate new laws which limit citizens’ rights and freedoms.

“FSB Inc.” has gained power and now is growing, seeking out more work for itself. The security forces also see fabricated cases as part of their remit. And they will solve any problem they encounter by force. Any intelligence agency in any country – even in advanced democracies – would behave the same way if given unlimited power. But that’s exactly the point – in countries where democracy is developed, civil society does not stand for such blatant violations of constitutional norms. Furthermore, the courts side with the law.

How can we limit the security forces’ power in our country? We need to fight for the preservation of constitutional norms. We recently saw an example of successful resistance to pressure from the security forces, when around 15,000 people in Moscow peacefully protested the blocking of the Telegram messenger app.

We must also actively defend those who find bogus legal cases concocted against them and who are subjected to torture. “Network” and “New Greatness” are the clearest and most illustrative cases. These are people who simply came into the steamroller’s path by chance, but if we do not save them they could be facing lengthy prison sentences.

The FSB is reinforcing its influence on society. This is business as usual, and both rank-and-file employees and senior staff are figuring out what’s in it for them and how they can earn themselves brownie points with the authorities. This process is chaotic, but it is also highly dangerous for the country. The detainees’ parents emphasise that their children were not involved in politics. I understand them – they are worried for their children. But it is worth noting that involvement in politics is not forbidden in our country. Tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets of Moscow to take part in political demonstrations. And if we do not stop these bogus cases then they could all be put in prison. Hundreds of thousands of social media users will find themselves on lists of extremists. The security forces are using fabricated charges to sharpen their tools; the next step will be mass political repression. The FSB’s steamroller will crush anything that lives, breathes and moves.

Translated by Judith Fagelson

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