Liudmila Alekseeva, Lev Ponomarev: Respect the Constitution! Speech at the Congress of Human Rights Activists

posted 7 Dec 2017, 06:03 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 7 Dec 2017, 07:57 ]

26 November 2017

By Liudmila Alekseeva, chair of Moscow Helsinki Group, and Lev Ponomarev, director of For Human Rights 

Speech at the All-Russian Extraordinary Congress in Defence of Human Rights 

We begin from the premise that Russia is continuing on the trajectory it started out on in the late 1980s, namely the transition from an authoritarian state to a democratic state. We are however also observing the reverse, namely that society is gradually losing the freedoms and democratic achievements won in the early 1990s, including those enshrined in the Constitution. We hope that this Congress will develop a strategy for action against this backdrop, and propose this strategy to human rights activists and civil society.

In order to avoid our efforts being frittered away in a battle against individuals and isolated phenomena, we believe that these efforts should be united and focused on the preservation of the most important accomplishment of the early 1990s – the Constitution of the Russian Federation.

Let us not forget that the human rights movement in the Soviet Union first emerged under the slogan “Respect the Constitution!”, even though the Constitution of the USSR was flawed, with even the few democratic standards it enshrined existing only on paper.

Nevertheless, human rights activists called for the civil rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution to be enforced in practice; a broad democratic movement was built in Russia during the perestroika era, and the authorities proved willing to compromise. In the early 1990s a peaceful democratic revolution took place, and a democratic state machinery was enshrined in legislation by the new Russian parliament. Thanks to the economic and democratic transformations they achieved, the authorities of the time were backed by most of society.

“Respect the Constitution” is still relevant as a slogan nowadays. The critics of today’s government espouse different political beliefs and have different opinions on the individual provisions of the Constitution. Yet the first three chapters of this Constitution, which guarantee civil rights and liberties and proclaim the basic principles of a democratic state, are on a par with the best examples to be found anywhere in the world.

Let us not forget that the first congress – the All-Russian Extraordinary Congress in Defence of Human Rights – was held in January 2001. Even back then, the just-emerging impacts of the rise to power of scions of the special services was a topic of discussion. The Chechen War – harshly criticised and actively opposed by human rights activists – was in its second year. Back then, many voiced dismal predictions about the human rights situation in the future.

These predictions unfortunately came to pass, in many respects as a result of the weakness and lack of experience of our civil society.

An analysis of the situation in our country today, over 16 years later, reveals that the main parties responsible for disregarding the Constitution and committing large-scale human rights violations are the law-enforcement agencies. The main task facing civil society is therefore to oppose their destructive activities.

The citizens of modern-day Russia are much more aware than the citizens of the former USSR that people in the West have easier lives, more generous wages and pensions, a much higher standard of living, better – and often free – education systems, much better medical care and a much smaller gap between the rich and the poor.

The situation today differs from that in the early 1990s in that there is no consensus between the intelligentsia and the authorities, and the rate at which proactive and educated members of society are leaving the country is rising inexorably.

Let us now turn to the most pressing problems facing society.

Civil rights and freedoms are being curtailed under the banner of the fight against terrorism and extremism. According to statistics from the Judicial Department [of the Supreme Court], the number of those sentenced under the provisions of criminal law relating to crimes against the fundamentals of constitutional order and state security (Articles 275—284.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation) has increased by a factor of 28 since 2003. Is it credible that the number of criminals in our country has increased by a factor of 28? Of course not!

What is happening is that the state is stepping up the pressure it exerts on society, and the leading extremist in Russia is in fact the state. If the flywheel of repressions continues to accelerate, those who were given a taste of freedom in the 1990s – in particular young people – will reach the end of their tether, start to protest and gradually abandon the non-violent methods they currently use and turn to violent methods, resulting in a situation of uncontrolled violence or bellum omnium contra omnes.

State extremism has also infected the legislative and executive branches of power. The former continually adopts repressive laws and the latter enforces these laws, making frequent use of violence against citizens to disperse peaceful public protests, and notably within the investigative authorities, the police, the Federal Penitentiary Service, and so on. A further compounding factor is the noxious effect on the population of state propaganda, in particular that disseminated via television channels.

Many of the laws which have been adopted are contrary to the Constitution and the provisions of international conventions to which Russia has acceded. Human rights activists should use all the means at their disposal to oppose these developments, and it should be noted that we have allies in the form of the state-funded human rights bodies which produce expert reports on repressive legislation of a repressive nature, highlighting anti-constitutional provisions.

Let us take as an example the article of the Criminal Code on “insulting the feelings of believers”. The term “feelings” is categorically not a legal concept. What is more, the Constitution states that Russia is a secular state, and one particular group of citizens – “believers” – should not therefore be granted privileged protection.

As if it were not enough that repressive laws are churned out one after another, these laws are also full of phrases which are vague in the extreme and which provide the bodies enforcing these laws with ample scope for arbitrary interpretations, allowing them to initiate criminal proceedings and hand down long prison sentences against innocent citizens who for some reason or other have fallen out of favour with the powers that be.

The infamous Article 282 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“incitement of hatred and enmity”) has proved extremely accommodating to such flexible interpretations, and its application to “likes” and “reposts” on social networks has already become an everyday occurrence.

Anti-drugs legislation also offers broad scope for abuse, and examples in this respect are so flagrant that measures to amend the regulatory framework and enforcement practices must be taken as soon as possible.

Amendments to these laws and legislative instruments have long since been drafted by high-profile human rights organisations, and the adoption of these amendments must be pushed through. We hope that the state-funded human rights structures will help us in this respect.

The police anti-extremism department - “Centre E” - which was set up in 2008 by the Ministry of Interior Affairs, is allegedly on the frontline in the fight against extremism, but in actual fact plays a similar role to the Fifth Department of the USSR-era KGB, which monitored and persecuted dissidents, and it is entirely possible that the FSB handed over this portfolio to the Ministry of Interior Affairs in order to avoid direct historical parallels. Recent media revelations have made it clear that “Centre E” not only persecutes ideological opponents, but also oversees pro-government criminal groups, for example the SERB movement.

We believe that the current incarnation of “Centre E” should be shut down.

The target of the most extensive attempts at ideological repression in recent times has been the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Around 200,000 Russians were simultaneously declared to be extremists on the grounds of their membership of an international religious organisation which preaches pacifism. Even though they are at risk of imprisonment if they continue holding religious gatherings, many of them have publicly stated their intention to do so.

The Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has been declared a terrorist organisation by the Russian state, is being persecuted on ideological grounds. Anyone who is found to own books published by the organisation faces criminal action and imprisonment without suspension, even though not a single case is known in which one of its members committed a terrorist act or other violent crimes.

Other examples of political repression include the sentences handed down to Aleksandr Sokolov, Kirill Barabash, Valery Parfenov (real prison terms) and Yury Mukhin (suspended sentence) – in connection with their attempts to hold a referendum, rather than their activities in connection with the organisation “Amy of the Will of the People”, which is regarded as extremist by the authorities. Their movement (“For Accountable Government”) was merely seeking to hold a Russia-wide referendum on the accountability of the government to the people.

The list of political prisoners compiled by the Human Rights Centre Memorial – which does not pretend to be exhaustive – already includes around 200 names.

No discussion on state extremism would be complete without reference to the problems prevailing within the penitentiary system and the police. Only a tiny proportion of cases involving police violence are ever investigated, and even fewer are brought to court and result in the guilty parties being punished.

The violence which is endemic within the penal system is supported by the leadership of the Federal Penitentiary Service, and in practice also by the Investigative Committee and the public prosecutor’s office owing to their demonstrative failure to take action in cases even when called upon to do so. There are vanishingly few examples of investigations into prisoner torture by employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service which have led to meaningful punishment. Several dozen “torture zones” exist in Russia; the prospect of being transferred to these zones is used to scare prisoners attempting to fight for their dignity and rights, and a trend which has recently emerged is for these prisoners to be prosecuted for “false denunciations.”

In this year alone, human rights activists have received reports of torture in prison colonies in ten different regions: Karelia, Mordovia, Kirov, Sverdlovsk, Saratov, Bryansk, Yaroslavl, Kemerovo, Tver and Krasnoyarsk.

Human rights activists have developed solid proposals for ways in which the current situation – involving intolerable human rights abuses within the police and the penitentiary system – can be changed.

In view of all the above, we contend that the actions of the law enforcement agencies are based on hostility towards Russian citizens.

The federal television channels and other state-controlled media outlets which persecute dissidents are hugely influential in terms of the backing they lend to law-enforcement officers. Let us not forget that the Stalinist repressions also began with the persecution of opponents in the press and at party rallies, and ended with torture in the basements of the Lubyanka, single shots in the back of the head and mass executions.

Eighty years has passed since then, but the past is gradually reappearing before our eyes. The new terms which have become common currency (“foreign agent”, “undesirable organisation” and “fifth column”) barely differ from those which they replace (“enemy of the people”, “spy” and “saboteur”). The prevailing atmosphere is increasingly one of suspicion, animosity and a search for enemies, with this trend becoming particularly apparent from 2012 onwards.

No modern-day society can meaningfully exist unless its governing powers are matched by a strong opposition which has equal rights and the freedom to disseminate its ideas and criticise the government’s actions without fear of retribution. This is vitally important for society as a whole and for the authorities themselves.

We call on the Congress to proclaim the need to unite in defence of the Constitution with a view to halting the violation of citizens’ rights at all levels and in all of Russia’s regions. We hope that our Congress will adopt a resolution on the most flagrant infringements of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and the movement in defence of the Constitution must also demand that these resolutions are implemented by the authorities.

We also believe that the Congress should demand that broadcasts on social and political issues be taken out of the control of federal television channels. Instead, such programmes should be produced by journalists who operate independently of the authorities, and who are willing to give a voice to opponents of the government who use non-violent means.

We very much hope that the Congress will lend impetus to a broad movement in defence of the Constitution.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds