Criminal charges brought against rights defender Valentina Cherevatenko under "foreign agent" law [VoA]

posted 26 Jun 2017, 05:29 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 26 Jun 2017, 05:39 ]
3 June 2017

Interview with Valentina Cherevatenko by Danila Galperovich

Source: Voice of America

Russian activist faces imprisonment for her humanitarian and peace-building activities

For the first time criminal charges have been brought for failure to obey the law on “foreign agents,” a law which enables the Russian authorities to attach the label “foreign agent” to organizations which receive foreign funding and which – in the view of the authorities – undertake political activities.

Over the last couple of years, many Russian human rights organizations have become victims of this law, including such respected and internationally known organizations as Memorial, Civic Assistance and the Sakharov Centre, all of which are engaged in enlightenment in the sphere of human rights and history.

Criminal charges for alleged violations of this law were officially brought against Valentina Cherevatenko, head of the coordination council of the organization Women of the Don Union, on 2 June. The sociologist from Novocherkassk is accused of “malicious” evasion of obligations imposed by the law on “foreign agents”, an act for which she may face imprisonment.

Many international organisations have criticized the prosecution of Valentina Cherevatenko

The European Union has issued an official statement which reads: “The criminal charges brought against activist Valentina Cherevatenko, a leader in the NGO ‘Union of Women of Don’, represent the first criminal case opened under the ‘foreign agents’ law in Russia. The practice of declaring NGOs as ‘foreign agents’ restricts civil society and impedes the exercise of fundamental freedoms. Ms Cherevatenko's outstanding work on human rights education, peace building, and humanitarian issues is well-known and widely appreciated.”

The international human rights organization Amnesty International also criticized the Russian authorities. Denis Krivosheev, deputy director of Amnesty International for Europe and Central Asia, has said: “The only reason why Cherevatenko is being brought to court and risks losing her freedom is her unceasing defence of human rights. This brave human rights defender has become the first person to be criminally prosecuted under Russia’s draconian law on ‘foreign agents’. She should not have been prosecuted at all, let alone face the threat of imprisonment.” [translated from the Russian – ed].

In an interview for the Russian service of Voice of America Valentina Cherevanteko spoke about who initiated the prosecution of “Women of the Don Union, and which activities of the organization – in the view of the Russian authorities - were indicative of a “foreign agent”

Danila Galperovich: How did the prosecution of your organization and you personally begin?

Valentina Cherevatenko: It began approximately a year ago on the initiative of an FSB officer who wrote a statement to the Investigative Committee. This was the start of this case in which I was a suspect, and on 2 June I received notice that I was to be a defendant in a criminal case.

Danila Galperovich: So the FSB began this case?

Valentina Cherevatenko: Yes, the FSB are the initiators of this case.

Danila Galperovich: Was this an initiave of authorities at the regional level, or did the attack come from Moscow?

Valentina Cherevatenko: I think that this is primarily a regional initiative. I do think that Moscow is fully aware of the case. Probably, this regional initiative has their support.

Danila Galperovich: Many of your colleagues think that you are being demonstratively punished to intimidate others. Do you agree?

Valentina Cherevatenko: The point is that the law under which I have been charged has in fact never been used before. This is the first case of its kind in history. It could act as an example in various ways. It could also literally be used against all those who have not themselves registered in the "register of foreign agents."

Danila Galperovich: The Russian authorities quite often say that the words "foreign agent" is really nothing to worry about and this term has no condemnatory or negative connotations. Do you agree?

Valentina Cherevatenko: No, I do not agree with that. Just my history and the experience of my case prove that this word carries a range of implications. For ordinary people, especially the older generation, the word "agent", essentially means "spy". This is quite serious. And they used to say even in my town, that our organization has been included in the register of agents working under foreign influence and some of the representatives of NGOs have stated they never will be part of the Union of Women of the Don because they are agents. There were phone calls, and I understand that these calls might have come from people who are not quite in perfect health, but nonetheless: they used terms like "your bosses ", "up to your elbows in blood", and so on. That is why the ‘positive’ understanding of this legislation to which you referred is over-simplified, and comes from people who have had no personal experience of it.

Danila Galperovich:What does your organization do?

Valentina Cherevatenko: " Women of the Don" was founded in 1993 as a the usual kind of NGO working on social issues. It may sound pretentious, but as the saying goes, we wanted to "Join hands together so that we wouldn’t be picked off one by one." In 1993, that’s just how it was in those rather difficult times. And in 1994 the Union of Women of the Don was registered as a regional NGO. As from 1995 we started making changes to our charter, and, in addition to alleviating social problems by helping those who were going through bad and hard times. We included working on human rights, women's rights and campaigning for peace into our charter. For many years we were engaged in developing dialogue for the rehabilitation of the people affected by conflicts, by natural and by man-made disasters.

We have experience in Beslan and in Krymsk. We worked with families who were returning from conflict zones. We helped these families. We work with difficult families and with families experiencing socially dangerous situations. That’s quite a wide range of activities for our organization, which is well established. We have the expertise, experience and the opportunity to deal with them.

Not only did we do the work ourselves – from our own resources we managed to give birth to a number of other organisations that resulted from different branches of our activities.

Danila Galperovich: What sort of demands did they present, and when?

Valentina Cherevatenko: In 2013 the prosecutor declared that by working in other regions we had broken the law. I have, of course, a question on this for the Ministry of Justice which for the 20 years of our existence has not once made any comment in this regard.

Therefore in 2013 the Union of Women of the Don, our co-ordination council, took the decision about creating a second organisation – the Women of the Don Foundation for Co-Operation and Development of Civil Society and Human Rights so that the Union of the Women of the Don would no longer be in violation of the law. The Union would work only on the territory of Rostov region, while the Foundation would have the right to work in other territories allowed by law.

The aims and issues of the two organizations coincide because we never planned to involve ourselves with any other kinds of work. However, as regards myself, a criminal case has arisen and one of the charges is namely the creation of the Foundation, that it was as if I had malicious intent, and so on. Today we are accused of creating, giving birth to, another organization, which, by the way, continues to work in other territories, initiate interactive procedures and organise dialogues between Ukrainian and Russian community workers, women leaders, and specialists in provision of different kinds of assistance.

Danila Galperovich: What do you think, how serious is the danger threatening you?

Valentina Cherevatenko:The Article of the Criminal Code under which I am charged provides for a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment. Just a year ago, when I received the relevant official document at the Ministry of Justice, one of the officials announced to me: “You still don’t know what awaits you”. I managed to say: “Why don’t I know? I understand. It’s likely that you want to lock me up”. Another official added: “Well, that’s just your imagination.”

I really do understand that this danger actually exists. And I really do understand, and many colleagues tell me, that leaving the country would be justified. But, even understanding this, I am not trying to leave for anywhere. I have a family – I have a mother, I have sons, I have grandchildren. I have work and around me are many people who believe and trust in me.

Before our discussion we had a performance at the Forum Theatre, the actors of the Forum Theatre wrote it themselves and called it “Zhanna and the Dragon”. It is a fairy tale based on the situation of “foreign agent” NGOs. We invited people to the dress rehearsal who have really never been in our office. They watched and discussed the play. And I saw that they understood what we were talking about. They told us their view of how we could get out of this situation, how we could survive and remain as people.

Thanks to Frances Robson, Friederike Behr and Graham Jones for this translation

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