An Interview with Pavel Chikov. Part One

posted 11 Dec 2017, 07:34 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 14 Jan 2018, 04:53 ]
6 December 2017 

Pavel Chikov, director of the Agora International Human Rights Group, talks about his life and work with Idel.Realii

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source Idel.Realii

Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, is one of the most high-profile human rights defenders in Russia. Dozens of his interviews and columns have been published in the media, yet we still know very little about his early career. Idel.Realii discovered why he chose to go to law school, how he got in after three appeals, why he decided to start his own human rights organisation and how he was obstructed by the Tatarstan MVD.

Why did you choose law school, given that your parents are biologists?

I don't think I had lots of deep reasons for it. You don’t really think about things too deeply at that age. I was conscientious – I got a Silver Medal at school, so to that extent I wasn’t particularly predisposed towards humanitarian work or the natural sciences. I remember my father saying to me at one point that it just wasn't worth going into biology, and part of the reason for that was the tight-knit nature of the biology community, which made it hard to break into.

The second reason was perhaps more important. In the first half of the 1990s academics were the poorest of the poor. I no longer wanted to do what I’d been doing for the past 12 or 13 years. In the new democratic Russia, you wanted to get on in the world and make something of yourself. At that point, it just didn't make sense in the long term to become a biologist, physicist or some other type of mathematician. Studying enabled me to go for the more difficult option, and so I thought about doing economics or law.

But why law school? Did you always have a desire to defend human rights?

To some extent I inherited my father's desire to seek out the truth. My father can be combative – he always says what he thinks, regardless of the consequences. There's no telling now whether that predetermined the choice I made because I was never very passionate about my legal studies.

Actually, I should stress that I'm not exactly a lawyer. I'm more like someone who manages lawyers, a manager in the legal profession. I'm not a practising lawyer. I'm not the kind of person who needs to be in the courtroom, who has that drive. Most of our people are like that, in fact. If they don't get their cases into court for a couple of months, it starts to get them down because it's something they need to do. I've never had any particular need to do that at all.

Did you do well at law school?

I graduated with honours. In the mid-90s it was almost impossible to get into law school at Kazan State University. I can say with a high degree of certainty that everyone who received a legal education in the 1990s and got into law school managed, one way or another, to do so without going through transparent and fair competition. I'm not saying that there were bribes, but there were quotas, strings were pulled and other sorts of deals were made.

So how did you manage to get in?

After three appeals and by enrolling as a part-time student initially.

Really? Tell us more.

I passed one exam with distinction – the composition test. If you get 5/5 [5 for content and 5 for grammar – ed.], you go to law school. I was given 4/4. I appealed – the teacher from the philology faculty took my work, looked at it and said that in fact it was ‘excellent’. She went out to consult with someone, and on her return said that they couldn’t give me a 5/5, as in that case I would immediately go to law school – she gave me 4/5. To put it crudely, it was an informal way of selecting students used by those who made the decisions, and I started in the field of jurisprudence before entering the law faculty.

After the 4/5 for composition, I had to sit exams in history and the foundations of law. I got 4 in history – I followed my now-familiar path and appealed. The history tutor told me that I had done the best work in the law faculty that year and, without blinking, amended the mark to a 5. The final hurdle for those wanting to enter law school but lacking suitable opportunities was the examination in the foundations of law – it was an oral. Of course, I got a four, and I appealled again. This time they told me that they could correct the mark to a 5 if I wrote an application for entry to the correspondence course.

The key issue here was the military service. The correspondence course didn’t get you a postponement. At that point I already had an ‘entrance ticket’ to KAI (Kazan National Research Technical University), as there was an agreement between the 39th School and KAI University allowing students with distinction at the final exam to take an additional module, and if they got a 5 they could enter the university. I did – for me it was a fallback option in case I didn’t get into the law faculty at KAI.

In the end, I wrote an application to the correspondence course at Kursk State University (I planned to study full-time at KAI) but before the start of the academic year additional places were added to the law faculty at KSU and I enrolled.

Luck comes to those who work for it.

Starting from the second year of the course, the lads gradually began to get jobs. I was keen to get in somewhere, to get experience and earn money – maybe not much, but it would be mine. Getting a job as a lawyer turned out to be even harder than getting into law school. Even working for free! There was nothing left to do but study.

After the third year we had work experience at the prosecutor’s office, and I stayed there for two years as an assistant investigator. One of my ideas was to become an investigator at the prosecutor’s office – this was considered a very good job for a law faculty graduate. At that time, nobody took the police seriously, because they didn’t amount to much, and it was impossible to become a judge without the required experience.

While working as assistant to an investigator, I actually did most of his work – i.e. questioning witnesses, going round apartments, exhuming corpses, going to the morgue and to experts, and so on. I did all this while still a student. At some point I realised I didn’t want to do it – a rather depressing job.

It so happened that at the end of the fourth year a classmate of mine got a job at a human rights organisation which needed a lawyer with knowledge of English. This was the Committee for the Protection of Human Rights of the Republic of Tatarstan, which had been set up in 1996. This was an NGO established on the wave of the first human rights organisations in the country – after the Moscow Helsinki Group. It was headed by Dmitry Vokhmyanin – a journalist from the TV company “Efir”, who in the first half of the 1990s hosted the very famous programme, “Phantom”. Actually, it was my first job with an employment contract. That is, I earned my first money there.

What did your job involve?

I immediately began meeting members of the public, and spent almost a year holding these meetings on a daily basis. After that I started managing a community liaison office, and we began to carry out a number of human rights projects. These projects involved activities such as court monitoring – we would go and investigate the conditions under which the judges were working, the appearance of the room used for court hearings and so on. Back then the conditions were shockingly bad; we wrote about how difficult it was for judges to work under these conditions. Our work became more or less professional in nature.

In spring 2000 I graduated from law school. It was a foregone conclusion that I would carry on to a doctoral degree; my father was a Doctor of Science and my mother and aunt had gained PhDs, and so it was obvious that I would not escape with merely a first higher education degree. There was also the question of the army, since I had no particular desire to go to Chechnya. It was around about this time that I learned about a scheme which sent students to study in the USA. I completed the application form, was invited for an interview, passed an English proficiency test and was accepted, after which I commenced my doctoral studies and travelled to the USA to spend a year at the University of South Dakota.

We were not supposed to gain any qualifications during our stay, but after I arrived in South Dakota and looked around it became clear that I would either crack up or drink myself to death after a year there (anyone who wants to know why merely needs to watch the television series “Fargo”). I therefore went to ask whether I could join a master’s course in public administration which was supposed to take two and a half years, and ended up completing it in a year.

It turned out that my studies in jurisprudence and public administration laid the foundation for the whole of my later career, since the area I have been working in all these years is the point at which public administration meets the world of law. I am one of very few public administration experts in the Russian NGO sector.

I then returned from the USA. There was a certain amount of conflict at this time within the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights of the Republic of Tatarstan between the leaders and the younger members, and even while we were still in the USA we had decided that we would set up our own organisation after our return.

When you say “we”, who exactly do you mean?

Guzel Davletshina is a good example – she began working with me in 1999 and still works with me today. There were eight of us altogether, including my fellow students, Guzel, and also Oleg Khabibrakhmanov, who had been my classmate and after leaving the Regional Department of Internal Affairs has spent his whole life working in the human rights sector.

From Year 10 onwards Oleg and I were thick as thieves. His mother spent all her life working within the penitentiary system, and retired from a position as Lieutenant Colonel of the Internal Service, working as head of the Special Division IK-2 Kazan. Oleg’s father was a Police Major, and worked for the Department Against the Misappropriation of Socialist Property in the 1960s. I went to law school, and Oleg attended the Elabuga Police Academy before getting a job with the criminal investigation department at Yapeyevo police station.

In 1997-1998, before Oleg had moved to the Organised Crime Unit and I was not yet involved in human rights activism, we hung around together all the time – I visited Yapeyevo on an almost daily basis. I remember one particular incident when my father was embroiled in a tricky situation. Some small-time gangsters were asking him for money because he had allegedly scraped their car. They took away my father’s passport, and said that he owed 10,000 roubles. A meeting was arranged, which my father did not attend. Then they called him and said that he now owed them twice as much, and another meeting was arranged. It was then that my father understood that something was up, and that something needed to be done.

Let’s not forget that back then no normal person would ask the police for assistance. I spoke to Oleg, who in turn spoke to his senior colleagues within the criminal investigation department, and a covert operation was organised. My father turned up for the “meeting”, while I sat in a car with police offers keeping a look-out. This was near Building 7 of the Kazan Aviation Institute. From my position squashed between two police officers on the back seat of a Volga 21, I watched my father start to talk to the thugs and all four police officers – one of whom was Oleg – throw open the doors of the car and run across the road, waving guns and shouting “Hands up! Police!” before slamming the gangsters face down on the ground. The louts immediately put their hands up and said that they had no problem with anyone, and the police officers politely explained that they if they heard of any further arguments there really would be trouble. After that everyone peacefully went about their business, and I threw a party for the guys from the criminal investigation department.

Why did you, given the solid education you have, choose human rights work? It was, after all, not the easiest way to make money at that time?

I had experience of work in a NGO, I understood how everything was put together and American culture enabled me to understand how things should be put together. I already knew how to write grant applications, how to get money, how to organise everything. In September 2001, we created the Kazan Human Rights Centre, not for the purpose of earning money quickly – we understood that doesn’t happen quickly. As such, I looked for a job and found one, as a teacher at the law faculty in TISBI where I worked for almost ten years. For the first year at least, it was teaching that fed me.

Finding work at that time, even with my education, was not that simple. In the autumn of 2001 I was called to the Moscow Helsinki Group to head the legal team, but took the decision to remain in Kazan. When the Kazan Human Rights Centre had been set up, there had been no problems with anyone, including the police. Moreover, the first two years were spent learning how to conduct different polls, study documents and write reports. Initially we cooperated very closely with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, it was great. Only then concrete cases against certain police officers began to appear inevitably leading to the deterioration of relations.

From 2003-2005 you worked at the Public Verdict Foundation in Moscow? Were you taking part in the activities of the Kazan Human Rights Centre at the same time?

At that age lots of things are happening; one lives several lives simultaneously. For example, between 2001-2003 I was a postgraduate at the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences writing my dissertation and was working full time, teaching at TISBI, travelling all over the region. This was where I met my future wife who was also teaching at TISBI. On top of this I was the head of the Kazan Human Rights Centre.

Seeing as your wife has been mentioned I have a couple of questions about your marriage. You’ve been married to Irina Khrunova for 14 years. As I understand it, the public did not know about this until the Pussy Riot case, in which Khrunova was able to get Ekaterina Samutsevich’s sentence reduced from a prison term to a suspended sentence. Why was nothing known publicly about your relationship before this?

Let me begin by saying that working in the same team as your wife is a certain challenge, there are limits and difficulties. Firstly, because it is a natural conflict of interest. It’s important that work and the relations within the team are structured in such a way that it is not a family business. It was due to this that Irina told me several times that I loved, cared about and looked after all my people apart from her. This was her reaction, but I did it these things quite consciously. I didn’t want the relationship to impede our work in any way. The fact that she was never a full-time employee at Agora helped this process.

It also helped that we had different surnames, this was a conscious decision when we registered the marriage. There was another reason, Ira’s father was a famous lawyer (he stopped work a few years ago). Vladimir Mikhailovich Khrunov was famous in legal circles in the 1990s and early 2000s and Ira’s first clients were her father’s.

Everything would have continued in this way had it not been for Samutsevich and Pussy Riot. In fact, the decision that Khrunova would represent her was taken largely by accident. It was initially going to be Ramil Akhmetgaliev but on the 10th October 2012 he had to be in court for representing Aleksei Navalny. What Ira needed to do, with a ten-minute speech and a single document, was to break up the scenario that had been apparently planned for one of the defendants – Katya Samutsevich.

In fact, it was I who least of all wanted Khrunova to be given this role. The very next day when I met her at Kazan Railway Station with flowers she said to me, “Well Pash, we’re really going to get it now.” It was clear what the consequences for and attitudes towards Samutsevich’s lawyers would be. After Samutsevich’s release at Moscow City Court Khrunova and I were linked in the public mind and ‘married.’ 

How did these things come to be linked? 

I don’t remember who, but someone wrote that, apparently, Khrunova is the wife of Chikov. No one had particularly hidden this fact, but it was at that time that someone first wrote about it. 

I gather we’re talking about the attack on the Kazan Human Rights Centre’s office.

Yes. It all began in April 2004, when we decided to organize a press conference in Kazan, to which we invited several victims of police abuse. Among them, for example, was the widow of Zhavdat Khairullin, who died at the Tukaevsk police station in September 2002. The case has never been closed. We’re waiting for a decision from the European Court of Human Rights, and I’m absolutely convinced that the decision will be in our favour. Also at the press conference was the father of Sergei Senin—the very same pilot Senin whom last year jurors in Tatarstan acquitted in the case of a fourteen-year-old murder. There were a number of people.

That was the moment the rout of the Kazan Human Rights Centrr began. An inspection team from the police department for economic crime paid us a visit and then one from the Justice Ministry. Then there was an attack on the office when two men in masks broke in and smashed the equipment. When he heard the attack, Ramil Akhmetgaliev went out into the corridor — he ran after them but didn’t catch them. In May 2004, my father left his apartment, opened the door onto the street, and a grenade rolled away from it. An expert at the time said that it didn’t blow up because of some defect the perpetrator could not have known about. But it wasn’t a training grenade. Criminal cases were opened with regard to the attack and the grenade, cases that remain unsolved.

Can you say now that the Tatarstan Ministry of Internal Affairs was complicit in all this?

Certainly! There’s no doubt of it. I must say that right now we would try not to allow that kind of conflict situation under any circumstances. But at the time we were all around twenty-five years old — we had drive and enthusiasm. By the way, as a result of that scandal, the country learned for the first time about the Kazan human rights group. All the federal media wrote about it. Fifteen articles were published in the Western press. The story goes that, a day before the attack on the office, Vladimir Putin, in an address to the Federal Assembly, spoke for the first time about how we had several NGOs that the West was supporting. That was precisely when Putin gave the start to the witch hunt against “foreign agents,” a hunt that continues to this day.

All this happened in May 2004, and the Western press—The New York Times, Boston Globe, and other major media — wrote about how Putin had made this statement, illustrating it with the story of the attack on the Kazan Human Rights Centre. That was really when we were an overnight success — “hyped up,” as we say — though it would be thirteen years before the word came into use in Russia.

So at the time was there actually a desire to stop engaging in human rights activities?

No, that didn’t happen at all. On the contrary, we gained Russia-wide and to some extent international fame. That was when Ella Pamfilova, the head of the Presidential Human Rights Council, came around to our side. That is, in Moscow we found very serious support on the part of state and civil society structures. This gave us to understand that the whole attack on the Kazan Human Rights Centre had been a local initiative.

The question about ceasing our activities never came close to coming up. What we are doing turned out to be super-important and super-sensitive. At that moment, we were able to find people who were prepared to support this kind of work throughout the entire country.

Why in your opinion did the pressure on you decline? What was the end of it all?

We held difficult negotiations with the leadership of the Tatarstan Ministry of Internal affairs. We put an end to the conflict, and in the upshot we managed to avoid any serious consequences for ourselves – all the inspections came to nothing, no one suffered.

How was the issue with the Ministry of Internal Affairs resolved? What were the conditions for the agreement from both sides?

It was not a clear cut process of negotiation. There were no meetings at the highest level. The fact that neither Safarov nor Khokhorin were ready to meet us was one of the reasons for such strained relations. In practice at the present time we are in the midst of a new scandal surrounding the police in Tatarstan, and I am absolultely convinced that cases such as those of the Dalny and Nizhnekamsk police stations couold be avoided if the relations between the Ministry of the Interior and leading human rights defenders in Tatarstan were founded on some other level.

What in fact were the conditions put forward in the negotiations with the Ministry of Internal Affairs?

The Ministry of Internal Affairs wished to reduce the amount of negative information about the work of the ministry coming from us, they wanted to be able to reach agreement with us on what information we were putting out, or at least to know about it in advance. Of course, we cannot distribute information in advance because that would effectively be pre-moderation, censorship, and an end to our own independence. In the end, for a long time we informed the Ministry of Internal Affairs about cases we were working on, we told them to “take note,” in other words.

In the spring of 2005 the conflict with the Ministry of Internal Affairs ended with the signing of a declaration on joint activities. A kind of agreement was reached that we would not start accusations against individuals, and we would not purposefully blacken the name of the Ministry. The Ministry for its part gave us the chance to carry out seminars for their staff. And we did that.

In this connection there is one particular story I’d like to relate. One of the first cases that Igor Sholokhov worked on was a case of torture resulting in death at the Aznakaevo police station. The police had detained a young man and beat him up. And they beat him so badly that there was a huge amount of blood. One of the accused was jailed for nine years, and the other for three years, and he was detained in the courtroom itself. At that time the local police were very sensitive about the issue. In the courtroom there was the judge, the prosecutor, Igor Sholokhov, the two defendants and 30 police officers. When the second defendant was detained in the courtroom, the officers present were simply ready to tear them to pieces. It was thanks to these two men that the case had resulted in convictions.

About six months after the convictions, Sholokhov went to Aznakaevo with a letter of recommendation from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to conduct training in human rights for the local police officers. And there were the very same 30 officers who had been at the court hearings. You can imagine how aggressive they were! Perhaps it was for that reason that the training was a great success – it was emotionally electric, and Sholokhov succeeded in explaining to most of the officers precisely what he wanted.

You decided not to rest on what you had begun, and already achieved, with Agora. I won’t ask why you did this, it’s clear why. The question is a different one. What are you officially doing at the moment?

I am a legal consultant at the human rights organization ‘Zona Prava.’

Would it be right to call ‘Zona Prava’ a subdivision of ‘Agora’? Journalists might notice that the names of the same lawyers appear in cases taken on by both organisations.

Firstly, this is a partnership project. Before, Agora was known for having two main areas of activity; the legal defence of public figures, activists, NGOs and journalists, and also for representing the interests of victims of abuse at the hands of the law enforcement agencies. Both these areas divided into several other sections.

Two years ago, we decided to let Agora focus on the first area while the second was left to Zona Prava. The latter is run by Sergei Petryakov, he has his own team there and its members more often than not have no connection in their work with Agora.

How would you describe your role in Agora?

I have not been the head of any legal entity for a few years. My role is to comment on events, inform the public and attract public attention to what is going on, taking part in the public life of the country, write columns. That’s one part of what I do and it shouldn’t be underestimated, a media presence and participation in society are very important. Another role is communicating with lawyers and discussing tactics and strategy, starting with specific cases. We discuss these things simply because I understand how everything is put together. There is a more abstract overview of things that many lawyers lack. I am therefore in this sense a consultant on various issues.

Another area of work that I’m leading at the moment (perhaps temporarily) is one concerning the European Court of Human Rights. It has become one of the main areas of focus for the whole team. Everything that is connected with the European Court goes through me. It seemed to be important to develop this area more fully and this year we’ve had a massive breakthrough.

I’ve heard several times from different activists that Agora only takes on high profile cases and those that get media attention. What do you say to this?

This is incorrect. If a case is already being covered in the media it doesn’t make sense to take it on. For us it’s important in the first place to see if a given case has the potential to attract media attention.

Why? People will say that you need to defend individuals and not seek publicity.

One absolutely does not contradict the other. We have two aims. We want, with the help of a concrete case, to improve the situation overall. If we’re able to do this it’s considered to be the very greatest victory.

The ideal is when you take on a case that has the potential to change the system as a whole, you bring it to a successful conclusion and in so doing you destroy all the negative and harmful practices there have been in similar cases throughout the country. In order to do this, you sometimes need to take on a number of similar cases. In other words, we are not making one big hole in current bad practice, but many small ones which help us improve the situation.

A perfect example is the acquittal of Evgeny Domozhirov in Vologda of an offence under Article 282. He was accused of humiliating the dignity of the social group ‘Vologda Police Officers.’ We’ve been telling people so many times (since 2010) that employees of the government bodies cannot be considered a social group. We dragged this issue as far as the Supreme Court of Russia but the practice continued nevertheless. The Investigative Committee continues to prosecute on such charges, but they either peter out or result in acquittals. We can now say that these sorts of case no longer make it to court. And we achieved this ourselves! We’ve had more than one success like that. We’ve had more than 10.

To answer your question about the selection of cases, it is this that we think about in the first place. Those who accuse us of focusing on publicity for ourselves do not see the ultimate goal – media support is just a means to the end of achieving a final strategic result. And since the number of people who think strategically is, as a matter of fact, quite small, consequently not everyone understands what the basis of the focus of our work and our mission is. [Continuation to follow]

Translated by Anna Bowles, Joanne Reynolds, Lindsay Munford, Marian Schwartz, Matthew Quigley and Simon Cosgrove