Lev Ponomarev: "We Should Not Remain Silent"

posted 6 Jun 2016, 06:56 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Jun 2016, 07:21 ]
1 June 2016

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Ekho Moskvy; original title: "There aren't that many people in prison" ("Не так уж много сажают…")]

By Lev Ponomarev, head of the movement For Human Rights, member of the Moscow Helsinki group

More and more often of late I’ve been hearing the following from different people, and in particular from people who usually share my views: “That’s enough conflict, everyone is tired of antagonism.” Someone, feeling completely hopeless, not believing at all in change, leaves the country. Well, that’s their right. Others suggest forgetting about differences and working together with political opponents on something useful - for example, charity work. This is a very good and very necessary thing. A third group recalls that everyone has the right to a private life. This is also true. Sometimes, to excuse passivity, a certain phrase slips in: “All in all, there aren’t that many people in prison.”

Yes, there were times when many more people were in prison. But let’s remember that back then the majority of our people had an astonishingly vague idea of what people were sent to prison for, and how many people were in prison. Back then, it seemed to people that there weren’t that many prisoners and that they weren’t all innocent victims. In those days, people wanted to enjoy their lives and avoid conflict. Repressions surged against this serene backdrop, and we all know what they grew into.

According to Memorial Human Rights Centre, there are currently 94 political prisoners in our country, either in custody or under house arrest. This implies that a detailed legal analysis shows that the accusations have been fabricated, that the trial was unfair, and that these people were imprisoned for their beliefs which go against the policies of those in power. With every year that passes, the number of these political prisoners grows. Just in the past year, the number of people imprisoned under the ‘anti-extremism’ Article 282 of the Criminal Code have tripled: these people were imprisoned for “incitement of hatred or animosity.” If the Yarova-Ozerov bill, which has already passed its first reading in the Duma, is enacted, the number of such prisoners could potentially reach millions. The Yarova-Ozerov bill designates practically everyone who does not agree with the government as “extremist.”

I may seem to be a radical to some, but all my radicalism consists of my desire to anticipate how this situation will develop and not to allow large-scale repression. It is my responsibility as an activist. I am certain of this: punishment for crimes of thought (this refers to postings on social media, for example), as it happens right now, is the way to terror. Involving criminal law is possible and necessary only for clear and aggressive calls to violence, but not for figures of speech.

We can see that the security forces are already showing a departmental zeal with regard to fabricated charges. After the enactment of the Yarova-Ozerov bill, you could go to prison for denouncing the annexation of Crimea. If official statistics are true and 85% of the population support Putin, then out of the remaining 15%, at least a third definitely denounce the annexation of Crimea. This, just as a starting point, is almost five million adults. These people are still not hiding their opinions; they speak with family and colleagues, they write and repost on social media. Even now they are beginning to be prosecuted.

Andrei Bubeev, from Tver, received a year in a penal colony for reposting a picture with a tube of toothpaste and the caption “Squeeze Russia out of yourself.” Ekaterina Vologzheninova, from Ekaterinburg, was sentenced to corrective labour and the destruction of her laptop for reposting a caricature. The Crimean Tatar Mejlis was designated an extremist group and has been subjected to persecution precisely because it did not recognize the annexation of Crimea. But all the Crimean Tatar people voted for the Mejlis, and so they are also now potentially all extremists.

Now this calls for activists to protest, while they can still say that these prosecutions are unlawful. After the Yarova-Ozerov bill Law is enacted, all of these imprisonments will be legalized, and criminal sentences for any expression of disagreement with the government will be lawful. Just as in Soviet times the sentencing of people to years in the camps was legal under the article of the criminal code on “anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation.” There actually was anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation and such sentences are truly given for it. And now in the same way everything will be legal: it actually is an “extremist” who expresses disagreement with government policies, and for that reason prosecution there will follow under the relevant article of the Criminal Code.

After painting such a sombre picture, the question arises: “What do I suggest?”

I suggest, like before, that we should not remain silent, that we should speak out against the encroachment of totalitarianism, against attacks on democratic freedoms, against the legalization of prosecutions for dissent.

Notification of a demonstration by the opposition to be held on 13 June, timed to coincide with Russia Day, has already been given to Moscow City Hall. On this day we must show that we want to see our country free and democratic. The notification was signed by several dozen well-known people, and almost all democratic political parties and organizations are will be participating.

We should receive approval any day now.

I appeal to everyone to follow news about the approval of the demonstration on 13 June, and to come along and join the demonstration as well.