Lev Ponomarev: The task of the human rights movement is to prevent the spread of violence in the country

posted 25 May 2017, 06:46 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 25 May 2017, 07:17 ]

16 May 2017

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

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

With less than a year to go until the Russian Presidential elections, tensions are mounting in social and political life. That's a good thing. It means not everything has been stifled. It is a sign of sorts that the democratic process in the country has been preserved. And yet we see any kind of government opposition being harshly suppressed by the security forces, in violation of the Russian Constitution and the country’s laws. There is a sense, too, that the rising protests will be increasingly suppressed, and that is a cause of concern to civil society – especially the human rights movement. We will run through the main issues that should be a matter of concern to us and that should be resolved with the help of human rights defenders.

— The violence used by the police when breaking up demonstrations and one-person pickets, and on detaining civil and political activists, as well as inaction by the police and investigative bodies in the face of threats and attacks on opposition and social activists.

We note that of late there has been an increase in the number of threats and use of physical violence against journalists, civil activists and political opposition leaders. There have already been victims. Investigations conducted by civil activists have shown that in many cases the assailants have been identified. These independent investigations indicate that those responsible for the attacks are all connected to pro-government criminal gangs. The attacks are not investigated by the authorities, and criminal proceedings rarely instigated.

The government appears to be organising shock troops to intimidate its political opponents.

The danger of this trend is clear: impunity for street violence against government opponents legitimises violence itself, and violence, in turn, not only effectively destroys peaceful forms and tools of civil and political life, but radicalises society as a whole. You have to understand that in this climate no one can feel secure.

Leading figures of a number of Moscow human rights organisations have proposed that the Presidential Human Rights Council and the Human Rights Ombudsperson discuss these events with the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Investigative Committee and the Public Prosecutor's Office. Every fact must be investigated and criminal proceedings must lead to prosecutions.

— Obviously unlawful judgments have been handed down against peaceful protesters. The police detain peaceful protesters on the streets of Moscow and other cities without justification, and judges automatically presume security forces to be in the right, landing protesters with either jail sentences under administrative law or hefty fines that are exorbitant for citizens. There have been many such cases. The last wide-scale violations of citizens’ rights took place during the peaceful protest on 26 March, when over 1,000 people were detained in Moscow alone.

We are faced with the need to provide all those detained with defence lawyers. Some infrastructure has been set up in Moscow to assist the activists. The information resource OVD-Info reports on all detainees and the status of their trials.

The Oleg Beznisko School operates as part of the For Human Rights movement. It teaches civil activists how to defend themselves in court and trains lawyers in the provision of pro bono defence counsel to detainees. Every seminar is videotaped and all are made available on the website of For Human Rights.

There is every reason to assert that Russia has returned to the practice of mass political repressions within the framework of administrative legal proceedings. Dozens, if not hundreds of applications by detainees have been made to the European Court of Human Rights. The only thing left is to anticipate that “Europe will help us” or the Constitutional Court will pay attention to this issue and enable the criminal ties between the police and the courts, which carry out the political orders of the regime, to be cut.

- Increased internet censorship, politically-motivated criminal prosecutions. The sharpening of political polemics will lead to an increase in internet censorship. Hundreds, if not thousands of informers, along with specialists of the Centre “E” of the Russian Federation Interior Ministry [‘anti-extremism’ police] and of the FSB, scan likes and comments on social media, and on that basis initiate criminal proceedings. The accusations are sometimes absurd and ludicrous – from supposed distortion of historical truth and insulting the feelings of religious believers to extremism, a catch-all phrase that can mean virtually anything. This has taken on the form of an obscurantist tendency, for which people are punished, including by means of real terms in prison. 

About a year and a half ago, a number of human rights organizations proposed, within the framework of the plenum of the Supreme Court, to draft recommendations for such trials, but the effort collapsed. They were not successful in narrowing the concept of “extremism” to what is understood as extremism in international practice—namely, calls for actual violence. Possibly it is worth organizing once again a public campaign with the aim of drawing up an appeal to the chair of the Constitutional Court so that the highest court in the land gave, at its own plenum, clear-cut recommendations on criteria for extremism that would correspond with the Russian Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

I am convinced that Article 282 of the Russia Federation Criminal Code, in its present form, should be immediately amended. I do not think that the State Duma will do this, but the Supreme Court could initiate a similar process after analyzing those insane decisions made by courts at the local level. It is necessary to undertake a large public campaign with an appeal to the chair of the Supreme Court to bring forward a legislative initiative to amend Article 282. This would stop clearly wild and ridiculous accusations made at the local level being accepted for hearing by courts and public prosecutor’s offices.

And then poorly educated or biased courts will no longer allow the appearance in their guilty verdicts of such monstrous phrases as “denied the existence of Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammed, thereby committing a crime…” (from the verdict on Ruslan Sokolovsky). Indeed, that Sokolovsky was only given a suspended sentence speaks to the fact that large-scale public campaigns can bring limited success.

- The absence of dialogue between social protest groups and the regime. Given the worsening economic situation, there has been an increase in social protest, but the regime tenaciously refuses to engage in dialogue with the protesting groups. It would seem the greatest tension has been evoked by the refusal to abolish the Platon system, the brazen move in Moscow to implement under an accelerated procedure the so-called “Renovation” programme for the demolition of five-storey blocks of flats, and also the Krasnodar farmers’ Tractor March.

The lorry-drivers’ protest has lasted more than a year now and still hasn’t been resolved. Instead of negotiations with protest representatives, fake consultations are conducted with strikebreakers. The dangerous thing is that people inclined to political violence could become, and already are becoming, allies of the lorry-drivers.

Great tension also exists in the farmers’ movement in Russia, especially in Krasnodar region. Unlawful land seizures on the part of agro-holding companies and co-called land oligarchs, who have the support of the regime, have led to direct conflicts and fabricated criminal prosecutions in an effort to jail the leaders of the Tractor March.

A consultation with representatives of the authorities on regularizing the situation with lorry-drivers – and not the first such consultation – will take place at the Presidential Human Rights Council at the end of May. In April of this year a delegation of protesting farmers had a personal meeting with Russian Federation Human Rights Ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova.

I very much hope that the head of the Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov, and ombudsperson Tatiana Moskalkova, will be able to persuade the president, or the person authorized by him (if not the ministers Sokolov and Tkachev, who are parties to the conflict) to meet with all interested parties and resolve this growing confrontation.

Regarding housing demolition, the greatest challenge is the announcement of a vote between 15 May and 15 June of those facing resettlement from their homes, whereas the bill will only be heard in its second reading at the State Duma at the start of July. This means that Muscovites are being offered the chance to vote for resettlement without knowing what the law involves. Mass protests are whipping up against the law on renovation, and we human rights activists have to find our place in this protest.

The task for human rights defenders – along with governmental human rights institutions, the Presidential Human Rights Council and the Human Rights Ombudsperson – is to facilitate a dialogue between the authorities and the protest groups at the highest federal level, involving the President or those appointed by him, without the participation of partisan elements from among the authorities.

- The situation in prisons. Over the last year we’ve seen a catastrophe in the public management of the prison system. Firstly, members of the Public Oversight Commissions have been purged; the ejection of human rights activists successfully continues by means of a stream of regular elections. Secondly, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for receiving correct information from prisons and detention centres: for passing on information of this kind, prisoners are threatened with violence, they are raped, and increasingly they receive sentences for so-called “false denunciations”. Thirdly, members of the Presidential Human Rights Council and even the chair of the Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov, who is also an adviser to the president, are no longer being allowed to visit prison colonies; this is what most clearly emphasizes the crisis situation.

By and large, the cessation of torture and humiliation in prison colonies can only come with the help of transparency, which should be the aim of regional civil activists. Torture is hard to conceal; as a rule, people living in the area around a prison colony know if it’s in a mess. We need an ongoing public campaign against torture, which should be carried out using every form of mass media to which people have access. Ideally, the ultimate aim is the creation of something like the National Association of Prison Visitors in the UK, which has a presence in every prison, and whose members are free to visit this prison at any time.

As attempts at dialogue between human rights organisations and governmental human rights institutions (the Human Rights Council, the Human Rights Ombudsperson) and the leadership of the Federal Penitentiary Service has reached complete stalemate, a public campaign for the immediate resignation of Gennady Kornieko, head of the Federal Penetentiary Service, must be started. This seems to be the only thing that could break the impasse.


The above list of problems, which is far from comprehensive, shows how Russia is experiencing a wide-spread systemic political crisis in the internal life of the country. Therefore, civil society and politicians must seek new ways to place intense pressure on the authorities to tackle these problems urgently. The alternative is political destabilisation and chaos.

The main task of the human rights community today is to help ensure that political debates take place peacefully. Right now, every other media source is telling us that Russia is headed for violence and bloodshed. We have to make maximum efforts to ensure this prognosis does not come to fruition. By enabling solutions to the problems discussed above, participating in a dialogue with the opposition and interacting with the authorities, human rights activists can play an important role in this latest sharp turn in the history of our country. When experiencing such a turn in the years 1989-1991, Russia managed to avoid major violence. Civil society and human rights activists in particular must do everything they can to avoid violence this time around.

Translated by Anna Bowles, Lindsay Munford and Mark Nuckols