Lev Ponomarev: Run for your lives. The FSB’s on the offensive!

posted 7 May 2018, 11:42 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 7 May 2018, 11:45 ]
3 May 2018

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

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

“They’ll simply steamroll over you;” such was the promise of an FSB general to Serpukhovsky district head Aleksandr Shestun, who had called for the closure of the Lesnaya landfill site and refused to resign voluntarily. To add credibility to his threat, the general cited examples of high-ranking civil servants who had refused to comply with the security forces’ demands: they were “beautifully, firmly and decisively mown down.” He also added that the case would be taken up by the Moscow regional director of the FSB, who “is in charge of both the prosecutor and the cops […] by then you’ll have lost the case in court.” We learnt all these shocking details from an audio-recording that Shestun posted online.

Last December, in an interview with the newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta, FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov enumerated the various iterations of the Russian security services: Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, FSB. To anyone who still has a sense of historical memory, this sounded like a sinister warning. Now, we can already confirm that this warning is beginning to come true. The FSB is taking control of Russia’s domestic political processes, right in front of our eyes.

This does not frighten everyone. According to the latest survey from research group Levada Centre, only 5% of Russian citizens are worried by the curbing of rights and freedoms in the country. For this reason, I would like to give a few clear examples of what could happen to each of us if we do not stop this repressive steamroller that is moving in all directions and is capable of crushing anyone.

In the Moscow region on the 23 April Denis Lebedev – on his seventeenth birthday – threw himself out of the window of a high-rise building. His suicide note contained the following words: “You have left me without the only pastime which brought me joy and distracted me from my problems… you don’t want a people… you want a mere crowd… zombies who’ll follow your orders.” Denis’s pastime was chemistry. He had won the Olympiad in the capital; he was planning to go to Moscow State University; and he had been conducting experiments in his small home laboratory. Following a complaint from his neighbours, a group of officers from the OMON special riot police broke into his flat. They acted as if he were a terror suspect: they turned the whole house upside down, seizing his computer, telephone and lab equipment. Finally, they made Denis and his family sign a non-disclosure agreement. A young man has died as a result of this “counter-terrorist operation.” Not only was this young man not a terrorist; he was not even a political oppositionist. He could have gone on to become a poster-boy for Russian science.

Totalitarianism has many attributes. But for me, its primary distinguishing feature is that the most ordinary of people, with no designs against the regime, fall victim to its steamroller. I doubt that the security forces’ visit to Denis Lebedev was authorised by the top levels of law enforcement. But the steamroller of repression has been set in motion and its movement, which began with members of the political opposition, is picking up strength.

All across the country, the intelligence services are conducting operations to instil fear in young oppositionists, seeking out potential victims on social networks and sometimes even deliberately provoking them in order to create a pretext for mass arrests. This is precisely why the so-called Yarovaya law was adopted: to facilitate access to citizens’ personal data. An amendment to the law requires all mobile network operators to store data about our calls and messages, and to hand them over to the FSB on demand. The intelligence services are trawling through social networks to suppress any attempts at forming a unified opposition and, along the way, to earn themselves brownie points.

Let me give two illuminating examples.

A few months ago, the FSB announced that it had exposed a terrorist group called “The Network” (Set’ in Russian) whose members had allegedly planned to commit terrorist acts on the day of the Russian presidential elections and during the football World Cup. A group of young anti-fascists, united by their mutual enjoyment of airsoft, were arrested: five from the city of Penza and two from St Petersburg. They were tortured into admitting to “participation in a terrorist organisation” – a charge carrying a sentence of 10 to 15 years imprisonment. In the course of the conversations with lawyers that immediately followed their arrests, three of the accused – independently from one another – described the abuse to which they had been subjected: they had been tortured with electric shocks, hung upside-down, had electric devices attached to their fingers, been threatened with sexual assault…one of the detainees, Viktor Filinkov, was lucky in that members of the St Petersburg Public Monitoring Commission (OНK) were able to document the physical signs of his torture.

The case was picked up by online and traditional media and struck a chord with the general public. What followed was a unique occurrence in today’s Russia: despite colossal pressure and intimidation, the detainees’ relatives turned to rights defenders for help and came together to form a civic organisation which they called “The Parents’ Network” (Roditel’skaya Set’). They met with Russia’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Tatiana Moskalkova, and the chair of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov. They called for them to conduct an impartial investigation, without any involvement from the current sadistic group of investigators. Meanwhile, the case continues to evolve. In April in St Petersburg yet another person was arrested.

We are also seeing another falsified legal case unfold. It concerns the founding of an extremist organisation called “New Greatness” (Novoe Velichie). This time, 10 young people were arrested in Moscow. Four of them are currently under house arrest, while six – including two girls – are being held in pre-trial detention facilities. Their relatives have also united and have held a press conference. Other than the 10 detainees, the organisation’s membership included three security agents. These security agents were the ones who founded the organisation and they, too, were the ones who exposed it. Clearly, this is a new tool that the FSB is trying out. As Anya Pavlikova’s mother said at the press conference, “these nets were very skilfully set up and our children just happened to fall into them.” Masha Dubovik’s father was more explicit: “It looks to me like this was launched to serve the career advancement of certain people from entities that are incomprehensible to me.” Anya was not even 18 when she was arrested (she came of age in detention). Both girls were interested in environmentalism and caring for animals. They helped veterinarians, and that brought them closer together. One was already studying at university and the other was about to start. They used message forums to communicate with the others and talked about a range of issues, including the situation in their country. It was in McDonalds when Ruslan D., a new entrant to the group, suggested creating a formal organisation, came up with a name, and took it upon himself to draw up a constitution and agenda. These documents then formed the basis of the prosecution. He was also the one who divided he organisation into departments (two people in each) and this was used to reinforce the prosecution’s case. He rented a meeting space and secretly took audio and video recordings of all their meetings. The case file makes it plain that Ruslan D. is actually A. A. Konstantinov – most likely one of the three operatives introduced to the group by the security forces and who fabricated the extremism case. All three are currently free, while the adolescents – including girls – are suffering poor health in detention.

To help demonstrate quite how brazen the security forces are, I will describe how the arrest happened, based on the words of the girls’ parents. At around 5.00 am, OMON riot police broke into the apartment and masked gunmen ordered everyone to lie face down on the floor. Picture the scene for yourself: Anya’s sister hid her infant child under the bed in fear. The interrogation in the house lasted a few hours and was punctuated with coarse language and threats. It was followed by a search. They found nothing at the girls’ homes other than some documents that had been concocted by Konstantinov and then denounced as extremist, and a few pages of writings by [opposition leader Aleksei] Navalny (they had been planning to act as observers at the presidential elections). The accused were then taken to a detention facility where they were interrogated for several hours under intense pressure and subjected to degrading treatment.

This begs the question: why were these cynical falsifications undertaken? Some are of the opinion that this is how the security forces demonstrate their vigilance and account for the work they have been doing in the lead-up to the presidential elections and the World Cup. But I think there are deeper reasons.

The security forces – especially the FSB – feel that there are no limits to what they can do, they try to please the president, they fit themselves into the current zeitgeist in the country, and they are dictating their model for life in Russia. They go after civil society activists, bring fabricated cases based on posts and likes on social media, and initiate new laws which limit citizens’ rights and freedoms.

“FSB Inc.” has gained power and now is growing, seeking out more work for itself. The security forces also see fabricated cases as part of their remit. And they will solve any problem they encounter by force. Any intelligence agency in any country – even in advanced democracies – would behave the same way if given unlimited power. But that’s exactly the point – in countries where democracy is developed, civil society does not stand for such blatant violations of constitutional norms. Furthermore, the courts side with the law.

How can we limit the security forces’ power in our country? We need to fight for the preservation of constitutional norms. We recently saw an example of successful resistance to pressure from the security forces, when around 15,000 people in Moscow peacefully protested the blocking of the Telegram messenger app.

We must also actively defend those who find bogus legal cases concocted against them and who are subjected to torture. “Network” and “New Greatness” are the clearest and most illustrative cases. These are people who simply came into the steamroller’s path by chance, but if we do not save them they could be facing lengthy prison sentences.

The FSB is reinforcing its influence on society. This is business as usual, and both rank-and-file employees and senior staff are figuring out what’s in it for them and how they can earn themselves brownie points with the authorities. This process is chaotic, but it is also highly dangerous for the country. The detainees’ parents emphasise that their children were not involved in politics. I understand them – they are worried for their children. But it is worth noting that involvement in politics is not forbidden in our country. Tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets of Moscow to take part in political demonstrations. And if we do not stop these bogus cases then they could all be put in prison. Hundreds of thousands of social media users will find themselves on lists of extremists. The security forces are using fabricated charges to sharpen their tools; the next step will be mass political repression. The FSB’s steamroller will crush anything that lives, breathes and moves.

Translated by Judith Fagelson