Lev Ponomarev: “Alekseeva and I stirred up something important.” Lev Ponomarev on his arrest, the fate of human rights defenсe, and unfinished cases

posted 29 Dec 2018, 05:14 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 29 Dec 2018, 12:04 ]
24 December 2018

An extract

In early December, Russian human rights defence lost two of its bulwarks: Lev Ponomarev for the 16 days his administrative arrest lasted, and Liudmila Alekseeva forever. By decision of the court, Ponomarev, her comrade-in-arms of long standing, could not attend the farewell to Alekseeva, which the president did attend, one of the strangest and most significant stories of the year. Novaya Gazeta special correspondent Iulia Polukhina met with Ponomarev on the day of his release.

-- Lev Alexandrovich, what do you think was the real reason rather than the pretext for your arrest?

-- There are several factors here. First, I’ve been working hard on the “New Greatness” and “Network” projects. On 28 October, we held a rather childish action with the parents of the young people charged in these cases, specifically, a walk near the FSB [Federal Security Service] building. I have no doubt that the FSB is a vindictive organization. They knew I was one of the action’s organizers. The parents formally made the request, but they were relying on my experience, of course. I was the main organizer of the 16 December action, which was supposed to be aimed against the violence, torture, and impunity in which the law enforcement agencies engage.

When the Ukrainian sailors were seized in Kerch, we on the organizing committee decided to devote the action to two theses: no to war and no to tyranny. That is, about Russia’s foreign policy and also its domestic policy. Although there were a fair number of declarants, to a significant extent I was the action’s engine.

These gentlemen knew full well that if I was removed from this group, the action would not be successful.

In addition, I said that it was being planned for between 10 December and 20 December, and 20 December is the Day of the Chekist. They celebrated the centenary of the VChK [All-Russian Extraordinary Commission] last year, and this, I believe, was a challenge to society. In my view, our FSB is the special service of the new democratic state that arose in 1991. Publicly, though, they say we are continuing the traditions of the VChK and NKVD [People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs]. FSB Director Bortnikov spoke about this in an interview a year ago.

-- Formally, though, the arrest wasn’t connected in any way with the upcoming action or in general with claims against the FSB?

-- Everything together led to them giving permission to illuminate [sic] me from life for a while, and it just took them a long time. After the 28 October action, someone wrote a denunciation against me only on 15 November. The denunciation’s point was that my call for the action already held had been discovered on the Internet. They could arrest me for that, but it was two weeks later that they thought up the denunciation and then decided to wait another two weeks and arrest me right by the entrance. They knew I’d come because evidently they’d been following me. Because predicting my arrival home was fairly hard, but here they were, my fine friends, standing right in front of my entrance and saying: “Let’s go.”

In fact, they brought me by force to the Meshchanskoe OVD [District Internal Affairs Department] and filed a report saying I’d violated some law, and I wrote I hadn’t violated anything. Then there was the trial, and they sentenced me to those days.

-- The days are over, but are you going to continue to dispute the decision about administrative arrest?

-- Of course I am. I’m not a lawyer myself, but Genri Reznik, even if he has been a friend for thirty years, would not take up my defense and risk his reputation if this case were not totally groundless and legally senseless.

-- You were in the special detention center with various people. Did you help any of them as a human rights activist?

-- When they put me in the cell, there were nearly 12 people on two-tiered bunks, and everyone except for me and one other prisoner smoked so much you could suffocate. When I realized that this was going to be hard, I asked the special detention center employees to move me to a cell with fewer people. Instead, they removed some of the prisoners from mine, left four or five, and asked them to blow their smoke out the small window.

At first there was very bad food, but when ONK [Public Oversight Commission] member Babushkin went there on the second day to check up, they started feeding me twice as well. I’m not certain that after I left theyre going to feed the prisoners all right again.

All the Moscow special detention centers are serviced by a single OOO [limited liability company] that won the catering bid. After Babushkin’s visit, the food was edible, but obviously wasn’t 250 rubles’ worth, though that was the sum they signed for every day.

-- Didn’t your cellmates look askance at you due to that treatment by the administration? 

-- In my cell I got along easily with everyone, and they quickly understood what human rights activists were and would complain to me about things.

There were two Chechens I did manage to save.

These two 20-year-old fellows had been caught stealing candy in a store—worth mere kopeks. They were jailed for an administrative offence and were facing a criminal case. They were trying to link the two men and make a criminal group out of them. I asked my lawyer to go to court for them and help. He demolished the entire accusation and the boys were released and went to Chechnya. Right now I’m working on another case of someone from the special detention center, but I can’t talk about it yet.

-- Were you counting on being let out to say goodbye to Liudmila Alekseeva?

-- If I may, I won’t start with the farewell. It’s important to say how much she and I worked together and how much we accomplished together. We were a tandem, we absolutely were. You couldn’t say she and I always thought in unison, but she would sign my statements, which were often pretty drastic, and her authority helped collect other signatures under them. For instance, there was the open appeal to President Putin. It was entitled, “Make yourself clear, Mr. President.” Its essence was as follows. In the fall of last year, Putin opened a “Wall of Sorrow” on Sakharov Avenue and said quite definitively that we should do everything we can to make sure the tragedy is not repeated. Simultaneously, that interview with Bortnikov comes out. He says that we’re counting the centenary of the glorious organization from the creation of the VChK, we have done a great deal for our Homeland, and though there were minor distortions, we ourselves condemned and overcame them. Now we have turned to the president to clarify whether he thinks Bortnikov is following his line or running counter to it. The appeal was signed by the oldest human rights activists: Alekseeva, Kovalev, Borshchev, Gannushkina, and me.

For me it was a very great loss that I did not say farewell to Alekseeva.

But I understand why they didn’t let me. What was the farewell procedure? The casket on stage, members of the Moscow Helsinki Group sitting next to it, a free seat in the first row where Putin could sit if he wanted to. In any event, when he entered, he shook hands with one of the MHG members. Imagine if that had been me.

What an irrational picture that would have been:

Ponomarev and Putin shaking hands and then Ponomarev returning to the special detention center.

They’d thought all this through and decided to avoid the embarrassment.

-- Please recall for us how you and Alekseeva, two such solitary figures, found yourselves together, in tandem, as you put it.

-- In 1996, I decided I would engage in public work and not return to my scholarly activities. At the time, Alekseeva was working in the office of an American labor union but did not feel comfortable there. Together we decided to revive the Moscow Helsinki Group. We held a congress and then by a decision of Yeltsin’s were given an office, and in 1997 the first grants.

Later, though, I realized that it was better for us to go our separate ways. MHG is a separate group with its own tradition, and I had begun to create a Russia-wide human rights movement.

-- On which cases did you intersect and work together over these years?

-- There were many such cases, and not all of them are finished. (For more detail, see “Alekseeva’s list.” -- Iu. P.) But here’s the main thing: together we tried to unite the human rights activists. Together she and I created the Russian Human Rights Council, where we met regularly and worked out common positions, coordinated.

She and I stirred up something very important: we said that human rights activists would not register voluntarily as “foreign agents.” At first opinions on this issue were not unanimous. Alekseeva and I convened a conference, and we agreed there at the conference that none of the human rights activists would voluntarily label themselves this way. This was done jointly, through the joint efforts of the Helsinki Group and the movement “For Human Rights.” This was our very important action.

-- Now, since Liudmila Mikhailovna’s passing, how do you see your further work?

-- I will continue to work with the other oldest human rights activists, Borshchev and Gannushkina. We must unite human rights activists for joint activities, actions, and so forth. [Read more in Russian]

Translated by Marian Schwartz