Natalya Taubina: "The 'foreign agent' label is a kind of seal of quality"

posted 5 Mar 2019, 00:22 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 5 Mar 2019, 00:36 ]

19 February 2019

An interview with Natalya Taubina by Zoya Svetova

Source: MBKh Media

 On 16 February 2019, Public Verdict Foundation, an NGO that defends victims of police violence, turned 15. On 18 February, the former head of Prison Colony No. 1, upon whose order convicted offenders were brutally tortured, was detained. This detention, like the opening of the criminal case against prison officers involved in the torture, was obtained thanks to the lawyers of Public Verdict. The Foundation’s head, Natalya Taubina, talks about the organization’s mission, how to eradicate torture in prisons, and how to create a mighty human rights organization in 15 years, starting from scratch.

Tell me, how did you come to human rights defence?

It was in 1992. I was still studying at MIFI [Moscow Engineering Physics Institute]. My specialization was databases, cybernetics, and my research advisor suggested I get to know the Civil Forum and create a database for them on refugees and migrants. In 1992, a major wave of refugees was flooding into Russia from Central Asia, and Lidia Ivanovna Grafova published a notice in Literaturnaya gazeta asking those who had come to Russia to fill out a form and indicate their requirements and what help they needed. Grafova received hundreds of forms, which had to be processed somehow, so I wrote a database for her that was called “Bigrafor.” At the time, in 1992, I met many colleagues from the Centre for Human Rights and realized I found this very interesting. As it happened, once I graduated from the institute, I didn’t work a single day in my specialty as an engineer-mathematician. I came to the Centre for Human Rights. At first as an assistant, a kind of project coordinator. But in 1994, an initiative arose at the Centre to create a Foundation for a Civil Society, which would help human rights organizations working in the regions. In 1997, I became director of this foundation, where I worked, basically, until I moved to Public Verdict. One of the programmes of the Foundation for a Civil Society was, in fact, activity aimed at, let’s put it this way, using international instruments, international agreements in the area of economic rights, and using them more effectively in our country.

How was the idea of Public Verdict born?

The idea was the brainchild of Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky. I don’t know whether it was Khodorkovsky himself or in discussion with colleagues, but in the spring of 2003 he proposed creating an organization to help the victims of illegal actions taken by employees of law enforcement agencies. This idea immediately gained support in the human rights sector, inasmuch as several times after the first Civil Forum in the sector they had discussed the necessity of having an all-Russia foundation to support work throughout the country on cases involving human rights violations. The Foundation’s founders were, on the one hand, Open Russia, and, on the other, the Moscow Helsinki Group and the International Memorial Society Memorial. Among the cofounders were two foundations that no longer exist: the Yakovlev International Democracy Fund and the Russian Regions Fund.

So Public Verdict was created literally on the eve of Khodorkovsky’s arrest?

Yes, he was imprisoned in October 2003. And we managed in July, I think, to meet and discuss just a little what kind of organization this might be. After Khodorkovsky’s arrest, I spent the entire fall of 2003 in discussions with various people. And I think our organization is one of the few in whose creation Liudmila Alekseeva, Arseny Roginsky, Sergei Kovalev, Yury Shmidt, and Tamara Morshchakova all took part in together. In February 2004, the Foundation was registered.

That is, they are essentially the founders of Public Verdict?

Essentially, yes, it turns out that these are the people who came up with what kind of organization it should be. And in February 2004 we were registered.

You have managed to accomplish a great deal in these 15 years. From a small, not very influential organization compared to the major “pillars” of human rights defence, to turn into one of the leading ones that everyone has heard of. What is the secret of your success?

When we were being created in 2003, the main emphasis and our entire activity was focused on legal assistance, on specific cases connected with law enforcement agencies’ excesses. From the very beginning, we realized that it was extremely important to provide all these cases with information. People did not believe, especially then, that justice could be obtained. At the time it was hard to imagine an employee of the law enforcement agencies on the defendants’ bench, followed by an actual sentence based on a court verdict. In this regard, the information component of our work was important. People needed to be shown that one can, after all, obtain justice and prosecute even these unprincipled employees, so that they are given some kind of just punishment. We realized the importance of public attention to this problem, therefore at the first stage the pivot of our activity was legal support for those who came to us and an information campaign to shed light on our organization’s activities. In addition, to attract attention to the problem, we worked out, in conjunction with the Levada Centre, a “law enforcement excesses index.”

Over the course of several years, we took measurements every month, showed the dynamic, and calculated how much attitudes in society were changing toward the problem of law enforcement agency excesses. This was a fairly serious and very important instrument, above all for the discussion with society. As we saw the results of this research and worked on cases, we became convinced that the problems were systemic. You could change the regions and the victims’ names, but the further details of what happened would bear a very strong similarity, like twin brothers. In order to pose the question of the necessity for changes, you need convincing, substantive research and not just scream that everything in the country is bad and has to be changed. Therefore, probably beginning in 2005, or maybe 2006, we saw a new objective of developing a serious research direction. That is, today we are one of the few to research modern law enforcement agencies rather intensively, but specifically from the standpoint of human rights. We study to what degree human rights guarantees are observed in those agencies’ daily activities.

Back in 2007, we began conducting complex research, “field work,” surveys, and in-depth interviews with those who had the relevant information. At the time it was still possible to speak with investigators, prosecutors, and judges, and we travelled through the regions at various times of the year: in Komi at -30°, a territory where there are many either currently serving or former prisoners. There you talk with all these employees of law enforcement agencies and try to understand why they aren’t investigating instances of torture. Why the system of accountability that had come about in Interior Affairs agencies had had such a catastrophic influence on the practice of using torture. Once we had done this field portion of the research, and while constantly following all official information coming out of law enforcement agencies, we prepared these reports. We talked about how the evaluation system established in the Internal Affairs Ministry actually influences practice and the widespread use of torture by Internal Affairs employees, especially officers in the field, why standards for effective investigation were not functioning for us, and so on. Today we have a research department comparable in strength and even numbers to our legal department. This is a serious line of work for us, and we are constantly following and looking at new trends and changes. Last year, in particular, we launched a project on monitoring vigilante activism—all kinds of Cossacks, the various patrols there are in various regions.…

What did you call it? Vigilante?

Vigilante activism, yes. This is a Western European term. Vigilantes are essentially groups of people who take law enforcement upon themselves. Accordingly, within the framework of this project, we are monitoring, on the one hand, all this vigilante activism in our country and watching how it changes. Unfortunately, the trend is fairly dispiriting and alarming inasmuch as this activity is spreading, and fairly often these groups, in carrying out some oversight activity, take law enforcement into their own hands and in so doing also use violence against citizens. We see that in this type of situation, they are not accountable in the same way the police are. Accordingly, the second objective of our project is to construct legal instruments that would allow them to be prosecuted in a way comparable to what would happen to an official in a similar situation.

Public Verdict was declared a foreign agent. How are you dealing with that?

We were among the first ten to be declared foreign agents.  The Justice Ministry put us on the register in July 2014. Since then we have not, as a matter of fact, experienced a reduction in the number of people turning to us. Once a person who had been a victim came to us and the conversation came around to the topic of “foreign agents.”  He made a wonderful comment that I have always remembered.  “Well, who else but foreign agents can give high-quality help in this country?”  Even before that, I had joked that the “foreign agent” label is a kind of “seal of quality.”  So, if they put you on the register, that means you are doing everything right.

It turns out that people who turn to us think that, if we areforeign agents,” if the authorities do not, let’s say, love us, that means we truly do help people.  Undoubtedly our work involving communication with the authorities has become more complicated.  For example, if at the beginning, in 2009-11, we conducted training in the regions for the Investigative Committee on how to effectively investigate allegations of torture and how to use international standards of effective investigation, when the whole story of “foreign agents” began in 2013 - even before we were listed on the register - we began to regularly get refusals in the regions. We had a programme that was aimed at developing cooperation with penitentiary administrations.  I think it was in 2011, after the pilot judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Ananyev and Others v. Russia regarding, in particular, incarceration conditions.  We wanted to understand to what degree incarceration conditions corresponded to what was in the pilot judgment of the European Court.

We thus met with several regional administrations for discussions, and they rated the monitoring methodology we had developed rather highly.  I even remember how the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service in, I think, the Komi Republic, appeared at the federal collegium of the Penitentiary Service and cited our monitoring methodology as an example of how to assess incarceration conditions - how to immediately see where there are deficiencies, where something doesn’t correspond to the ECtHR judgment and what the pilot judgment prescribed. It was impossible to do all of this with “foreign agents.” Generally speaking, the only communication channels remaining today are the office of the Federal Ombudsman for Human Rights and the Presidential Council on Human Rights.  

And why aren’t you on the Presidential Council?  You are one of the few leaders of a human rights organization who isnt.

You should ask Mikhail Alexandrovich Fedotov that question.

Did they not ask you?

No.  Well, at a minimum, this year and last year showed that we can work perfectly well without being members of the Presidential Council on Human Rights. Analyzing the public statements of our colleagues who are members of the Presidential Council, you can conclude that the Presidential Council provides a kind of safety net for the organization itself and its employees, especially if they work in difficult regions. On the other hand it makes it possible to participate in the defence of specific cases.  But it seems to me that in both instances it shows it isn’t necessary to be on the Presidential Council to help with specific cases.  The case of torture in the Yaroslavl prison colonies shows that you don’t need to be a member of the Presidential Council in order to get a criminal case opened.

In order to be effective?

In order to be effective.

Has your organisation counted how many people you have managed to help in the last 15 years?

Well, of course, we do some calculations every year. And we always talk about how many people we helped over the year. Of course, there can’t be hundreds of cases, there are never enough of us for that; an organisation with 22 people in total, of whom seven are lawyers, including two lawyers who are not employees of the organisation but work with us practically day and night. If we’re talking about numbers, then each year we’re approached by around 300-400 people.

Of course, at the same time, since we prepare reports, we produce various analytical assessments; and here there’s already wider coverage, some tens of thousands of people. Since 2007 we have been conducting a programme of psychological rehabilitation for victims of torture. Thus, each year 20-21 people go through the course of psychological rehabilitation, whether they are victims themselves, or their relatives. Sometimes it’s through family therapy, that is, where a psychologist works with both the victim and their close family and friends.

In 2018, we took on 153 cases. Since 2012, when the mass protests began, on both sides, and particularly after Bolotnaya Square, activists and participants in public events have come under pressure, and moreover, pressure has been put on organisations in connection with the “foreign agents” law or, a bit more recently, in relation to the law on undesirable organisations. We have been pushed in the direction of defending freedoms. For the past year and a half, already, our legal department has been split into two separate departments: one is works on protection of rights, the other on protection of freedoms. And when I say 150 cases, that’s referring to the work of these two departments. If we look at the statistics on the results of our work, then probably, and this is a very rough estimate, in an average year, 5-10% of cases on rights protections end with sentences where law enforcement officers are held accountable. That is, 5-7 sentences per year, on average. Some years there are more sentences, and some years fewer.

That’s quite a lot.

In 15 years of our work, more than 150 law enforcement officers have been brought to justice. Two thirds of them received actual custodial sentences.

Have you or your colleagues received threats? Not counting the famous ‘Yaroslavl case.’

Periodically, we’ve faced situations where the courts have tried to declare the work of our lawyers void on the basis that they cooperate with “foreign agents.” It is clear the attempt has no basis in law. But, nevertheless, there have been press publications which state that Public Verdict is a foreign agent working with Western money etc. There have been no direct threats of harassment or, God forbid, of physical violence against employees as yet, but in several cases, particularly in the south, in Krasnodar region, there were cases where lawyers were under surveillance and so we took measures to minimise the risks. But 2018 has, of course, become rather critical from the point of view of threats. There were threats against the lawyer Ira Biryukova, as a result of which we had to evacuate her from the country for two months, as well as threats she continues to receive. In various groups on VKontakte and elsewhere they are trying to tarnish our good name, mixing it with dirt, calling us spies, agents and mercenaries, all for their own PR. Its the old traditional thing.

After the publication of the video from the Yaroslavl colony, which Public Verdict Foundation sent to Novaya Gazeta, a criminal investigation began, and the former head of the colony has been arrested. He gave the order to torture at least one of the prisoners. You founded a coalition of various human rights organizations to fight against torture in the penitentiary system. What needs to be done in order to end torture in colonies and prisons?

I assume that ending it is possible. As a minimum, international experience shows that it’s possible to fight torture. It’s difficult, and some individual occurrences will still occur, but it’s possible to get to the point where torture stops being such a widespread practice and a behavioural norm. For that, a number of things have to happen. The fact that torture happens in the penitentiaries – that’s not just a problem of the Federal Prison Service. To the same degree it’s a problem of the investigation committee, the judiciary, the medics. And therefore, in our coalition Without Torture, which in the first place fights against torture in penitentiary institutions, we stress the fact that an effective government instrument for the fight against torture is absolutely necessary for the country. For that, it’s necessary to have good investigations, it’s necessary to have high-quality documentation of incidents, it’s necessary to have oversight, both institutional and effective citizen oversight, it’s necessary to have preventive measures. And when all this together has been realized, we can expect that the practice of torture will at least decrease, and in the long term could reach zero. That is, it seems to me that even if we imagine that beginning tomorrow detectives will start to fully investigate all incidents and hold all penitentiary workers to account, they will come up against enormous difficulties. Medics still document everything extremely badly, so even with goodwill and willingness there won’t be enough objective information for investigators to bring to justice all unscrupulous staff. What did it take for there to be a breakthrough in the Yaroslavl story and for a criminal investigation to be opened? For an entire year, we couldn’t make it happen. A video recording appeared, and that was simply undeniable proof.

And if there hadn’t been that video recording, there wouldn’t have been a criminal case or the arrest of the officers?

I fear that none of that would have happened. Over the course of a year we received refusals to open a criminal case, and we didn’t have an argument, like a recording, after which nothing remained to the detective but to open a torture case.

That is, it means it was luck? But luck isn’t simple: in addition, people trusted your lawyer, Irina Biryukova.

Yes, of course it’s the result of trust, it’s the result of our work in that specific colony from the beginning of 2017.

If we’re going to talk about reform, about how and what needs to change, then of course it’s necessary that video recording is introduced. It has been introduced now. But if you read the testimony that the arrested prison officers in the Yaroslavl prison colony gave, and after there were the allegations about torture in prison colonies in Omsk, then it’s clear that in all of them video recordings were being made, and there were no violations. Yes, video recordings work, but they don’t work to prevent torture, the staff at the prison colony use them for their own administrative bureaucratic goals: in Yaroslavl Prison Colony No. 1, for example, they recorded torture on that recording device, because they had to report to their bosses how they had conducted educational work with the prisoner Evgeny Makarov. But if we put these video recorders to work to prevent torture, if we remove the Federal Prison Service’s current monopoly on holding the recordings, if doctors start to record traumas conscientiously and properly, and not how they do it now at the Yaroslavl colony, examining the prisoners through the bars, if our public oversight system becomes something much better than what we have now… then the situation will start to change.

You have in mind the members of Public Oversight Commissions (POCs) who cooperate with the authorities?

The members of the POCs are one of the elements. I, in general, am not on the side of, and am closer to opposing, the limiting of public oversight to what is provided for by the law on public oversight commissions. I’m convinced that today public oversight takes many forms, it should be much wider than just the POC. More than that, it seems to me that in authoritarian regimes, legislative regulatory public oversight will end in the same way that we have now with the POC.

Who should have oversight of prisons?

Civilian activists, staff and volunteers from human rights organizations.

You believe that they should also be allowed into prison colonies and remand centres?

Yes, until 2008 I, for example, was allowed to enter prison colonies.

How — by making a request?

Yes, on request.

That is, you want members of NGOs to be allowed into prisons?

Yes, members of NGOs. Public oversight is not just that moment of visiting. It can be modern technology, we live in the 21st century. Today, for example, we get information from the prison colony without visiting it, and then we can pass on this information we’ve received, for example, to the human rights ombudsman in Yaroslavl region, and they go to the prison colony to investigate.

You have in mind reports by relatives?

Reports by relatives, by the prisoners themselves, visits of lawyers on other business who can get information from other prisoners. That is, there can be many different means, and it’s not simply those visits by the public oversight commissions that are provided for by law. It turns out that in our country today, what is usually meant when you are talking about public oversight is just the public oversight commissions which, unfortunately, in the majority of regions are in crisis.

You’ve been working with officials from law enforcement agencies for so many years now, interacting with them in one way or another. How, in your view, can the prestige of the law enforcement profession be enhanced?

Good question. It seems to me, that currently, to a large degree, the violations and crimes committed by law enforcement officials - be they prison officers or police officials – often happen because one encounters sadists, with a predisposition to violence, working within these institutions. Furthermore, such actions occur because of the way in which the internal governance systems are organised. Hence if you decide to work within such a system, you have few survival options within it that don’t entail resorting to violence. Thus, in order for the situation to change, the governance system needs to change first – starting from the top. You often here the question, asked in relation to the prison environment: “What more can be done to tackle these repeat offenders?” Crime happens everywhere. Repeat offenders and serial killers can be found in all countries. Yet in other countries these criminals are dealt with in ways that don’t involve use of violence, or tactics designed to humiliate! We need to draw on this experience. We need to engineer the system in such a way as to ensure that it is not premised on oppression. Yet in our country, the prison system is designed to repress the individual once they enter the system. To turn people into putty so you can make them into whatever you want. If this inherently oppressive approach was done away with and, instead, detainees were treated like human beings, a lot would change. But for this to happen the status quo needs to change starting at the very top of these institutions.

The last question is a more personal one. I know you have a son growing up. How does he feel about your work? Does he know you help people who have been tortured? Do you bring your work home?

No, it’s not something I discuss with him, as you can imagine. He is of course fully aware that I work for a human rights organisation. He probably isn’t 100% sure about what that entails, but he knows that we help people, that there are good and bad police officers – you get the idea. My task is to get him and others to see that things aren’t ever that black and white and that not all law enforcement officers are criminals and people to be feared, that there are without doubt decent, reputable people working within the system. Our task is to make the system as good as it can be. Insofar as they are institutions, called upon to maintain order, to protect us. But of course, there are bad people, who do commit offenses. It’s these offenses we aim to combat. Our task is to ensure that these people are held accountable for their actions. My son gets that. I believe he respects it. Of course, he doesn’t like that I’m away a lot. While other people’s mothers are at home, his own is often unfortunately on the road.  

Imagine one day we get to a point where Public Verdict becomes obsolete. What would you do then?

One can certainly dream. But unfortunately, I think we’ve got a long way to go yet. But if a miracle were to happen, if the kinds of violations we are fighting against one day become a thing of the past, then perhaps I’d go into school teaching.

What would you teach?

Maths, my favourite subject.

Why does one encounter so many science and maths buffs amongst human rights defenders? Take Svetlana Gannushkina, for example, she is a mathematician, Oleg Orlov is a biologist, or Sergei Kovalev who is a biophysicist.

It’s true, many human rights defenders did not start out with a background in the humanities, but in the exact sciences. People might wonder why, after finishing my studies at MIFI, I ended up working in human rights. I would put it mostly down to circumstances at the time. Finding a job in my speciality at the time was nigh-on impossible. And then I encountered this new, fascinating area, into which I wanted to jump head-first. I’m nonetheless immensely thankful for my education, since it taught

How does this knowledge come in handy in the human rights field?

It’s essential for almost any line of work. If you do research, you always need a strategy, and strategies require flow diagrams.   

So, your former specialty helps you in your current role?

Yes. The fact that the organisation, which at its inception 15 years ago consisted of just three people, has now transformed into something quite big – with a domestic and international reputation - I think speaks to the fact that this approach – one that draws on my maths background - works. 

Translated by John Tokolish, Julie Hersh, Marian Schwartz, Mercedes Malcomson and Nathalie Wilson