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Alyona Ob'ezdchikova on human rights and combating corruption

29 May 2012

Interview with Alyona Ob'ezdchikova, director, Interregional Human Rights Group, Voronezh

Rights in Russia: The Interregional Human Rights Group does much work combating corruption. Could you tell us about this, and about how it ties in with the rest of your human rights work?

Alyona Ob'ezdchikova: I would like to tell you about some aspects of our international work combating corruption. The serious fight against corruption in Russia is just beginning, because state activities in this field still seem to be little more than imitation. I think it’s fair to say that the death in pre-trial detention of Sergei Magnitsky has been a turning point. His death had a major impact in Russia. Those who speak up often do so against corporate interests that are corrupt and criminal. But sometimes they are not even against these criminal groups as such, they just want to honestly carry out their own business. And they face repression from state bodies, most often from law enforcement bodies - the police and prosecutors, either separately or sometimes together. 

Three years ago we became a member of the International Network of Civil Society Organizations for the Social Struggle against Transnational Organized Crime, or FLARE. This is an Italian initiative. Italians have many years’ and unique experience of fighting mafia, which appears to play a huge part in the public life. They believe that the only way to combat corruption, the mafia, is through civic opposition, and a mass change in the psychology of people – not to buy food from mafia-related stores, not to use banks launder money, not to pay kickbacks to criminals from your small business, and not to vote for corrupt politicians, etc. There is no other way that combating corruption is possible. The number of people opposing the mafia should be much more than the number supporting it, or remaining indifferent, since otherwise corruption becomes a part of daily life, a routine practice. FLARE’s platform is aimed at bringing to the international level practices that have been developed by another Italian association, LIBERA, that has been fighting organized crime in Italy for 20 years.

At present FLARE is trying to get a general directive accepted within the EU that would subject any property acquired by criminal means to confiscation. The property confiscated would then be given over to social purposes. It would be given back to society, not just to government, because it was stolen from society. The property that is confiscated should be used to finance municipalities, schools, hospitals, and other publicly useful institutions, or NGOs for example. 

This idea is currently being debated within the EU (and also other neighbouring states, such as in the Balkans), but in Italy it is already law.
It took a long time for the law in Italy to be passed. The deputy of the parliament who was leading the effort was murdered. The bill was brought before parliament three times. A million signatures were gathered in support of the bill. All this took many years and was a very complicated process. But now the law has been in effect for several years. The law established special institutions to implement it. For example, within the law enforcement system there is now a special prosecutor who oversees the work of combating organized crime and corruption. So we can say that the law is working now more or less systematically. 

Unfortunately, it would be impossible to imagine a similar law being passed in Russia at present, given our traditions and the current state of the judicial system. There is also resistance among human rights groups in Russia to making this such a priority. Many in the human rights community do not accept that combating corruption should be given such a priority in terms of advancing human rights. But there are moves being made in this direction. I know about the relatively new website,, and there are probably some others as well. And there is a growing interest among the business community. 

RiR: There is a new law limiting the application of pre-trial detention in economic crimes.

AO: Yes, this is also a positive step. Abuse of pre-trial detention is a whole big issue by itself. It is a tragic absurdity when a person needlessly spends time in pre-trial detention. The abuse of pre-trial detention is a terrible problem that needs to be resolved. It’s an absurd situation when someone may spend several months in pre-trial detention, and lose their health into the bargain, merely on suspicion of what is in fact a petty crime. Moreover, this is quite against the presumption of innocence. One can say that the whole system is discrediting itself. This is not justice in any shape or form.
In our work against corruption it is important to overcome the widespread perception people have that there is a difference between victims who are ‘ordinary people’ and those who are not quite ‘ordinary people’ - such as journalists killed for investigating crimes, including economic crimes, or human rights defenders — those who have put themselves in the frontline of the battle. People can be killed for reasons of personal revenge, for example if someone has got in the way of one of the ‘bosses’. Or if a case concerns very big money. We are not talking about political motivation here when you can be killed either because someone doesn’t like you, or because of big money. The situation in Russia is nowadays becoming like it is in Ukraine. A lot of information is becoming public, everyone knows everything. But there are no consequences. They know you are stealing, but there is no means to punish you. The court system is ineffective in delivering justice. Because if a case comes to court and people know that, all the same, there will be no conviction, no matter how much the accused stole, then there is not much point in it all except a general public condemnation. And so what? There will be public condemnation, but the criminals will continue their criminal activities, even at the very highest levels.

We can take the case of Sochi as a very special and big problem. What I am talking about are the crimes taking place in connection with the preparations for the Olympic Games. European investors are investing their money in Sochi, and only a great deal of pressure on European public opinion, European business, and the European authorities would force them to pay attention to these crimes. European business is very interested in working in Russia, and European governments seek to work with the Russian government. So to a large extent they perceive it as in their interests to close their eyes to what is happening.

RiR: So there is a parallel between the developments at Sochi and what has happened at Khimki Forest?

AO: Yes, in many ways Sochi is like Khimki Forest. Although in the case of Khimki there is only one foreign investor – a French company – and that has refused withdraw. This is despite the fact that they have been told so many times that their money is in fact being used for a criminal purpose. But no, they refuse to withdraw. Many other foreign corporations investing in Russia take a similar line. So when we consider Europe, we can see that the European elite partly assists us in combating violations, but on the other hand it is also playing an important role in generating these violations.

RiR: Would you say they are aware of the issues you raise?

AO: I think they know.

Clearly, some know but continue with what they are doing. Others sense that not everything is quite right, but choose to turn a blind eye and not to get involved.

The goal of the FLARE network is to attract attention to what is going on and to seek to bring pressure on public opinion, business and governments. In the case of Khimki Forest we have not been very successful. There was an attempt to take the journalist Beketov, who had been beaten up, to Italy for medical treatment. But that didn’t work out because there was a criminal investigation under way and it wasn’t possible to take him out of the country and give him medical aid abroad.

We had more success with a case not in Russia but in Kharkov, in Ukraine. This was a case similar to Khimki Forest. A wooded park was to be destroyed under the pretext of the Euro 2012 international football championship that is to take place in Ukraine. The FLARE network put pressure on UEFA and its president, as a result of which UEFA expressed its dissatisfaction with what was happening in Ukraine and said the game would be moved away from Kharkov. They said: this is a joint European event and here you are filling your own pockets, we won’t allow you to do this.

You see, they can say this to Ukraine. But it seems that they cannot really let themselves say that to Russia.

Another of the main areas of FLARE work is support for victims. It’s clear what happens in many cases. A person dies in one of these cases - not only businessmen and people with economic interests, but also civic activists, human rights defenders. Their families need help. Our purpose is to show that society supports and values them, and to show that neither the victims themselves nor their families – who are also victims - are forgotten. We want to show that their lives and work have not been in vain.
And it must be said that family members can most eloquently publicize the abuses. For example, Ilya Politkovsky, Anna’s son, travelled many times to speak on behalf of the family at different public events in Europe, including at the European parliament. We had wanted to work in a similar way with the family of Natalya Estemirova, but since her daughter was so young when Natalya was killed, the family decided that they would prefer not to do anything. Some European institutions, universities for example, or various public associations, offer to provide the children with the opportunity to study. In fact these benefactors are only doing what our government should actually do, namely giving real help to victims. If our country was a normal one, with a normal government, all this would happen as a matter of course. So one of the things we are saying in pushing for this law to be adopted is that there should be a system of assistance for victims, including financial assistance. And this should be laid down in law.

RiR: And what kind of support is there now?

For legal reasons, in Russia at present money cannot be given directly to the victims of an act of terrorism or similar catastrophe. But this is not the case in Europe where people – inspired by a desire to help – regularly make contributions to various good causes. This does not provide direct financial help, but includes education, medical care, and moral support. So for example with this help it is possible for family members to travel to Europe to attend various meetings and events. In Italy, for example, several times a year there are mass demonstrations and other events at which society protests against the mafia, and the names of all those who have died are read out. The family members of the victims attend, and they have the opportunity to speak out in front of the demonstrations. People of many different nationalities, from all over Europe, and all different ages, attend these events. This is a huge support for family members, for them to hear how much their lost ones are valued, how their work is recognized, and to see how much support for them there is. If this happened in Russia it would of course mean even more to the families. But here in Russia it is very difficult to organize things like this – especially given the attitude of our authorities to public assemblies. And it has to be said that people don’t always agree to accept assistance of this kind. Some feel it is too hard for them. Others don’t want publicity. For others the difficulty with the language is paramount.

RiR: And the immediate future? What role does politics play in this?

AO: As things turn out, for the next 12 years we are to have a new president – an old-new president. It is hard to predict what new tendencies there will be in public life over this period. In the last few years there has been a slight thaw, there has been a small weakening in public controls. There have been official statements about the importance of NGOs and about the role of socially-oriented NGOs, recognizing their importance. This new attitude has been in the wind, in the air. But the wind could quite sharply begin blowing in the opposite direction, and we can see how rapidly things are changing after the parliamentary elections. Even taking into account the increased level of civic activism and political opposition, it is very difficult to say with any certainty what kind of systemic change will be achieved. But we have no alternative: we shall carry on working.