Svetlana Gannushkina: ‘They want to keep us in a state of fear, because they believe that is the way to hold on to their power’

posted 20 Jan 2020, 02:20 by Translation Service   [ updated 20 Jan 2020, 02:32 ]

31 December 2019

Svetlana Gannushkina is head of the Civic Assistance Committee that works to protect the rights of migrants and a board member of Memorial Human Rights Centre

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Deutsche Welle]

In connection with the 20th anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s assumption of the presidency of the Russian Federation, Svetlana Ganushukina, winner of a Moscow Helsinki Group prize, expressed concern about the atmosphere of fear sweeping over Russia. This interview with the Russian human rights activist was published on December 31 by the DPA newsagency.

Exactly 20 years ago at 12:00 p.m. Moscow time, Boris Yeltsin, the then president of Russia, announced his resignation. On the very same day it was Putin, who became acting president, who addressed Russian citizens in a televised New Year address.

‘They want to keep us in a state of fear, because they believe that is the way to hold on to their power,’ said Gannushkina. In her opinion, over the past two decades government institutions and the independent judicial system have been completely destroyed. She adds, ‘the destruction of the organisations making up civil society continues.’

‘This is capitulation’

At the beginning of November the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation liquidated the human rights movement For Human Rights, which was headed by the civil society activist Lev Ponomarev.

In October the composition of the Presidential Human Rights Council was changed. The chair, Mikhail Fedotov, was replaced, on the grounds that he had reached the age of seventy, by the former presenter of the TV news programme Vremya on Channel One, Valery Fadeyev.

Svetlana Gannushkina, who has been nominated more than once for the Nobel Peace Prize for defending the rights of migrants and refugees in Russia, commented that what was being seen in Russia was the destruction of the foundations of the existing state system.

‘This is the capitulation and complete destruction of the judicial system. Nowadays the state is always right,’ she added, referring to the unwillingness of judges to challenge government decrees and decisions. The defenders of the Putin system, Gannushkina is convinced, ‘are sawing off the branch on which they sit.’ ‘Not least out of fear of losing their power, they are becoming increasingly irrational,’ she added.

‘People are prepared to take to the streets’

At the same time, Gannushkina believes that in recent times there has been a growth in public awareness and self-confidence: ‘People today are more prepared to defend their rights and to take to the streets.’

In September Svetlana Gannushkina, a board member of Memorial Human Rights Centre, expressed the view that the recent Moscow protests were a sign Russian society is moving out of a period of stagnation and that ‘changes are looming’. Earlier in an interview with DW, Gannushkina said that she cannot imagine living ‘outside Russia’, but also explained why there is not a flood of migrants to Russia, as there are to Europe.

Vladimir Putin was officially elected as president on 26 March 2000, and re-elected in 2004, 2012 and 2018.

Translated by Rose Glickman

Aleksandr Cherkasov: “The attack makes us stronger.” How fines affect the work of Memorial Human Rights Centre

posted 20 Jan 2020, 00:33 by Translation Service   [ updated 20 Jan 2020, 00:47 ]

 10 January 2020

 Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre, in an interview with Kommersant  

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group (original source: Kommersant]

Photo: RFE/RL

On 9 January, Moscow’s Tver district court fined International Memorial for the 21st time for not labeling itself a foreign agent on the organization’s resources. Total fines for International Memorial and Memorial Human Rights Centre Memorial have now reached 4.2 million rubles. Let us remember that, in all, Roskomnadzor [Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications] has drawn up 28 official court records against the organizations, each of which the court is considering separately (see Kommersant of 26 December 2019). In a conversation with Kommersant correspondent Valeria Mishina, Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize, could not recall there ever being such a full schedule of court hearings for a single NGO-foreign agent in Russia.

Why was Memorial fined this time?

On Thursday, there was a hearing regarding — this is a database for agents of the Great Terror (the site is entitled 'Personnel of USSR state security organs. 1935-39.' – Kommersant). This database has about 40,000 people in it, and, it turns out, it too should have been labeled a foreign agent.

Memorial has announced that it is collecting funds to pay its fines. How much have they collected? And how much does Memorial need for its work per year?

Right now more than 3.6 million rubles have been collected. For its work, Memorial requires about 180 million rubles a year. We’re talking about major net-based programme work, not only in the Moscow office but in the Migration and the Law network that has 40 legal consultation offices in Russia’s towns for refugees, forced resettlers, and other vulnerable groups. It is our work with the European Court of Human Rights, it is legal aid for the political prisoner programme, and it is the work of our offices in the North Caucasus. We’re not saying this money could possibly be wholly recompensed, but this does mean that more and more people are signing up for regular donations. Unfortunately, right now even well-known projects cannot be fully financed out of those payments. And the state has looked into cutting off major donors. One recalls, in the early 2000s, for example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky donating for the fight against torture, but Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia was quickly shut down. And right now, Aleksei Kudrin’s foundation has not been able to accept money from major donors for a similar programme of civilian oversight; possible donors know full well what does not have the state’s blessings here. What people do give for is relatable, one-time issues. In the space of a few days, the Civic Assistance Committee was able to collect money for a refugee child who had had acid splashed in his face. During the summer protests, the OVD-Info project was able also to crowdfund for itself, since people understand what it’s for, what it’s needed for. But even for them this can’t cover all their needs, since apart from such one-time issues as giving immediate help to people detained there are also the subsequent legal proceedings, appeals on administrative cases and the submission of complaints to Strasbourg, and assistance in criminal cases.

What kind of relatable issues do you have apart from collecting for fines?

Our relatable projects include the following. We collected money for a project we put out on 17 September 2019, the date Soviet troops invaded Poland in 1939. This was a memorial book, Mednoe, about the more than 6000 Poles who were detained at Seliger and executed in Kalinin (Tver) in 1940 and buried at Mednoe, a village 30 kilometers from Kalinin. Russian money was collected for this publication. We felt it was a matter of principle that this be public funds and not grants, since this is important for the Russian people. All kinds of people donated, from modest pensioners to the children of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who donated a significant sum. This way we collected 2 million rubles.

But there are issues where foreign money is better than our country’s. The phrase 'nongovernmental organizations' speaks to the fact that they truly are nongovernmental, and it’s preferable that any conflict of interests be ruled out. What we are doing in the North Caucasus is, in essence, civilian oversight in a zone of counterterrorist operations. We can’t accept state funds for something like this. For the past few years, they haven’t given us presidential grants, not that we could ask for that. You would be taking money from someone and then overseeing them.

It’s like the health inspector who goes into the cafeteria storeroom, comes out with heavy packages hanging off him, and says, “Everything’s fine.” Somehow there’s not much trust in that kind of health inspector.

Therefore, in certain instances, if the state understands that it has to look respectable, it has to make sure no such situation arises.

Our situation with crowdfunding is improving, but we’ll see what happens. We’re not talking about switching over entirely to those kinds of collections, but they truly can help. Rather, we have to be talking about a combination of several sources of financing.

In 2013 you, among other NGOs, made an application to the European Court of Human Rights about the law on foreign agents.

We submitted a complaint as potential victims at the time of the recently passed law on foreign agents. At the time we insisted on the urgency of considering it, but seven years have passed already. We regularly send additions to this complaint, including materials from various disputes over fines applied to us. If Strasbourg ever does consider this complaint, the court will rule that these fines have to be repaid to us and, moreover, the moral harm recompensed. In that case, the funds will in any case go to the organization’s work. So that Strasbourg can help us out with this bad joke.

In 2016, the Justice Ministry inspected some of the resources for which you are being tried right now, but the ministry made no claims against you.

At the time, they inspected us from the tip of our nose to the tip of our tail. In the years 2014-2016, Memorial Human Rights Centre underwent constant inspections, and we already had the social networks they’re fining us for right now. At the time, though, the Justice Ministry mercifully decided to consider them, shall we say, as in order. But in the past three years the criteria have changed. And what they write in the denunciation is what ends up in the court proceedings. The results of the Justice Ministry’s inspection were not considered now in the court’s decision. For example, in several hearings we appended documents from the review of pages by the Justice Ministry, where it was written that a given page was prepared with funds from a European Commission grant, and according to the law on foreign agents, the purpose of labeling is to inform that work was carried out using foreign money. That is, the necessary information was provided on the page.

You have called the law on foreign agents 'elastic,' saying that its formulation can be interpreted variously, especially the requirements on labeling formulations. What in it can still be 'stretched'?

The main thing is above all the definition of political activity. Right now it is more or less everything: any articulated statement about a significant problem addressed to the state. This is the main place where they’ve stretched the owl to fit the globe.

Any nonpolitical public statement can be ascribed to politics. This is precisely why the law on foreign agents can’t be amended, it can only be repealed, because it’s faulty at its very foundation.

You’ve already been through more than 20 trials. Do you remember similar situations with regard to other NGO-foreign agents?

I can’t remember any. It’s usually a small number of legal proceedings. But this kind of constant nibbling away—in this, I think, we’re the first.

Is there any likelihood of the organization being liquidated due to this outside pressure?

They’ve done their best to create this danger. But in fact, this is a situation when the attack makes us stronger. The support we feel, including the support we feel through the site where we are collecting money, allows us to get through this affair. The authors of the foreign agent law scarcely had in mind increasing the national independent financing of nongovernmental organizations. Yet this, apparently, is exactly what we’re going to be able to achieve. You and I are speaking on the second anniversary of Oyub Titiev’s arrest. But after his prosecution the stream of information from Chechnya has not stopped. On the contrary, it’s intensified. Here is something analogous: as a result of the trials, there is more information for the public on Memorial’s work, more requests for support.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: The authorities have no instruments other than repression and tougher punishments

posted 12 Jan 2020, 06:52 by Translation Service   [ updated 12 Jan 2020, 07:19 ]

31 January 2019

Vyacheslav Bakhmin, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, on the results of 2019 in the area of human rights in Russia

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Русская служба «Голоса Америки»


Summing up the results of 2019, Memorial Human Rights Centre has published fresh but “сertainly incomplete” lists of Russian political prisoners. The list consists of 314 names, of which 250 people have been imprisoned “for exercising their right to freedom of religion or religious affiliation” and 64 were convicted for political reasons.

Two months ago, political prisoners numbered 305. “The real number of political prisoners and other persons incarcerated for political reasons in present-day Russia is undoubtedly substantially greater…” human rights activists have pointed out.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, shared his impressions of 2019.

Viktor Vladimirov (journalist, Voice of America Russian Service): What sticks in your mind about 2019 with respect to the human rights sphere in the country, what kind of trend are we seeing?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: The entire second half of 2019 very much confirmed the old trend that the present state has long followed. This is the trend toward prohibitions, repressions, and suppression of independent human rights organizations. Some NGOs have already been shut down, for example, the For Human Rights movement led by Lev Ponomarev. Others, including Memorial and Public Verdict foundation, have been subjected to tremendous fines in the hope that they won’t be able to withstand them and will be forced to cease their work. On the other hand, this tendency is linked to the fact that people have stopped meekly tolerating the authorities’ tyranny as they consistently deprive citizens of fundamental rights and freedoms. It is already clear that Russians are badly irritated by the consolidation of this practice. The active portion of the population protests actions by the authorities that are not only anti-human rights but also anti-popular in nature. Falling under the wave of repressions, in particular, are ecological organizations and individual fighters for ecology. We know what is happening in the context of the garbage problem—in Shiyes, the Moscow area, and so forth. Resistance is mounting, but the forces are as yet unequal. Society is still not united or mobilized, while the state has the resources and is prepared to use them.

Viktor Vladimirov: Last year, an avalanche of fines came crashing down on the leading Russian human rights organizations, as well as, in fact, a number of activists and oppositionists. Can an NGO survive in this situation?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: It seems to me that it is those organizations that will continue their work in any case, whatever their status, even if they are stripped of their status as a legal entity, that are being subjected to especially strong pressure. Quite a few activists and volunteers who are not abandoning their activities have gathered around them. Yes, their work is going to be much more difficult, nonetheless, I don’t think it will stop. The fines, of course, are terrible for the nonprofit sector. 3.9 million rubles (the total fines levied on Memorial in 2019) is a tremendous amount of money. NGOs in principle do not have funds like that. Because they receive earmarked money for specific projects, it can’t be spent on paying fines. So apparently there is nothing left but to collect money through crowdfunding.

Viktor Vladimirov: They can’t count on donations from businessmen?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: This is not a simple matter. Understandably, for any businessmen, to say nothing of those on the Forbes list, these sums are small change. They can easily part with that money without any special loss to themselves and at the same time save one or several NGOs at once. It’s another matter that so far Russian businessmen are not burning with this desire. Most of them are probably not capable of such a step in principle. However, it is possible that at least some of them will wake up to some degree of sympathy, conscience, and solidarity and will come to our aid. Such businessmen do exist, or so I believe.

Viktor Vladimirov: But for them there is the risk of themselves falling into disgrace by helping human rights activists. Isn’t that so?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: Yes, that is in fact one of the reasons why business tries not to advertise acts of this type. But with crowdfunding, when you collect money in some account, the donations can be anonymous if they’re not too big. Therefore, one could make ten or hundreds of small contributions, say, so that they don’t stand out. In short, there is always a solution. It’s another matter that we have here rather a question of civic maturity and of the understanding of the human rights movement’s role in a country where people who have fallen on misfortune often simply have no one else to turn to for qualified help.

Viktor Vladimirov: Do you place any hope in the European Court of Human Rights?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: The machine in Strasbourg works very slowly, unfortunately. An NGO in Russia can get crushed before the ECtHR makes its decisions and probably assigns compensation. I’m afraid that will be too late for some organizations.… All these years we have been unable to obtain any decisions on the law on NGOs as foreign agents. Since 2012, the ECtHR has not come out with anything on this subject. Therefore I have no great hopes for the Strasbourg court, unfortunately.

Viktor Vladimirov: How do you assess the changes made in the Presidential Council on Human Rights and the discussions in United Russia on the subject of creating some kind of human rights organ attached to the party?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: This tendency was noted long ago. It’s aimed at replacing human rights organizations that are actually functioning and defending goals and values of general utility with other organizations that formally have the same goals and objectives but by their very essence are shams. In this way, the authorities think, a kind of pluralism is achieved. There are human rights organizations that are in favour of the government, and there are those that criticize the government. It’s another matter that all NGOs that come out on the government's side are most often created with the help of that government. By the way, a similar tendency can be observed in virtually any sphere of public life.

Viktor Vladimirov: What are your expectations for the new year?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: I think the dominant trend today will be maintained. How far it will go is hard to predict. I think the protests will also continue with various degrees of intensity. Because the general irritation is superimposed on a difficult economic situation, the situation is becoming especially gloomy. The frustration of people and representatives of the nonprofit sector obviously might lead to excesses connected with protest activity becoming more frequent. But now any easing up of pressure by the authorities, to say nothing of repealing odious laws, is unlikely. All previous experience points to this. The authorities do not want to yield their positions. They have no instruments other than repression and tougher punishments. Evidently they don’t understand how else they might interact with society.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Igor Kalyapin: I became caught up with the idea of proving the obvious - people are being tortured

posted 10 Jan 2020, 07:04 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 20 Jan 2020, 01:40 by Translation Service ]

30 December 2019

Igor Kalyapin, the head of the Committee against Torture, talks about the main difference between human rights activists and lawyers, about his sense of duty ‘in the worst sense of the word’ and about where Gleb Zheglov went wrong. Igor Kalyapin is a recipient of a Moscow Helsinki Group Award.

Photo by Slava Zamyslov / ASI 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: АSI]

This interview is part of a project by the Agency of Social Information and the V. Potanin Charitable Foundation. ‘NGO Profiles’ is a series of conversations with non-profit professionals about their careers in the civic sector. The material is cross-media, published in partnership with the Jobs for Good People portal and Les.Media.

Many people have the impression that human rights exist in isolation from civil society. Even in the title of the Council on Human Rights these concepts are separate. Why is this?

This separation does not come from the human rights community. I would say this is the doing of state institutions which are trying to manipulate public opinion. A few years ago, under Surkov, we had the so-called GONGOs (Government-Organised Non-Governmental Organisations) which are supposedly independent and public. In fact they are created by the state in order to manipulate public opinion. They are simulacra, a decoration designed to create the impression of some kind of social activity or other. Remember all those groups like Walking Together, Ours and Yours.

In practice it has been demonstrated that [these organisations] are not independent; they exist only in as far as they are fed by the authorities. They are not about human rights, of course. They are created to provide the appearance of public support for government initiatives.

When representatives of [independent] social organisations start to resent this and say, ‘Excuse me, but this [organisation] is a GONGO’, the authorities usually reply, ‘The fact that their people poured green stuff on you doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not part of civil society.’ I think this rhetoric gave rise to the idea that on the one hand there are human rights activists, and on the other civil society. Which is of course not so.

It seems to me that there is still a ‘glass wall’ between those who defend the rights of those who have suffered at the hands of the state, and the rights of everyone else: women, children, patients et cetera. Don’t you feel the same?

Again, this is quite an artificial difference. You see, when the authorities start to persecute one group of human rights activists, that group is stigmatised, and gets a complex about being different. They begin to feel that they are special. We are persecuted, and that means we are special – that’s how the logic goes.

In fact, the focus of state persecution is constantly changing. First to be labelled a foreign agent was the Golos movement – there was an impression that the legislation was created for Golos. And it wasn’t hard to protest against this law; people thought it wouldn’t touch anyone else. But then it turned out that activists protecting whales in the White Sea were also foreign agents. And people combatting AIDS, and a whole lot of environmental organisations suddenly became foreign agents. And then organisations were being systematically labelled foreign agents, because there was an instruction to unearth some in every region.

Are you being serious now?

Absolutely! Three or four years ago, at the Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov wrote a report for Vladimir Putin and cited the example that in the Far North there were only two NGOs. The leader of one of them was quite openly summoned to the prosecutor’s office and told that foreign agents had to be caught. And if there aren’t any, well that shows the prosecutor’s office is not doing its job.

Our organisation has been labelled a foreign agent three times. Using my official position I got an appointment with Valery Fedorov (former first deputy minister of internal affairs); he was responsible for the identification and prosecution of all foreign agents. I bothered him for a long time; we probably discussed the matter for two hours.

In our organisation, my personal financial donation was considered foreign funding. I told him: ‘In Nizhny Novgorod, the Gorky Automobile Plant is the main enterprise. They sell their cars to the West. Am I to take it that any worker at that factory who gives us money will be considered a source of foreign financing?’ Mr Fedorov said yes, that would be so.

That was when I realised the Ministry of Justice was quite prepared to declare anyone and everyone to be a foreign agent.

In 2015 you said, that you wouldn’t operate with the status of foreign agent.

We lost this status along with the status of a legal entity. The Committee against Torture is an organisation with its pockets sewn shut. We don’t have the technical capability to receive foreign funding, because there is no balance, no property, no account. We are an association of citizens. It’s what Memorial has been for a long time. And it’s clear that they’re being victimized with fines.

Generally speaking, NGOs appeared so that the state could provide some preferential form of support for citizen associations. Previously, this made sense, it provided opportunities for interaction with the authorities and other organisations. But the beneficial legal form has turned into a Procrustean bed.

The additional reporting [required for foreign agent NGOs] is a form of intimidation, not a way of obtaining information. It is somewhat damaging, but we can survive. But the fact that, at any kind of event, I should present myself as a foreign agent is fundamentally wrong. Even a person who has committed a murder, proven in court, is not required to introduce themselves as a murderer.

What do you think about the changes to the Human Rights Council? One gets the impression that you have quite warm relations with Mikhail Fedotov.

I have always been on good terms with Mikhail Fedotov [chair of the Human Rights Council until October 2019], he is himself a very warm person. I can honestly say, and no offence to Valery Fadeev [current chair of the Human Rights Council], whom I have also known for a long time, that Fedotov is a person absolutely committed to human rights, and this has been characteristic of him for a long time. This is despite the fact there are lots of things we don’t agree on, but I learnt a great deal from him.

Fadeev, unlike Fedotov, is a political public figure. Although he is a liberal, he is a liberal in the mold of United Russia. And by the way, Fadeev is one of the strongest supporters and ideologists of the law on foreign agents. What can I think of that? This is a form of patriotism that turns into aggression: they are enemies, consequently we mustn’t take anything from the enemy. At the same time Fadeev is a clever person who is able to talk with all kinds of people. He understands that he has been appointed as a human rights defender. I think he will honestly try to perform this role.

Why does it happen at all that there are government-appointed human rights defenders in Russia?

I’ll express a fairly extreme point of view, but you are interviewing Kalyapin as a person, and not as a representative of the Human Rights Council? I consider that these are quite deliberate measures intended to replace human rights activism with a surrogate. I think that it is possible that Mr Fadeev is a figure through whom an attempt will be made to significantly reshape the work of the Human Rights Council.

The great majority of human rights ombudsmen in the regions are government officials. If there is a problem, then the task of the ombudsman is not to defend a person’s rights, but to smooth over difficult situations and lower the temperature of passions. Ombudsmen are defenders of the authorities, and not human rights defenders.

Not so long ago, on Russian Flag Day, you told your story of how you took part in a May Day demonstration thirty years ago, carrying the Russian tricolour. Soon after you started to have problems at work and your scientific career came to an end…

It would be an exaggeration to speak of a scientific career for a second year student. It would be better to say that I parted with my dreams of a career in science. Within the space of a month I was driven out from everything: from work, from the institute. It was a time when everything was rapidly changing; back then there were cooperatives, and I worked in them for some time, part-time. Then I did some work on the side in construction, and after a while some colleagues and I opened a private business. Up until 1993, if I had been asked, “What do you perceive yourself to be?” I would have said I was a future businessman.

Weren’t you involved in democratic development at the same time?

I supported [democracy] as a businessman. I was one of the founders of the Nizhny Novgorod Society for Human Rights, I sponsored it and took part in its undertakings and actions. But it was not my top priority. Certainly, civil society has to be developed. But in our country people had the same attitude toward community activity as they have towards toward ‘total nut jobs’[pridurok], because in the USSR all civic organizations were organized from above, and otherwise they could not be established. ‘Pridurok’ is a subculture slang term. In prison that’s what they called amateur performers who sang about birches and mountain ash trees in prison clubs. The phoniness which permeated any and all community activity under the Soviet state is something we’ve inherited from those times.

It was very important to show that a new phenomenon had appeared, that truly independent new organizations had appeared which would now really do something good.

In 1995 I went to Warsaw to study at the School of Human Rights. The training there helped me a great deal and prompted me to study law.

In the 1990s my total faith in business, in a market which puts everything in order, began to waver. I clearly saw a tendency which did not lead to any sort of democracy. Gangsters enjoyed the open connivance of the law-enforcement system: it’s not that the state had no power to fight it – it had no desire. I had lots of friends and acquaintances in law-enforcement structures, and very high-ranking police officers in the department against organised crime told me: “Why should we be engaged in protecting businesspeople who work in private companies?”

What’s your attitude to the growing interest in the libertarian concept of economic freedom?

Libertarians have simply never had any experience of the realities of the 1990s, when gangsters did as they pleased. Libertarians never served in “construction battalions” in the Russian Far East, and they have no experience of spending time in a prison that is actually run by the top prisoners.

I’m no supporter whatsoever of the idea that the less government there is, the better. The state is not the greatest evil; it’s simply necessary to constantly work on perfecting it, because there are always people who want to make it serve them. We have to do things so that the government works for everyone and not just for some individuals.

I believe that democracy is possible, but everything depends on the condition of society: is it capable of democracy or not?

Is society free in the Russian Federation?

I’ve got a big question about this, but it’s not officials I want to ask, but ordinary people. Democracy, to put it mildly, is in a bad way in our country – indeed, we don’t have democracy. It’s not because the president seized power, but because people don’t want to check up on anything: they want to spend a working day in the office and do as they’re told. If things are like that, we won’t have any democracy in the future. That’s the way it is now.

Coming back to the matter of how the Committee against Torture was set up, how come, of all forms of human rights violations, you chose to take up the issue of torture?

There was the episode you’ve already asked about (on a previous occasion, Kaliapin told ASI about when he was wrongly accused of embezzlement in 1992 and tortured. — ed.) I was brutally detained and beaten almost without breaks or with rare pauses for a smoke break. I was beaten almost into a pulp, spent three months in harsh conditions in a detention centre, there were 11 of us in a four-bed cell, it’s impossible to even imagine such conditions now. But I can say with absolute certainty that all this had nothing to do with my choice of what to focus on, although it was certainly a significant experience in my life.

Most of my friends were in the police, it just turned out that way. I’ve never had a negative attitude towards police officers or law enforcement agencies in general. This situation [the experience of torture] added to my interest in how it all works in these organisations on the inside, because I saw and heard quite a lot. I was in jail while a case was being investigated in which I was the defendant.

I began working on torture for a different reason: I worked for several years with the Nizhny Novgorod Society for Human Rights, which worked on other things: family violence, xenophobia and prisoners’ rights. I was interested in topics to do with prisons, I travelled to many detention centres and found it very interesting: those run by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and prisons.

That’s what surprised me. For example, if the trees in a park are cut down, there are pros and cons, there’s a controversy. But the fact that they are cut down is beyond doubt. Torture was the only problem that was absolutely categorically denied. They said: ‘Torture? What are you talking about? It isn’t 1937, there isn’t any torture.’ When a man is collected from the police station, beaten into a pulp, they say that he fell over ten times and it had nothing to do with torture.

We have a magnificent archive with examples like this in it: during interrogation he stood up and hit his head on the shelf. Did the expert record that he was hit four times? Well, that means he hit the shelf four times. This information isn’t an anecdote, but taken from a ruling not to initiate criminal proceedings. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes: everyone knows that the police beat people up, it’s an obvious fact, yet the phenomenon is completely denied.

I became caught up with the idea of proving the obvious

How would you now evaluate your success in proving what is obvious? Has anyone budged?

Of course. Nowadays who could say that there's no torture in our country? People have even grown accustomed to the word 'torture.' The concept was defined clearly in the Convention against Torture: firstly, it is a deliberate action, and secondly it has a definitive goal. For example, the brutal conditions in pre-trial detention centres should not exist, but those conditions aren't torture.

I really believe that we shall succeed in classifying torture as a separate legally-defined crime, so there would be a special article for it in the Criminal Code. Now it's dealt with under the article on abuse of power. The laws that we have are, in principle, quite sufficient for handling torture.

They're just not applied.

I begin many of my speeches by saying that the symbol of Russia isn't the matryoshka, the balalaika, vodka, or black caviar. The symbol of Russia is a Potemkin village. Our legislation is quite good, but it's a village with a beautiful facade: the laws simply aren't applied. Law enforcement and legislation exist on different planes, in different worlds.

Almost 200 years ago, British historian Thomas Macaulay said, "The law serves no purpose for those who don't have the means and the courage to defend it." This could be said about our laws. Nothing will change when we create new articles: what difference does it make which article it is that we're not using?

We need a special body to investigate these crimes. Out in the real world, let's say in a small district town of Berendeyevka or somewhere, there is a police department that employs ten criminal investigation agents. In this region, there's also a department of the Investigative Committee, which employs two investigators. There's a statement on the table for an investigator, saying that an officer beat and tortured someone, and the investigator recognizes that he will be told to dismiss the case. If the investigator begins to gather evidence, the officers won't forgive him. And he'll have to look the officers in the eye the next day. He can't do his job without them.

How do we solve this problem?

It's simple. This type of case needs to be handled by investigators who don't work in the region. It's best for them to be investigators from a special unit that the chief of the local police can't bargain with.

Let's get back to the Committee Against Torture. At the moment you have six regional branches in Russia. On what principle are they set up?

The methodology we've developed can be applied anywhere, you can set up a whole bunch of branches. But in Russia everything depends on people. To do this work you need qualified lawyers specialized in criminal law, prepared to work for a salary. It's not meagre, but it's a salary, it's not lawyer's fees. A lawyer with such a qualification can earn many times more.

It's impossible to compare with working in the state sector - they get salaries there too, but in addition you have ID, a uniform, a gun, street credibility. You're not embarrassed to explain where you work. When you say you work for a rights organization you get the response: "So you couldn't get a decent job?"

There were some dramatic events connected to the closing down of your branch in Mari El.

Yes, there were. But the press didn't throw much light on it. Who likes to talk about unpleasant things?

We do creative work. Our investigating lawyer first thinks about how to go about things and understand whether there was torture or whether a person is making it up, and people can have a whole range of reasons for that. If the lawyer comes to the conclusion that there was torture, how do you assert the rights of the citizen? How do you make scoundrels from the police or the Penitentiary Service accountable? How do you gather evidence? It's all a creative process.

If at the same time someone does some other legal work, the basic case will inevitably suffer. Because he's sitting in a warm office rented and maintained by the Committee against Torture, typing a complaint on the Committee's computer to an acquaintance of his at the court, who will later pay him five thousand roubles for it.

In our time we had a lot of arguments, we tried different things and we came to the view that anyone who is a regular employee of ours should sign an agreement that absolutely forbids him or her from carrying out any paid legal work on the side. Exceptions are made only by agreement with me, but it’s practically impossible to get my agreement.

Our top colleague in Mari El got in to trouble for working on cases involving "leftists". I really hated to part with him, because we went through hell and back together; an extraordinary guy. A friend of his asked him to get involved in some litigation over a civil case, and then he got caught up in that case.

We said goodbye to him, and the people left without a leader couldn't manage to work independently, so they closed the branch. We had an analogous situation in Bashkiria: there was a two-year interval, we had to fire people, it took a long time to find replacements.

I wanted to ask about Chechnya. It's my understanding that you have a quite personal story connected with it.

It's not personal, why does everyone try to make out there's a personal enmity between me and Ramzan Kadyrov?

I wasn't talking about a personal enmity with Ramzan Kadyrov. The North Caucasus office, which was in Grozny for a long time, was moved to Pyatigosk. Is the work on Chechnya still going on?

It never stopped for a minute. Where did that myth come from? We moved our office to Pyatigorsk because of three pogroms in which all of our office equipment was destroyed. We replaced everything once, then a second time, we spent millions on it. How much can you spend? Apart from that, 
the second time around people were almost killed there.

Aren’t you afraid to continue working now?

We are very afraid, but we’ll carry on because there are people there who want to work, who are ready to do it and consider it their mission. If people want to work, they will. And the office in Pyatigorsk probably won’t be set on fire.

What would you reply to someone who says: “You’ll never find out the truth without torture, without beating someone”?

A person on the street or a law enforcement officer?

Do you have different answers?

Of course I have different answers. Ordinary people think that torture is bad, but should it involve a paedophile, then their attitude changes. They don’t understand that anyone can be detained and tortured and, by morning, they’ll confess to paedophilia and to terrorism.

And what about law enforcement agencies?

They know full well that it’s possible to force anyone to confess to anything. But they’ll tell you that they don’t torture everyone, only those who are actually guilty: “I know he’s a thug”, and they torture him so that he’ll admit it. It’s like Zheglov said: “A thief should be in prison, and no one cares how I put him there.” In this situation, he takes on the role of investigator, prosecutor and judge – all at the same time.

Is it possible to appeal to humanism when talking with representatives of the authorities, to say that human beings shouldn’t be beaten because it causes them pain?

No. I agree with such arguments, but I can tell you without a doubt that it doesn’t work. It is the value system I have, but those people usually have a different one, and you will never change their minds.

You have to show them in a different way. They need to be told: “In this case, you have assumed a power that doesn’t belong to you. You are committing a far more serious crime called ‘exceeding official powers.’ You are committing a crime against the state, while Kostya Saprykin (the main character, a pickpocket, in the film The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed – Ed.) just stole a purse. What he did comes with a sentence of up to five years, but what you’re doing is up to ten years. What are you talking about? Who is the criminal? Here you are definitely a criminal.” They’ll understand that.

In one interview, journalists compared the Committee Against Torture to a business. You replied, “The Committee Against Torture is by no means a business structure.” These days, NGOs tend to adopt a business approach and they are very keen to adopt that approach.

I think some business approaches are definitely needed because we handle large amounts of money. The people who work for us receive salaries and bonuses, and there is an incentive scheme in place. We take lawyers rather than human rights defenders, and we spend a long time watching someone to see if we will be able to make a human rights defender out of them or not.

Do your employees have ‘Key Performance Ind

They don’t, because working them out would be rather difficult. As I see it, 'business' is about earning money, and profit is a good indicator that a business structure is succeeding. That kind of approach is impossible in a human rights organisation. You might be a supremely successful human rights activist without anyone giving you any money for it or paying you to do it. The reward comes from bringing about change rather than from earning money.

How does a lawyer differ from a human rights activist?

They have different motivations. Lawyers are serving the interests of someone or other, and this is perfectly normal – a lawyer’s job is to defend his or her client’s interests. Someone might come to a lawyer and say that he or she has committed a murder, and the lawyer – despite knowing that the person is really a murderer – is obliged by law to help this person to deceive the investigators, to deceive the court and to escape criminal liability for murder. That’s just what the job involves. A lawyer working for some company or other might have to defend the company against customers claiming that the company sells defective goods. In reality the goods are indeed defective, but the lawyer’s task is to prove the opposite.

And where do morals come into it?

That’s a question that every one of us must answer for ourselves. Jurisprudence is a very specific area of knowledge. Someone appearing before a court needs the professional assistance of a lawyer, who will dress up his submissions to the court in the appropriate legal language. The lawyer knows how the procedure works, and the lawyer’s client is the one who knows what he or she wants out of the procedure. A lawyer should not be seen as no better than the individual he or she is defending – he or she is not defending a murderer or acting as an associate of a murderer, but simply acting as a legal adviser for someone who is defending his or her own interests in court.

So why can a lawyer not also be a human rights activist?

Because a lawyer defends someone else’s interests, and a human rights activist defends everyone’s rights.

If the situation regarding torture is deteriorating, what motivates you to keep on going?

A feeling of obligation, in the very worst sense of the word.

What kind of obligation? An obligation towards society?

Some time ago I read Orwell’s 1984, and found it the most chilling book I had ever read in my life – not least because society is sliding further and further towards 1984 before our very eyes. I believe that a society of this kind is a complete dead end, without any way out and without any hope.

I feel an obligation towards society in the sense that we must not allow it to become dehumanised, but my main motivation is a feeling of obligation towards specific individuals. If our lawyers do not set the wheels in motion for a particular case, that individual will not receive assistance from anyone. And behind each of these individuals, metaphorically speaking, there is a grinning police officer who carried out the beating but is not in the least bit alarmed when the individual lodge a statement about it. This police officer doesn’t even try to hide how amusing he finds the whole thing: “The hell with it, I’ll write a letter of explanation and then a report. Nothing will happen. Complain away – who’s going to listen to you? The UN?”

Why you? Why not leave the task of helping these people to someone else?

It’s not a rational decision. I read yet another statement lodged by someone, and I can imagine roughly how it all happened; I can imagine how the investigator will respond, how the Investigative Committee will respond, and how the police officer will respond when he finds out that the statement has been made. I know straight away that not getting involved is impossible, since the individual who was beaten up also faces the prospect of being mocked and derided. The adrenaline simply starts to pump through my veins.

Is it a calling?

It’s not a calling, it’s a moral imperative. And I feel that imperative more acutely with every year that passes.

Translated by Anna Bowles, Nina DePalma, Suzanne Eade Roberts, Mercedes Malcomson, Alissa Valles, Nicky Brown and Joanne Reynolds

Valery Borshchev: 'We’re going back to 1937.' About the alleged discovery of opposition training camps

posted 27 Nov 2019, 12:51 by Translation Service   [ updated 27 Nov 2019, 13:10 ]

19 November 2019

An interview with Valery Borshchev, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: NSN]

Foreign-funded “camps” for training organisers of protest actions have allegedly been discovered in a number of Russia’s regions, members of the parliamentary commission on investigation of foreign interference in Russia’s domestic affairs have announced. They also took the initiative at the legislative level to introduce a special criminal punishment for those who have been trained there and taken part in the organisation of rallies.

The human rights defender and Moscow Helsinki Group co-chair, Valery Borshchev in a conversation with the National News Service stated that he does not believe these kind of “camps” exist, and he equated discussions about this to attempts to return Russia to the era of Stalin’s repression.

“This is a general tendency towards a return to the Stalin era, when they discovered 'enemies of the people,' said that they were connected with foreign governments of one kind or another, and accused them of espionage and treason. None of this was true but they killed them all the same. It is a convenient method to depict critics and opponents of the regime as traitors to attract support from some parts of the population. Of course, I have not heard of any camps, nor seen any, nor can I even imagine their existence in any way at all, even on a virtual level,” said Borshchev.

A member of the parliamentary commission said that the term “camps” includes virtual platforms where a concentration of “protest ideas” expressed, particularly in social networks. At the same time, Valery Borshchev expressed the view that if there were “camps” for training the organisers of protest events, then they would be taught many useful things.

“I note that protests are held by a number of organisations, applications are also submitted by various different organisations, and there is no single centre here," Borshchev explained. "Depending on the situation, various numbers of people take part. For example, there was the 'Moscow case.' Sixty thousand people took part. The next rally gathered somewhat less – 20,000. If there were training camps, wouldn’t these people have been taught to keep the numbers up? Because it's nothing to do with any imaginary centralised camps, it all depends on the public mood, on the political authorities, on the reaction of society.”

Responding to a question about the possibility and consequences of adopting legislation in Russia introducing criminal or administrative liability for participation in such 'camps' (as in the case of the law on foreign agents), Borshchev said: “This darkening of the clouds would have unpredictable consequences. Of course, the authorities can introduce such legislation, they can create whatever kind of provocation or insinuation – there are professionals who are employed to do this kind of thing. The law on foreign agents was also very cautious at first, and then they took it right up to the point where they began to close down organisations under the pretext of foreign interference.”

Today the State Duma adopted a bill in its second reading that would make it possible to designate individuals as 'foreign agents.' The document provides for the recognition of individuals as 'foreign agents' or 'media foreign agents' if they publicly distribute information to an audience or participate in the creation of such information, as well as receive funding from abroad.

Translated by Mercedes Malcomson

Mikhail Fedotov: 'I very much regret the things we were not able to do.'

posted 14 Nov 2019, 12:17 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 17 Nov 2019, 12:08 ]

Fedotov M A.jpeg30 October 2019

Interview with Mumin Shakirov 


Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda] 

Eight days ago, the Chair of the Presidential Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov, was dismissed by presidential decree. Fedotov had headed the Council for nine years. Also removed were Pavel Chikov, head of the human rights group Agora; political scientist Ekaterina Shulman; professor Ilya Shablinsky of the Higher School of Economics; and Evgeny Bobrov, director of the human rights organization Voskhod. Observers are certain that those expelled from the group are paying for their support of civil rights activists prosecuted in the Moscow Case. Mikhail Fedotov has another perspective. He spoke about it in an interview with Radio Svoboda:

You were officially let go because you reached the maximum age for government officials. How did it happen: a dry ‘thank you,’ or warm applause?

It was fairly dry and official, but it's not like they called me and said, ‘So, Mikhail Alexandrovich, you're fired as of tomorrow.’ That didn't happen.

Was it difficult for you?

I understood that it could happen at any point, since 70 is the age limit for the civil service. There can be exceptions.

Are they (and I mean the president's administration) grateful to you for your work, or did they not have anything nice to say?

The conversation was very pleasant, they wished me the best, and they said, ‘Mikhail Alexandrovich, you are going to set up a UNESCO office at the Higher School of Economics, we are here to help you.’ And I said, ‘Thank you! I hope I can manage it.’ And I thanked them for their offer to help.

Which Kremlin official spoke with you?

I spoke with Sergei Vladilenovich Kirienko (First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration), he told me about the decision, and I agreed. You can't stay in a position like this for too long – you start to burn out. I shared this example in one of my interviews. In August, we had an offsite meeting in the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug. We hosted people in three cities at the same time, and we started at 7 pm. In Khanty-Mansiysk, my colleagues finished at 2 am; in Nizhnevartovsk they finished at 4 am; and in Surgut, where I was hosting, we finished at 5:30 am. That's difficult to do. And at some point around 5 am, as I was talking with one of the visitors, I noticed that I was starting to get a little rude. I stopped myself as soon as I could. In no way was I trying to be rude, no, but I felt that there was something caustic or rough about my questions, they were barbed, they were hostile. I felt as if these visitors were unpleasant, they were irritating me. That is absolutely unacceptable for the position I held.

If Mr. Kirienko had asked you to stay for a year or two, would you have agreed?

I would have agreed, but I would still feel like I needed a fresh start.

Do you feel you left behind work still to do? Or did you leave with a clear conscience, having fulfilled your mission?

I think I fulfilled my mission. I led the council for nine years. No one has done that before. Ella Aleksandrovna Pamfilova led the council for eight years, but I led it for one year longer. Ask her how difficult this work is, and she'll tell you.

Your opponents and critics point to the fact that over the past nine years the number of political prisoners in Russia has increased, and the so-called 'foreign agent' law has appeared. Have these nine years been a success?

There have been defeats too.

Let's talk about these defeats.

The foreign agents act is bad. But are you suggesting that the Human Rights Council supported this law? It didn’t. We were categorically against it from the outset.

Why weren’t you successful?

A human rights organisation protects the rights of people, it does not make political decisions, nor does it make laws. We can express our opinion, we can say 'this is good and this is bad.' The Council has only two rights: to ask and to advise. We do not imprison or release anyone. We can ask for someone to be released or pardoned, we can also ask for some amendments to legislation.

Over the course of these past nine years even more problems arose relating to human rights, and the number of political prisoners increased dramatically. Why?

Yes, but at the same time we managed to solve many problems relating to human rights.

Such as?

A law was passed on the creating the foundation for public oversight in the Russian Federation. This was thanks to the Council. All the amendments that we achieved in the legislation on foreign agents, or with regard to the law’s application are the work of the Council.

You said in an interview that the amendments which were adopted were insignificant.

I wouldn't say that they're insignificant. The first amendment was significant, some of the others, less so. There was a very significant amendment, which gave a very broad interpretation of 'political activity,' whereby everything except sleep became political activity. But at the same time, we managed to ensure that the law’s application gradually approached the initial plan, whereby one or two organisations per year would be included in the register. Plus, let's face it, there are organisations that applied to be registered, they wanted to be included on this register.

But they did that because they would have faced difficulties otherwise.

I don't know. I spoke with the head of one such organisation, which the Ministry of Justice had forcibly included in this register. I said: 'You have the opportunity to apply to the Ministry of Justice to have your organisation removed from this register.' To which he replied: 'Mikhail Alexandrovich, it would be more convenient for us if we do not do this.' But now in a year very few organisations are added. Very few.

Yes but such excellent organisations!

Hang on a minute. I think we could argue about which organisations are being included. Some of these are very unusual organisations.

How can Alexei Navalny's organization be considered a foreign agent?

It's a non-profit.

But according to its leaders, it does not receive any money from abroad.

It's true the money transfers of which they stand accused look quite strange. But when an organisation  raises money via the internet, anyone can transfer money from abroad. The organisation, without even knowing it, becomes a foreign agent. This is, of course, a problem with the legislation which we have discussed many times. There is now a draft amendment to this law, which was developed with the participation of the Human Rights Council, and was developed by the Ministry of Economic Development. It would be great if it was adopted. This would make life much easier for normal non-profit organisations that do not engage in any kind of political activity. Although, according to the law - everything is political activity.

Why during your tenure has there been an increase in the number of political prisoners? In what areas do your failures and shortcomings lie?

We asked questions and gave advice. But our words fell on deaf ears. What can we do? We can issue advice and recommendations until we’re blue in the face and that’s certainly what we’ve done - always in accordance with the law.

You were very much in favour of the appointment of Valery Fadeev as your successor for the position of head of the Human Rights Council. Why?

I think it was right to appoint a specialist not just in civil society development but, first and foremost, a human rights defence specialist. The Human Rights Council is primarily a council for the protection of human rights. It was born out of the Russian Federation Presidential Commission on Human Rights, the first chairman of which was Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, the well-known human rights defender and ex-prisoner, who himself served time in Soviet labour camps. I therefore believe he possessed the right credentials for the role.

So Fadeev really isn’t a natural fit whatsoever for the role?

He isn’t a good fit precisely because he is solely a civil society development specialist. He’s a great journalist, a good organizer, he thought up the idea of the Public Chamber. As a matter of fact he designed the concept of the Public Chamber, and in my opinion, he was very much involved in bringing it to fruition. But he has never been involved in human rights protection.

Shulmann, Chikov, Shablinsky, Bobrov – they have all been removed from the Human Rights Council. In your view, is this an accidental or a deliberate decision of your former superiors to now remove some of the most active and least deferential people from the picture?

I was going to say that I don’t really understand the reasons behind the decision. Shulmann spent a total of ten months on the Council. Perhaps she didn’t fit in - it’s quite possible. But what she said at a meeting with the president a year ago, in December last year, didn’t lead to any…I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Here we’re referring to the Moscow protests, in which some of the most actively involved were the aforementioned listed people. They went to special detention facilities and the department of internal affairs; they spoke up for people, they got people released from detention.

Hold on a second, pulling people out of a special detention centre can only be done at the end of the administrative detention period.

Well, let’s put it this way, they attempted to defend the rights of ordinary citizens, in visiting those facilities which I listed.

Yes, and this was in accordance with the Human Rights Council’s mandate.

So, it was for that reason she was removed, or for something else?

Just a second – you see it wasn’t only Shulmann who was involved in such visits.

I mentioned several names.

Well Chikov didn’t visit anyone. He has his Agora group which comprises fantastic lawyers and advocates, all of whom are consummate professionals. While on the Council, Chikov’s involvement was extremely minimal, let’s face it. As far as Shablinsky is concerned, I don’t recall whether he visited police departments, let alone special detention facilities.

He went to protest rallies and there he attempted to…

Shablinsky wasn’t the only one who went to rallies. Lots of other members of the Council attended them as observers. And I was at those rallies and I went to those very special detention centres and police departments, as did others.

You don’t see a link between their dismissal and the Moscow protests?

Well, there could be. After the Moscow protests relations with our Council members became a lot more delicate, they grew more wary of us – I don’t know. But such a link wasn’t something I personally detected. Shablinsky had been a member of the Council for some time, and in presidential meetings he would speak, always well within the limits of what was appropriate, he never spoke out of turn nor did he behave in an insolent manner – perish the thought! On the contrary, he was a very enlightened and well-mannered.

You mean to say you don’t see a link between what happened and the Moscow protests?

Well okay, then take the fourth individual – Evgeny Aleksandrovich Bobrov – are you trying to suggest people had something against him? I’m trying to grasp the logic here and I don’t get it. Evgeny Aleksandrovich Bobrov had nothing whatsoever to do with the Moscow protests. His domain has always been that of migration policy, civic matters, tenants’ housing rights, and the rights of Muscovites on housing waiting lists. So why is the ‘Moscow case’ being brought up here? He has nothing to do with it whatsoever.

And Shulman?

There’s a history there, connected to her husband, who let a building to Navalny’s team for collecting signatures during the pre-election campaign.

And so what? He has every right to do so. Husband and wife are not the same person. Everyone is free to do what they want within the law.

It didn’t sit well with me. There are inconsistencies.

And what have you been deservedly criticised for?

I am very critical of myself, and therefore any criticism, well, as long as it’s not stupid, I take very seriously and think: I probably did actually do something wrong. I very much regret the things we were not able to do. We didn’t have enough strength some times, not enough perseverance, or consistency in our work.

National Guard officers beat people up in the Moscow protests, broke their legs, beat their faces bloody etc. You could have turned up there and stopped it – as a human being with feelings, as an adviser to the President of Russia – used your authority to stop the violence? Could you have done that?

No, of course. I don’t have that kind of power.

What about as an act of humanity? You can still see the violence: for nothing, for no reason, people who had gathered in the city centre, weren’t flipping cars over, or setting anything alight, who were just marching, were dragged out of the ranks and beaten in front of 50-100 cameras. Could you not approach the commander, or one of the other officers and say: “Stop what you are doing! I am a presidential adviser, here is my official ID”?

I couldn’t give orders.

But your personal authority?

I could say: “You know, please, maintain order,” – I could say that to one of the generals, who was in charge. And I did, I said that.

I didn’t see you there.

There were lots of people there.

But all the cameras would have caught it.

The cameras did – and they caught me in a police van, and in front of a police van. 

You ended up in a police van?

I didn’t end up in a police van, I visited a police van.

So you were at the centre of the action?

Yes, of course.

You stood between the police batons and the victims.

No. I talked to those who had organised everything, and there were also other members of the Council there: Andrei Babushkin, Kirill Kabanov, and also Ekaterina Mikhailovna Shulman, and Ilya Georgievich Shablinsky, and Aleksandr Markovich Verkhovsky…

Your opponents often say that the Human Rights Council is a sham organisation. How do you feel about these negative words?

A sham organisation wouldn’t be disbanded like this. They’ve just removed four people, I’m not talking about myself, and these four people were very important members of the Council, very effective. Their removal from the Council means it is weaker. If it is a sham, then why weaken a sham? If it is a sham, then where did the amnesties of recent years come from? The Council initiated these amnesties. The revival of jury courts – the Council initiated this. And much, much else. It’s easy enough to go on the Council's website and see.

So such criticism is unfair?

Of course, unfair.

This is a quote from Ekaterina Shulman after she was removed from the council: 'We had no power, we just puffed out our chests and pretended to be the kind of presidential people for those people who were impressed by this.' How do you feel about these words of Shulman?

She is right, we didn’t have any power. Except for the power to advise and question. We advised, we developed recommendations, and on our recommendations, decisions were taken or not taken, they were taken into consideration or not taken into consideration. I’ll give you a basic example. Take the Shiyes story [the planned construction of a waste disposal plant to for Moscow waste 1,200 kilometres north east of the capital - ed.]. Preparatory work was stopped, it was stopped and they said: 'Until there has been a state investigation, until the project is fully developed, worked out and discussed with the people, nothing will be built here.' Whose proposal was this? It was the Human Rights Council's proposal. We didn’t publicise it.

But now a special operation is taking place there, which you know about?

No, I don’t know about that.

They are now cordoning off settlements, separating people and building the landfill. But you’re no longer in office, so there’s no need to make a complaint to you here. But what about this reading: the deputy head of the administration, Kirienko, lost to the security forces, and the result is your departure from office and the departure of these active members of the Human Rights Council?

I don’t know what kind of game is going on there. Understand properly, my main job was not with officials, but with Council members and citizens who turned to the Council for help. That was my main job.

Nine years is a long time. When it comes to Mikhail Aleksandrovich Fedotov of the 1990s and Mikhail Aleksandrovich Fedotov of the present day, are we dealing with two different people or are they one and the same?

I’ll tell you, what is more, the Mikhail Aleksandrovich Fedotov who was around at the end of the 1960s was also one and the same person. I take good care of my own identity. In my opinion, it’s very important for a person to remain constant, and not change depending on what happens to them. I’ve been a minister, an ambassador, and lots more besides, and I was always and have remained Misha Fedotov.

The dissident Aleksandr Podrabinek said to me, ‘Ask Mikhail Aleksandrovich how he, as an activist and dissident student in the late 1960s, who took part in the 5 December demonstration on Pushkin Square, ended up as an adviser to a career secret service agent president?’

To answer that, it’s really important to understand for the sake of what you entered government. Was it to line your own pockets? That’s one option. To become famous? That’s another. Or was it in order to turn your ideas into reality? That’s option three. I chose the third. So, when they said to me, ‘Mikhail Aleksandrovich, are you interested in heading the Human Rights Council?’ I said ‘Ok’. It’s about what I think is good for society, and for people. And so I went for it. As to Podrabinek, he and I have slightly differing perspectives. I recall how, as Minister or Deputy Minister of the Press, I urged him to register A Chronicle of Current Events as a news media outlet. But he said to me, ‘No, Mikhail Aleksandrovich, we aren’t going to register our publication. We don’t recognise your mass media law.’ I said, ‘Well, it is considered to be one of the most democratic mass media laws in Europe’. ‘It’s still a no.’ I mean, although I respect such a position, I can’t agree with it.

Now, to continue Podrabinek’s line of questioning, in 1989, you defended your doctoral thesis, whose subject was, ‘The Mass Media as an Institution of Socialist Democracy’.


How do you feel about that dissertation today?

I think that Podrabinek simply failed to notice that the annex to the dissertation was the USSR draft law, ‘On the press and other mass media’. What is more important to you: a law that changed the history of the country and led it towards democracy and freedom, or a dissertation that, naturally, began with something like – I don’t remember precisely what now – a quotation from some Communist Party Congress? That’s how people wrote back then. But it was actually about something else and, in my view, it made a decent point. And the end result was great.

Was Mikhail Khodorkovsky a political prisoner?

There is no such practice in the Council…

Mikhail Aleksandrovich, do you believe that Amnesty International was right to name him a political prisoner? Or was that a bit of a stretch?

You know, I reject that term.

‘Political prisoner’?

Yes, and I’ll explain why. Where you have a person who has committed no offence and nevertheless serves a sentence for a crime that he never committed, it doesn’t matter what crime it is. The important thing is that he did not commit it but is still behind bars. Is he a political prisoner or not? I believe that he is, in a sense, because he is the victim of a judicial error or miscarriage of justice, and the judicial error is the result of an imperfect political system. Consequently, in a sense, he is a political prisoner.

Is the persecution of participants in the Moscow protests a judicial error or a political decision?

The Council appealed to the Prosecutor General in this matter and indicated that, in our view, there was no evidence of rioting. We did make such an appeal. But, again, we aren’t the Prosecutor General’s Office, we aren’t a court of law, and we aren’t an investigative authority. All the Human Rights Council can do is make requests and offer advice.

Can’t you come to a judgment or say that such people, who aren’t guilty of anything, are political prisoners? The whole world saw on video that Pavel Ustinov, for example, did not attack National Guard officers, and yet he was given a year’s probation. Is he a political prisoner or a victim of circumstance?

In that case, Ustinov is a victim of a questionable sentence. But, unfortunately, there are many such victims.

How can one live in a situation where completely innocent people have their legs broken, are thrown into prison and the public can do nothing about it?

I’ll give a simple example. In 2016 I was on holiday. The phone rang. I had two days left of my vacation. I heard a woman’s sobbing voice with an accent. She was from the Caucasus: ‘Mikhail Aleksandrovich, is that you?’ – ‘Yes, it’s me.’ – ‘Please don’t put down the receiver, I beg you!’ I understood that she was suffering terribly and I told her: ‘Please, let me ask you to calm down and ring me on Monday. I shall be at work and I’ll deal with your request.’ I still didn’t know what the problem was. I immediately phoned my colleagues at the office and said: ‘Please, phone this number. There is a woman there who is in some kind of trouble. Please find out what her problem is. And on Monday we can do something for this woman.’ But they could not get through to her on the phone. She didn’t answer.

Later we met. Her name is Patimat. She is an ordinary Chechen peasant woman, not a political activist in any way, not a dissident, not a member of any opposition, nothing of that kind at all. But her son in Moscow was being prosecuted. He was remanded in custody, and he spent three years on remand together with two of his friends who were also held for exactly three years in pre-trial detention on charges of committing a crime that they had nothing to do with. Finally, we, the Human Rights Council, succeeded in getting the investigators to drop the charges on the grounds that they had nothing to do with the crime. There had been a crime committed, but they simply had nothing to do with it at all.

In one of the last letters that I sent to the chair of the Investigative Committee I asked him to look into the matter of investigators who fabricated, with no evidence, criminal charges against these three young Chechens. Were they political prisoners? They were held on remand on charges that had been completely fabricated. And when I am told that the Council has not done anything, I say: ‘OK, then asked that woman. Did the Council do nothing for her, for other mothers and fathers?’

Do you link those people who suffered because of the Moscow protests with the Moscow Assembly elections?

The Moscow protests were linked to the Moscow Assembly elections.

Was this politics then?

Of course, it is politics.

Everyone who has been jailed, according to the lawyers and observers, then it turns out are political prisoners?

And does that make things any easier for them?

At least then it is possible to tell the whole world that in Russia people are jailed for political offences and not for having committed a concrete crime.

There are no such things as political offences in the Russian Criminal Code.

That is understood. Vladimir Bukovsky was not a political prisoner either. He was convicted of an alleged criminal offence under the Criminal Code. But everyone knew that he was a dissident and a political prisoner.

Of course.

These people were in the city centre and found themselves caught up in an incident by chance. If their prosecution is linked to politics can they be described as ‘political prisoners’ in your view?

No, I would still prefer to use speak of ‘persons whose convictions have been made on dubious grounds and are of doubtful lawfulness.’ Because in the case of Konstantin Kotov, there is a very debatable judgment, one that is legally very dubious.

Putin is able to lose or not? What do you think?

Why should he ‘be able to lose’?

Elections, gathering signatures, what caused it all to begin? Because Navalny’s supporters and opposition candidates gathered signatures that, according to the authorities, were in part ineligible. Although I am one of those people who was phoned at home and I confirmed my signature, and the members of my family also confirmed their signatures.

Let me explain. The legislation on elections, and I mean federal, not Moscow laws (the Moscow laws are simply a copy of the federal) are structured in such a way that if there is even one detail on the sheet for signatures that is incorrect, for example the person collecting the signatures did not write down the number of the apartment in which he is registered, then all the signatures on that sheet are considered ineligible. And if that person who was collecting signatures had ten sheets, then all ten sheets go in the bin.

Now don’t disappoint me, Mikhail Aleksandrovich – were there any problems with the signatures for any of the government’s candidates?

I guess they can’t have checked them properly.

I see we understand each other perfectly – it hardly seems worth continuing the conversation!

You’re right.

But was there ever a time when you wanted to slam the door behind you and walk away from your job?

A foreign journalist asked me this question five years ago.

And Russia was a more democratic country five years ago than it is today.

I was talking to a group of journalists from different countries, and one of them asked me the same question as you; ‘Don’t you ever want to slam the door behind you and leave?’ And I answered, ‘Every day.’

And what stops you from doing so?

Because people are suffering and I can do something – perhaps only something small, but something nevertheless – to alleviate that suffering. This isn’t a fun job, it feels like swimming across a never-ending ocean with the current constantly against you. That’s just the way it is, unfortunately.

I watched the interview you did with Deutsche Welle, and the wall behind you was full of pictures of Putin. Why did you choose to hang them on your wall? There were pictures of you with Putin, of Alekseeva with Putin, and several others. Many observers believe that President Putin is trampling on human rights in Russia and that he is someone who often tells lies.

I can’t agree with you there – after all, I was working as an advisor to the President and as the Chair of the Presidential Council. It was perfectly natural for there to be pictures of the President in my office. And they weren’t ceremonial portraits of him – they were photographs of him at work, including one of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin congratulating Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva on her 90th birthday, which is a very touching photograph that I greatly treasure and have kept with me. Putin had the utmost of respect for Liudmila Mikhailovna and treated her with enormous civility. I once observed something that made a great impression on me, and that no one else saw unless they were also nearby – no one was taking photographs or filming it. It was when Liudmila Mikhailovna attended the President’s meeting with the Council back in 2017, and she took the floor to say, ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich, if you will excuse me, I will have to leave you because I am tired and I need to rest.’ Sergei Vladilenovich Kiriyenko went over to her wheelchair and took hold of its handles, but Putin noticed that the wheelchair’s footrests were folded in, and Liudmila Mikhailovna could not move forwards because she needed to support her feet on these footrests. I hadn’t even had time to realise what was happening, but Putin jumped up out of his seat, rushed over to Liudmila Mikhailovna and folded out the footrests so that she could support her feet on them.

That seems like a normal thing to do. What is so surprising about that?

That’s the whole point – it’s not a surprising thing to do, it simply shows what kind of a person he is.

He probably just acted instinctively without thinking about it.

And yet I did not act instinctively, and I was ashamed of myself.

And were you closer to her?

No, I was further away.

Then your conscience should be clear, since he was closer. Is Putin still a good statesman in your opinion, or would you now judge him more harshly?

I still believe he is a good statesman. He has done a great many things, and there are some things he has not done, but that was not always his fault. Going back to those pictures I had hanging in my office, there was also a picture of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov that I’ve kept with me since 1990.

The number of political prisoners in the country is growing, the law on ‘Foreign Agents’ is in force, elections are rigged year after year, and the government has not changed since 2011, when there was large-scale electoral fraud in the elections to the State Duma. How can you still consider him a good statesman?

He is doing everything he can. It’s worth remembering that I don’t believe that everything he does is right, but when I was acting as his advisor, I shared those opinions only with him.

Oil prices are high, and yet over 20 million people are living in poverty in the country – is he really doing everything he can?

Here’s the thing. I am not involved in the world of politics, and it is not my business to decide whether politicians are doing a good job or not. My business is protecting human rights, or at least it was. From now on I will mostly be concentrating on research and teaching. What I’m interested in is helping people. When it comes to human rights, I’ve been involved with the humans more than rights. Now that I’m returning to the field of jurisprudence on a full-time basis, I’ll be focusing on the rights and the humans will become more abstract. But protecting human rights means prioritising the humans, and this is something I learned from Liudmila Mikhailovna – a real heroine, in my eyes – who taught me that many a mickle makes a muckle.

Surely you must be aware of the fact that state-operated television channels funded by the federal government, referred to as ‘Goebbels TV’ by critics of the regime, churn out content around the clock that incites discord and hatred between countries and between nations – and the orders to do so are all coming from one place.

Actually, I’m not aware of it, because I don’t watch television (laughs).

But you know perfectly well what I’m talking about.

I know perfectly well what you’re talking about.

And all of the things I just talked about are directly linked to the individual who holds absolute power. People call the Duma a ‘crazy printer’ that spits out his dictates, the Council of the Federation a ‘copy shop’ that does the same, and the mass media ‘Goebbels TV’. Law enforcement officials are going around imprisoning people, we’ve had the whole business with Ivan Golunov, and on and on – all of which is proof that something is rotten in the state of our country…

Our country is facing a great many problems, I won’t deny that. Some of them we’ll manage to fix, and others we won’t. Some of them will get worse on their own. But that’s not a reason to fold our arms and say, ‘I can’t do anything’. We should all do everything we can.

Translated by Nina dePalma, James Lofthouse, Nathalie Wilson, Mercedes Malcomson, Lindsay Munford, Simon Cosgrove and Joanne Reynolds

Genri Reznik: Politics has overpowered the law

posted 5 Nov 2019, 13:24 by Translation Service   [ updated 7 Nov 2019, 00:46 ]

18 October 2019 

An interview with Genri Reznik

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Sobesednik]

Photo of Genri Reznik: Novaya gazeta

Moscow City Court has sentenced Konstantin Kotov, who participated in the recent Moscow protests, to four years’ imprisonment. Lawyer Henry Reznik reflects on how the Moscow protests became a litmus test for society, the government and the judicial system. Reznik is the vice-president of the Russian Federal Bar Association and first vice-president of the Moscow Bar Association. He is also a member of both the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Presidential Human Rights Council.

Many lawyers believe the trial and investigation following the ‘Moscow case’ was unprecedentedly speedy and unjust. Do you agree?

I do! Kotov was a peaceful demonstrator who caused no harm, yet he got a sentence twice as long as a murderer would have done! Police officers get the same sentences for torture. This is related to Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code - the so-called ‘Dadin Article’, about violation of the rules of demonstrations. Yet, in 2017 this was declared essentially unconstitutional! Essentially, politics has overpowered the law, it walked all over it. It’s embarrassing.

Why is that? Have demonstations changed since the time of the Bolotnaya Square case? Or has there been a change in the government?

It seems to me that these recent events gave the authorities great cause to be worried - they are afraid of the people. Even those who usually wouldn’t have done so took to the streets. The same applies to students, despite the fact that most young people are politically apathetic. There was a wide range of professions present who were previously absolutely indifferent. An awakening, of sorts.

People no longer believe that things are going to get better, that the economy is going to grow or that their standards of living are going to increase. They’ve begun to realise that they’re being treated unfairly and that their voices aren’t being heard.

In 2017, the opposition skillfully campaigned in municipal elections in Moscow - volunteers approached literally everyone: be it at home, at work ... This is the difference. After the incidents at Bolotnaya Square, after all, none of those protesting gained any power. But in many districts in the 2017 elections, it was actually the alternative candidates opposed to the government who won.

Muscovites seized the opportunity and took to the streets, outraged by the arrogant exclusion of opposition candidates from the Moscow City Duma elections.

I remain convinced that despite everything, the authorities lost the elections in Moscow. It would appear, that they don’t really know what to do next: should they tighten the screws, or loosen them.

You have said that practically all of these convictions will then be quashed in the ECtHR. Do Russian judges not care about their reputations at all? They refuse to look at data from CCTV cameras, dismiss the arguments of defenders, take into account protocols with mistakes…

Unfortunately, the psychology of our judges is such that they don’t consider themselves representatives of an independent branch of power, as the law sees them. They see themselves as civil servants. So, is it worth being indignant about the fact that they refused to review the materials presented by defenders? They had done the same at all of the protest-related cases before. And then they lost in the European court. Nothing has changed.

I think, by the way, that the judges saw all these materials, not during the trial, of course. But, since the nod was, it seems, to give a guilty verdict, it wasn’t possible to make this public.

Take Kotov’s case for example. If the videos had been shown during the trial, how could he be given four years in a prison colony, when it is clear from them that he committed no illegal act and that it was actually an attack on him? After all, then those who detained him would need to be brought to justice. Because the laws on the National Guard and on the police are entirely clear on what actions to take when force is used.

So whose ‘nod’ was it? Not from the Supreme Court’s surely?

Not from the Supreme Court. Why? That needs to be kept ‘clean’. All levels of our courts are now adequately autonomous. And even a ruling from the Supreme Court may not always be carried out by the lower courts, something which never would have happened during the Soviet era.

In the regions, particularly in administrative cases, they are a law unto themselves. Much depends on the governor. And since they are virtually the same, they look to the supreme power… it seems to me that the siloviki [law enforcement agencies] are calling the shots.

Why does this happen specifically in ‘protest’ cases? Or does the same thing happen in criminal practice?

Whether in criminal, or in administrative cases, don’t expect an independent decision. Towards the middle of the 1990s, the siloviki realised that the criminal justice system needed to be brought under control: they believe that acquittals undermine the law enforcement system (though that’s absolutely not the case). In my opinion, the situation can only change with the expansion of the jurisdiction of jury trials: they see 15% acquittals, where as in ordinary courts it’s only 1%.

But there is one caveat. Ordinary crime has been decreasing for a decade already in the country.

Really? But you say that the police are doing a bad job…

The reasons are more simple. Firstly, the proportion of young men, from which the contingent of criminals (theft, robbery, grievous bodily harm, hooliganism) is mainly recruited, has fallen. Secondly, this is a global trend: the youth has left the streets, they’re sitting at their computers.

The authorities only responded severely to the very last of the recent wave of protests. There wasn’t any trouble at the unapproved “Mothers’ march”, for example...

The authorities don’t really understand what they’re doing, though. That’s why their responses have been varied. They didn’t clamp down on the 'Mothers’ march', and they didn’t arrest the pensioners who are protesting in the regions either. In the latter case, the authorities clearly see older people as their supporters in elections (although their real supporters are the security forces). On the other hand, their usual response — detentions, rushed court cases, clamping down on everyone in an extreme way — wasn’t working. I think that this is how they are monitoring the situation.

You see, the authorities evaluate everything that has happened from the point of view of the impending federal elections. That’s why they’re worried. This is shown by the severe response of the police and courts to those arrested, and by the open war on Navalny's organisation.

The authorities have begun looking feverishly for the most effective method. They’re not without ingenuity: now they’re betting on crushing the opposition with the rouble (all these lawsuits for material damage and loss of profit due to the rallies). The goal is the same: to limit protest movements and ensure that the federal elections go the way they need to.

Do you think that the Kremlin doesn’t understand that severe clampdowns just make civil discontent grow?

I don’t think that the authorities know what’s going to happen yet. In the past, about ten years ago, for example, it didn’t bother Russians when the screws were tightened. Won’t it bother them this time, either? The authorities are trying out different ways of responding. For example, will high-profile events turn people away from protests? That’s one reason why major sporting events, competitions, youth concerts, and so on, are being organised.

Have all the authorities’ counter-actions just woken up civil society? Or not yet?

Yes, it’s begun waking up, due precisely to this completely unjust clampdown. And even clamping down on young people, as in the case of the New Greatness group! And even clamping down on representatives of all professions: Golunov, Serebrennikov...

Journalists, actors, directors, etc. — everyone who is rather disunited, whose professional circles are highly competitive, has suddenly begun to realise their professional affiliation. Remember how outraged the journalists were: a man who was just doing his job and didn’t oppose the government, had drugs planted on him...

People of all professions are outraged: how can our comrades, representatives of our profession, and even children be treated like this? I believe that the value of human dignity is beginning to grow, and that the protest against the authorities is, in many respects, growing out of Russians’ general ideas about justice.

Does that mean that it’s not any sort of injustice which bothers them, but only if it affects children, elections or members of their own professions?

It's just that these things are sensitive topics. No matter how much effort Business Ombudsman Boris Titov makes to draw attention to the way entrepreneurs are being persecuted, society is not particularly bothered by it – rich people are distant from ordinary Russians. But when children are wrongly convicted, that really bothers people. The authorities can't change that. Or when it comes to restricting the Internet: young people live online, so when the state starts getting into this sphere, it’s seen very badly.

Incidentally, Vladimir Putin’s favourite phrase (he’s said it a couple of times) is: “the state should make an effort, and society should resist”. I don’t think that’s the best model of the relationship, but that’s the way it is here.

Now, faced with the fact that society has become more resistant, unfortunately the authorities aren’t thinking about reconsidering their relationship with society, but only about how to emerge as victor.

How are things abroad?

"Protests have to be coordinated with the authorities all around the world," explains Henry Reznik. "When there’s an unapproved protest in Europe, the authorities respond, of course: this is a formal breach of the law. But if the protesters behave peacefully and don’t cause any harm to anyone, the protest organisers are simply fined. That's all. If there are riots, though, there’s a severe response."

Translated by James Lofthouse, Mercedes Malcomson and Suzanne Eade Roberts

Zoya Svetova interviews Oyub Titiev (Part III): “Chechnya is a testing ground for torture”

posted 30 Oct 2019, 14:22 by Translation Service   [ updated 30 Oct 2019, 14:43 ]

27 September 2019

By Zoya Svetova, journalist [Photo:]

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original: Ekho Moskvy]

How can you explain that as a result of the second war a man like Kadyrov came to power?

He didn’t come to power. It was all created by the hands of the Russian president. He created this system.

At the time there were other Chechens also laying claims to power. Many left, some were killed. There’s the sense that no one remained.

There were claimants, some of whom are alive to this day. But for some reason the Kremlin chose Kadyrov.

Did everything that happened in Chechnya happen thanks to the Kremlin?

Naturally. Chechnya is a testing ground for torture. We saw how much cruelty there was on the part of police officers during the protest actions in Moscow in August and September. What was once practised in the Caucasus has come to Moscow. And all this will spread throughout Russia. It’s impossible to stop. They’re conducting experiments and seeing how the people react to it. They understand how to hold the people in their fist. There are people who believe that the state can hold on only by these brutal measures.

Anna Politkovskaya wrote a lot about that. She believed that a model was being worked out in Chechnya for what would later come to Moscow. But why was such a thing possible among you?

The two wars. A great many people suffered. Chechnya didn’t arrive at this immediately either, at this kind of submissiveness. The start of the second war, if you take the first year, the second year.

Whenever people were detained in a settlement, seized and taken to the military HQ, right away the entire settlement would gather around the office and everyone would demand they be released. They’d stand there for a day, two days, until they were released. That’s how it was in our village. There was one case when an APC was blown up at the edge of the village, and not far from the spot of the explosion there was a tech station where they repaired cars. Immediately after that explosion, soldiers swooped down on that tech station, there were five or six people there, they were seized and taken to the military HQ. When people found out the men had been detained, the whole village went to the military HQ. I stood there, too. I think this was 2001. First the women, these boys’ relatives, started banging at the gates. Soldiers rushed out, beat those women, and immediately retreated behind the gates. No one came to the gates anymore. Later, when people started to make noise and shout, they started shooting in the air from the territory of the military HQ. And across the road there was a temporary police station. They started shooting from the roof of that station, too. They had machine-guns. A little four-year-old girl got scared and ran off home, she ran along the fence that went from the military HQ to the settlement. Everyone saw the machine-gun fire follow that little girl.

Did they kill her?

Two bullets went right through her. Women snatched her up and started shouting, and only after that did the soldiers stop shooting. They took the girl to the hospital right away and she survived. This was how they showed us they could kill old people, children, anyone.

After that, the shooting stopped, but they started firing at the crowd. Not at people but at the ground. Bullets were flying right next to people. At first people were standing to one side of the military HQ and the temporary police station. Then they moved to the other side. Then the soldiers started throwing stones across the whole building at people, at the crowd. Someone was hit in the shoulder, someone in the head. Some people left. Later, when people were detained the next time, very few people went to the military HQ. Only relatives, only close friends. That’s how they gradually broke our resistance.

Aren’t there ever protest rallies in Chechnya?

Not anymore. Because anyone who even looks sideways at the state might disappear. This all happened gradually, step by step. And then the two wars, and nearly every family suffered. People think they need to wait it out, that this will all change one day. But no one thinks that he himself should change it.

What do people like Anna Politkovskaya, like Natasha Estemirova, like you mean for Chechens? What do people think of them?

In any case, no matter what the state, no matter what the dictatorship, there has to be a place where a person can come for help. I tried to maintain that place in Chechnya as much as I could. What do they think of Natasha? When Natasha’s body was brought from Ingushetia, it was carried on a stretcher down the entire central street. The street was filled with people, and everyone walked behind it.

Grozny’s central street?

Yes, from our Grozny office straight to the centre of the city. People walked behind her, and all those streets were filled.

At the time, in 2009, people weren’t afraid?

Not then.

This was 10 years ago.

They knew Politkovskaya, too. Every chance she got, she travelled to Chechnya. When she saw articles on our site, she always flew to Chechnya, collected information, and wrote about it. At the time she was helped by a great many law enforcement officials. When I met her, it was in 2003, she flew in, and she was escorted the entire day from morning ‘til night by an MVD [Interior Ministry] officer. We spent the entire day with him. There were a great many people who helped her. Of course, people speak very well of her, think well of her. But the fact that Memorial and its work were needed one can understand by the way people came to see me at home when I was released. All those days I was home, there were people.

They weren’t afraid?

Those who were afraid came to see me at night, but there were a lot of people during the day, too.

Did you feel it had not all been for nothing?

The fact that people came who needed to vent, that’s understandable. The fact that we worked so many years, and if we helped at least one person, were able to save one person, that is the result of our work over 18 years, that means it was not in vain. There were lots of those instances. There were instances when a person could not be found for several months, and after our intervention he showed up.

These were the first days of my acquaintance with Memorial. When Natasha and Oleg Petrovich Orlov came to Kurchala, at that time eight people had been abducted after that mopping-up operation. I handed this material over to Memorial in full. Memorial began working on this properly. And in at most two weeks the seven people were released.

This was the first time?

Yes, the first time I encountered Memorial. And I realized I needed to work with Memorial. They released seven men, threw them out at various ends of the republic. The eighth was a current FSB [Federal Security Service] officer. He’d been picked up at his house and he hasn’t been found to this day. We worked on his case, submitted a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, and the court deemed it an abduction and the family was paid compensation. But that is small consolation.

How do you assess the role of President Maskhadov in Chechnya’s history?

First of all, Maskhadov is the sole president elected by the people. When we elected a president in 1997, the people were going to the election polls from morning to evening. The turnout was very high.

Did you vote for him?

I didn’t get to vote. That day I was driving cars out of the republic. And I was held up en route. When I got back, the first point of settlement from the border I arrived at was Azamat-yurt. I drove to the polling place in that village and began demanding they let me vote. My friend was there, and he said the urns were already closed. I asked him to open an urn. He asked, “Are you for Maskhadov? He’s already won.” That’s how I wanted to vote for the first time in elections and didn’t manage to. And the turnout was very high, such as there never was before or has been since in Chechnya.

Maskhadov, as far as I know, was against Basaev going into Dagestan in 1999. This was the unequivocal opinion of everyone living then.

As far as I know, Maskhadov agreed with the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council, and they were supposed to meet at the border. The State Council chairman was supposed to come with a TV crew, and Maskhadov planned to apologize to the people of Dagestan for the fact that Chechen fighters led by Basaev had invaded their territory. But en route, as far as I know, the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council was stopped. Russian special services, FSB officers, wouldn’t let him go there. There was no secret to it whatsoever. They didn’t want Maskhadov to meet with the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council. Right away, the federal media began writing about how Maskhadov had not condemned the invasion.

What did people in Chechnya think about Maskhadov’s murder? (according to the official version, he was killed on 8 March 2005 by a Russian antiterrorist unit in the village of Tolsty-Yurt)

Everyone mourned him, the majority. Although there was no open mourning.

They never did give the family back the body?

I don’t think so.

How is Maskhadov perceived in Chechnya? As a hero?

Even the present-day leadership does not treat him that negatively. Everyone respects him. He chose his road and followed it to the end.

And Basaev’s role in Chechnya’s history and as an individual are not so unequivocal?

You might say that. I’m not about to judge.

Has Chechnya’s genuine history been written yet?

Of course not. No one would allow it. There are doubtless people writing, perhaps in secret. There is the “Chronicle of Violence” (published by the Memorial press center), ours. We’ve already put out five books.

It’s a kind of alternative history of Chechnya.

It’s about violence.

Essentially, it’s Chechnya’s history for the past 20 years.

We’ve collected many volumes’ worth of material. But right now this work has come to a halt. It needs to be continued.

Why has it come to a halt?

I don’t know. It all still needs to be processed and some information verified. Of course, we verified it locally. Now this is more complicated.

Your office in Grozny is now closed?

Yes, we closed it. There is no guarantee of safety. 

Earlier parts of this interview can be read here: Part I and Part II

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Zoya Svetova interviews Oyub Titiev (Part II): On Natasha Estemirova and the brutalities of two wars

posted 24 Oct 2019, 12:58 by Translation Service   [ updated 24 Oct 2019, 12:59 ]

27 September 2019

By Zoya Svetova, journalist [Photo:]

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original: Ekho Moskvy]

How did you meet Natasha Estemirova?

At the time there had been a very brutal mopping-up operation in the village. The village was blockaded for five days, and the operation lasted all those five days. Many young men were detained.

In 20 years, a new generation of young people has grown up who don’t know what a “mopping-up operation” is. Can you explain for them what it is?

I don’t think I need to explain what terrorist acts are. In Beslan and Kizlyar, the terrorist act at the Nord-Ost music hall, when they took large groups of hostages, that’s understandable. But when an entire settlement of nearly 25,000 inhabitants is taken hostage, that’s called a “mopping-up operation.” Soldiers set up a solid armoured perimeter. No one goes out, no one comes in. Everyone’s in this cauldron. Then soldiers pass through each quadrant, down each street. They check every house and turn everything upside down. Everything valuable is confiscated. Some military subdivisions have specific lists. On these lists you can find just one name, for instance, Makhmud. The list might indicate the street, it might not. If there is a street, than on that street there are approximately 100-200 houses. All the Makhmuds living in them will be detained. They’ll be taken to a filtration point at the edge of the settlement. Someone who was detained before this, who was tortured, he broke and named some participant in the resistance living on that street. But he only knows his first name. So they pick up everyone with that name. They’re put through a torture grinder, they try to get confessions out of them. Anyone who can’t take it — he disappears.

They tortured people in order to get confessions out of them that they were members of armed bands?

Yes, that they were participants in the resistance.

Were you never detained?

Not then. They detained people regardless of their age, they detained 65-year-olds, 80-year-olds. People disappeared after the mopping-up operations. Why detain them?

Sometimes they checked their shoulders for callouses from weapons. Maybe they don’t like his beard. It depended on who went into your house. If it was contract soldiers, they detained people indiscriminately. I don’t even remember how many times they came to my house. For instance, in Tsotsin-Yurt, according to some reports, there were 39 mopping-up operations in three years; according to others, 43. The military was taking revenge on the settlement’s inhabitants because in the first war they didn’t let federal troops go through the village. The entire village closed off the roads, and the military had to skirt that village.

We started talking about Natasha Estemirova. How did you and she meet?

At the time, during the 2001 mopping-up operation, a great many young men were detained and tortured. Some ended up in the hospital, and five people were blown up.

At the filtration point?

They were blown up at the edge of the village. There was this little house between our village and a neighbouring village. So the soldiers blew up that little house and five people. At first they could only establish the identity of one of the people blown up because half his face survived. Two others were identified, one by his features, a third was identified from a scrap of paper found in his pocket with a telephone number written on it. That number was given to him by his cousin. He, by the way, was a current employee of the police. The identities of the two other dead men have still not been established. After this, our fellow villagers began gathering signatures for a protest letter. I wrote a major article for the newspaper. At the time the republic’s head came to see us. He did not spend long in the village, he went to the administration, a few people spoke with him, and he left. Right after him, Deputy Aslanbek Aslakhanov came. And we gave him a letter which told about what had happened to us in the village. Then an article appeared in his newspaper, three lines, simply stating the fact of the mopping-up operation and the killing of five people. I had described everything in detail, who had been detained, by surname. No one ever worked on this case again. After this my future colleagues arrived: Natasha Estemirova and Oleg Petrovich Orlov. He came from Moscow after hearing what had happened to us. This incident was unprecedented at the time. People had never been blown up before.

The district administration advised them to talk to me. We drove around the village the entire day. They interviewed victims, went to the hospital, and then spoke with relatives of those missing as well. They collected material, but it was already getting dark and they needed to get out of the republic. There was a curfew then in the republic. They also had to reach the border in time. Natasha stayed in the village and asked me to meet with her in the evening. She and I spoke until late in the night. She wrote everything down. Then she proposed I continue my collaboration with Memorial. She told me to send all my materials to the Grozny office. I started sending the results of all my observations. Everything that happened: abductions, murders, mopping-up operations. This lasted from July 2001 to 1 March 2002. Natasha would come see me when there were mopping-up operations in the mountain villages of our district. She would come, change into an old woman’s clothes, and leave everything else with me.

So they couldn’t recognize her?

Yes, so they would take her for an old woman.

She put on a wig or a scarf?

Just a scarf.

Alone, or did you accompany her?

Alone. I would see her as far as the bus. She travelled to the mountain villages of our district, and we had volunteers there. Natasha would stay with them and collect material for a few days. Then she would return, change clothes at my place, and go back. I would accompany her as far as the checkpoints. Usually at that time there was a so-called “stop wheels” command. They wouldn’t let cars without passes out of the settlement. You could drive as far as the checkpoint, cross the checkpoint on foot, and after that there were taxis and you could go on. That was how we operated.

We remember that during the first war Russian soldiers abducted people. Soon after, Chechens began abducting people for ransom, too. During the second war there were also abductions by both soldiers and Chechens. When the war ended, Chechnya became Kadyrov’s and Kadyrovites started paying people visits. How did it happen that Chechens started abducting Chechens?

The first time, the person was abducted for the sake of a ransom, during the first war. It was done by federal structures. I heard about this instance back in 1995. It was the director of a major factory, he was abducted, and he had to pay a large sum of money. After that, ours started abducting people, too. It’s all been “off and running” since the first war. It’s all been regularized like a conveyor belt, and it even continued between the wars. Federal structures would give information to local ones about how one of the Chechens had collaborated with the federals during the war. He would be abducted and released only for ransom. Which was shared with the people who had given them the information. That’s how this practice got started, but after that it flowed smoothly. The federals would abduct people during active military operations during the second war, then under torture they would get information about other people and pass that on to local structures. Local law enforcement agencies continued this work. But today they even abduct those who have nothing whatsoever to do with resistance. The MVD [Interior Ministry] operatives’ report has a blank, “analogous period last year.” So today is September 2019, and if the operative solved 10 crimes but last September solved 11, that means this year he solved one crime less. That means his rating is “fallen.” He could get a demotion for that.

But in order to solve a crime, he has to detain someone and force someone to confess to a crime. This practice is in effect to this day. And this forces law enforcement agents and operatives to commit these kinds of crimes. These are crimes, there’s no other word for them. Catching someone on the street and forcing him to admit to committing a crime. This is a Russia-wide problem.

This can be any crime?

Any. Once, in a SIZO [pre-trial detention center], in a small room where we were waiting for a convoy, I was talking with one of these suspects. An 18-year-old boy. He asked whether I’d confessed to committing a crime. I said no. He said, confess, because if a person refuses and doesn’t confess what they’re incriminating him for, the sentence is always harsher. He advised me to confess so that my sentence would be less.

Had he himself already confessed?

Evidently he had confessed and was hoping for leniency.

This is the disciplinary system throughout Russia, and it’s scarcely connected with the Chechen wars. What changed in the Chechens themselves after the war?

Something in their psychology changed.

Can you cite something specific? If we take the first war, everything got worse in the second.

A lot worse. If in the first war it was considered outrageous if a local law enforcement officer raised their hand against someone 40-50 years old, I’m not talking about 60 or more. Today it doesn’t matter what your age is, what your gender. If you fall into law enforcement’s hands, they will beat and torture you.

Respect for one’s elders, respect for the woman, has all that vanished?


What lay at the foundation of the mountain peoples way of life has vanished.

Yes. It was a disgrace for the entire clan overall. And today it’s considered normal to beat an old man, a woman. Even to beat a child.

Aren’t they afraid of vendettas?

Evidently not. They think it has always been this way and will continue this way. If today someone joins law enforcement, he is prepared to work in this mode.

He knows in advance what he’s agreeing to?

Naturally. Everyone knows how law enforcement works.

How does this mesh with religion, with faith?

This has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. Whatsoever. Islam forbids violence in general, to say nothing of murders.

There is something else. When someone commits a crime, it is all registered, and he has to be judged and punished for it. But this must be done by a court.

And when you were arrested and later held in a SIZO and a penal colony, were there people in law enforcement who sympathized with you?

Naturally. There are always people like that. But by expressing their sympathy, they basically doom themselves to major problems.

The first part of this interview is available here

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Oyub Titiev: What was once practised in the Caucasus has come to Moscow. An interview with Zoya Svetova

posted 20 Oct 2019, 07:30 by Translation Service   [ updated 20 Oct 2019, 08:15 ]

27 September 2019

By Zoya Svetova, journalist [Photo:]

A few months ago, Oyub Titiev, head of Grozny Memorial, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s prize, sentenced to four years in a penal settlement for possessing narcotics, was released on parole and then moved to Moscow. In an interview with MBKh Media correspondent Zoya Svetova, he recalls the second Chechen war and explains why after the first war Chechens began to abduct Chechens and how the brutality and violence that flourish in the republic affected police conduct during the Moscow protests. 

Twenty years ago, on 23 September 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree “On measures to improve the effectiveness of counterterrorist operations in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation.” The decree envisaged the creation of a Combined Forces Group in the North Caucasus to carry out counterterrorist operations. On 23 September, Russian troops began a massive bombardment of Grozny and the surrounding areas. On 30 September, they invaded Chechnya. The second Chechen war began. How did this second war differ from the first Chechen war (1994-1996)? 

You know, the first war began without preparation on either side somehow. The military invaded and threw young boys straight into the very worst fighting. Most of these boys didn’t even know where they were going, they hadn’t even had it explained to them that they were going to take part in military operations. They were thrown into Grozny. In Grozny, every house, every street, every block in and of itself is a defence post from which military operations can be conducted under concealment, and this is a very good point. And when the armour and tanks went in, they started to come under virtually point-blank fire, and as a result there were huge losses on the Russian side.

In the second war, evidently, the military took all this into account and prepared better. As far as I know, no soldiers were thrown ahead; everything was done at a long distance. First came the artillery, then aviation, and they would work in a kind of tandem against a single specific quadrant, level everything, and then advance. Then the next quadrant. The second war was more destructive for the local population and there a great many casualties. Those who didn’t manage or think to get their families out of the republic, most of them suffered.

Where were you when the war began?

I was at home, in my village of Kurchala. During both the first and the second wars I stayed in my village the whole time until the end of military actions. Now, when I analyze all this, I realize this was wrong. Not for me but for my family. In moments like this you should always take out the children, women, and old people. Take them entirely out of the zone of military actions to a place of safety. After that, anyone who believes he should be in the zone of military actions can return and do what he has to do. But children should not be under bombs or shells.

How many children did you have at the time?

At the start of the second war I already had three children.

And were you still working in a school?

At the time, the school in our village was not operating well. I had left the school back in 1988. In the Soviet era, I had worked both in a furniture store and in the school [as a phys. ed. teacher—MBKh Media], because there was no way I wanted to part with the school. My working day at the store ended at two o’clock. I would go quickly to the village and give lessons there. And work until late in the gym. I also had a day off on Monday. The head teacher scheduled lessons for me that day. Sometimes I even worked a third job, in the district department of culture, where they needed a designer. They asked me to work there, and so I was working three jobs.

And what were you doing in September 1999?

At the time I wasn’t doing anything, just occasionally some small business, selling or buying things.

Why didn’t you take your family to Ingushetia, as many then did?

I could not have taken my family out alone. None of my family wanted to leave, and everyone stayed. There were seven of us in the family, and everyone had their own families.

What is your strongest memory of the second Chechen war?

The whole war made an impression. When the artillery was firing on the village, they would open artillery fire on the settlement from the soldiers’ side, from the сommandant’s office, and from the sub-unit at the edge of the village. You heard these shells flying. You heard the salvos and waited for where it was going to explode. You didn’t know where to put the children, how to protect them.

Did your village suffer badly from military actions?

The artillery didn’t operate against the village that often. The first two depth bombs were fired at our village on 30 October 1999. It was a plane that dropped them. At the time, I had a lot of people at my home, a lot of refugees. The nine rooms were packed with refugees. First we fed the children, then the men, and then the women. We ended up having to feed them in three shifts. First breakfast, then dinner immediately after, and then supper, all day long, until everyone had eaten. I don’t even know how many of us there were. People were sleeping in the kitchen, too.

We know that during the first Chechen war you took part in the militia but left. How did that come about?

The assault on Grozny began on 31 December 1994, and lasted until the end of February. That was when I joined the militia. On 3 January 1995, my cousin was killed. I had to return for the funeral. Then, on 18 January, I left once again to rejoin the militiamen. But then word was sent to me that my family wanted to see me at home. My mother, older brother, and sister. I arrived, and my mother told me she would not give me her blessing and forbade me from participating in military actions. Then my older brother forbade me, too. My older sister said that wherever I went, she would go, too. So at the request of my mother, older brother, and sister I had to stay home.

During the second war, were you already less than eager to fight?

During the second war as such there was no major militia movement. It was in the first war that everyone was eager to fight.

When did you start working to help people?

I lived right in the middle of the village, next to the district administration. Opposite, across the road, were the police. My former colleagues and fellow villagers I knew were working in the administration, and my former pupils were working in the police. I ended up right at the centre of events. Information would come in, and I began collecting it.

But why?

At the time, many in Chechnya were keeping diaries. Subsequently, when I was already working at Memorial, they collected information for the next generation, for history. I started collecting information on military violations, but I didn’t have the idea of working in human rights specifically until I met colleagues in 2001. And when I did, I believed I could be of some use in this area. 

To be continued.

Translation by Marian Schwartz

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