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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