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Pavel Chikov: Answers to questions from Ekho Moskvy listeners (Ekho Moskvy)

posted 26 Feb 2016, 07:14 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 1 Mar 2016, 11:27 ]
19 February 2016

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Ekho Moskvy]

Pavel Chikov, director of international human rights group "Agora", answers questions from listeners of "Ekho Moskvy".

Question 1 Besides standing in picket lines, are opposition members now allowed to throw pies at Putin and his friends? Or only at Kasyanov?

Answer Yevgenii Viktorovich, standing in picket lines can now be a punishable crime too -the first such sentence, of three years' imprisonment, passed on Ildar Dadin, was recently announced in Moscow.

I think it's a bad idea to resort to thuggish methods of harrassing or attacking opponents. There are plenty of way to express your positions precisely and strongly without any crude violence.

Question 2 How has the law on 'foreign agents' affected the work of your foundation Agora? And why are you so against it? What difference does it make what they call your organization, the main thing is you help people? Why all this bickering over nonsensical laws? Thank you.

Answer The law on foreign agents forced us to reorganize all our work in many active ways.

Basically it's forbidden today to use a non-profit organization for public activities. The cost of running an NGO is excessively high and can't be justified by the advantages it has. We are able to continue our work regardless of the state's repressive policies toward NGOs.

As far as opposing unconstitutional laws - on agents and a ton of other things - it's an independent and very important front for rights defenders to fight on.

It's important to show the public the true essence and aim of these laws, force the higher courts to state their position on them, press for an evaluation of whether they accord with international standards, and in concrete cases - restrict the damage done when they are used repressively. The stronger this legal defense, the harder it will be to pass even worse laws, and the closer we will be to having them declared bad laws.

Question 3 Pavel, you've helped and are helping many people. Do you have principles about whom to defend and whom not to? For example, if A. Breivik turned to you for help, would you agree? What rules do you have: are they personal, or dispassionate, that is, whoever needs help will get it from us? Thank you. Ilya.

Answer Ilya, that's a very good question, right to ask.

There are certainly principles, but they have to be adjusted with time. The basic approach, which we formulated for ourselves at the beginning of the 2000s, is this: we work on cases of violations of human rights standards as they are interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. The Court has existed since 1950, and in those 65 years it has accumulated a gigantic body of experience on all ten articles of the Convention (the right to life, the ban on torture, [illegal] arrest, the right to freedom of speech, assembly, religion, a fair trial and effective legal defence, the ban on discrimination, the right to property). The Court's legal positions have also been adjusted over the years, but the foundation remains the same.

The dilemmas we face in practice are above all moral ones.

For example, a man killed his children, but he was tortured by the police. Do we take his case? We say: if he killed his children, let a court try and punish him. But if he was beaten, let a court punish the police too.

The next dilemma: do we defend neo-Nazis from illegal pressure?

This is more complicated - we don't share the neo-Nazi ideology, but we don't share many religious views either, or Communist ideas, and so on. This doesn't mean Nazis should be thrown in jail on false charges or beaten up at the station.

People often ask if we defend nationalists. Sometimes it's hard to draw a line between neo-Nazism and nationalism, but we have taken the cases of Daniil Konstantinov, Aleksandr Belov-Potkin. And also a lot of cases where people are punished for posting photos with a swastika. Freedom of speech embraces different points of view, you don't have to agree with them, but they have to exist in a normal society, because that's a necessary condition of normality. Besides which, even when law enforcement is justified in responding to illegal actions, the response should be appropriate. For example, when someone is sent to jail for five years for his words, whatever they were - that should raise considerable doubts.

As far as Breivik goes, he's not in Russia, of course.

More than that, he is serving his sentence in a country with the most enlightened and humane prison system in the world, the kind Russia should strive for. If Breivik had been tortured or denied medical treatment in prison, of course we would have to concern ourselves with him. In Russia we are conducting about fifty cases of prisoners who are severely ill, about ten cases where prisoners died under torture, and we don't even ask under what article they were convicted, what crimes they committed. Breivik asked to be given the chance to educate himself - and that was permitted, he was granted that right. We are waiting for the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, that it was a violation of the Constitution to send Major Yevsyukov to serve his prison sentence a thousand kilometres from home, where he can only rarely see his family. And his fight for his rights is justified.

Question 4 In your view, what should be done, what cardinal reform should be introduced to make courts truly independent in Russia? Thank you. Ilya.

Answer Political reform.

We have to resurrect democratic institutions - elections, parliament, separation of powers, free media, a system of checks and balances. Courts should be watched closely and intensively. There is the positive experience of the arbitrage courts, there is the short period in which civil courts worked normally. We should streamline criminal trials, shift the emphasis from court prosecutions, take away the supervisory powers of the prosecutor's office, shake up the Constitutional court, get rid of

Question 5 The statistics indicate that an overwhelming number of verdicts are guilty ones. Is that because a majority of judges in Russia are former prosecutors, that is, they were on the prosecuting side in court? Why do you think defence lawyers don't become judges - are they not let in? Thank you.

Answer They're not let in.

A woman I know passed her exam to be an arbitration court judge. She was agreed on and passed as a candidate. They asked that her brother, a defence lawyer, leave his position. It's not only defence lawyers who are not accepted as judges, but even the relatives of defence lawyers.

Question 6 Pavel Vladimirovich, in the course of your work as a human rights lawyer, have you ever refused to defend the interests of any citizen because you didn't like them, they didn't share your convictions, or for some other reasons you were put off? Have you taken a case like that, or has it not been such a general problem, and have you gone on, despite your personal feelings about an individual?

Answer This question is related to number 3.

I'll give you an example. In the early 90s in Tatarstan, where I was born and where I live and work, there was a short period in which Tatar nationalists ran riot. Young people, with cries of "azatlyk!" (freedom!) and green scarves on their heads, demanded sovereignty from Moscow. Their leaders, like Rafis Kashapov and Fauziya Bairamov, called on people to kick Russians out of the Tatar republic and destroy children from mixed marriages (my father's Russian, my mother Tatar). I was 12 or 13, and at a certain point my parents were very worried for my safety.

15 years went by, and in 2006 I wrote one of my first applications to Strasbourg on behalf of Rafis Kashapov, who'd been sentenced for extremism. Nine years later he was put in jail, and Agora provided him with a lawyer. For me that was an important personal decision, and I'm proud of it.

Question 7 Pavel Vladimirovich, how do you explain the fact that the concept of reputation is ceasing to be a measure of value for intelligent people (and not just in our time), why is it diminishing so fast with some politicians, journalists, and this is even seen among human rights lawyers? How important is your reputation (personal and professional), what does it mean to you? Or does this problem not exist for you?

Answer Reputation is all that's left of someone after death.

Absolutely, it's very important. Both personal and professional. A human rights lawyer's demands on himself are generally extremely high, there are too many people wishing to cast a shadow on him and sully his reputation. You're on view all the time. Your professional reputation is the most important thing. You have to show people that you can achieve success by means of the law in our conditions, in very complex cases whose fate is decided in offices very high up. There are few legal professions where your brain is under so much strain all the time. Our lawyers have been called to the judiciary several times, but they refused, because they wouldn't find such professional interest there. Here we have the possibility of exerting systematic influence, standing on solid moral foundations and using exclusively legal means.

Question 8 Pavel Vladimirovich, do you feel a change in public opinion today, compared with the nineties and the 2000s, in relation to human rights defenders? Or is it the way it always used to be, do citizens (and the authorities) have the same, if not contemptuous then rather cool and mocking attitude toward human rights work, as the Soviet people once had toward dissidents? And then they suddenly run to human rights defenders when they've felt on their own skin that officials don't wish to solve the problems of the 'little person.'

I'm not in any way worried about the former, as long as we have the latter.

As long as people come to us, so long as we succeed in defending them in spite of everything, we get satisfaction from our work. And then - we know the degree to which public opinion is influenced by propaganda, but it is just as easily influenced in the other direction.

Question 9 Hello, Pavel Vladimirovich! How do you explain the fact that Agora has been liquidated right at this moment - what prompted it, what was the logic of the authorities? Will you fight to change the decision, will you turn to the European Court of Human Rights? Thank you!

Answer What they liquidated was one particular legal entity.

This is not only not the end of our work, on the contrary, it's an impulse to work on a new level. Our legal staff are working on the court case. There will be an appeal to the Supreme Court of Russia, and an application to the ECtHR. The ECtHR already has two Agora cases - about the tapping and searches of our offices in 2009, and about our forced inclusion in the register of foreign agents in 2014.

Question 10 Why do people who are lucky enough to live well support arbitrary government and lawlessness? After all, the illegality can affect them badly too. For example, in the time of Stalin's repressions, many law enforcement officials, and other 'faithful Leninist-Stalinists', suffered too. Wouldn’t it be better for them to refuse their supposed privileges and live by the law, giving others a chance of a decent life as well? Gennadii Vasilevich.

Answer Gennadii Vasilevich, of course it would be better, but I'm afraid that's not how life works.

We often defend former law enforcement personnel, and even more often we witness their fall from grace. This is the sphere of psychology, not jurisprudence. Ask any police officer if they want to get out of it – they’ll tell you no. Ask any former police officer if they’re happy to be out of it - they'll tell you yes, no doubt about it. And they’ll add that they should have left sooner. A third of our team are former law enforcement staff, prosecutors, directors of juvenile prisons - and it's very entertaining to watch the change in their values or on the other hand, hear the stories of how they became disillusioned by the system.

As long as someone is a member of a corporation, that person belongs to it mentally, it feeds and protects them. In return it demands that the person gives up everything for its sake, including morally. And people think it will last forever, that's how people are.

Translated by Alissa Leigh-Valles