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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