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An interview with Natalya Taubina: "Surrendering your principles leads down the road to nowhere" []

posted 12 Mar 2018, 10:17 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 14 Mar 2018, 07:09 ]
2 March 2018 

An interview with Natalya Taubina, director of Public Verdict Foundation, with Yulia Bashinova, for 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Colta

Natalya Taubina is director of Public Verdict Foundation, a human rights group which for 14 years has been assisting people who have been victims of the violations by law enforcement agencies. In an interview with Yulia Bashinova, published in COLTA.RU, Natalia Taubina spoke about the work of human rights activists and how to persevere in a time of repression.

— When and how did you begin your civil society activism?

— In 1992, I was a student in my last year at Moscow Engineering Physics Institute. I studied in the cybernetics department and worked with databases. My research advisor said that he had acquaintances who needed to systematize requests from refugees and immigrants from Central Asia in order to help them more effectively. I went to the Civic Forum, where I met Lidiya Ivanovna Grafova.

At that time she was a journalist at Literaturnaya Gazeta in which she had published a questionnaire for people who had come from Central Asia and needed help regarding social assistance, protection of rights, and other aspects of arranging their lives. We had to create a database out of these questionnaires, which had been cut out of the newspaper.

At that time, I met my future colleagues and friends from the Moscow Centre for Human Rights. This turned out to be an interesting group—people who were doing concrete things, helping others; people with whom you could discuss many vitally important things—and I decided to stay on. I got dragged into it all, and then this year I realized with horror that I've been doing it for 25 years now.

— Wow! My word. And what came after the Civic Forum?

— I worked as a program coordinator at the Centre for Human Rights, and then I worked at the Human Rights Network, which provided training for activists. They also bought books for colleagues all over the country, and I think they even bought computers and other equipment and sent them all over Russia. In 1995-1996 the idea was born for an organization that would work on regranting for local human-rights organizations. Thus the Foundation for Civil Society came into being, and I was its director. Finally, in 2004, we registered Public Verdict Foundation to provide legal assistance to people who have fallen victim to arbitrary acts of the law enforcement agencies.

— How did the group develop?

— It became apparent early on that there were a lot of cases, that they were all similar, meaning it's a systemic problem, it requires system-wide changes. But before fleshing out practical recommendations, it would be a good idea to dig deep—truly deep, to the roots. And we were the first people in the country to begin scientifically-grounded research in this realm, including in the sociology of law enforcement agencies—and of course all of this from a human rights perspective. Then we tried to push our recommendations forward to the authorities, to ensure that the number of such cases went down, that the cases are effectively examined, in essence to change the situation surrounding torture by police. In 2008-2009, during a period when official law enforcement agencies were actively reformed, the authorities did pay attention to some of our proposals.

— That's a significant success.

— Yes, it was a success, although it also went the other way. For example, a special subdivision was created within the Investigative Committee in 2012 to investigate crimes committed by law enforcement officers. This was a huge victory, since [Aleksandr] Bastrykin publicly acknowledged that it was a reaction to the demands of the human rights community, which is a rather rare event in our country. But the special subdivision team wound up functioning very poorly. We didn't have the resources to force the Investigative Committee to develop the additional necessary legal framework, to ensure that everything would really bring results.

— What other goals have you had?

— Raising awareness of what we do and the results we achieve. The general public is extremely sceptical about the possibility of obtaining justice, and our aim in bringing cases to court is to show that this feat can in fact be achieved, difficult as it may be.

Back when we first started out, the idea of instigating criminal proceedings against a police officer would have seemed fantastic, let alone getting the case before a court. Now our organisation alone can boast of over 70 court rulings in which police officers have been found guilty. The sentences handed down by the courts in cases of this kind are also changing. On the few occasions when there were convictions of police officers in the early 2000s, they were almost always given suspended sentences. Our current experience is that 60-65% of police officers who are sentenced have to serve time in prison, and over 100 police officers have been punished.

Again, in the early 2000s the idea of seeking compensation before a civil court for moral and material damages for torture would also have been more or less a pipe dream, but now we do just that after criminal proceedings – and we even ensure that the level of this compensation is appropriate and commensurate with the practice of the European Court of Human Rights.

Even when the state – for various reasons which we will not go into here – is unable to ascertain exactly which specific officials are guilty of a crime, and no criminal proceedings can therefore be instigated, but it is manifestly obvious that the victim entered police custody as a healthy individual and left with various injuries, we proactively follow an approach of seeking compensation for torture. The individual in question was in state custody, the state is responsible for what happened to him, and there is a possibility that compensation may be awarded in the course of civil proceedings. This is a relatively new approach, and we are trying to develop it further and train lawyers and attorneys in its use. No officials are sent to jail, but the civil proceedings do not preclude the opening of criminal proceedings at a later date, and a court decision awarding compensation is an acknowledgement of sorts that people have been tortured by the police.

The second innovative approach we have actively developed over the past few years in our work before the courts relates to compensation for failure to carry out effective investigations, for example in cases where an individual files a complaint claiming that he was tortured by the police, but the investigative bodies do not take the necessary steps to investigate the circumstances thoroughly and refer the case to court. We appeal against all procedural findings at the investigation stage, and attempt to prove before the court that the case has been beset by red tape and unnecessary delays. And then we once again instigate civil proceedings and seek compensation for damages suffered owing to the failure to carry out proper investigations.

— And do you ever win?

— We do indeed sometimes win. As well as gaining redress for the individual in question, our second goal is to find a solution to a generalised problem. The more frequently these cases are heard by the courts, the less society will be able to hide from the fact that the failure to investigate cases properly is a widespread practice and a systemic problem, and that something must be done. We are therefore not only working to help individuals, but also to bring about changes to the system as a whole, and this is the principle underlying all of what we do. It’s also worth noting that our work involves a much wider range of approaches than simply talking to the authorities. We also conduct research, work out new legal practices, and raise public awareness. We are well aware of the fact that new legislation to close us down could be adopted at any time, but the problems will remain when we are gone, and so it is important to us to establish mechanisms and opportunities for systemic change, since the pressure on civil society groups means that there are sadly ever fewer options in this area.

The “foreign agent” status we acquired some years ago is a further problem which has meant that we are unable to plan our activities in the same way that we did previously. We no longer make any plans beyond three months in the future, and even the plans we do make are based on an awareness that anything may happen tomorrow.

Our “foreign agent" status has closed many doors and shut off many opportunities for talking to the authorities. It’s a difficult task to work in the field of human rights and to try and bring about change without being able to talk to those in charge. We have been deprived of these opportunities, both in theory and in practice, for four years now, and we have therefore had to overhaul our entire approach to what we do and change our priorities. We have continued working towards our goals, fulfilling our remit and implementing our programmes, but their focus has shifted.

Our principal target audience nowadays is the public, and many of the new programmes we have launched over the last year or two (“Life after Torture” and “Reform Barometer”, for example) are aimed at achieving greater public understanding of our work. Our second target group is the legal community – we might not be able to change the work of the Investigative Committee, but we can work on developing new judicial practice.

— What’s the hardest part of your work?

— It’s hard when you encounter a serious story of blatant violation, years of beatings – and nothing had come of it. The system gets stuck, it isn’t prepared to provide the victim with justice. That’s emotionally very difficult. We talk to people, look them in the eyes, we sense our own rightness, and we understand that we are doing our jobs professionally, but the result is not the right one. Torture in police custody is more than just one day of persecution, it’s also a long life afterwards, a long life to spend attaining justice. And not only for the victims themselves but also for their loved ones, who start to live for that alone. These are broken lives.

Take the [Ruslan] Rakhaev case. He is a former employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the head of the criminal investigation department in the Karachay-Cherkessia Republic. This is the third time he has been taken to court, where fellow operatives testify against him: they ill-treated a detainee, but each time it is Ruslan that has been charged. He is the one who has been accused of torture that caused a man's death. A strong young man, whose life has been marred for the past six years. Then you meet his Aunt Lidia, who is very grateful to us for our work during those years, but I feel we haven’t achieved the desired outcome, and for a third time we’re going down into hell.

Or the case of Martiros Demerchyan. He was the victim of ingenious forms of torture in police custody and was taken to hospital in an ambulance. There was the medical and all the other evidence, but the authorities refused to prosecute. Instead, a case was brought against him for making false allegations. The court of first instance found him guilty and sentenced him to 300 or 400 hours of compulsory labour. On appeal, the verdict was cancelled, an additional investigation was carried out, and now there will be a second trial. The case is crumbling, but Martiros’ family has been living in this situation since 2013. They live in poverty with young children, because he can’t work due to the injuries he received in police custody. And he can’t go anywhere because of a written undertaking not to leave the area. His wife can’t work either, because they live in a small village where everyone knows them because of this story and she lost her previous job. We are not a humanitarian organization and have no capacity to help with money, but we understand their terrible situation and are announcing a collection to help this family. Last year they were able to buy firewood with the funds collected, to survive the winter.

— So life is a constant state of tension for you.

— Yes, but we have a great team. Our organisation has a democratic system of management, not a bureaucratic one.

— How many of you are there?

— Twenty. After all these years of audits (the first was in March 2013), after four years not one staff member has left; in fact five people have joined us.

— Do employees burn out?

— Once a year I try to find the resources to take everyone somewhere for a few days. We discuss work issues, but it’s also a chance to relax and socialise. This is a major thing – our team, we are very friendly, not just colleagues but a family. This is our great strength.

Well, and there are constant opportunities to go places – to conferences, seminars or study-tours; I try to distribute them so that everyone can have a break with something new, spend time in a different environment. If the situation becomes more serious, we look for the chance to send the employee off for rehabilitation for a month or two.

— In 25 years, how has the understanding of your work changed? Not from inside, but from outside.

— There is more understanding. In the 1990s people found it hard to understand that there are some people who – although we receive wages, like any employed citizens – go to the Yaroslavl prison colony for no fee, spend the day there and try to get access to a defendant. Or answer phone calls in the middle of the night, and that very same night urgently seek a lawyer to come to the police station… In the eyes of an ordinary person these people are slightly mad. Why would they do it? There must be some profit in it. It’s quite hard to understand that the profit might be the satisfaction to be found in justice.

- But among your friends, aren’t there people who say: why do you need this?

- Yes, there were and are people who regularly say, “Natasha, you should’ve left this place by now. You have expertise, skills, the language, you can easily build a life wherever you choose. You can’t expect anything good here and nobody will thank you for staying either.” And these are people genuinely empathising with me.

So, one day my work may bring no concrete results, sometimes even one year of work. But each time there is a step in the right direction. And this helps me go on, despite the gloomy, rainy-day feeling that winter is near.

Recently there was a meeting of my university classmates. We haven’t seen each other for about 15 years but they know what I do. And I was surprised that my friends were saying, “We don’t agree to a large extent, but what you do – that’s cool. Maybe they don’t share my critical views of the party and government, and for sure we would probably have run-ins over Crimea a hundred times, but they have an understanding of the basic rightness of my work.

- Did you really never wish to give it all up and do something else?

- No, but there is a feeling of tiredness. Like the frog in the fairy tale, who tries to turn the milk into butter with its legs, you work and work but never manage to make the butter. But even when you are tired of moving your feet, you understand that there is no other way to crawl out of this milk, except by churning it into butter. And one day this will happen.

- How do you think it is possible nowadays to develop civil society in Russia?

- This is a huge, complex question. I have no fail-safe recipe. Fairer to say there is a dialogue that of late I’ve been having with myself. It seems to me that for the development of civil society in our country we must never depart from our values, our basic principles. And because of the pressure in the past few years on civil society, unfortunately this has been happening, and this is extremely destructive.

Look at the straightforward story about renouncing foreign funding. For me it is important, not that I receive support from a Russian or foreign source, but that I receive it for those projects which we ourselves created and that the body to which we have applied for funding makes decisions in a way that I can understand.

Apart from that, if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays down the universality of human rights – that human rights are not the internal affair for any particular state – then the freedom of association to work for the benefit of society is also universal, and support for the realisation of that right must also be universal in nature. And as soon as a potential donor starts to dictate what I should do, and what I shouldn’t do – and our organisation has met several examples of this – for us this is the end of the conversation. Either you trust our professionalism and our understanding of what is useful and important, or we have no dealings with you.

The more we depart from the basic values and principles and concede to the authorities our right to freedom of association, the move we stand on very shaky ground. If once we let some elderly men in high offices dictate to us, and we said “OK!”, tomorrow they will dictate whatever they feel like. The state will determine whether or not we should help Ivanov or Petrov, just as the state has already said that organisations included in the register of “foreign agents” cannot carry out election monitoring. Next the state will try to say that organisations designated as “foreign agents” do not have the right to nominate candidates for membership of the Public Monitoring Commissions (there is already a draft bill to that effect).

- And then they won’t be able to provide lawyers in human rights cases…..

- Yes, then they will be banned from providing lawyers – or the lawyers will be excluded from bar associations for having signed contracts with “foreign agents,” and so on. To my mind, these are all things of a kind. Either we stick to our right to freedom, or we quietly surrender our positions. Either you act on the basis of your principles, while you can, or you leave this sector of work because to surrendering your principles is the road to nowhere. It allows you to live, to have financial means, to pay employees’ salaries, but you won’t have any moral satisfaction from the restoration of justice.

Colta” is beginning publication of a project “Why am I doing this?” The authors are Irina Kosterina, coordinator of the programme “Gender Democracy” at the Heinrich Boell Foundation, and activist Yulia Bashinova. In the course of the project, Colta will publish a series of conversations with directors of human rights NGOs and activists who are today experiencing difficult times.

This is how the authors of the project explain its aims and purposes: “Russian civil society exists in conditions of deep crisis and continually increasing pressure. The adoption of two laws (on “foreign agents “and “undesirable organisations”) has seriously restricted the potential for NGOs, human rights and civil society activity. Many organisations and activists find themselves in a situation of burnout and their motivation reduced. At the same time, new types of civic activism appear: grassroots initiatives, social enterprises, independent city platforms, online activism. There often attract activists of a new generation. At the present moment it is important to think about the “altruistic” motives of those who have long carried out civil society work, and to understand what helps people deal with disappointment, pressure and instability – and to share these ideas with new people.”

Translated by Anna Bowles, Frances Robson, Joanne Reynolds and Nina de Palma