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Interview with Valentina Cherevatenko: "The priorities for our work have always been peacemaking, conflict prevention, and rehabilitation of those who have suffered in conflict zones" (Radio Svoboda)

posted 6 Jul 2016, 10:58 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Jul 2016, 11:03 ]
30 June 2016

"Flowers for Savchenko - 'criminal intent'. On the price for peacemaking efforts in the time of Putin era" 

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

Photo: Amnesty International
For the first time in Russia criminal charges have been brought for 'malicious refusal' to comply with the requirements of the law on foreign agents (Article 330.1 of the Russian Criminal Code, up to two years in prison). The decision by the Investigative Committee to charge the chair of the Women of the Don Union, Valentina Cherevatenko, states that the Women of the Don Union was involuntarily included in the register of foreign agents in June 2014 (it became the first NGO to be registered involuntarily), but Cherevatenko, 'with criminal intent' to avoid complying with the law, back in 2013 had registered a Women of the Don Foundation. In 2014-15 the Foundation 'engaged in political activity' (ran educational seminars and worked to develop the potential of civil society actors) and received foreign funding of approximately 3 million roubles from the German Heinrich Boell Foundation. Cherevatenko, knowing that this organization was acting as a 'foreign agent', 'intentionally' did not register the organization, the decision to begin criminal proceedings states. Grigory Bakunin of Radio Svoboda speaks with Valentina Cherevatenko.

– The initial investigation in relation to your Foundation began back in May. How unexpected was the decision to bring criminal charges? 

– Of course, it was unexpected. All the more because the criminal case was opened on 22 June 2016 at 22:00 hours. I was still thinking that the investigators had other things to do. But nonetheless, you can see what has happened.

– When your office was searched, what did the investigators look for and what questions did they ask you?

– They didn't ask me any questions, and I didn't understand what they were looking for, because we don't have anything hidden away. I wasn't at the office that day. I was coming back from a business trip, and I only found out that there was a search going on in our office by telephone when I reached an airport in another region. By the time my plane landed, it was all over. What especially surprised me when I was given the official report on the search was that they wrote the word 'discovered'. Perhaps the reason for everything is bureaucracy, but even so...For example, there was a computer on the table. Nobody hid it, but in the official report on the search it states: 'discovered'. When it is written like that, it creates the impression that we hid it. And in addition they seized documents that were on the shelves in our archives, with the contents, the year, and so on, written on each file. These files have been seized, and the official report describes each as having been 'discovered'.

– For many years you headed the Women of the Don Union. When, and why, did you decide to register the Foundation with a similar name?

– Yes it’s true that the Women of the Don Union has been working for more than 20 years. And the priorities for our work have always been, and remain, peacemaking, conflict prevention, and rehabilitation of those who have suffered in conflict zones. These are our main areas of work. And when the inspection of our organization by prosecutors began in 2013, we suddenly received an official warning that the Union, as a regional organization, does not have the right to work in other regions. Because of this we created the Women of the Don Foundation, whose activities are in many respects similar to those of the Women of the Don Union, but the Foundation has no territorial limitations on its work.

– So far as I know, through the courts you have succeeded in having Women of the Don Union removed from the ‘foreign agent’ list. Did you also challenge the decision to include the Foundation in the register? What is the situation with this case now?

– In the courts we succeeded in getting the Women of the Don Union removed from the register. We sent a declaration to the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation setting out why we believed we should not be on the register. After this there was an unscheduled inspection of the organization, and the Ministry of Justice resolved to remove the Women of the Don Union from the register, since there were no grounds to keep us listed. Indeed, we are now challenging the decision to include the Foundation in the register in the courts. At present, the higher court has not yet heard the appeal we lodged.

- How is the Foundation funded? Is it true that the Foundation receives funding from the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Germany?

– Neither the Foundation nor the Union has received any funding from abroad for more than a year now. Our Foundation, the Women of the Don Union, and the German Heinrich Boell Foundation were partners in the implementation of a joint project entitled ‘Supporting civil society leaders in the North Caucasus.’ The project in question was funded by the European Union.

– Why, in your opinion, was the organization added to the list of NGOs that the authorities consider objectionable? Did the organization do ‘something wrong’? Have some of the Foundation's recent projects attracted a higher level of attention from the authorities?

– Well, I don’t want to guess about what we might have done that was objectionable, or ‘something wrong’. We simply sought to continue our mission. So far as I understand, you are interested in asking about ‘Civic Minsk’? To date it is not a project, it is just an initiative. The initiative is really ours, Women of the Don’s. The coordinating council of the Women of the Don Union considered this question and put the idea of the initiative forwards to the Presidential Human Rights Council. Since we are peacemakers, and this is the main characteristic of our work, we believe that all conflicts must be resolved through negotiation, without weapons, without death and destruction. We believe that the Minsk Process lacks input from civil society. If you want, it lacks civil society support. We also believe that representatives of civil society in Russia and Ukraine, as well as the eastern regions of Ukraine, can and must take a more active role in establishing peace in the Donbass. This idea has been around more more than a year now. We are doing everything we can in this direction.

– And could you tell us the story of your visit on 8 March to the pre-trial detention facility in your city, and whether you actually did meet Nadezhda Savchenko there? It’s said that you gave her a gift of flowers?

– The fact is that my colleagues from the Public Oversight Commission and I visited Nadezhda Savchenko that day in the pre-trial detention facility. And 8 March is my mother's birthday, and I planned to go straight from the remand centre to visit my mother and wish her a happy birthday. When I bought the flowers for my mother, I thought that, since it was 8 March, Nadezhda, as a woman, would be pleased to receive some flowers. All the more since we were all at that time concerned about how to persuade Nadezhda to end her dry hunger strike. I want to make it clear, this was not a specially planned visit to see Savchenko on 8 March. My colleagues and I were visiting Nadezhda every day, closely following the state of her health. But it turned out that one local journalist saw me going in to the pre-trial detention facility with flowers in my hands. And she immediately wrote about this, first on social networks, and then in a published article, to the effect that Cherevatenko had gone to give flowers to Savchenko. And that started it! All sorts of things were said about me! And not only, as the phrase is, people in the street, but also people in positions of authority. It was even said that I ‘gave flowers to a murderer’. So that’s what happened. There were demands that prosecutors and the FSB should take ‘appropriate action’ against me. I don’t know, perhaps these things we’ve been discussing have been the very ‘measures’ that they wanted taken against me. I don’t know…

– What other projects is your organization engaged in?

– Women of the Don Union continues, for example, to carry out a major, important, project called ‘Public Advice Clinic’. I should say that we have been doing this as long as the Union has been in existence. And we don’t only provide consultations. In especially difficult cases we also take up legal cases and follow them through. The work of the Foundation is based solely on voluntary work. We don’t have a single staff member employed there.

– How do you intend to defend yourself in court from the charges of ‘criminal intent’ not to register as a ‘foreign agent’? Is anyone giving you legal support?

– I am being represented by an experienced lawyer, and I have complete faith in him. I am also grateful to everyone who has given me moral support. And I’m not only talking about colleagues. These days I hear many words of support from ordinary people, residents of our city that I did not even know before. A huge thank you to everyone for this.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove