Russian Media

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Anton Chivchalov: Why are Jehovah’s Witnesses in prison? [Radio Svoboda]

posted 18 Jun 2018, 13:33 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 18 Jun 2018, 13:37 ]

3 June 2018 

by Anton Chivchalov, journalist and blogger 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group  [original source: Radio Svoboda

The international human rights website Forum 18 has reported that in Russia seven Jehovah’s Witnesses are already behind bars, on remand, at least one other is under house arrest, and more than a dozen are under travel restrictions. Criminal prosecutions against the believers have been brought under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code for extremism, which provides for up to 10 years in prison, and are taking place in Orel, Perm, Orenburg, Birobidzhan, Murmansk, Vladivostok and Ufa. Riot police in masks and with automatic rifles burst into peaceful people, throw them onto the ground, handcuff them, and seize personal items, documents, photos and money. Why? As the magazine Newsweek recently commented, they neither killed nor robbed anyone. All their “guilt” was just that they had preached a certain religion. In Europe. In the 21st century.

Some might object: they are not being imprisoned for their faith but for setting up prohibited organisations. Believe what you like, but don’t set up prohibited organisations, and you will be fine! This is a logical argument, it seems. But look at the materials of any of these criminal cases: believers are arrested not for setting up organisations, but for reading the Bible with friends. There is a direct link: they read the Bible with friends – therefore arrest! In all such instances, the charges are brought based on the law on extremism. In law enforcement agencies, it seems, they are convinced: they can automatically, without a second thought, arrest any Jehovah’s Witness they like. Only then do the prosecutors ask the question as to whether the believer set up an illegal organisation, or not. Of course, it always turns out that they did create such an organisation.

Some who are a bit more informed will object to me once again: Jehovah’s Witnesses not only read the Bible, but also collect donations, correspond with one another on the internet, etc., and this amounts to setting up a prohibited organisation. Let’s assume that this is so (although legally it’s a big question). Then let’s clarify, why are these organisations in particular banned? If we put this question to a passer-by on the street, he – depending on which TV channel he watches – could say that the Jehovah’s Witnesses destroy families, don’t serve in the army, are opposed to blood transfusions and generally appear to be godless heretics. But the decision of the Supreme Court of 20 April 2017 banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia mentions none of these things. The decision of the court is publicly available.

The whole case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses is based on a single fact – possessing forbidden literature. I emphasise: not just the dissemination, but the simple possession. In a few towns in the premises where the Jehovah’s Witnesses gathered, they found some booklets or other (which were often planted by the FSB as proven by CCTV, but the court was not interested in this). That was the sum total of the charge. On that basis a number of local religious organisations were closed down, and the next stage was the banning of the central religious organisation, and already on that basis they started persecuting thousands of people throughout the country. And all of this merely because they had found a few books somewhere. In not one criminal case was there even a single victim.

Someone is going to say they shouldn’t have printed banned literature. The main question that was heard was this: Why, actually, has this literature been banned? Here is an example of a quotation that resulted in one of the magazines being deemed extremist: “Priests of the Greek Orthodox Church and their supporters attempted to come to the construction site and prevent work, but Jehovah heard our prayer and gave us protection.” The court expert’s conclusion: “A negative image of clergymen is created … All the information about them is negative, which speaks to the presence in the text of intent to create a negative image for all clergymen as a social group.”

You can familiarize yourself with a collection of analogous quotations that resulted in the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses being deemed extremist. (Is it any coincidence that such expert opinions began to appear immediately following the beginning of Kirill’s patriarchate, in 2009?) If this is extremism, then it is purely virtual, expressed in disagreement with other religions on theological issues, which is a matter of faith and cannot be considered in secular courts. After all, the experts recognized as extremist quotations in which evangelical Pharisees — the first Christians’ persecutors — were condemned. One magazine was deemed extremist for a sentence about how the true God is one.

This is the real reason why Anatoly Vilitkevich, Roman Markin, Viktor Trofimov, Valentin Osadchuk, Vladimir Kochnev, Aleksandr Suvorov, and Dennis Kristensen are in prison. This is what 70-year-old Arkady Akopyan has been convicted for in Prokhladnoye, and 80-year-old grandmothers have been tried for in other cases. This is what another 16 people were convicted for in Taganrog. This is why people are being fired from their jobs and their children are being harassed in school, and this is why in one instance a shop refused to allow a woman to buy what it was selling. Even if we allow that they had created certain organizations, their persecution on the basis of a ban on those organizations is tantamount to religious persecution because at the basis of the ban lie purely religious postulates. Almost no one knows about this other than the believers themselves and their lawyers.

One can have various feelings toward Jehovah’s Witnesses and any other religion, but all of us should be seriously concerned that Russia has begun putting people in prison for “creating a negative image of clergymen.” The media are cynically presenting these imprisonments as the fight against extremism. The situation is especially absurd given that, according to a decision by the Supreme Court on 28 June 2011, criticism of other religions cannot be considered extremism. On the other hand, this same Supreme Court has uncovered criticism of other religions and declared it to be extremism. When lawyers drew the court’s attention to its violation of its own ruling, the court simply ignored it. The entire trial last year was a mockery of justice. The result was not only a wave of absurd criminal trials but also the largest nationalization of private property in the history of the Council of Europe: right now property worth tens of millions of euros is systematically being confiscated.

It is very important to understand that the mass persecutions over religion are unfolding in Russia in classic form. Of course, these persecutions have been obscured by the derisive formulation “extremist activity,” in order to disinform the public. The disinformation mission, as always, has been assigned to the media. Journalists cheerfully talk about how brave policemen all over the country are catching the “leaders of extremist cells.” Exactly as in the Soviet era they told stories about how full freedom of speech and confession reigned in the country and people were imprisoned exclusively for “anti-Soviet propaganda.”

Translated by Frances Robson and Marian Schwartz

Sergei Kovalev: Questions for Putin on 7 June [Ekho Moskvy]

posted 18 Jun 2018, 12:05 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 18 Jun 2018, 12:14 ]

5 June 2018

By Sergei Kovalev, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group 

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

Dear friends!

Below are the questions I sent to Mr Putin for the Direct Line TV broadcast to take place on 7 June.

As you see, the questions are sharp ones, and certainly inconvenient for the President. Of course, his office will screen them out. But if there are a lot of them, and we know how many, then it will be easy to find the presidential office guilty of cheating. Or if he does answer them (the chances of which are about zero), well, let him answer. That would be interesting too. If you want to support my idea, send these questions to the President (via the website with an addendum that says something like: “I agree with the questions sent you by S. Kovalev” and then give the text. If you can, spread my request as widely as you can.

Questions to Putin for 7 June 2018

I've decided to publish these questions. I don't want them to get lost in the President's office.

1. Do you agree that a mechanism allowing for the replacement of those in power is an indispensable condition for democracy? If so, then why do you call our present state system a democracy? After all, by 2024, the end of your presidential term, you will have stayed in the Kremlin longer not only than Brezhnev but, terrible as it is to say, even Stalin?

If you think that the absence of such a mechanism is completely compatible with democracy, then please explain why major academics, famous journalists and writers, authoritative politicians and, finally, hundreds of millions of citizens of civilised countries, hold a contrary opinion? Is it a mass delusion? Such things happen, of course. So the idea must be firmly refuted as quickly as possible. This is not a small matter; it concerns us all.

As I see it, the murder of Kirov in 1934 was undoubtedly the start of Stalinist one-man rule. However, the defining of historical periods is a matter for professional historians. It’s not that important for my question.

2. In December 2011, you, the leader of the country, allowed yourself to offend the citizens of this country. You referred to those who disagreed with your policy and held large-scale peaceful demonstrations as Bandar-logs, referring to your “favourite” writer Rudyard Kipling. And you indelicately referred to the white ribbons on the chests of demonstrators as condoms. Well, there’s no point demanding a basic understanding of literature and decency from a man who owes his upbringing first to street gangs and then to the KGB. But the guarantor of the Constitution (Article 80, item 2) could still look into that document's second chapter and realise that one of his duties is to ensure freedom of speech, assembly, rallies and demonstrations.

What do you say about this, Mr President? Do you really think that the shields, batons and jackboots of the rapidly multiplying police will ensure these freedoms?

3. And something else more on “freedom of speech”. At the start of your first presidential term, on the night of 13-14 April 2001, NTV was taken over by force and nationalised. Then TV-6 was nationalised, and well, censorship set in. How is it possible to imagine that state media will become independent?

This campaign of nationalisation, i.e. the transformation of journalists into government officials, coincided very closely with the broadcasts about the tragedy of the Kursk submarine. Remember how long you took before you broke off your vacation? But there were still people alive in the submarine!

And the “Ryazan sugar” incident – maybe it was sugar, or maybe it was explosives, that KGB officers put in the cellar of a 16-storey apartment block in Ryazan.

And the satirical programme Dolls on NTV. And the Little Zaches sketch, that’s you, Mr President!

Well, Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin laughed, seeing himself on Dolls, but Vladimir Vladimirovich tolerates neither criticism nor jokes – it’s a matter of state prestige, you understand.

Well, what exactly is my third question, you ask? What will calm this situation down, Vladimir Vladimirovich? The guilty are always punished in the end. Will we start to lie that we are surrounded by enemies, when it is us who snatch pieces of land, now from Georgia, and now Crimea? And we will scare everyone with our inordinate force, and lie shamelessly. And what about you? Maybe you will now increase the presidential term to 10 years – and why stop at that? How about a lifetime presidency? There are examples, and anyway people are buying it. It’s not a question of fortune telling. If you’ll forgive the slang, it’s pretty obvious that people are buying it. And how do you think a country will live whose people whose people are overconfident, but have forgotten to think for themselves?

Translated by Anna Bowles

Sergei Pashin: Extending jury trials, particularly to district courts, is long overdue [Ekho Moskvy]

posted 18 Jun 2018, 11:31 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 18 Jun 2018, 11:37 ]

1 June 2018

By Sergei Pashin

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

This view was expressed on air, on Ekho Moskvy radio, by Sergei Pashin, a retired federal judge. Pashin is a professor in the department of the judiciary at the law faculty of the Higher School of Economics, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights; and a pioneer in the introduction of trial by jury in the 1990s.

"People who stand accused of murder and causing grievous bodily harm, where this resulted in death, may expect to be tried in a court where the verdict will be delivered by a jury of six – a verdict that determines their culpability without the involvement of a professional judge in the deliberation room. This is a good move – a step forward. We have around 2,180 district courts, and it means that many judges will gain experience of working with jurors, and not just handle proceedings by means of formal documents", he said.

However, Pashin emphasised that this move by the government should be viewed not in terms of expanding the powers of jurors, but rather as an expansion following a sharp reduction in their jurisdiction.

"Until now, the jurisdiction of the jury trial has been diminishing all the time: since 1993, it has been curtailed by roughly 50%. Our constitutional right to trial by jury and participation in the delivery of justice has been practically done away with. The vast majority of cases, over 99% of criminal cases, are heard by a judge sitting alone. Over the past year, 224 cases were heard by juries, while the total number of defendants was 730,000. The fact that jury trials will now take place in district courts is a step forward," he said.

Pashin added that according to the new legislation, the hearing of cases with the participation of jurors in district and garrison courts will begin on 1 June, although the first trials are not expected to start until August. 

Translated by Lindsay Munford

Dmitry Bykov: Let's Not Be Silent About Oleg Sentsov! [Ekho Moskvy]

posted 18 Jun 2018, 11:14 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 18 Jun 2018, 11:17 ]

5 June 2018

By Dmitry Bykov, writer, poet, journalist 

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

Oleg Sentsov's fate will be determined in the near future. Either he will survive, or he will die.

Some people have already written that he is not a film director, or that, at least, it is unimportant when we speak about his hunger strike: now he is, first and foremost, a victim of arbitrariness and defends ordinary human rights. But he has proved his professionalism as a director: the situation is perfectly arranged. He went on a hunger strike 30 days before the FIFA World Cup, so by the start of the tournament the matter of his life and death will be a very live issue. He resorted to using his life as his finalweapon. He has no other possible variant in the struggle that he has to become a part of. Sentsov has achieved his goal: he is the one who is now laying down conditions. But Sentsov may lose his life, and Russia may lose its reputation, a reputation that already leaves much to be desired. To mark the beginning of the World Cup with news of the death of a Ukrainian citizen, who was "annexed" to Russia along with Crimea would not be very far from the best start. And this is the most that can be achieved by a single person today.

There are not many variants as to what will happen to Oleg Sentsov: either he will be force-fed (which is equivalent to torture), or he will die, or he will be exchanged. And in either variant, Sentsov's main demand - that all Ukrainian political prisoners be either released or exchanged - will remain unfulfilled, and indeed it is hardly achievable. It is not yet clear whether he will agrees to change his demands. Evidently, he has taken the decision to die because his life for the last three years has not been much better than death (and some would say, it has been even worse). There is not much we can do. We must speak up about his case as loudly as possible. And as often as possible. To remind people of Sentsov in the face of all the reports of successes, of all the triumphant announcements about the World Cup, about bridges built and about popular support. And I am almost sure that Russia will indeed play host to this championship at the highest level. It is the kind of thing the country can do . The problem is just that from now on all significant internal political events must be timed to coincide with championships and festivals, so that human rights defenders or political prisoners will die before the very eyes of foreign guests. Of course, it is humiliating and unpatriotic. It would be more patriotic if all the dissenters commit suicide, having left all their worldly wealth to the treasury. But it somehow seems to me that nowadays there are so many of them that it won't be possible to persuade them all.

Translated by Anna Dvoryanchikova

Lev Shlosberg: When the authorities are in retreat [Ekho Moskvy]

posted 4 Jun 2018, 11:57 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 4 Jun 2018, 12:21 ]

19 May 2018

By Lev Schlosberg, human rights defender and civil society activist; member of the Pskov Regional Legislative Assembly, journalist, recipient of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights award 

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

Why defending people under any­ circumstances matters

In recent weeks we have witnessed a number of unexpected events affecting both human rights and politics. They all have one thing in common: the government authorities, as well as the courts and law enforcement agencies that protect them, have backed down on their initially atrocious position. This has happened for one reason only: committed social protests in defence of those who have already suffered, or who could suffer in future, if the authorities were to take certain decisions. Society did not back down. The authorities did.

On 5 April, the Petrozavodsk city court acquitted Yury Dmitriev, historian and head of the branch of Memorial in Karelia. Dmitriev had been arrested back in late 2016 on scandalous and grotesque charges of “paedophilia” in a case that even included falsified “expert” opinions. His acquittal is highly unusualin Russian court practice: according to official court statistics, only 0.36% of cases are acquittals. Thousands of ordinary citizens signed a petition in his defence.

On 14 May, the Investigative Committee released Aleksei Malobrodsky from pretrial detention on condition that he not leave Moscow. Malobrodsky, who was arrested in June 2017, had formerly been the lead producer at the independent, non-profit theatre group Seventh Studio and director of the Gogol Centre. He was released “giving due consideration to his age and health as well as to the fact that the process of evidence-gathering in his criminal case is complete and therefore that, on his release, the accused can in no way influence the results of the investigation.”

Before this, on 10 May, Aleksei Malobrodsky fell ill in the courtroom of Moscow's Basmanny district court. The court initially refused to call a doctor, but later agreed and Malobrodsky was taken to the emergency department of the 20th Moscow hospital, where he was handcuffed to his bed(!). This story made headlines with a number of independent media outlets. By morning, the scandal had grown so much as to threaten the authorities’ reputation, and the handcuffs were removed. Three days later, the investigator suddenly issued a decision to release Malobrodsky from detention and instead imposed a travel ban on him.

On 15 May, the atrocious federal bill “On measures of reaction (counteraction) against unfriendly actions of the United States of America and (or) other foreign states”, better known as the “counter-sanctions” bill, was passed in first reading. The bill, which included a ban on imports of American medicines and high-tech equipment, threatened the lives of thousands of people. However, substantial amendments were suddenly made to the bill before its second reading: gone were all 16 previously listed groups of goods that could have been subject to bans or import restrictions. This included all references to the proposed ban on imports of medicines from the USA, the nuclear sector, aviation and rare metals. Bans on possible labour imports – that is, on attracting foreign specialists – have also been removed.

In effect, the bill, which was introduced personally by chair of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin and by leaders of all parliamentary factions, has been decisively hollowed out and will provide the government with no greater restrictive powers than those it already has. In other words, the government’s power to threaten its foes will stay exactly as it was.

What do these three seemingly unconnected events have in common?

A powerful social protest. The open, highly public stance taken by thousands of people who used social media to express their opinions about the actions of the government and of the courts and investigators under its control. Undivided attention from the independent press. Attention and support from the global community.

In short: civic solidarity.

Judicial reprisals based on trumped up charges and the legislative plan of a crazed parliament to murder thousands of ill people appeared to be a fait accompli, an inevitable fact, but were brought to a halt by the actions of civil society. This wasn’t a miracle, but the result of the persistent public work of thousands of people, acting in solidarity.

It seems at the moment like the Russian authorities can do whatever they like. Crown an Emperor. Begin whatever war they like wherever they like. Sack the public purse. Arrest, humiliate, strip of their legal rights, liquidate other people's property, and ruin anyone's life plans. But, it turns out, they can’t quite do everything.

The strength of the public remains the main fear of the Russian authorities. Open civil protest scares them more than political opposition. They know very well how to organise dishonest elections and snatch power, and they know that they’ll get away with it. But they have no idea what to do about the civil resentment of citizens not paralysed by fear. This resentment and protest are beyond their power and beyond their control. It’s possible something greater than a civil movement may grow out of this protest.

Faced with a wave of public anger, the authorities retreat. They recognise the strength of society and their own weakness.

But what will they manage to do before then?

And how do people live with such a dangerous state?

The authorities have never known, or learnt, how to talk with people on a human level. And when society begins to talk to them using the language of real indignation and protest, the authorities retreat. They don’t change at all, don’t become humane, they make concessions only out of fear of serious reputational and political losses. That said, they do make concessions.

One might think the Russian authorities are very far from caring about reputation, and yet this mechanism works. Out of fear, but it works.

They acquitted Dmitriev. They released Malobrodsky from prison. They abandoned plans that threatened thousands of ill people. And of course they did all this for their own benefit, not for the people it saved. But still, they did it.

Russia now finds itself in the kind of situation when civil protest is more serious for the authorities and more dangerous than any political menace.

The most serious weapon against the inhumanity of the authorities is human solidarity with those that the authorities threaten. Defence of human rights has become the main function of civil society in Russia today.

In the twentieth century, it was the human rights movement that produced the most powerful politicians, those who went on to establish democratic reforms in their countries. Their work was based on human rights values and principles. And that’s why democratic reforms were lasting and successful in those countries.

Human rights work is the best school for democratic politics. So, citizens, don’t give up, don’t remain silent, don’t be afraid, always defend people when you hear about lawlessness and injustice.

By defending one man, we save ourselves, and the whole country, from the pitch darkness of inhumanity. Not only today, but tomorrow as well.

Translated by Judith Fagelson and Mercedes Malcomson

Evgeny Yasin: Democracy Foundation shuts down [Ekho Moskvy]

posted 4 Jun 2018, 11:02 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 4 Jun 2018, 11:09 ]

21 May 2018

Evgeny Yasin, director of research at the Higher School of Economics, former minister of economics

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

The Democracy Foundation was set up in 1993 by Aleksandr Nikolaevich Yakovlev, a prominent outstanding comrade-in-arms of Mikhail Gorbachev and a staunch supporter of the democratic transformation of Russia. While he was still alive and supported the Democracy Foundation, the Foundation, you could say, flowered, concentrating its efforts on researching the history of repression in Soviet Russia. It also attracted foreign support, working with foreign universities and NGOs. However, in 2017, when it was threatened with the status of a foreign agent, the Foundation ceased accepting funds from abroad. After that, the Foundation received help from the Yeltsin Centre and, very recently, from the Kudrin Foundation. But the 25-year lease agreement for its premises that Yeltsin gave it ran out recently. Finally, last week, the Democracy Foundation announced its closure.

I admit, until then I didn’t know anything about the Democracy Foundation. I learned about it only when its closure was announced. But honestly, I was extremely upset by this development. Can it really be the case that we no longer need this Foundation?

Some time ago, while working on the problem of market transformations in the 1990s, I was sincerely convinced that the success of this transformation depended on two things: 1) the transition from a planned to a market economy; 2) the transition from an administrative-command political system to democracy. I considered a market economy was more important and should be first. I admit I still think that. But I also recognized the importance of democracy and its necessity for the effective development of a market economy.

Now there is a market economy, although not a very effective one. With democracy it turned out we had a more or less functioning one from 1991 until 1993, when there was a battle between, on the one hand, President Yeltsin and the democratic minority of the Congress of People’s Deputies, and on the other the Congress' not very democratic majority. As is well-known, this battle ended after the dissolution of the Congress by President Yeltsin in September 1993, the clashes of 3-4 October, the referendum on the new constitution of 1993 (which is still in force although with a number of changes), and elections to the State Duma under the new constitution.

After that, a political regime established itself in Russia until 2000 that I would call, in a term coined by Wolfgang Merkel and Aurel S. Croissant, a “defective democracy.”

Then a regime became established, under almost the same constitution, that was closer to authoritarianism. Its development up to the present day - especially after 2012-2014, when economic growth fell - bears witness to the necessity of changes. In my opinion, most of all - even if only gradual - democratic reforms, the increase of economic and political competition.

And at this time the Democracy Foundation, the brainchild of one of the most prominent Russian democrats of the 20th century, A. N. Yakovlev, is closing. There is an analogy here.

I would like to see the rebirth of the Democracy Foundation, perhaps in a different form, but as a public institution that continues to build on its previous experience and develops new ways of working toward the development of democracy, providing for the co-existence of various points of view and their application in the government of the country. Let there be a small membership fee, but many members of the organization founded by A.N. Yakovlev. Let’s think about it.

Until we meet again,

Evgeny Yasin

Translated by John Tokolish

Leonid Nikitinsky: "In an acting capacity. On meetings of committees of the Human Rights Council on 11 May" [Novaya gazeta]

posted 28 May 2018, 06:21 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 May 2018, 06:36 ]

13 May 2018

By Leonid Nikitinsky, columnist for Novaya gazeta, member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights and winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize for protecting human rights

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Novaya gazeta]

On 11 May, a joint meeting was held by three of the committees of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights: the Committee on Civic Engagement in Legal Reform, the Committee on Civic Engagement in Anti-Corruption Measures and in Oversight of Law-Enforcement Agencies and the Committee on Scientific and Technical Expertise. The Presidential Council in its current composition adheres to the principle of transparency, and both the agendas of its meetings and the general thrust of its decisions (which are not always drawn up in a formal document) are publicly available.

Most of the meeting held on 11 May was given over to a review of "precedent-setting” legal cases, in other words cases which reveal not just problems specific to the individuals in question, but aspects of the work of law-enforcement agencies and courts which are problematic in a more general sense. These included the case of Oyub Titiev, which has been investigated in the Chechen Republic. The Council and its chair expressed their dissatisfaction at the action taken in response to Titiev’s claims that drugs had been planted in his car by police officers. Despite the Council’s requests, the disciplinary department of the Ministry of the Interior, the Investigative Committee and the Public Prosecutor’s Office had failed to make use of all the available opportunities to examine the case.

This case also points to a wider problem which can be observed in a number of other cases in Chechnya and elsewhere, namely that individuals who allege similar frame-ups by law-enforcement agencies are not granted any status in the legal proceedings, but are instead regarded merely as “whistleblowers.” This makes it possible to drag out investigations into the allegations (which are artificially declared to be prejudicial in nature) until a sentence has been handed down on the main charges. The Council believes that questions should be asked about the permissibility of evidence concerning the commission of an offence by Titiev, and that the investigation into Titiev’s own statement on the planting of the drugs should not have to wait until charges have been lodged.

If God wills (more on this later), the Council plans to hold a special meeting with representatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee on this and other matters, including “pre-investigation checks.” Mikhail Fedotov also repeated his requests for the Prosecutor General and the representative of the Investigative Committee to carry out the proper checks into Titiev’s statement. The Council will ask for a body outside Chechnya to be tasked with performing these checks, and for the Titiev case to be made subject to the jurisdiction of another subject of the Russian Federation. The members of the Council agreed to take it in turns to travel to the court sittings in Grozny if the case were to be heard there, despite the Council’s opposition.

Attendees at the meeting also discussed the cases of the Penza and St Petersburg members of the “Network [Set’] terrorist organisation” and also the New Greatness [Novoe velichie] case. Since both cases are currently at the investigation stage, the only questions which can currently be asked relate to whether the confessions in the first of these cases were obtained using torture, as claimed by members of the Public Monitoring Commission and the lawyers acting on behalf of the suspects. The information available on these cases suggests that it would be at best an exaggeration to describe the alleged offences committed by the young people involved as “terrorist activities” or “extremism.” The Council intends to monitor developments in these cases and to insist that the proceedings take place in an open court, at least at the judicial enquiry stage.

The Council members present also discussed the need to respond rapidly to the events of 5 May on Pushkinskaya Square. The chair of the Presidential Council said that as early as the day after the events he had forwarded requests to this effect to the law-enforcement agencies, including the National Guard. Documents had already started to arrive, and it would be sensible to discuss all related matters together with the leaders of these bodies after examining the information in these documents. A number of Council members suggested that a discussion of this kind could provide an opportunity for drafting a declaration to the effect that police functions had essentially been performed by unidentified officers using non-firearm weapons, and that the authorised law-enforcement agencies on the scene had stood by and done nothing. Some members of the Council expressed their belief that the risk of similar clashes occurring in future was so great that an immediate response was essential. At the same time, however, it is unlikely that a draft of this kind would gain the necessary number of votes to qualify as an official announcement (over half of Council members would need to vote in favour).

It goes without saying that all of these plans are still very much up in the air, since the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights and its chair are carrying out their duties in an acting capacity between 7 May and the date on which the Russian President issues a decree appointing the Council’s new members.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds

Grigory Yavlinsky: President Putin bears personal responsibility for the life and well-being of Oleg Sentsov [Ekho Moskvy]

posted 28 May 2018, 05:20 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 May 2018, 05:25 ]

20 May 2018

By Grigory Yavlinsky, politician, founder of the Yabloko party 

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

Oleg Sentsov has declared a hunger strike. Placed in a Russian prison, the Ukrainian film director finds himself in a position where this desperate measure is the only way to bring attention to the situation of people in our country who are persecuted for purely political motives. These people are convicted not for committing crimes (which never took place) but for their views that are in line with contemporary international law.

It is essential to put an end to the suffering of innocent people. The release of Oleg Sentsov and other Ukrainian citizens held in Russian jails for political reasons will not only be a humane and just step, but also an act in line with the basic national interests of Russia.

The future of Russia lies in the fundamental change of policy in relation to Ukraine, the rejection of the so called “doctrine of limited sovereignty” of Kiev. Without the regulation of relations with Ukraine, without ceasing the war in the Donbass region, without taking the initiative to organise an international conference on Crimea, the normal development of our country is impossible, it is impossible to ensure it’s the protection of its interests and security in the world today.

The Russian authorities and Vladimir Putin personally bear direct responsibility for the life and well-being of Oleg Sentsov and dozens of other prisoners who have become hostages of the policy of aggression of the Russian government.

Translated by Frances Robson

Zoya Svetova: "Elena Gremina, one of the founders of Teatr.doc, died this morning" [MBKh-Media]

posted 24 May 2018, 12:29 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 24 May 2018, 12:36 ]

16 May 2018 

By Zoya Svetova, journalist, human rights activist and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s human rights prize 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: MBKh-Media

Elena Gremina, one of the founders of Teatr.doc, died this morning. Lena died 45 days after the death of her husband, Mikhail Ugarov, the theatre’s principal director.

Lena Gremina was one of our great contemporaries. Her plays ran in many theatres, and films and TV series were shot from her screenplays. Gremina has been called the ideologue of the documentary theatre movement known as “New Drama,” which was completely new for Russia. Together, she and Mikhail Ugarov created the unique Teatr.doc, which has no analogue in Russia or the world.

Lena was one of the strongest, boldest, and most courageous people I have known in my life. She was not afraid to speak publicly on the topics most sensitive to the regime. As for Mikhail Ugarov, the “norm” for Lena was the fight against injustice and for the truth.

Recently, Lena and I had become friends, and she had become a very important person for me. I think it is absolutely essential that Lena’s voice now be heard. Here are excerpts from an interview recorded a little more than a year ago on the fifteenth anniversary of Teatr.doc. 


For a while, Teatr.doc was a small, harmless, experimental theatre to which the regime paid no particular attention. In October 2014, you were asked to vacate the space on Trekhprudny Lane that you had occupied for 12 years and your lease agreement was abrogated. Did you understand why this happened? That space is empty to this day.

At the time we didn’t understand what was going on. But now it’s all clear. Later I found out that there was a resolution that Teatr.doc not operate in Moscow. We had been put on blacklists. In the winter of 2014, they wreaked havoc on the theatre. That evening, we had shown a harmless Ukrainian film, and two men from the Cultural Ministry, a dog, and OMON riot police came, and they kicked our sets apart, smashed in the doors, and detained three of our people. In the summer of 2014, we were invited to bring our show 150 Reasons Not To Defend the Homeland to two festivals in Georgia and Armenia. The Ministry of Culture had always paid for trips to the festival in Armenia. But they turned us down. I had a call from people in Armenia who were stunned that the Cultural Ministry had explained to them that we, it turned out, were on blacklists.

Was there any kind of aftermath to the pogrom in the theatre?

The next day I was called into the Ministry of Culture. That was 30 December 2014. It turns out the Cultural Ministry has a special department where there are men from the FSB. They wouldn’t let Maksim Kurochkin, who had accompanied me, come in, and I found myself in a KGB-like interrogation: two of them, one of me. One of them boasted to me that he had a medal for the conquest of Crimea. I asked them how they could have allowed the theatre to be essentially destroyed and its sets kicked apart in their presence. To me it was clear that this was a scare tactic, but I wanted to hear it from them. They told me, “Wasn’t yesterday enough for you? We’re going to put you in prison.” I stood up and said, “That’s it. I’ll see you in court. There aren’t going to be any more unofficial conversations.” Probably if I’d been a state employee, I’d have been scared. But what do I have to be afraid of?

What do you attribute this negative attitude to? Maybe Hour 18, about Magnitsky, or BerlusPutin?

I think a new era began in 2014. These “edgy” performances had been going on calmly all these years, when everything was fine, when Moscow’s Department of Culture had ordered the School Masterpieces on Stage project from us, which supported us significantly because it meant we could pay the rent out of that money and at the same time bring some benefit with this social project. But now, when the new times came, we were supposed to change. But we kept doing what we do. In particular, we staged the perfectly innocent Maidan Journals at the Golden Mask, for its New Play Festival. Later, the Cultural Ministry banned two of our plays, Herbivorous and Child of the Pillow (for the use of obscenity—MBKh Media). Now at the beginning of every performance we say, “Dear viewers. We want to warn you that in this performance there will be conversations about sex and stories about sexual relations. If you feel this might offend you, you have a minute to leave the hall.” And tickets could be bought for Come Out of the Closet, about gays, only by showing a passport.

You once said that the story of the death of Sergei Magnitsky changed you and the theatre. How did it come about?

We, and the theatre, were working very hard, and a lot of great stuff was happening. At first, the Magnitsky thing was just another project that we had to decide whether to stage or not. But once we started our research, I realised there was this parallel universe, and it's very frightening. It turns any notion of fairness on its head; its very existence is an outrage. This is a world where prisoners are tortured, a world in which you have to pay a bribe to get some hot water, and where judges take a memory stick containing a charge sheet and type up the contents into their judgment. Once you know all this, your world is never the same again.

Teatr.doc was the only theatre that responded to this. Weren’t you worried about doing the play?

— What struck me about it all was that he was a normal person who worked for his company and voted for Edinaya Rossiya. But when his employer fell out with the siloviki [security officials], there was this bust-up like Alien vs Predator. He ended up as the scapegoat, because the others scarpered, the siloviki won out, and he was left behind as a pawn. That's when he began to show incredible courage, which really impressed me. They demanded that he testify against his employer, but the more they piled on the pressure, the more he resisted. The whole affair, which cost this 37-year-old man his life, shocked me. I wanted some sort of justice. I remember Natalya Nikolaevna Magnistakaya saying in an interview on Ekho Moskvy, "My son never made it to the trial. Perhaps there might have been a good judge who would have acquitted him". Then it came to me: the story of the trial that never was. We had people who might have been involved in his murder defend themselves in this fictitious trial.

'The theatre that isn't afraid' – is that your catchphrase?

That came later. The first catchphrase was, 'The theatre without any acting'. Sasha Zherebtsov, the St Petersburg playwright who lives in Moscow, came up with that one. We have several catchphrases now, in particular, "Doc: a theatre for everyone". It's true, though, that we aren't afraid. However much they strong-arm us, it won’t have any effect whatsoever.

Another instance of such pressure would be the police turning up at the premiere of the ‘Bolotnaya Square Case’ play at Teatr.doc in May 2015 and carrying out an inspection.

Yes, and then a week after the inspection, I got a call and was told that the owners of the premises on Razgulyai Square had asked to cancel our lease and wanted us out the next day. That was after the ‘Bolotnaya Square Case’ play, in May. The people who thought they could shut down our theatre don't know anything about private theatres. They know you can shut down a state theatre. But you can't shut down a private one; there is no mechanism for doing it. That’s because when we were landed with an horrendous fine (there was an inspection after ‘Bolotnaya Case’, and a solid waste engineer found violations to do with the rigging of the lights for ‘MBKh Media’), we paid it in full. Then there was a special inspection by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, a homicide expert, two FSB officers, and a solid waste engineer, and they spent six hours in the theatre. It's understandable that they would have found some sort of violations. The upshot of this was the cancellation of the lease on Razgulyai Square and, later on, that fine. These were all attempts to destroy our organisation. But even if they abolish our legal entity, we would go on working without one. The non-profit 'Dokumentalnaya Stsena' has been around for 15 years now.

Which of Teatr.doc’s performances are your favourites?

‘Human rights activists’. I wanted to do that play for a long time. For me it was very important to pay tribute to these people. It is very difficult because working with the interviews of human rights activists was difficult. I’m also proud of the ‘New Antigona’ project. In the play, texts from Novaya Gazeta’s Elena Kostyuchenko are used and the play is now on stage. When I worked with the texts as a director I thought up one particular way of doing things. Usually, montage is the main tool of the documentary maker in theatre. For me, the main tool was syntax. Lena speaks in one syntactical style while the legal texts and those of the witnesses are spoken in a completely different syntactical style. I read viewers’ reviews and saw that they got it. The courts’ texts are like horrible music. The actors do this. Texts are read not only by professional artists but by women from the general public too. The texts are so horrible that we wanted the public to share in this too. From a theatrical point of view, I’m happy the way it came off. As a director, I’m very happy with the play ‘War is Coming’. I’m proud of the way the actors worked. The new play that I’m about to put on is ‘Bolotnaya Affair 2’. Polina Borodina is collecting material from guys who have already been released. Maybe you read Volodya Akimenkov’s work, he wrote ‘Why did we come out on the Square? The whole protest was crushed’.

I want the heroes of the ‘Bolotnaya Affair’ to be on stage. I want Stepa Zimin to dance, Aleksei Gaskarov to perform. Polikhovich is making his debut as a playwright. He wrote a sketch about cats in prison. He tells a wonderful story about how dogs aren’t loved in prison while cats are. The cat is the animal of the thief while the dog is the animal of the pigs. We will be showing Bolotnaya Affair 2 on 6th May 2017. I want both the actors and witnesses to be there. This really is a work about heroes.

You say that it’s impossible to close Teatr.doc. Maybe it’s just that no order has been given yet?

I’m sure that no order has been given. On the other hand, they understand that it’s impossible to close us down. We’ll just rent somewhere else or rent a garage and perform there.

27th April 2018 Lena wrote on Facebook about Mikhail Ugarov and their love and how they met. This is now one of her last long posts on Facebook:

No need for condolences

I was very very lucky that we met – it might never have happened.

We are too different. But I was lucky once in my life, me, the traumatised, unfortunate, incapable - I thought before meeting – of finding personal happiness. I met him, we got to know one another and decided to be together.

I’m lucky that I read what he wrote and couldn’t believe my eyes. I liked it so much. Lucky too that I witnessed how he created plays and could not understand the magic in his work with artists.

That our sons from our first marriages became our family and family for each other too.

That we created Teatr.doc together, and in this it’s not only me who was lucky. It wasn’t just one person whose life he changed, whom he taught, whom he helped.

That we were together for almost 25 years (it would’ve have been 25 in September 2018). He would always say to me. “It can’t be, not 25 already! People don’t live that long! – and it’s true. People don’t live that long, in our case.

Something that good can’t last forever. 

From myself I will add: it’s unfair.

Translated by Lindsay Munford, Marian Schwartz and Matthew Quigley

Tamara Morshchakova: "We must put an end to the present lawlessness" [MBKh-Media]

posted 21 May 2018, 11:17 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 21 May 2018, 11:17 ]

6 May 2018 

An extract from an interview with Tamara Morshchakova, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize for expertise and scholarship in the sphere of human rights, by Zoya Svetova, who has been awarded the MHG prize for journalism that promotes human rights.

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: МBKh-media]

Retired Constitutional Court Judge Tamara Morshchakova spoke with journalist Zoya Svetova about why the authorities have no need of an independent court, what kind of judicial reform there should be, and how an investigative judge might have helped Aleksei Malobrodsky, had the law about him already been passed.

Tamara Georgievna, we are entering President Putin’s new term. During the three previous ones, there were many discussions about the need for judicial reform. Nothing substantive ever came of them. Will there be something now?

This is not a question for me. I’m no good at guessing. The sphere we’re talking about, the sphere of judicial activity, has long required certain transformations. In this sphere, no one can express satisfaction with it, not even relatively high, let alone hundred-percent satisfaction. Everyone is dissatisfied with it. Moreover, the president has issued a number of instructions to the Human Rights Council and the Supreme Court to increase judges’ independence. So that measures that would allow judges to be truly independent are being discussed by a great many.

What is sad in this context is the fact that they are often being discussed by politicians rather than professionals. And this brings with it very bad consequences for the level of experts’ qualifications and proposals. That is the first thing. The second, of course, is that there is a definite structural tie between courts and the law enforcement agencies with which courts interact that lies at the base of their activity. And these multiple structures oppose each other. Often in this opposition they offer by way of measures something that has significance that is the opposite of reforms—aimed not at improving something about judicial activity but at making life easier for themselves, evading reproaches against them, and in essence, in many situations, even saying goodbye to what corresponds to justice as such.

There are examples like this coming not only from agencies that are ill intentioned from the point of view of society, such as the agencies of investigation and trial and the prosecutor’s office but also from the judicial system itself. After all, the plan’s main developer is the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court frequently behaves in precisely this manner.

One can cite as an example its disagreement with proposals from the Human Rights Council, although there have been instances when, after many years, certain proposals from the Council that had previously been rejected by the Supreme Court have then taken up again by it—as is now happening with proposals regarding the introduction of investigative judges. There are also proposals that the Supreme Court itself has written, which are aimed right now, for instance, so that reasons are not given in civil case decisions, hearings of cases are not held publically, and everything takes place without the parties’ participation and ends with the issuing of a judicial decision based on written documents even without reasons given.

Here, actually, is an example of this kind of odious approach to judicial reform. And it is conditioned by the fact that the goals of reform are changing. Reform has not remained on the rails of guarantees of fair justice but has been shifting to a completely different plane.

“Old mistakes are being announced as new ideas”

Which plane, for example?

For example, the plane of the economics of courts’ efforts, because the burden on judges is great. To economize on the state’s inevitable expenses for organizing the judicial process. But sometimes it simply looks like encouraging laziness or refusing to make extra efforts. Why try if the courts don’t decide legal conflicts? In judicial reform, these trends represent a great danger. And they are joined by the fact that many present-day reform ideas have been taken from the past, even though they did not vindicate themselves at all. And now these old mistakes are being announced as new ideas. That is, we are basically going in circles.

Among these kinds of ideas we can cite the shift to an elected court—elected directly by the populace. This idea is often heard in human rights circles as well, but more in political ones, of course, because it resonates very well and accessibly in key of populism. Also with a populist ring are the ideas of lustration, of replacing all judges, of destroying the body of judges, of disbanding the Supreme Court, of eliminating—people actually write this!--the Constitutional Court as unnecessary, and of cutting the number of judges on the Supreme Court from 170 to 19, as on the American Supreme Court.

And all this without any understanding of the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court cannot be an example for the development of our Supreme Court because the U.S. Supreme Court is a constitutional jurisdiction and is comparable only to our Constitutional Court. We have rejected the effective idea of court specialization, which has been implemented all over the world. I can cite many countries where there are different specialized jurisdictions—Germany, for example. They have five, and each is headed by its own High Court. America simply has a lot of specialized courts. For example, there is even a court for veterans affairs. We have as a main goal ensuring uniformity of practice (whether correct or incorrect is unimportant), not achieving fair justice. And of course, if we are to insist on these initial ideas, the failure of the next stage in judicial reform is inevitable.

I would like to offer two ideas relating to our approaches to judicial reform. The first, of course, is that we mustn’t step on old rakes but must try to adapt the proper formulas to the new era. The second is that we mustn’t promote new mistaken ideas. Unfortunately, they can already be discerned among all the proposals under discussion, including in comparison with the failed steps at reforming judicial activity taken in other legal systems. Foreign steps may not be an example in everything either. Across Eastern Europe—across the territory of the former Eastern European alliance of states that included the USSR—the judicial reform begun has swung to its opposite stage, the stage of counter-reform. And in practical terms, in many instances, this has led to the destruction of the independence of judicial authority or simply to a nonindependent court. So that ideas have to be sought, but not along those lines. [...]

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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