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Valentina Cherevatenko: We have been labelled a “foreign agent” for our peacekeeping activities [Don News]

posted 20 Jun 2017, 06:10 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 26 Jun 2017, 08:47 ]
13 June 2017

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Don News]

For the first time in Russia, a criminal investigation has been opened into an allegation of malicious evasion of the law on Foreign Agents under Article 330.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation [“Malicious evasion of the duty to file the documents required for inclusion in the register of NGOs performing the functions of a foreign agent" - trans.]. The case has been brought against Valentina Cherevatenko, laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group, in her capacity as coordinator of the regional human-rights NGO, Women of the Don Union and chair of the board of the Foundation that goes under the same name [see Human Rights Watch; if found guilty, Cherevatenko faces up to two years in prison - trans.]. The charges against her have surprised not only the Russian and foreign public, but also Cherevatenko herself. Here, the human rights defender discusses the reasons behind the investigation, which has been under way for several years.

Interviewer Kseniya Yegorova: As a regional human rights NGO, Women of the Don Union has been active since 1993 and is well known both in Russia and overseas for its human rights, peacemaking and rehabilitation activities. What is the reason for the current prosecution of the organisation and of you personally?

Valentina Cherevatenko: Up until 2013, Women of the Don Union worked actively, without any serious attention being paid [by the authorities] to its activity. Then a whole number of people from different inspection agencies came to our office, and a series of checks was launched. The first did not lead to any allegations against us, but then representatives of the Prosecutor's office came for a second, and then a third time. Finally, we received a prosecutor's notice that there were signs of political activity in our work.

Kseniya Yegorova: Did you agree with this?

Valentina Cherevatenko: I did not agree. However, I am only the coordinating chairperson of the organization, so I had to convene a meeting of the organisation’s coordinating board. Members of the board also disagreed with the views of the Prosecutor's office and called an extraordinary conference of the organization, which was held on 20 July 2013. The conference considered a notice by the Novocherkassk prosecutor containing a number of assertions, such as the accusation that Women of the Don Union had, as a regional NGO, violated the law by working not only in its native Rostov region, but also in other regions and republics of Russia. The conference issued a statement in support of the decision of the Constitutional Court to permit the creation of organisations whose work would not be subject to geographical restrictions. That is why we set up the Women of the Don Foundation for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. As for political activity, the conference did not agree with the opinion of the Prosecutor and considered the allegations to be unfounded.

Kseniya Yegorova: The decision to launch a criminal case against you states that you “registered the Foundation because you were acting out of criminal intent to evade observing the Law on Foreign Agents.”

Valentina Cherevatenko: I had no malicious intentions either when setting up the Foundation nor when managing its activities. And the decision to establish the Foundation was, as I have already said, not made by me, it was a collective decision. On the contrary, the Foundation was created in order not to violate the law. Women of the Don continued to work in Rostov region, while the Foundation worked outside the region. Our aims and objectives overlap, because we did not plan to engage in other kinds of activity. And we kept the name Women of the Don because it is a name that we have earned honestly, it is our reputation.

Kseniya Yegorova: In 2014, the Justice Ministry included Women of the Don on the register of foreign agents. Why did you not agree with this classification?

Valentina Cherevatenko: We do not engage in political activity. The law on Foreign Agents has two components—foreign finance and political activity. But in reality, it turns out that, if there is foreign financing, then it doesn't matter what you do. Whether you pick up litter, help the poor, or work with people infected with HIV, it will all be recognised as political activity and you will be included in the register of foreign agents. Just look at the register, and you will see which organisations are included there. 

Kseniya Yegorova: Has the Union now been removed from the register of foreign agents?

Valentina Cherevatenko: On the basis of our statement the Women of the Don Union was taken off the register of “foreign agents,” since we haven’t had foreign financing for a long time and do not now. We consider as unacceptable the very fact that it used to be on the list. Therefore, we have begun to prove our case in the courts and have exhausted all national legal mechanisms. Today the case is before the European Court of Human Rights. When the label “foreign agent” is hung on an organization, in the first place, practically all doors to domestic cooperation are closed. Secondly, the very word “agent” carries certain connotations in our conditions, and that influences our work. That’s why we will continue to defend ourselves.

Kseniya Yegorova: And how did the Women of the Don Foundation for Civil Society Development get on the register?

Valentina Cherevatenko: After the Union was removed from the register, they began an inspection of the Women of the Don Foundation. At that moment, the Foundation was involved in a brief project with the support of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation. Part of the role of the Foundation was to run a competition among micro-projects. The Foundation ran the competition. As a result, the Foundation supported five micro-projects of women’s organizations or of organizations dealing with the issue of women’s rights in the North Caucasus. I emphasize that the Women of the Don Foundation didn’t implement the projects, but only supported them. It would never have entered our minds that a project of the type “Happiness must be built” (sociological research on courting traditions in Chechen society) or the project “Culture of international communication for senior high school students” would turn out to be political activity. But the Ministry of Justice, after examining the project, regarded it as political activity and entered the Foundation into the registry of foreign agents. But we could not and cannot agree with such an approach, we are engaged in activities that are useful to society and do not consent to the entering of the Foundation into that register. We are taking our defence all the way, and now it’s before the European Court of Human Rights.

Kseniya Yegorova: Why did all this take the form of a criminal prosecution?

Valentina Cherevatenko: In 2016 a statement by an FSB officer turned up at the Investigative Committee, and on that basis a criminal case was initiated on the failure to comply with the foreign agent law. The investigation proceeded through the year. I was interrogated, as were other members of the Union, and also members of the Foundation’s board and members of our advisory council. And on 2 June 2017 I was informed of the “decision to designate [me] as a defendant” under Article 330.1. There is no case law under that Article. Indeed, after the Justice Ministry was itself given the power to enter nonprofits into the registry, the Article lost its legal meaning, it should have been removed from the Criminal Code. But it was kept there. Now it is a form of intimidation: if I am pronounced guilty, then for other organizations that refuse to be placed in the registry it will mean that similar criminal cases can be initiated against them. Additionally, I am convinced that the case itself, and the Article that was used to prosecute me, is only the tip of the iceberg. The real reason is something else, most probably it is the peacemaking work in which my organization is engaged. I personally, and all of us, are against war, any war, against any justification for armed actions and aggressions. We are for peace and solving all issues and problems by peaceful means.

Kseniya Yegorova: What kind of "peacekeeping activity" are we talking about here exactly? What did you and your organization do to cross various entities?

Valentina Cherevatenko: It's a pretty strange situation. You would think that "peacekeeping activity", directed towards achieving reconciliation, peace and consent, ought to be socially approved of. But in reality it's not like that. As a rule, on both sides of a conflict there are people who belong to the war party - and in that case, and this is always the situation, things are awkward for those who are set on peace. This kind of situation with peacekeeping reminds me of the film "At home amongst strangers".

Kseniya Yegorova: Again, there's nothing specific in your answer.

Valentina Cherevatenko: That's all that I can say at this stage. Every word I say on air is being monitored and will end up on my file - so don't force me to talk about that.

Kseniya Yegorova: In connection with the criminal prosecution, are you not planning to halt the activity of Women of the Don, or flee the country?

Valentina Cherevatenko: Our mission is the defence of human rights and we will not give up on that under any circumstances. I'm grateful to my team, the townspeople, the inhabitants of Rostov region, many journalists and activists who have supported us and remember us. Women of the Don will continue its work in spite of everything. And I'll answer straightaway that I'm not planning on going anywhere. This is our country, and we want people to live here with innate dignity and with human rights. For the sake of that, we're prepared to live even with things like criminal prosecutions, but not to reconcile ourselves to them. We will argue our case, stand our ground until the last, and fight this absurd charge.

Kseniya Yegorova: The article of the Criminal Code under which you're being charged provides for a maximum sentence of two years in prison. Are you prepared to go to prison?

Valentina Cherevatenko: Your question about my readiness to go to prison is not only impolite, but also unusual. I can only repeat that I will fight to the last by all legal means, including proving my innocence in all domestic courts, and if necessary going to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Federal Law "On the introduction of changes to separate legislative acts of the Russian Federation with regard to the regulation of the activity of non-profit organizations, performing the role of a foreign agent" was signed into force by the President on the 20th July 2012. The federal law was aimed at regulating the activity of non-profit organizations which receive funding or other goods from foreign sources and which take part in political activity.

The law specifies that "political activity" does not include activity in the fields of science, culture, art, health - prevention and healthcare of citizens, social support and the protection of citizens, maternity care and childhood care, social support for the disabled, encouraging a healthy lifestyle, physical culture and sport, protection of the vegetable and animal world, charitable activity, and also activity in the realm of charitable and voluntary support work.

On the 4th June 2014 the President of the Russian Federation signed a law which gives the Ministry of Justice itself the right to include non-profit organizations in the list of "foreign agents". In the same law it was provided for that the decision on the inclusion of NGOs in the list of "foreign agents" can be appealed in court.

Translated by Elizabeth Teague, Mark Nuckols and Will Dudley

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