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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