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Zoya Svetova: Time for the Brave [Radio Svoboda]

posted 28 Jun 2017, 09:23 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 Jun 2017, 10:49 ]
20 June 2017

By Zoya Svetova, a journalist and human-rights defender, whose human rights work has been recognised by a prize awarded by the Moscow Helsinki Group

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

In Bonn on 12 June, the Boris Nemtsov Foundation presented its award "For Bravery" for the second time. This time it was awarded to Ildar Dadin [for background, see here]. It is probably not necessary to explain why Dadin has this year been deemed worthy of such a prize. The story of Dadin’s "miraculous" liberation has been recounted many times, and there is no need to repeat it again. Even so, it seems that his story, more than any other, exemplifies the clash between the delusional nature of the charges brought against him, the inhumanity of the "correctional" system, the bravery of a man caught in the grip of the authorities, the strength and solidarity of the friends and relations who publicised his case, and the force of political expediency. Let us admit it that someone in power required as a matter of urgency that the Constitutional Court annuled the article of the law under which Dadin was sentenced to prison, and the Supreme Court to free him. None of this would have happened, however, had it not been for Ildar himself, with his desperate and utterly reckless courage.

Boris Nemtsov's daughter Zhanna, founder of the Nemtsov Foundation, explained why the prize is so named in the following words: "My father was a brave man, no one will can deny that." It is now clear how appropriate the name is. Especially since this year’s anti-corruption rallies of 26 March and 12 June it’s become clear that the tasks we face involve more than overcoming the fear that we all feel when we join a street protest, even one that has supposedly been sanctioned by the authorities. Now what is required is a deliberate act, an act of bravery. Do you remember how, at the very first rallies on Pushkin Square, before 2011, when just a few hundred people would gather, one of the speakers would always say, “Do not be afraid!" “There is nothing to fear!" It was like being hypnotised: We somehow convinced ourselves that we were not afraid, even though the situation was frightening.

The hypnosis worked. Protest demonstrations were held in 2011 and 2012, and politics seemed to be making a comeback. Hope re-appeared and for a while fear was reduced. But then came the brutal repression of the Bolotnaya movement, prosecutions, custody, prison sentences, mass emigration and the sense that the new stagnation was here to stay. The protests on 26 March 2017 showed that we are on the threshold of something new, frightening and yet at the same time inspiring hope. I was not in Moscow on 12 June, and I could not go to Tverskaya. But thanks to the videos, eyewitness-reports and text messages, I can imagine what happened there. What impressed me most were the dozens of young people chanting, "We here are power! We here are power!" You could see in their eyes the same desperate bravery that Boris Nemtsov showed when he climbed onto the stage at the protests on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue in 2011 and 2012, the same confidence that his cause was just, and the same fearlessness that now is shown by Aleksei Navalny.

These are young people who five years ago could not take part in protest rallies because they were too young, age, who had heard almost nothing about the protest movement. So why are they now chanting the same slogans? Why are they not afraid of anything? Because they do not know what prison is? Or because they believe that they have the right to walk round their city and shout anti-government slogans, as people in all democratic countries do? At school they are told that Russia is a democracy. So why are they met with truncheons, why are they beaten and dragged into police vans, why are charges drawn up against them and why are they accused of offences they did not commit? The authorities intimidate, threaten, beat and punish then. And yet they are not afraid.

It’s also repulsive that the authorities discredit themselves with lies. The police write up false reports, pulling pedestrians out of the crowd, and then they write that these people were shouting “Putin is a thief!” The cruelty of the police towards citizens who are out peacefully walking around is a crime that demands punishment. I’m surprised by activists from the Human Rights Council, who stated again: the police acted correctly. Did these people out on Tverskaya with Russian flags really pose a threat? Were they smashing storefronts? Did they disturb public order?

Yes, I’ve heard of the criminal case against the young man who supposedly sprayed a member of the National Guard with pepper spray. But the other 999 prisoners? What did they do? Here is the testimony of a person arrested on Tverskaya, posted on the site OVD Info: “I wrote a declaration in which I said that I did not take part in the protest. The declaration exists. I was just in the crowd. When I asked the youth liaison officer if I could refuse to give further explanations, I didn’t hear an answer. The interview took place in the presence of my mother. There were nine people in the room: four minors, one policeman, and parents. My parents wrote a note of receipt, or whatever that is called. This note was taken away to the juvenile affairs commission. After a month they will speak with my mom and decide if I’ll be placed under a regular reporting system or not. The police said that I shouldn’t do this anymore, that it will affect my future, but I believe that all of this is nonsense and they are just intimidating us.”

Take note of the phrase “I believe that all of this is nonsense and they are just intimidating us.” The teenager does not understand why the fact that he went out for a walk on a public holiday along the main street in the country’s capital city could “affect his future.” He probably wouldn’t understand me either if I were to say to him that going out on Tverskaya on June 12, 2017, was a bold move, like it was for many of those who stood in front of Eliseevsky store and chanted, “Russia will be free!”

Their time to go out on the square has now come. So that’s what they did. The majority of them saw for the first time, probably, those who are almost their peers, wearing camouflage uniforms and sweaty helmets, ready to launch themselves at the first command at people walking by, to drag them into police vans. The wanton cruelty probably scared some, and next time around those people won’t even go near the square. But there will be others, simply because the fight against injustice can’t be driven inside.

It’s the time for brave people. Who awoke them - Putin or Navalny? Or both at once? This isn’t the main point; we’re just confronting a new reality. And the authorities have to take this reality into consideration. The Bolotnaya case scenario isn’t going to work anymore. Then, it was a matter of several dozen demonstrators being arrested, trials held, sentences handed out, and that’s that, no one else is going to go out on the square. But as it turns out, people still go out. They’re not afraid.

Fifteen-year-old Maksim Losev from Bryansk made it to the last five finalists for the Boris Nemtsov Foundation’s Award. He was taken out of class and brought to the police for re-posting information about the March 26 protests on his Vkontakte page. The young child was unable to go to Bonn for the award ceremony, but he sent a video message. Maksim says he does not regret his actions and he is not afraid: the authorities, he believes, are capable of intimidating, but nothing more. Maksim is certain that “within a year or two everything will change.”

Thanks to Elizabeth Teague for assistance with this translation

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