Champions of human rights

Jeremy Bird
23 June 2009

After the murder of  Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya  in October 2006 many western cities saw rallies and candlelight vigils in her memory. But nowhere perhaps, including in Russia,  were they as numerous as in Finland.

3000 people came to the Russian Embassy in Helsinki  to express their grief and  dismay. Once part of the Russian Empire and victim of a Soviet invasion in 1939, Finland clearly felt more shocked than others and more ready to act.  Standing silently near the Embassy  was not enough for  a group of activists "concerned", as their site puts it, "about the erosion of democracy and human rights in Russia".  They wanted to carry on what Politkovskaya had done. Thus was the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum born in January 2007.

Last month, at  its  third annual seminar, Russian human rights defenders had a chance to discuss the issues of the day  with their western colleagues. Since the last Forum  one of  its prominent speakers,  the  owner of the opposition site Ingushetia.ru,  Magomed Yevloyev,  has been murdered by the authorities.  Death threats, imprisonment and persecutions  are part of everyday life  for many participants.

The price of asking awkward questions

Among the participants was Mikhail Trepashkin, a Moscow lawyer  and former FSB colonel who served a four-year prison term following his investigation into the Moscow apartment bombings in 1999.   This year he came to Helsinki for the first time - in 2007 he was still in prison and the Forum called for his release, while  in 2008  passport problems prevented him from getting out of Russia.  

However, Trepashkin's  presence does not indicate any substantial change in Russia  - a couple of days after the seminar it became known that one of its participants, the Volgograd journalist Elena Maglevannaya, had applied for political asylum in Finland.

Maglevannaya had dared to write in the Volgograd  paper "Free Speech" about the torture of Zubair Zubairaev, a Chechen held in a Volgograd prison. This man, sentenced in 2007 to 5 years imprisonment on very dubious  charges, was  routinely beaten up and tortured -  among other things he had his knee pierced with a screwdriver and his feet nailed to the ground.  Unlike many others, he had the courage to complain.

His story became  well-known to human rights activists and was often cited as an example of the appalling treatment of Chechens in Russian prisons - numerous photographs of Zubairaev's wounds are available on the Internet. However, the prison where Zubairaev was held accused the journalist of lying  and took her to court claiming - in the best traditions of  Russian repressive methods derided in the 19th century by Gogol - that the Chechen had mutilated himself.  

On 14th May the court found Maglevannaya guilty of defamation and insisted that she retract what she  knew to be the truth.  Disobeying a court decision is in itself a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years in prison.  Faced with a threat of legal prosecution Elena Maglevannaya  felt that she would not be able to carry on with  her work  and asked for  political asylum. Meanwhile, Zubairaev was  sent to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, to serve his term in even stricter conditions, and was beaten up again on the way.

Chechens in Russian prisons

Dreadful as  the fate of Zubair Zubairaev is,  it is by no means unique. In  her speech, Maglevannaya  stressed that  about 20, 000 Chechens  aged  between  20 and 30 are being held today in Russian prisons. Under torture many of them have admitted committing non-existent crimes and received very long prison terms as a result.  Although all of them were captured during or just after the war (which Russia preferred  to call the  "establishment of constitutional order"), they are denied POW status and  treated like criminal offenders.  In addition  the prison personnel is more often than not recruited from  soldiers and officers who recently fought the Chechens as enemies and who simply carry on torturing and mutilating them as they did  during the conflict. 

Chechens are  among the most vulnerable people in Russian prisons (where rights of inmates are routinely ignored anyway). For they are discriminated against not only on the grounds of their ethnicity, as are others from the Caucasus, but also as "terrorists" and "bandits"  - the labels habitually used by the Russian authorities  during the conflict.

Justice ‘shanghai'd'

The indiscriminate use of terms is typical of a state not based on the rule of law. It becomes even more dangerous when it is used in inter-state agreements. Elena Ryabinina from the Civic Assistance group  spoke  at the Forum about the Shanghai Convention ratified by Russia in 2003.

The full name of this document, signed by 6  members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan), is the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism. Apart from putting separatism alongside terrorism and extremism and thus making it criminal, the convention obliges the participating states to refuse asylum to those suspected of any of the above mentioned activities and  to extradite them at the request of one of these states.

In practice, as Ryabinina explained, this leads to deporting people who have not been proven guilty to countries where they might be tortured. This in itself demonstrates a glaring contradiction between Russia's membership in different European structures, like the Council of Europe,  and its being a co-signatory of  the Shanghai Convention. Once  human rights defenders manage to have these cases heard at the European Court in Strasburg, they are sure to win them, as they are supported by the clause prohibiting extradition to countries where torture is applied. However, the legal basis of the Shanghai Convention and the legitimacy of Russia's involvement in it have yet to be considered at the necessary official level.

Another dangerous consequence of this involvement,  according to Elena Ryabinina, is discrimination on religious grounds directed against Muslims resident in Russia or coming to Russia as asylum-seekers.  The regulations of the  Shanghai Cooperation Organisation stipulate that laws existing in its member-states take priority over domestic legislation and  Russia effectively follows the  laws  developed in Central Asian countries, where belonging to any group that has been labelled with the vague term "non-conventional Islam" can lead  to charges of Islamic extremism.

Such cases have been fabricated  in Russia during the last 5 years,  and not  only in the North Caucasus, but also in Central Russia,  in the Volga region, in the Urals and in Western Siberia. And as Ryabinina stressed, this cannot but have  a profound effect on society: persecuting Muslims on suspicion of belonging to non -violent  groups  (like Hizb ut -Tahrir and others)  and accusing them of preparing the violent overthrow of the authorities turns some people into victims, others into informers and  brings about the popularity of radical Islam as a form of protest against injustice.

Misuse of anti-extremism

Several other speakers at the seminar also expressed their concern about the loose use of the  terms "extremism" and "terrorism" which  has become a powerful tool in the hands of  the Russian special services.  "Terrorism" seems to work better on an international level. Oksana Chelysheva, journalist and Deputy Director of Russian-Chechen Friendship Society drew the attention of the audience to the issue raised earlier this year by an Austrian Green MP,  Peter Pilz.

After the murder of Kadyrov's critic Umar Israilov in Vienna,  Pilz accused the Austrian Interior Minister of allowing Russian FSB agents  access to the files of the Chechens who had received asylum in Austria. Naturally, the Minister insisted that it had been done within the framework of counter-terrorist cooperation...

The term "extremism" is  more popular internally and works against any dissent almost as obligingly as the notorious Article 58 accusations of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" did in Soviet times. Galina Kozhevnikova from the Sova Centre for Information and Analysis, which  monitors hate-crimes prompted by nationalism and xenophobia, spoke  in Helsinki about the double-edged character of the law against extremism in Russia. On the one hand it is used against violent racism, on the other - and this happens perhaps even more often - it is directed against the political opposition, as many of those present at the seminar could confirm.  The Sova Centre has recently started monitoring what they call the misuse of anti- extremism by the authorities.

Rise of racist attacks

Another kind of extremism that needs to be monitored is violent activity by ultra-nationalists and racists. In the last 5 years the number of  violent racist attacks against dark-skinned people as well as people from Central Asia, Caucasus and other people of "non-Slavic " appearance has been growing at a rate of about 20 per cent a year. The attacks are very often inspired by the state-controlled media -  as in the cases of  the  notorious anti-Georgian hysteria or quite recently  of the racist coverage of Barak Obama's presidential campaign.  

Galina Kozhevnikova  acknowledged with satisfaction the recent attempts by prosecutors in Moscow to stop some racist groups and individuals, attempts which in her view are bringing  positive results. However, she  was quite worried about the tendency of the pro-Kremlin youth groups ( like "The Young Guard",  a youth wing of  the ruling "United Russia" party) to borrow  xenophobic slogans from various racist movements and thus legitimise them.

Another worrying trend in her opinion is the decreasing number of testimonies from witnesses of hate-crimes or racist attacks -  fear of reporting them is growing, because even blogging about these cases on the net has often led to beatings and persecution of the  witnesses.

The Finnish organizers of Forum -2009 tried very hard to place the Russian human rights activists within the framework of human rights movements in the West, dividing the agenda of this year's seminar roughly into "Minority Rights" (religious, ethnic and sexual minorities) and "Political Repression". As Heidi Hautala, the Chairperson of Finnish-Russian Civic Forum, explained,  they thought it was very  important for every minority to understand that it was only  by working together  and supporting each other that they can hope to succeed in solving their problems. And although this is of course true, in the Russian context discrimination against  minorities  nearly always has a political meaning behind it. That is why the presentations which laid bare the political background of discrimination  in Russia were much more interesting than straightforward  - often historical - reports  of the limitations imposed upon this or that minority or even examples of getting over them.  

Legacy of the Gulag

The arbitrary nature of the Russian judicial system was another recurring theme in the conference. Mikhail Trepashkin spoke about it both as a prisoner and as a lawyer.  The notorious lack of independence of Russian courts makes the authorities absolute masters of the situation.  

Fabricating cases  against  trouble-makers by  falsifying evidence or planting weapons ( of which Trepashkin himself was a  victim) are by no means  exceptional.   Arrests remain the preferred way of dealing with  suspects -  bail  or a written undertaking not to leave one's place of residence are used very rarely.

That is why even according to the official statistics  in  2008  about 1 million people in Russia  found themselves  in custody. Appeal hearings are not common either.   Often it is enough for one judge to reject an appeal. Then people  end up in prison, where, even if they are not literally tortured, the very conditions of their stay are a torture in themselves and result in their health being gradually impaired.

Elena Sannikova, a Soviet dissident imprisoned from 1984 to 1987, in her paper on political repression in today's Russia was forced to the sad conclusion that the country seems to have been unable to  get the legacy of the  Gulag out of its system or even to  modernise its penitentiary institutions.

Eloquent absences

Olga Kurnosova from the St Petersburg branch of  Kasparov's United Civic Front  could not come to the seminar because  she had been charged with smuggling (police found in her bag  a  can of caviar given to her as a present).

Galina Kozhevnikova came from the States where she and the Director of Sova Centre Alexander Verkhovsky are staying temporarily after receiving numerous death threats in Moscow. Oksana Chelysheva can't go back home  to Nizhny Novgorod because the local authorities have  charged  her with extremism. Sergei Aksenov , one of the leaders of the National Bolshevik Party, was detained  in Moscow just days after the seminar as one of the organizers of an unsanctioned rally under the slogan "Russia Without Putin".

When asked about  next year's seminar, the Chairperson of FinRosForum Heidi Hautala suggested that it might take place in Russia. This year's proceedings suggest that Russia will have to change dramatically before this can happen.


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