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.
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.
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.