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Administering the last human rights

Russia’s new NGO law forcing organisations to register as ‘foreign agents’ continues to take its toll. ‘Public Verdict’ Foundation, who help victims of police abuse, will not consent to this label. They may have to close down. Asmik Novikova and Natalya Taubina write movingly of their work.

Public Verdict is a Russian non-political human rights advocacy organisation. People come to us when they consider their rights have been violated by the law enforcement agencies.  Torture and other such infringements can flourish in a society where the law enforcement agency personnel consider themselves above the law. We strive to ensure that there is a high-quality public investigation, which will deliver justice for the victims.. We offer legal assistance, but people who come to us are also offered a course of professional psychological and social rehabilitation, and information support.

We have been operating for nine years and during that time have taken on more than 550 cases. Our work has resulted in 120 law enforcement and other government officials being convicted of violating citizens’ rights and freedoms.  They have been sentenced to various terms of imprisonment (78 to immediate custodial sentences and 42 suspended). We have helped victims of injustice claim more than 18 million roubles from central government in compensation for moral and material damage

Our cases mostly concern torture or abuse by Interior Ministry personnel. They always follow the same path: someone is arrested and taken to the police station, violence ensues – a beating either at the station or on the way there with the aim of extracting a confession or simply to demonstrate power or strength.

Natalya Taubina, director of 'Public Verdict', admits that legistlators do not always take notice of the Centres 'alternative reports'; indeed more often than not, the only changes in legislation are negative ones. Photo: publicverdict.ru

The case of Vyacheslav Merekha

In December 2010 Vyacheslav Merekha from a farm at Kalaborka in the Stavropol krai was arrested in his own home and taken to the local police station, where the police beat him up. They then applied the flame of a cigarette lighter to his ears and fingers, presumably to check if he was still alive,

Concluding that he had died, they started discussing what they should do with the corpse.  At this point Merekha showed signs of life, so they beat him up again and then raped him with a broom handle. The pain and shock were such that Vyacheslav lost consciouness. The policemen put him in the boot of a car and took him to the district police headquarters.  The ambulance was called by the duty officer and the paramedics recorded various degrees of trauma.  Merekha had to have several complicated operations.

Subsequently he was examined by several forensic medical expert witnesses to establish the extent of the damage he had suffered. Our ‘Public Verdict’ specialists assessed one of the specialist witness documents as false.

Criminal proceedings were instituted in relation to the crime, but for a long time there were no suspects, although Merekha indicated who the officers were that had tortured him. It was only our Foundation lawyers and the barrister we retained who managed to have the case transferred to the District Department of Investigations.  The previous investigating officers received disciplinary sanctions.

We managed to get the specialist examinations repeated, which confirmed that the trauma suffered by Merekha was caused by the beatings and the rape. He has been given invalid status and is now unable to work. The case came to court almost two years later and in the spring of 2013 the court found four Interior Ministry officers guilty, sentencing them to terms from five and a half to six years. Now the Foundation lawyers and the barrister are preparing to sue for compensation in respect of moral and material damage for Vyacheslav Merekha.

Our aim is to achieve a situation where our law enforcement agencies respect and safeguard human rights.  This, after all, is what they should be doing as laid down in the Russian Constitution.

Bringing police offenders to justice is not only an important part of the assistance we can render the people who turn to us. We think of it as our contribution to making the law enforcement agencies more accountable and more professional, which is exactly what the citizens of Russia want. Working with individual cases, our Foundation sees problems, establishes the cause, searches for a solution and proposes it to the authorities. In this way we are working both for our own cases and for everyone else in Russia too. At the end of the day our aim is to achieve a situation where our law enforcement agencies respect and safeguard human rights.  This, after all, is what they should be doing as laid down in the Russian Constitution.

If the Foundation were only helping people who come to us, then we could logically be considered a classic service organisation.  But ‘Public Verdict’ is a watchdog for the defence of the basic human rights, as exemplified by our work on the banning of torture, and these rights cannot have limitations imposed on them.  For this reason we have recourse to all legal and non-violent forms of civic activity to draw the attention of both society and the authorities to the problem of torture and other violations of human rights, to protect the victims of those violations and preempt new instances.

‘Foreign agents’

In March 2013, like hundreds of other Russian NGOs, we were officially audited. This was initiated by the Moscow Prosecutor with the Justice Ministry, the Interior Ministry and Tax Inspectorate.  We were requested to produce piles of documents, starting with our articles of association (which were lodged in government departments anyway) and ending with all our projects, reports and financial accounts for the period from 2011 to the present day.

On 14 May we received the Prosecutor’s recommendations. According to him, the Foundation is in receipt of funds from abroad and is therefore a political organisation aiming to shape public opinion so as to influence the authorities and their decisions in respect of state policies. He pointed out that the Foundation has not yet applied to be included in the register of ‘foreign agents.’ 

The Prosecutor lists the following aspects of our work as ‘political activity’:

  • preparing and sending the Alternative NGO Report to the UN Committee against Torture;
  • legal assistance for people who have taken part in protest rallies;
  • posting on our site appeals relating to amendments to laws, with an invitation to anyone who wishes to sign them;
  • preparing and sending to the Russian Parliament our views on a draft law which increases administrative responsibility for irregularities during the organisation and holding of public protest meetings;
  • our advocacy of the Human Rights Working Group proposals concerning reforms in the Interior Ministry.

The Prosecutor demands that the Foundation take immediate appropriate action to correct the deficiencies and inform him that this has been done within thirty days. 

This interpretation of our activities is at variance with the generally accepted standards of advocacy, because everything which is traditionally part of human rights work is deemed to be political. According to the Prosecutor, public criticism of police reform and publicising our human rights criteria is a political action. In other words, we can criticise police reform, but we have to do it on the quiet, so that no one notices. We may offer legal help to victims of torture, but we can’t publicise any details of the official investigation. If one follows this logic, then we have to abandon our profession and cease our work in the field.  It is, in effect, a ban on any public discussion or attempts to influence government bodies i.e. everything that is essential in a democratic society.

According to the Prosecutor […] we can criticise police reform, but we have to do it on the quiet, so that no one notices.

There is a way out: we can carry on working for the defence of human rights, but only as ‘foreign agents’.  Our moral obligations to the people we work for will not allow us to do that.  Helping them, we are acting on their behalf, rather than for some non-existent foreign ‘principal.’

The way forward

The ‘Public Verdict’ Foundation will appeal in court against the Prosecutor’s view and use all legal means at our disposal to prove that we are not ‘foreign agents’, are not working for foreign sources, that all our work is aimed at safeguarding human rights in Russia and everything we do is in the interests of Russians and Russia. Our principled position is that we will not submit to being shamefully and falsely labelled, by registering as ‘foreign agents’ and we shall not budge from this position, even if we are faced with the choice of registering or going into liquidation.

We understand very well that if we cease to exist, many people (such as Vyacheslav Merekha) will have nowhere to turn for help and support. The cases we take on enable us to see the problems in the application of the law, analyse a given situation, come up with a solution and negotiate with government bodies to get these solutions considered.  This way there is some hope that systemic problems will be addressed and there will be fewer violations. If we cease to exist, none of this will happen.

We are not alone in the field. There are some outsanding organisations, including the Committee against Torture, the human rights groups ‘Memorial’ and ‘Man and the Law’. We are all in more or less similar situations, differing only in the severity of the measures suggested by the Prosecutor’s Office and, thus, the speed with which the situation is developing.

But throughout this whole sad story, the Russian authorities have forgotten something very important: all the basic international treaties relating to human rights, which Russia has ratified, state that human rights are universal and may not be considered the internal affairs of one country.  This was the response of the world community to the horrors of World War II and is recorded in documents as a guarantee that they will never happen again. It is for this reason that human rights issues in one corner of the planet are an object of concern throughout the world, as violations of these rights in that corner are a potential threat to the whole world; why foundations in different countries support programmes to ensure that human rights are protected not only in their countries, but throughout the world.

The Russian authorities have forgotten something very important: all the basic international treaties relating to human rights, which Russia has ratified, state that human rights are universal and may not be considered the internal affairs of one country.

This is why, when the UN Committee against Torture heard of the Prosecutor’s decision relating to ‘Public Verdict’, they sent an urgent request to the Russian Federation, expressing anxiety that ‘actions against the Public Verdict Foundation for the defence of human rights and civic freedom may relate to the activites of this organisation in providing information to the Committee against Torture.’  The Committee also asked  to be urgently informed about the measures the Russian government had taken ‘based on Article 13 of the Convention (against Torture) and paragraph 12(b) of the concluding observations of the Committee on the fifth periodic report of the Russian Federation, to ensure that civil society organisations as a whole, and the ‘Public Verdict’ Foundation and its management in particular, are not subjected to any reprisals as a result of their legimitate activities, including providing information to the Committee against Torture in the context of procedures provided for in the Convention.’

We shall of course be looking for other ways and means of continuing our work, but the inputs of time and the additional resources needed for this can only have a negative effect on our work to safeguard human rights in Russia.

About the authors

Asmik Novikova is a Russian human rights activist. She is senior research analyst at the Public Verdict Foundation in Moscow. In the past she worked at the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Demos Centre. 

Natalya Taubina is a Russian human rights activist. She is director of the Public Verdict Foundation. She is a member of the Expert Council of the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation. She participates in different international forums, such as the World Conference against Racism, the UN Human Rights Committee and the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings.

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