Whereever is your money from, they will find you guilty

Following the arrest of the famous Russian theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov, there started a game of guessing about what had caused his persecution. It was often suggested that the director himself brought trouble onto himself by receiving government funds for his theatrical projects. The logic behind these arguments, apparently, boils down to the fact that if Serebrennikov had any other source of funding (private or foreign), he would not have faced the charges of fraud and his case would not be given the investigative “operational support” of the FSB.

However, I would argue that he wouldn’t have escaped the charges, but that’s not at all because some kind of fraud had actually taken place. The question is not about where the money had come from, while other really corrupt people continue to walk freely, but it’s all about the activities of Serebrennikov himself and whether the authorities liked them or not. Do the authorities imply that the state funding should be spent on projects loyal to the state? What about the non-governmental, and even more so the foreign funding? When the persecution of non-profit organizations had began and various NGOs had been accused of “acting as foreign agents” because they had received grants from foreign funds, it also seemed to some people that this was all about the money. They even gave advice (and this kind of advice came not only from those in the Russian Federation) that the NGOs should switch to funding from Russian government sources, since they were Russian-registered organizations. But even back then it was ridiculous to discuss this kind of advice, because money was just an excuse, not the reason for persecution. The real reason was the government’s dissatisfaction with their activities. For us at ADC “Memorial” it all began in 2013 with an unexpected prosecutor’s check concerning “implementation of legislation on countering extremism by registered public and religious associations and unregistered public and religious associations of destructive and radical orientation”.

The prosecutor’s office did not seek, however, some religious plots, but immediately proceeded to study our human rights reports, soon discovering in one of them some “signs of an appeal to confront the existing governmental and state structures”.

“Signs of an appeal to confront” turned out to be a human rights criticism of the police actions from the report “Roma, migrants, activists – victims of police arbitrariness”, which had been filed in 2012 by ADC “Memorial” to the UN Committee Against Torture as part of the usual procedure for submitting alternative reports when the Committee reviews the periodic report of the Russian Federation on compliance with the Convention. At that time hundreds of NGOs has not yet been recognized as “foreign agents”, all this was a novelty, which to many seemed absurd, accidental, a mere “excess on the part of executive authority”. These words, “excess on the part of executive authority”, which often sounded then about our particular case, are now recalled when you read opinions about “the revenge of investigators” against Kirill Serebrennikov, who once had called them “fools”. But there is no excess and no revenge of the executives “on the ground”. Everything rather looks absolutely regular, understandable and scary. The regularity manifested itself by the participation of the FSB in the investigations. The prosecutor’s inspection of our organization, the protocol on violation of the law on “non-governmental organizations performing the functions of foreign agents”, then a civil court case opened by the prosecutor in the interests of an unspecified group of persons with the demand to recognize ADC “Memorial” as a “foreign agent” in court… All this at first seemed to be some kind of nonsense, and many people were convinced that the charges would be then dropped. In numerous court hearings (and there were dozens of them in 2013), mainly the contents of the human rights report were discussed, but the money almost never were mentioned. Strictly speaking, it was almost not required to prove the foreign financing of the organization: we never denied that the only source we had received money from had been various foreign foundations. We only denied having had orders from the donors. There really were no orders, we wrote this particular report outside of any specific project activity, not to mention the fact that even if there was financial support for our projects, their goals were always formulated by us alone, and not by the donors. But this was of no interested to investigators or the court.

It was only at the end of 2013 that the court approved the request of the prosecutor’s office to demand from banks information on “the transfer of funds to all accounts of the organization from the moment they had been opened until October 14, 2013”. The banks could not provide any new information for the court, but the prosecutors had their own document from Rosfinmonitoring (Russian financial watchdog), which was a response to a request for surveillance on this very “transfer of funds”. The court was informed that “the prosecutor of St. Petersburg himself has decided to declassify” this request (and here we talk about the chief prosecutor of a city of five million inhabitants, there was hardly anything more important for him to do, it seems). In response to the procurator, Rosfinmonitoring reported that the expenses of ADC “Memorial” since 2011 were monitored at the request of the FSB, which rather curiously had justified it by the need to fight against “terrorism and money laundering”. For this surveillance, no court decision was required, and there was no sense to include this information into the court case. But it simply made it clear that it had not been only the prosecutors who tried us, checked us and stood behind the lawsuits. There was some sort of “operational support” even before all this had started.

So it turned out that they had been looking for some sort of religious extremists, but had found a human rights report to the UN instead, and there, of course, was some connection to the ongoing “fight against terrorism” mixed up in all this… There was no connection, of course, and no particular necessity. It was not necessary for the courts to take into account the fact that this report on police arbitrariness had been prepared, published and submitted to the UN before the legal amendments concerning “foreign agents” came into force with the newly adopted Russian law on NGOs. Even more so, no one considered the very right of representatives of the civil society to inform the Committee Against Torture about the violations, which had been guaranteed by this very UN Convention.

Since the FSB had been spying on us for two years, the reason for persecution could be found in the end, be it the money or the human rights. In 2014 the St. Petersburg city court confirmed the earlier ruling by a district court, which had previously recognized ADC “Memorial” as an NGO “acting as a foreign agent” and had obliged the organization to list itself in the relevant state register. For us, this requirement – to recognize ourselves as someone else’s agent, to file a self-denunciation, to later publish a disclaimer on our website and on all of our publications – was both impracticable and unacceptable. As a Russian legal entity, a charitable private institution, the Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial” ceased to exist. But as a human rights project with its website (adcmemorial.org) we continue to exist and develop, of course, without recognizing ourselves as performing any “function” other than our own mission – to protect people from discrimination. The legal complaint of ADC “Memorial” against violation of the right to freedom of speech, association and non-discriminatory attitude was filed with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The court has already formulated its questions, and the government of the Russian Federation is preparing its answers. The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) has presented its amicus curia to the complaint of ADC “Memorial” to the ECtHR, noting that the right to freedom of expression also meant the possibility of communication with the UN and other guarantors of the international law. ISHR claims that the case of ADC “Memorial” testifies to repressions against human rights defenders working with the UN, and it calls on the ECtHR to ensure protection of the right to safe communication of representatives of civil society with the UN.

The ideas on “security”, alas, are different for different people and institutions: for some this means protection from political repression, for others – repression itself.

Stefania Kulayeva

First published in the blog of Radio Liberty

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