What for? ADC “Memorial” prosecuted for its human rights report

by Anna Udyarova, lawyer of ADC “Memorial”

When I first read the prosecutor’s suit and learnt what they chose as the reason (or, better say, pretext) for our persecution, I was very surprised. It sounded absurd: prosecution for a report on violations committed by the police, which was officially presented to the UN Committee against torture. It would be difficult to find a subject as understandable and clear as a ban on torture and inadmissibility of violations on the part of the representatives of law enforcement agencies. The fact that among the police officers one can find those who violate the law is not denied even by the heads of law enforcement agencies themselves. Most serious violations on the part of police officers make it to court and while the culprits may often be convicted much softer than they should have been, the facts of violations, torture or even murders could not be denied. Almost everybody in Russia have experienced some minor violations or rude behavior from the police officers when one had to deal with them, regardless of the circumstances. And even the police officers themselves would not claim that police never breaks the law in Russia. But when somebody else reports that there are cases of misconduct in this area, this is labeled “dealing with politics”.

But why have the prosecutors chosen the report “Roma people, migrants, activists: victims of police arbitrariness” to be the basis of feeble charges against ADC “Memorial” in order to prove that the latter is a “foreign agent”? This report was obviously topical and the process of its preparation, as well as its aims, were absolutely transparent. But the reasons behind the prosecutor’s choice, it seems, were demonstrated in the “analysis” that was provided in various documents that came out of the prosecutor’s office, whose choice of quotes and formulations betrayed some almost personal grievance caused by the report. All the exaggerations and distortions seem to come from this (when the prosecutors claim that we supposedly stated that all police officers break the law or that we have called for mass breaches of order). An illustrious example of their logic caused by grievance was given in the speech of an ex-FSB officer in court, who was chosen as an expert on writings “dangerous” for the state and who managed to discover “political underlying cause” in the report, because “the masses attach themselves to everything subconsciously” and who could say how the report might have influenced the subconscious of the masses (of course, haven’t you read Erich Fromm and Karl Marx?). “You don’t say that this and that is good or bad, you talk of the problems that we encounter now while obviously touching upon the political dimension”, this expert told the court. The fact that talking about some problems in this country means getting involved in politics is a problem in itself. But the representatives of state consider any criticism to be an encroachment, because they mistakenly consider the state authority to be their private privilege. And if they themselves violate somebody’s rights, this is no violation at all, but an exercise of power, which nobody can encroach upon. But in our case this is politics, for sure, so we better not deal with it.

When we prepared our report, we didn’t think that we were dealing with politics. While I studied at the law faculty, nobody told me that to analyze laws and legal practice, to document violations of human rights, including the cases when such violations are made by the representatives of the state, was “politics”. We have studied political science at the university, the only subject with same root as politics, and the program of the course consisted in reading Macchiavelli’s “The Prince” and “The book of the ruler of Shan province”. One of the courses on the theory of law was called “Law and politics” and it has clearly defined these two separate subjects. But probably same as the university professors sometimes ask their students to forget what they have studied at school, those who implement Russian laws ask us to forget what we have studied back in the university. They are free to interpret what is law and what is politics based on quite arbitrary interpretation of Russian laws.

Back when we composed report “Roma people, migrants, activists: victims of police arbitrariness” we dealt with classical human rights defense. Probably it was not as effective as we thought and we were moved by naïve belief in the possibilities of international community, but this was human rights defense nevertheless. It is not surprising that when the same expert was asked in court what was human rights defense if a human rights report for the UN was “politics”, he was unable to answer.

The topic of our report emerged as a result of many years of work with people from vulnerable groups. Considerable part of the complaints we had to deal with was in one way or another connected to the violations committed by the police. Of course, people from various vulnerable groups had some specific experiences, but many people suffer from violations committed by the police (for example, if we deal with the violations of the rights of immigrants, it is not only police officers, but also officers of the Federal migration service who are involved, while if we deal with the complaints of Roma women, we learn that police officers resort to cutting their hair because they know that hair is treated with special attention). It was not on a single occasion that we had to call police stations, where an immigrant’s passport was “taken as a collateral”, or a Roma woman was detained without protocol, or participants of a street protest were detained inside police buses for hours. These violations were different, some were possible to deal with by simply calling police stations on behalf of a human rights group, while others required involvement of the representatives of Public Supervisory Commission and lawyers writing appeals to the procurator’s office.

The “Roma topic” is the most “traditional” for ADC “Memorial”, which was established originally for the purpose of defending this vulnerable group and for a long time remained the sole public association for the defense of the rights of Roma people in Russia, which was always in one way or another connected to the violations on the part of the police.

We met with one of the future collaborators of our organization, who is of Roma origin, when we dealt with a tragic case of his wife’s death in police custody. In spite of the fact that we failed to get the necessary proof that this Roma woman was raped by the police and then thrown out of the window of the police station, the European Court for Human Rights, which considered this case, ruled that there were violations on the part of the Russian authorities and the husband of the victim received compensation. The cases of Roma people being killed or beaten up by the police officers were conveyed to us during out trips to the nearby regions of Russia – Leningrad, Pskov, Novgorod. But in most of the cases it was impossible to even make a formal complaint to the police because of obvious reasons: relatives of the killed and beaten people were afraid to make complaints, because they would continue to live in the same region with the police officers who perpetrated these crimes, while the chances of an unbiased investigation were minimal. But the things that the prosecutors called “stories by the people of Roma origin” were in fact real descriptions of the sufferings that these people and their families went through.

People who could go to the locations mentioned in our report and talk to the local dwellers would have no doubt that these stories were real. Most of these stories were referenced in the archive of ADC “Memorial” and have written proofs and testimonies. But it seems that the aim of the prosecutors was not to establish the truth in these cases, including the “stories by people of Roma origin”, but to demonstrate how our report was harmful for the reputation of the Russian law enforcement agencies.

In the part of our report devoted to Roma people we have described the usual behavior of police regarding the Roma settlements. Police raids and special operations labeled “Tabor” (“Roma settlement”) were aimed exclusively against Roma people and included house searches, having all Roma people’s photos and fingerprints taken, and this in fact was not denied by the police themselves. This practice is not regulated by any laws and is clearly discriminatory, but still it is not denied by the police even in official reports and publications on police websites. Meeting people from Roma settlements during field trips of the staff of ADC “Memorial” enabled us to collect extensive data on the violations committed by the police. Attempts to initiate unbiased investigations of the violations were, as a rule, fruitless. But it is for this reason that the very mechanism of alternative reports to the UN was designed, when it was impossible to resolve the problem of human rights violations against a person in the established order through appealing to the legal system of a particular state. When there is no way to resolve a problem in each particular case, there is still hope that these problems can be raised at the international level and the state will admit that the problem exists and should be dealt with.

This was the case when the absence of program of special positive measures to deal with the problems of Roma population in the Russian Federation was reported. UN Committee for the abolition of racial discrimination on numerous occasions has adopted recommendation, which was formulated, among other sources, in the report of ADC “Memorial”, concerning the necessity of adopting a federal program for assistance to Roma population. As a result of that in late 2013 Russian Ministry of regional development adopted “Plan of measures” on socio-economic development of Roma population, which could not be considered otherwise rather than an achievement and a result of work on the international level involving NGOs.

The part of the report devoted to problems of immigrants was compiled based on the work of the staff of ADC “Memorial” in various projects. One of them was devoted specifically to the problem of prolonged arbitrary detention of immigrants in centers for temporary detection for foreign nationals and the violations that occurred during these detentions. The idea of this project arose mainly in connection with the legal case of “Lakatosz vs. Russian Federation”, in which the claimants were Roma people from Hungary, who lived in Saint Petersburg. Lacking identification documents and de facto being stateless persons, they were constantly detained and put into detention centers for foreign nationals for further expulsion from Russia, they were not expelled to the Ukraine (the country from which they crossed the border to Russia) because Ukraine refused to take them. The periods of their stay in detention centers for foreign nationals were measured in years. Moreover, as soon as these Hungarian Roma people were released from detention centers because of impossibility to further deport them out of the country, they were again detained and placed into the same centers. Absurdity and inhumanity of this situation, especially given the terrible, de facto prison conditions in these centers, was not understood only by the members of the law enforcement agencies, involved in this. Even the Russian authorities had to officially admit these violations and had to pay compensation to Anna Lakatosz and other claimants. This has also contributed to a faster construction of new detention center in Krasnoye Selo (Leningrad region), which at least can boast considerably better conditions for inmates.

But even the immigrants, who were not held in detention centers, could become victims of violations on the part of police officers. When we discussed the structure and contents of the report, we hesitated whether to include information about violations, which were not linked directly to violence and torture, but in the end we decided to do this. For example, immigrants often complained about confiscation of their passports by police officers or the officers of Federal migration service. This was done either as a “collateral” in order to make people pay penalties or as a way to extract “ransom” from them. Constant ID checks in the metro, “anti-immigrant campaigns” of 2012 and the like – all this, as was noted by my colleague in the report, established an atmosphere of fear and lawlessness, in which labor immigrants find themselves up to this day. But for police and immigration officers these are mere “stories told by immigrants”.

On numerous occasions we have tried to at least formally register with the police the complaints of immigrants after they had been beaten  by police officers. If we succeeded in this, police responded by accusing the claimants in breaking immigration legislation, making them leave the country or otherwise threatening them in order to stop complaining. I recall a case, when an immigrant complained of being beaten with a truncheon inside a police vehicle and we went to a hospital to register injuries. We have told doctor several times that the injuries were a result of a police beating, gave details concerning the police department and the features of an officer, who had done this, made sure that a telephone call was made, but in the end we got nothing. Even when a criminal case had to be opened automatically, nothing was done. The absence of effective investigation of the cases of violence against immigrants caused by police officers is a common practice, which we described in our report.

The “activist” part of the report, which at first glance appears most contradictory in “political” sense, it too is a human rights report and the group, which is defended are people who actively express their civil or political views. These people used their rights for peaceful assembly and protest in December 2011 and later, in 2012, as “an immediate reaction to the current political events”, which the European Court on Human Rights confirmed to be a citizen’s right. But even without discussing the rights to peaceful assembly and expression of views, the report concentrated on the violations of human rights of those, who were detained as activists and who became victims of unlawful persecution.

In late 2011- early 2012 we as human rights defenders received a lot of calls from people, who had encountered such problems for the first time in their lives. They asked how they could defend their rights while being approached by the police, where to make complaints against police arbitrariness, how to defend themselves in courts. We consulted to them, even organized training sessions on how to defend oneself in administrative court, explained the rights and responsibilities of police officers.

During mass arrests of people there were cases of use of excessive force by the police and cases of violating the terms and periods of detention. One could say that by providing legal assistance to protesters we in fact were involved in political activism ourselves, but it would be proper to say that in fact we helped them defend their civil rights. Since the protesters were a vulnerable group in a certain sense, their defense was a natural cause for human rights defenders. However, in those days there was no concept of organizations performing the functions of “foreign agents”, which were involved in political activities. This idea emerged only later in the heads of legislators, but probably as a result of seeing the “harmfulness” of human rights defenders who could defend those opposed to some decisions of the authorities.

The fact that police officers have repeatedly violated particular Russian laws and other regulations while detaining protesters were confirmed by various courts of Saint Petersburg. While representing the detainees in the capacity of administrative attorneys, we stated in courts that police protocols were compiled with mistakes, that the police officers who were called before the courts could not formulate the grounds for detentions, that the terms and periods of detention in police stations violated governmental regulations concerning the norms of detention. Often these cases were sent by courts “for additional clarification” not to appear for reconsideration ever again. And even if in most cases the courts sided with the police based on the presumption of legality of everything that police did, in some cases courts admitted wrongdoing on the part of police officers. In some cases we were able to prove that the claims made by the police were groundless and/or that their actions were illegal. I recall several cases when we tried to persuade the judges that violations on the part of the police officers inflicted moral damage for the detained. In one case we succeeded and Saint Petersburg city court ruled that moral damage was caused to a detainee because the conditions of his detention in police station were unacceptable. And though the violations were not so considerable and could not be qualified as torture, but as the claimant stated in his appeal, “realizing that police not only doesn’t defend legal rights of citizens, but constitutes direct threat to life and health of me and my family has lead to a feeling of being defenseless”.

In order for this feeling of being defenseless in the face of police actions not to appear in other people’s lives or for it to appear as rarely as possible, first and foremost all the police violations are to be discussed openly and in a rational fashion, without the threat of persecution for this. It is exactly what we tried to achieve with our report “Roma people, migrants, activists: victims of police arbitrariness” regardless of what the prosecutors and their “experts” claim to be our “political underlying cause” and attempts to influence “the subconscious” and thus influencing politics. But as far as politics goes, it would be great if those who are involved in it in a real way understood that testimonies regarding police violations are the grounds for checking the work of police, not human rights defenders.

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