In April 2013 International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) organized a mission to Russia in order to investigate the situation with political repression there and prepare a report about this.
I was part of the mission as a member of staff of ADC “Memorial”, a FIDH member organization. Together with our colleagues from France and Belarus we visited Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, Voronezh and Saint Petersburg. In each of these cities we met with representatives of various NGOs subject to different checks, as well as activists, lawyers and relatives of political prisoners. What we didn’t have were the official meetings with representatives of the authorities, and some of the activists in Moscow pointed to us that this was not objective. But in fact in order to know the position of the representatives of authorities it was not necessary to specially meet them. Their position is expressed in official decisions, public statements, reports in the state-controlled mass media. Unfortunately their positions are also expressed through court decisions, even though the courts should be independent of the political will of the authorities. Having visited the first court hearings in the case against Moscow-based “Golos” concerning the requirement for it to register as a “foreign agent” we have witnessed this fully. It was easy for us to see what the position of the authorities was. It was also before our eyes that yet another person was added to the already long list of the list of people charged as part of the Bolotnaya square case. Besides that, some of the organizations which we had met at the beginning of the mission, by the end of it notified us that they had received various documents from the procurators’ offices concerning the checks.
The aims of the mission were to gather information about political repression directly from the victims of repression and their attorneys. In Nizhny Novgorod we met civil activist Ilya Myaskovsky. He works as a school teacher and he told us that he was detained directly from school lessons on several occasions and taken to the custody for administrative arrests. His only fault was that he participated in rallies following parliamentary elections in 2011 and continues to take part in similar protest rallies now. As he pointed out, it was only due to the principled approach of the school headmaster that Ilya could continue to work in this school. Currently about half of his salary goes to pay the penalty fees.
We have also met with some activists who had been active in civil and political movements for a long time now. These were very interesting meetings for us, because the people we interviewed were able to compare the current situation with some previous periods of time, to tell us about the developments in repressive practices and methods of the law enforcement agencies. However, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between the objective factors and some ideological or subcultural bias. Some activists were trying to present political position or organizational problems of their groups or movements instead of informing us about political repression as such. Another problem was definition of what is a political prisoner. Situation is extremely difficult since some of the activists are being prosecuted on criminal, not political charges and in order to prove their innocence and the presence of political motives behind repression some serious work by lawyers and relatives of the prosecuted is required in collecting evidence, carrying out expertise, etc.
Thorough attention was paid to the problem of procurators’ checks of NGOs. In Moscow we met Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of “Civil Assistance”, after her organization had been checked by the procutaror’s office and the Federal migration service (FMS) on ridiculous charges made by the member of Public Chamber Mr. Fyodorov that this organization supposedly “brings into the country Muslim extremists under the guise of Coptic refugees from Egypt”. We also learnt a lot as a result of a meeting with “Agora” inter-regional association in terms of arbitrariness of the checks, strategies for defending rights of NGOs in courts, etc.
During our meetings in Moscow the main topic for discussions was, no doubt, the situation of the people prosecuted on criminal charges as part of the Bolotnaya square case. During the work of the mission we met with representatives of various groups helping the prosecuted, their lawyers, relatives of one of the Bolotnaya square prisoners.
A colleague from Belorussian “Vesna” organization, whose president Ales Belyatsky is now imprisoned for his human rights work, continuously stressed similarity between the situation in Russia and Belarus: criminal prosecution following “mass riots”, repression against activists, pressure on human rights defenders. She pointed out, however, that the difference between the situation in the two countries lies in relative freedom and availability of information in Russia, as well as the possibility for journalists and human rights activists to operate rather freely, at least for the time being. In Moscow an alternative investigation report about the events on Bolotnaya square was presented, but at the same time the machine of repression continues to work and it gets more and more people prosecuted as part of this criminal case. The hopes that people arrested as part of this case will soon be released start to fade. However, protests in support of political prisoners continue, information is spread through independent media and international organizations continue to issue petitions against repression in Russia. But sometimes this situation seems even more unclear and unpredictable compared to the situation of complete lack of freedom of information and assembly.
Constant change of the situation that occurs has once again stressed the necessity and timeliness of the FIDH mission. As part of the work on the report we have to constantly take into account new information, the changes of the situation, the new cases of prosecution. But an objective report on the situation of human rights violations and pressure on the civil society in modern day Russia is necessary and valuable regardless of what will happen in the country afterwards. Although Russian prosecutors consider preparation of such reports to be a type of “political activity”, this activity in accordance with international standards is strictly human rights work and any persecution for it is unacceptable.