Staunton, July 10 – The Russian authorities must feel themselves to be in the position of the sorcerer’s apprentice: they have used the foreign agents law to force the Committee Against Torture, only to wake up the next day and find that four other groups have formed to pursue the same goals.
Elena Milashina reports on this perhaps unexpected and certainly for the authorities unwelcome turn of events in an article in “Novaya gazeta” this week and suggests that if the powers that be think they are going to be successful in blocking such groups, they are underestimating the ingenuity of the Russian people (novayagazeta.ru/columns/69146.html).
Earlier this week, the Nizhny Novgorod oblast court, at the request of the prosecutor, including the Committee Against Torture on the list of the Russian Justice Ministry’s register of foreign agents. In its 15 years of existence, she notes, the group took up 1832 claims of human rights violations, established 120 cases of torture, and brought to justice those responsible.
The Committee succeeded in getting 675 decisions of investigators and the courts set aside, and it helped 86 of those who had exhausted their legal appeals in Russia to turn to the European Court for Human Rights which awarded them more than 41 million rubles (800,000 US dollars) in compensatory damages.
Prosecutors told the court that the Committee had engaged in the production and distribution or materials showing that “torture in Russian institutions was an everyday practice,” a reflection of “the inability and unwillingness of Russian investigative organs to effectively look into cases of torture.”
Further, the prosecutors said, the dissemination of such information was “directed at the formation of negative public opinion … in order to affect decisions by government organs and thus to change state policy in the area of realizing criminal investigations.”
If one takes these words seriously, Milashina says, then “torture is state policy” and “the Committee Against Torture is ‘a foreign agent’ because it is trying to change this policy.”
In the trial court, one prosecutor acknowledged that the goals of the Committee Against Torture “correspond to government policy” with regard to torture, but that the group must “all the same” be classified as a foreign agent “because it receives foreign grants and is involved with the change of state policy,” an internally inconsistent and hypocritical statement.
Prosecutors in both the court of the first instance and the appellate court were unable to show that the Committee engaged in any political activity. In an attempt to do so, they referred to the actions of individual members of the Committee who protested against Russia’s annexation of Crimea but did so as private persons whose right to do so is recognized by the Constitution.
Nonetheless and in a completely expected manner, the appeals court declared that the Committee was a foreign agent and would have to identify itself as such if it continued to operate. Iggor Kalyapin, who founded the group, immediately said that the Committee would not identify itself as a foreign agent and therefore would disband.
“The state is playing with us dishonestly,” he said. “They have put before us the choice of dishonest and the violation of federal law and in the final analysis prison. Therefore, in the next two weeks, we will hold a general assembly of all employees of the organization at which a decision will be taken to liquidate the Committee Against Torture.”
But whatever the authorities hoped for, this is not the end of the story. “In place of the Committee Against Torture,” the “Novaya gazeta” journalist says, “will be established at a minimum four organizations which will continue to carry forward the human rights baton. Their activity,” she adds, “will be narrowly specialized.”
One of these will continue to investigate instances of torture in the penal system. Another will provide medical and psychological help to the victims of torture. A third will provide legal assistance to those appealing to the European Court. And a fourth, already established as the Association Against Torture will coordinate all this.
“The cause of such civic activity,” the journalist continues, is “the policy of the state,” a policy which Duma deputy Mikhail Yemelyanov formulated in response to a question from Lenta.ru. Wouldn’t it be simpler, he was asked, simply to close all these NGOs who get foreign grants? Yes, “of course,” he responded. Let Russian citizens struggle for their own rights.”