Russian human rights system is undergoing consistent destruction that embraces both governmental and non-governmental organizations. Officially, they are likely to continue their work, especially the governmental ones, yet they may turn into overt shams, and their activities will be reduced to a mere imitation of human rights protection.
Presidential Council for Human Rights has lost its rights protection backbone
The latter agency was established under the name of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights by a decree of Boris Yeltsin, the first President of the Russian Federation, in 1993. From 1993 to 1995, it was chaired by Sergey Kovalev, a well-known human rights activist, and later on by Vladimir Kartashkin, a specialist in international public law, from 1996 to 2002 and by Ella Pamfilova from 2002 to 2010. In 2004 the Commission was transformed into Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights.
In 2010 Dmitry Medvedev, the President of the Russian Federation, appointed Mikhail Fedotov to the post of its chairman and presidential advisor at the same time. On Fedotov's initiative, the Council's jurisdictions were significantly expanded, and the number of its members increased.
Over time, the role of the Presidential Council as a “collective advisor” on civil society development and human rights kept diminishing. Recently, on October, 21 of this year the Russian President Vladimir Putin, made significant changes to the Council. He dismissed its chairman Mikhail Fedorov, professor and Doctor of Law, from this post, as well as from the post of presidential advisor due to reaching the age of 70. Instead of Fedotov, Putin appointed Valery Fadeyev, a presenter of the main evening newscast Vremya, to the post of chairman. Alongside with dismissal of Mikhail Fedotov, Evgeny Bobrov, the head of human rights organization Voskhod, Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, lawmaker Ekaterina Shulman, an associate professor and PhD in political science, and Ilya Shablinsky, professor and Doctor of Law, were expelled from the Human Rights Council.
Instead of them, Putin has appointed Kirill Vyshinsky (recently becoming a citizen of the Russian Federation as a result of prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia), executive director of the Rossiya Segodnya international news agency, Tatiana Merzlyakova, a human rights commissioner of the Sverdlovsk region, and Alexander Tochenov, the president of the Center for Applied Research and Programs. As the Russian saying goes, feel the difference. Apart from Merzlyakova, who has been repeatedly criticized for her work in the capacity of ombudswoman in the Sverdlovsk region, the new members of the Council had no relationship to human rights activities or law before, but all of them are extremely loyal to the authorities.
Following these shifts, Tamara Morshchakova, a former judge in the Russian Constitutional Court decided to voluntarily resign from the Human Rights Council. “First of all, my decision comes in the wake of changes in the list of members of the council. I would not call it a protest action, but the Council for which I work does not retain its human rights backbone,” Morshchakova said.
Russian Ombudsmen for rights have long forgotten about independence
The post of human rights commissioner (ombudsman) was established by the 1993 Constitution in the Russian Federation. According to the Constitution, a commissioner is appointed by the State Duma and acts in accordance with federal constitutional law. A commissioner is independent in exercising his or her powers and does not report to any state bodies or officials.
Until 1998, there was no permanent ombudsman in Russia. In February 1997, a separate federal constitutional law “On the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation” came out, and only in May 1998 the State Duma elected Oleg Mironov for the position of commissioner from the fraction of Communist Party of the Russian Federation.
All the subsequent commissioners were no longer elected independently by the State Duma, but on the proposal of the President. They were Vladimir Lukin (from 2004 to 2014), Ella Pamfilova (from 2014 to 2016), and Tatiana Moskalkova (from 2016 to the present). Incidentally, Moskalkova is a retired major-general of the police.
On 1 September 2009, the post of federal commissioner for children's rights under the President of the Russian Federation (children's ombudsman), was established by a presidential decree. Any independence was out of the question this time. Children's ombudsman is a civil servant appointed and dismissed by the President.
The first children's ombudsman was Aleksey Golovan. He has worked in this position for only four months and was relieved of duties “at his own will”. Golovan’s successor was the lawyer and showman Pavel Astakhov, who held the post for two three-year terms. He was remembered most for defending the rights of children adopted by foreign citizens.
The appointment of the current children's ombudsman caused even more perplexity in society than the appointment of Astakhov.
Anna Kuznetsova is a priest's wife. When her three-year appointment expired, she was reappointed by Putin's decree of 15 January 2019 for another 5 years. Under Kuznetsova, the Public Council has been established, which included many priests of the Russian Orthodox Church and activists of Orthodox public associations.
Justice Ministry demands elimination of All-Russia Movement For Human Rights
Simultaneously with the eviscerating of the Presidential Human Rights Council, we are witnessing the destruction of the All-Russia Public Movement for Human Rights. It is the oldest and largest human rights organization established in 1997 as an association of several dozens of regional and local human rights organizations.
In mid-October, the Ministry of Justice filed a suit with the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation against the liquidation of the Movement For Human Rights for “repeated violations of the law regulating activities of non-profit organizations.” Justice Ministry detected these violations during an unannounced inspection in 2018. All these “violations” were purely formal in nature, almost all of them have already been corrected, and fines have been paid for them.
In addition, the Justice Ministry accuses the Movement for Human Rights for the fact that it has been repeatedly fined by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technologies and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor). In February 2019, Justice Ministry included the movement in the register of non-profit organizations acting as a foreign agent – an act after which all the publications and public speeches of its activists are to be marked with the “foreign agent” stamp. The year 2019 is not over yet, but Roskomnadzor has already initiated seven administrative cases against the movement for the absence of the “foreign agent” labels, with fines totaling 1.9 mln rubles. Some fines were appealed and did not take effect, some were paid, and some are still waiting for their consideration in court. However, drawing on these administrative cases, the Justice Ministry has demanded elimination of the Movement For Human Rights.
Lev Ponomarev, Executive Director of the movement, believes that the Federal Security Service is behind the suit of the Justice Ministry. In this way, the ministry is taking revenge for the fact that the movement and Lev Ponomarev himself actively defend the accused in relation to cases of Seti, New Greatness, Jehovah's Witnesses*, and a landfill site in the Arkhangelsk region and others, which are supervised by the Federal Security Service.
The hearing on the suit for disbandment of the movement has been scheduled for November 14 in the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.
The website of the movement published a statement in this regard: “We will actively and publicly defend our position in the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation and, if necessary, in the European Court of Human Rights. Under either outcome the employees and volunteers of the For Human Rights movement, as well as experts and journalists will seek an opportunity to continue their activities to protect the rights and legal interests of Russian citizens.”
Grigory Melkonyants, co-сhair of the Golos movement for the protection of voters' rights believes that in the case of the Movement For Human Rights the scenario used on Golos has been repeated.
“They have tried out the scheme on Golos and are perfecting it on other human rights activists,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “They have done the same with Golos, which was first illegally included in the register of foreign agents, and then subjected to an inconceivable number of fines, and then filed a lawsuit for its liquidation.”
Golos continues its work without registering a legal entity. Lev Ponomarev is going the same way if the Supreme Court sustains the case of the Justice Ministry and the movement is eliminated.
Investigative Committee of Russia versus the Civil Rights Committee
One of the recent steps by security organizations against human rights groups was an action organized by the Committee for Civil Rights. Established in 1997, this trans-regional charitable organization provides free legal assistance to people in detention facilities. The Committee is headed by Andrey Babushkin, a member of the federal bureau of the Yabloko Russian United Democratic Party and a member of the Human Rights Council.
In the evening of October 22, a man came into the Moscow office of the Committee with money in the envelope and tried to give it to Andrey Mayakov, Babushkin’s deputy. He did not take the money, but offered to register it with the commandant as a donation.
The man with money (later it turned out that he was a hoax) was followed by 15 people, presumably officers of the Investigation Committee, who were accompanied by people with cameras of NTV channel. Everyone present in the office, including Babushkin, got kicked out. Mayakov was patted down and interrogated without a lawyer. Then he was taken out of the office and taken away.
On October 24, the following information appeared on the website of the Investigative Committee: “According to the investigation, in the afternoon of October 22, 2019, the head of the public human rights organization got 200,000 rubles as the first tranche of the promised illegal remuneration from a person sentenced to a long term in prison. In total, it was assumed that the illegal remuneration would be 2.5 million rubles. In exchange, he (Mayakov -- ed. note) promised to assist in verification of this person’s earlier sentence by law enforcement authorities. In fact, Mayakov did not have such an opportunity and intended to steal the money and disposed of it at his own discretion. After receiving the money, he was detained by law-enforcement officers... Today, the investigation is petitioning to the court for Mayakov’s imprisonment as a preventive measure.”
Mayakov denies any guilt on his part and believes that his criminal case is a provocation against the Civil Rights Committee.
“I am accused of attempted fraud, that is, I allegedly promised to provide the victim with a service that I knew that I couldn't do. But I didn’t promise him anything or sign any contracts with him. What can my fault be?” he said in the courtroom.
“I have thecoronary heart disease, diabetes, and a spinal compression fracture. A seriously ill person is sitting in front of you. The doctor of the temporary holding facility does not even know the name of the medicines I need,” Mayakov said in court, asking to put him under house arrest as a preventive measure.
But the court granted the request of the investigation and arrested Mayakov until December 22.
In conclusion, I would like to cite the words of Olga Romanova, who founded the charity fund for assistance to the convicts and their families and the non-profit organization Rus Sidyashchaya. On May 7, 2018, the Justice Ministry included the fund in the register of “non-commercial organizations acting as foreign agents.”
“There is no doubt that the attack on human rights, human rights activists and organizations will continue in the short term. We would like to address our wards -- the former, present and, alas, the future ones, all of you. Do not give up. Hold on. Fight for your civil rights and dignity. Establish your own human rights organizations. Do not give in to fear and apathy. Sign petitions, go to rallies, and don't become easy prey for officials and persecutors who ruin people's lives for bonuses and reports. Support political prisoners. They are in prison, they have deliberately chosen this way because they tried to prevent arbitrariness. When human rights defenders need protection. Remember that there will be no one soon to stand up for people,” Romanova said.
* In April 2017, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation recognized Jehovah's Witnesses as an extremist organization and banned its activities in Russia.