A rights defender looks at recent events in Russia
This is “Tuesday with LEV PONOMAREV” on Radio Sol [Salt]. My name is VALENTINA IVAKINA. Every Tuesday from 3 to 4 pm (Moscow time), specialists of the nationwide NGO “For Human Rights” analyse the latest events in the country.
As usual we have a lot of news and issues to discuss. Just yesterday there was a TV broadcast attacking Russian human rights defenders and you, Mr. Ponomarev were among those mentioned.
It was said that you recently took part in pickets with a placard in your hands listing political prisoners. You work on prison conditions and, allegedly, you are acting out of self-interest — there is money involved. What do you say about this? What do you think about this publication? And what would you like to say on our programme in answer to the journalists who published this material?
Torture in Prison Colonies
Lev Ponomarev – I must say that I consider this in part because of the success of my work. The fact is that recently the situation in the prison colonies is becoming worse and worse. There are a great many complaints from prisoners, allegations that they are being beaten, literally raped. And there are fewer and fewer possibilities to investigate these incidents.
This is because over the last couple of years, in a consistent fashion, human rights defenders have been taken out of the Public Oversight Commissions [POCs]. The POCs work in accordance with the law that established them, and the members of the POCs have the right to enter a prison colony at any time, to inspect for violations of human rights. Well the fact is that, instead of human rights defenders, people have been elected to take part in POCs who have formerly worked in the prosecutor’s office, who have served in the military, and so on. So, the ability to investigate human rights abuses has become less and less.
And obviously among these people there are more supporters of the Federal Penitentiary Service. If such a person goes to a prison colony, it’s easier to convince them that this scoundrel had to be beaten, because he is a thief, a murderer, and so on. Therefore, an atmosphere develops that there is no one to investigate torture, murder, that takes place in the prison colonies.
And since the federal TV channel has made a broadcast about this issue, then probably it has worried them a bit.
Recently I began to write about the fact that state officials are practically unable to do anything. I appealed to the Presidential Human Rights Council headed by an aide to the president, Mikhail Fedotov. But nothing happens. Moreover, Fedotov himself is no longer allowed inside prison colonies. When he went to prisons in Udmurtia, he wasn’t let in there. In practice, it turns out that the president’s adviser on human rights cannot carry out one of his main functions, namely to inspect prison colonies for violations of human rights. What could be worse?
In practice prison colonies have become closed to public oversight. And now we are left with one possibility, to send lawyers there. And we do hire lawyers, they go to these places, and some of the prisoners tell them about torture and so on. We publish all of this. This work of ours is quite transparent. By the way, this film has a lot of manipulating of the facts, I’m not going to talk a lot about that.
I haven’t been using the phrase ‘political prisoner’ recently, because a political prisoner is one thing, but an ordinary prisoner is something quite different. I took part in a protest with a placard outside the offices of the Federal Penitentiary Service. The phrase ‘political prisoner’ was not on the placard. It was a list of prisoners who had complained to us about torture. We proposed that these prisoners should be removed from the Karelian prison colonies where they are held and taken to other regions so that they could give evidence. For you see they are being intimidated the whole time.
And it turned out that several prisoners said that they were told to give incriminating evidence against me, and they did this. Can I condemn them for doing that? Of course, it’s not a good thing to do, but on the other hand, I’m not ready to judge them for it. I don’t know how these prisoners were forced into doing it. They told them that unless they said something about me, then they would be in for it. Some prisoners proved to be weak and simply gave them the false testimony they wanted about the work of the lawyers with whom we work. We are thinking now about how we can take this case to the courts.
VI – They write that prison colonies and those places that receive very close attention are visited by people from the FSB, the prosecutor’s office, and carry out a thorough inspection. And they don’t find violations. And those prisoners you defend themselves say that the lawyers come and persuade them to say they are being tortured. They give an example where after the visit of one of the lawyers, one of the prisoners began to injure himself. That’s the kind of thing they are saying. What can you say about that?
LP – Yes, a few prisoners are pressured into lying, and they give in. We know how often prisoners are beaten and forced to testify. That is why these people are miserable, they find themselves in the hands of people who put no limits on the cruelty they are ready to inflict.
By the way, I don’t blame the whole prison system, we have hundreds of prison colonies where there is no regular torture or regular beatings, but we do have 10 ‘torture zones.’ And in a few prison colonies in Karelia torture happens regularly. I know that I’m telling the truth, but the prison officers defend themselves as best as they can. And so, they force a few prisoners to slander the lawyers and me. I am now considering whether to bring a suit to court or not – this is all costly and so on – but I’ll think about it.
VI – In earlier Tuesday broadcasts with you we talked about the fact that you have been a member of the organising committee of the march against the city’s arbitrary housing programme. The march took place on 28th May. In that broadcast we announced the event. And now can we draw conclusions based on how it all passed off. What sort of conclusions can be drawn? How successful was the march and what’s next?
LP – I should say that the organising committee of which I have been a member submitted a request to hold the march on 28th May, but there was another request for 27th May from another group of people with whom we did not manage to reach an agreement. There was a feeling that this would weaken the impact of the protest and fewer people would turn up. But I would say nothing terrible happened. People came to take part in both protests, on 27th and 28th.
At least 5,000 people took part in our demonstration. For a protest on social issues, this is a fairly large number of people. On 14th May there had been a few more, nearer 10,000. But now we have from 5,000 to 10,000. And I should say that we can consider the protest to have been worth it. Under the impact of these protests the authorities are starting to back down and this is good. Ten promises have already been made by the Moscow authorities, that the law on housing renovation will be amended. We are raising a very relevant issue. And if so many amendments are going to be made to the law, then it shows it is a very bad law. The main idea of our protest was that the law should be repealed, because it is an extraordinarily bad measure.
The law proposes, in the context of an emergency that has been artificially created, people should be turned out of their homes, and the apartment buildings demolished. And very many buildings have already been destroyed. We see they are proposing to demolish buildings that people could live in for another 100 years. We see that houses that truly are already impossible to live in are, on the contrary, preserved. We see that when it is essential to resettle people, let’s say, from hostels in Moscow, people are forced to live for decades in impossible conditions. They complain to human rights activists, to the human rights ombudsman, but they don’t rehouse them. And they don’t come in for rehousing under the new housing plan either
Clearly, this Renovation Act has not been drawn up for benefit of people, but for the construction industry. The primary concern of the Renovation Act is to increase the profits of the building industry in Moscow and elsewhere. We demand that this law be repealed, and, in addition, that the people who made this law, should be punished.
Maybe we should thank them in some way. When I spoke at a rally there were many who had already spoken before me about the shortcomings of the Act. But my main proposal is that we should thank the authorities for bringing about this unification of Muscovites. And before our very eyes we have seen the emergence of a political nation. In fact, this has long been a concern of Vladimir Putin. He has said that Russia should become the political nation of its citizens. So, it happens that, because the government puts pressure on the population, the population takes steps to defend itself and goes out on to the streets to demonstrate. And at this point the political nation is born. We need to persevere, we need to ensure that the Act is repealed. But, apart from this, there are a lot of different issues that we need to tackle together.
VI – And Moscow is the launching pad for this scheme?
LP – Yes. I agree with you.
VI – Have any concessions already been granted by the authorities? And is it true that every week some new details appear?
LP – Yes, we can see what they are offering us. First, they removed brick houses from the scheme, and they promised to add hostels to it. They have removed mandatory evictions from the law, whereby a person is given sixty days’ notice to quit but if they don’t leave within sixty days they are evicted. A legal ruling might be applied, but there can be no appeal against it. Though people have the right to complain to the courts. Now Galina Khovanskaya is proposing ninety instead of sixty days for consideration of the various planned evictions, and so on. Many amendments are being debated, but we do not know what will be adopted.
In the light of all these discussions, we should not weaken our resolve. We recommend that every household, which has been included in the plans for eviction, holds a residents’ meeting to declare that they do not agree with the rehousing proposals. We recommend that such a decision also be taken by those apartment buildings where residents want to be rehoused, because it is necessary to go back and wait to see what legislation is going to be passed. Then, if the residents of a building see that the legislation suits them, they can go back into the renovation programme. The law provides for being able to decide not to be involved in the programme, and then to go back into it. We will give everybody a step-by-step plan for holding a meeting for apartment owners so that they can make their decision. […]
Translated by Frances Robson and Graham Jones
A human rights defender on recent events in Russia’,
a programme first broadcast on 30 May 2017.