Charged under the “foreign agent” law

An interview for the Russian service of Voice of America with Valentina Cherevatenko

<< No. 25 (258), 26 June 2017 >>

For the first time, criminal charges have been brought for failure to obey the law on “foreign agents,” a law which enables the Russian authorities to attach the label “foreign agent” to organizations which receive foreign funding and which – in the view of the authorities – undertake political activities.

Over the last couple of years, many Russian human rights organizations have become victims of this law, including such respected and internationally known organizations as Memorial, Civic Assistance and the Sakharov Centre, all of which are engaged in enlightenment in the sphere of human rights and history.

Criminal charges for alleged violations of this law were officially brought against Valentina Cherevatenko, head of the coordination council of the organization Women of the Don Union, on 2 June. The sociologist from Novocherkassk is accused of “malicious” evasion of obligations imposed by the law on “foreign agents”, an act for which she may face imprisonment.

Many international organisations have criticized the charges against Cherevatenko.

The European Union issued an official statement:

“The criminal charges brought against activist Valentina Cherevatenko, a leader in the NGO ‘Union of Women of Don’, represent the first criminal case opened under the ‘foreign agents’ law in Russia. The practice of declaring NGOs as ‘foreign agents’ restricts civil society and impedes the exercise of fundamental freedoms. Ms Cherevatenko’s outstanding work on human rights education, peace building, and humanitarian issues is well-known and widely appreciated.”

Amnesty International criticized the Russian authorities. Denis Krivosheev, deputy director of Amnesty International for Europe and Central Asia, said:

“The only reason why Cherevatenko is being brought to court and risks losing her freedom is her unceasing defence of human rights. This brave human rights defender has become the first person to be criminally prosecuted under Russia’s draconian law on ‘foreign agents’. She should not have been prosecuted at all, let alone face the threat of imprisonment.” [translated from the Russian – ed].

In an interview with Danila GALPEROVICH of Voice of America’s Russian service, Valentina CHEREVATENKO said which organisation was behind the prosecution of Women of the Don Union, and which of its activities – in the view of the Russian authorities – indicated that it was a “foreign agent”

Who is behind the prosecution?

Danila Galperovich: How did the prosecution of your organization, and of you personally, begin?

Valentina Cherevatenko: It began approximately a year ago on the initiative of an FSB officer who wrote a statement to the Investigative Committee. This was the start of the case in which I was a suspect. On 2 June, I received notice that I would be a defendant in a criminal case.

Danila Galperovich: So, the FSB began this case?

Valentina Cherevatenko: Yes, the FSB initiated this case.

Danila Galperovich: Was this an initiative of the authorities at the regional level, or did the attack come from Moscow?

Valentina Cherevatenko: I think it was primarily a regional initiative. I don’t think Moscow is fully aware of the case. Probably, it’s a regional initiative that has their support.

Danila Galperovich: Many of your colleagues think that you are being made an example of in order to intimidate others. Do you agree?

Valentina Cherevatenko: The law under which I’ve been charged has never been used before. This is the first case of its kind in history. It could act as an example in various ways. It could also literally be used against all those who have not put themselves on the “register of foreign agents”.

What effect does it have, being called a “foreign agent”?

Danila Galperovich: The Russian authorities often say the words “foreign agent” are nothing to worry about. This term has no condemnatory or negative connotations. Do you agree?

Valentina Cherevatenko: No, I do not agree with that.

My history and the experience of my case prove that this term carries a range of implications. For ordinary people, especially the older generation, the word “agent”, essentially means “spy”. That’s quite serious.

They started saying, even in my town, that our organization has been included in the register of agents working under foreign influence and representatives of some NGOs have stated they never will be part of the Union of Women of the Don because we are “agents”. There were phone calls. Now I understand that these calls may have been made by people who are not quite in perfect health, but nonetheless they spoke about “your bosses “, that we were “up to your elbows in blood”, and so on. That is why the ‘positive’ understanding of this legislation to which you refer is over-simplified, and comes from people who have had no personal experience of it.

The work of the Women of the Don

Danila Galperovich: What does your organization do?

Valentina Cherevatenko: ” Women of the Don” was founded in 1993 as the usual kind of NGO working on social issues. It may sound pretentious, but as the saying goes, we wanted to “Join hands together so that we wouldn’t be picked off one by one.” In 1993, that’s just how it was in those rather difficult times. And in 1994 the Union of Women of the Don was registered as a regional NGO.

From 1995 onwards we began to make changes to our charter, and, in addition to alleviating social problems by helping those who were going through bad and hard times. We included work on human rights, women’s rights and campaigning for peace in our charter. For many years we were engaged in developing dialogue for the rehabilitation of the people affected by conflicts, by natural and by man-made disasters.

We have experience in Beslan and in Krymsk.[1] We worked with families who were returning from conflict zones. We helped these families. We work with difficult families and with families experiencing socially dangerous situations. That’s quite a wide range of activities for our organization, which is well established. We have the expertise, experience and the capacity to deal with them.

Not only have we done this work ourselves: building on our resources we managed to give birth to several other organisations arising from the different branches of our activities.

What sort of demands have the authorities made on you recently?

Danila Galperovich: What sort of demands did they present, and when?

Valentina Cherevatenko: In 2013, the prosecutor declared that by working in other regions we had broken the law. I have, of course, a question on this for the Ministry of Justice which for the 20 years of our existence has not once made any comment in this regard.

Therefore in 2013 the Union of Women of the Don, our co-ordination council, took the decision about creating a second organisation – the Women of the Don Foundation for Co-Operation and Development of Civil Society and Human Rights so that the Union of the Women of the Don would no longer be in violation of the law. The Union would work only on the territory of Rostov Region, while the Foundation would have the right to work in other territories allowed by law.

The aims and issues of the two organizations coincide because we never planned to involve ourselves with any other kinds of work. However, as concerns myself, a criminal case has arisen and one of the charges is namely the creation of the Foundation, that it was as if I had malicious intent, and so on. Today we are accused of creating, giving birth to, another organization, which, by the way, continues to work in other territories, initiating interactive procedures and organising dialogue between Ukrainian and Russian community workers, women leaders, and specialists in the provision of different kinds of assistance.

Danila Galperovich: How serious is the danger threatening you?

Valentina Cherevatenko: The Article of the Criminal Code under which I have been charged provides for a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment. Just a year ago, when I received the relevant official document at the Ministry of Justice, one of the officials told me: “You still don’t know what awaits you”. I managed to say: “Why don’t I know? I understand. It’s likely that you want to lock me up”. Another official added: “Well, that’s just your imagination.”

I do understand that this danger exists. And I understand, and many colleagues tell me, that leaving the country would be justified. Understanding this, however, I am not trying to go anywhere else. I have a family here. I have a mother, I have sons, I have grandchildren. I have work and I’m surrounded by many people who believe and trust in me.

Before we talked I went to a performance at the Forum Theatre. The actors wrote the play themselves and called it “Zhanna and the Dragon”. It is a fairy tale about the situation of “foreign agent” NGOs. We invited people to the dress rehearsal who have never been in our office. They watched and discussed the play. And I saw that they understood what we were talking about. They gave us their views as to how we could get out of this situation, how we could survive and retain our human dignity.

Thanks to Frances Robson, Friederike Behr
and Graham Jones for this translation

Interview with Valentina Cherevatenko by Danila Galperovich

First broadcast on 2 June 2017 by Voice of America

[1] The school at Beslan (North Ossetia) was seized by Chechen insurgents in 1994 and all who had come for the beginning of the school term (children, parents, and teachers) were held hostage until Russian troops re-took the building by force.

In 2013 the town of Krymsk (Krasnodar Region) suffered disastrous flooding, leading to numerous deaths and the displacement of the local population.