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Bill BowringRussia’s new ‘terror’ claims its victims

Russia’s human rights situation is worsening just as the country’s financial crisis spins out of control. The rouble has lost over a third of its value against the dollar and the euro over the last five weeks and anti-Kremlin protests are mounting. Memorial, which was founded to expose the crimes of Stalinism, remains a target for the authorities. Corinna Lotz talks to Bill Bowring, a frequent visitor to the country, about what is going on in Russia today.

International human rights lawyer and campaigner Bill Bowring has worked closely with Memorial. Bill, law professor at Birkbeck College, London University, has the distinction of having been expelled from Russia on two separate occasions, despite having obtained a multiple entry visa. His defence of Chechen civilians against the Russian government at the European Court of Human Rights will undoubtedly have been a factor.

I asked him about the raid on the Memorial human rights society’s St Petersburg offices on December 4. At that time, seven masked men armed with clubs and with a warrant from the prosecutor’s office broke in. They held three staff members incommunicado while they searched the office for over seven hours. Then they left with the organisation’s hard drives and archives, the fruit of 20 years of research into Stalinist repression.

“We were all in Russia in the first week of December. We were training the Memorial lawyers in the Memorial office in the Andrey Sakharov Museum and Public Centre in Moscow,” Bill recalls.

The motivation for the raid remains totally obscure. It was the first time for Memorial but it has happened to a lot of other organisations. Memorial still functions. But they are under pressure every day.

The tax inspectors, the national insurance inspectors, the police come in and pester them every day. It has happened to other organisations, but it’s the first time it has happened for them. On 20 January, after a three-day hearing, the district court held that the raid carried out by an Investigator of the Office of the General Prosecutor in St Petersburg was unlawful, thus upholding Memorial’s complaint against the police. But Memorial still have not had their materials back.

A group of campaigners founded the All Union Voluntary Historical Enlightenment Memorial Society, or Memorial as it later became known, during the glasnost and perestroika period championed by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Founded by people like physicist Lev Ponamariev, historian Arseny Roginsky and Yelena Shemkova, Memorial received legal status when its charter was approved in January 1989. At that time most of its work focussed on the mass repressions of the Stalin years. Historian Yury Afanasiev, Rector of the Moscow State Institute of Archivists, led the campaign against censorship and to open up Soviet archives.

Roginsky recently denounced the re-writing of history in schoolbooks under Putin’s rule in no uncertain terms. “In the new history textbooks, Stalinism is presented as an institutional phenomenon, even an achievement,” he told historians at a conference on the History of Stalinism held on December 5 in Moscow. “The terror is portrayed as a historically determined and unavoidable tool for solving state tasks. This concept does not rule out sympathy for the victims of history. But it makes it absolutely impossible to consider the criminal nature of the terror, and the perpetrator of this crime.”

Bill knows many of Memorial’s dedicated staff personally and has nothing but admiration for them. “The leading people in Memorial are really quite extraordinary. They are not lawyers by and large. Many of them are historians and people like that,” he explains.

The president these days is former biophysicist Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, who spent about 11 years in hard labour for anti-Soviet activities for trying to set up a branch of Amnesty International in Moscow back in the 1970s. He was the Human Rights Commissioner who took up a very strong stand against the government during the first Chechen war. He was sacked for that. He was a deputy in the State Duma for some time. Obviously now there are no opposition elements in the Duma. Kovalev is 79 now and not very well, but still extremely active. They have a network of people all around Russia.

So they have people in every region whose mission it is to pin down facts and see that the truth is told about the past and the present. They issue publications, in particular about what is going on in Chechnya. So, when the second Chechen war started in 1999, they already had their network of reporters and people working for them in Chechnya. They had the idea of using the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia had only just ratified in 1998 and so that is when I got involved as well. So there is a human rights centre within Memorial. At that time, it just was the corner of the main Memorial office in Moscow. There was just one young woman volunteer, who didn’t even have a law degree – she had a journalism degree – she helped to prepare the first six Chechen cases against Russia.”

In 2003, together with his colleagues in the UK and Russia, Bill set up the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre at London Metropolitan University, which is in partnership with Memorial. At present he chairs the international steering committee.

We employ ten people in Russia as part of Memorial and then we have lawyers in Chechnya, Ingushetia, St Petersburg, Krasnodar and Ryazan. We have over 150 cases against Russia in the European Court – Chechen deaths, disappearances, torture, you name it. We have won about 35 of them.

It took me two years, but originally I got a million euros from the European Commission, the European Human Rights and Democracy Initiative to run it for three years, and when that money ran out I got money from about five different sources. There are visible results and sometimes successful cases, many of them with the help of the Russian judge in the European Court, who has frequently ruled against the Russian government.

The EHRAC is now taking the first of many environmental cases against Russia – a lot of cases about discrimination. The ecological case is called Fadeyeva v Russia. It is on behalf of a family who live in the danger zone near a huge steel plant in a Russian town called Cherepovets. We won that case and there have been a whole serious of similar cases. The Russian government has paid up – though the family has not been rehoused. We are also taking on discrimination cases. For example the Mesketian Turks and the Yezidi Kurds in Krasnodar Kray, a large territory in the southwest of Russia, who have been very seriously discriminated against by the extremely right wing administration there.

All of our five regional offices in Moscow are in partnership with Memorial, which is a great strength of the project. Funding is from a variety of different sources. In London we have an office with a director, project manager, administrator, a half-time senior lawyer and loads of volunteers.

We are also taking quite a few cases against Georgia. The present government in Georgia has no respect for any kind of rights. We are taking cases against both Russia and Georgia resulting out of the five-day war in August last year. And I have cases through the project against Azerbaijan on freedom of religion, against Estonia on behalf of the ethnic Russians who were seriously beaten up by the Estonian police in the case of the bronze soldier, and a lot of cases for ethnic Russians in Latvia, including my best known client, Tatiana Zhdanoka, the MEP representing ethnic Russians in Latvia.

Isn’t it dangerous to keep on working against the Russian government in this way?

“Everyone’s day to day life is at risk,” Bill admits. “The people on our project are quite amazing. They live under constant threat. After the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, other campaigners had to take their families out of Russia for fear of being poisoned.”

Bill has just written an article for Index on Censorship about the double murder of human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov and his colleague on January 19.

Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, the young journalist with him were anti-fascist activists. The last article Markelov wrote was for the Victor Serge Education & Research Centre. I was involved in that case with him in 2003. At the time of the shootings, Markelov was appealing against the decision to allow Colonel Yuri Budanov, who had raped and murdered a young Chechen girl, out on parole. It is highly unlikely to be the fascists because they don’t kill people in that way.

The killer used a standard police issue revolver – in the middle of the afternoon and then calmly walked to the underground station. This indicates that it might very well be the police who had every reason to have grudge against him. Police are pretty high up ... If you are going to murder someone in Russia you have to have paid people or have the connivance of the authorities or people very close to them. Russia is extremely complicated – within the police, the prosecution service, and the government there are all kinds of clan wars and internecine struggles going on.

The other case which won’t go away is that of Litvinenko, Bill says. He is representing Marina Litvinenko, his widow, at the European Court of Human Rights against Russia on the basis that his murderer could only have obtained radioactive material from the Russian government.

Bill is convinced that unrest will grow significantly in Russia and the former Soviet Republics as a result of the financial crisis. Vedomosti, which published an article on the crisis December, has been warned by the government’s media watchdog that it was inciting extremism. And in a pre-emptive strike last November, President Medvedev publicly ordered law enforcement agencies to stamp out any social unrest linked to the crisis. Others predict that public anger will increase considerably, especially if the price of oil falls.

“Inflation of food prices is four times greater than in the European Union. A lot of people are very poor. The state has been using oil money to bailing out the billionaires to bail out tycoons like Abramovich… there is quite a lot of anger about that,” Bill says.

There’s been a lot of police brutality. Last week, the head of the police in Vladivostock refused to use local police against demonstrators and they had to bring in special police from the Caucasus. Medvedev and Putin disagreed over how to handle the strike. I am sure we’ll see another strike movement in Russia because unemployment is going to leap up. Crisis is also hitting Latvia very hard and there have been disturbances. Things will get much worse, much worse.

5 February 2009

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