Aleksandr Cherkasov: “The attack makes us stronger.” How fines affect the work of Memorial Human Rights Centre

10 January 2020

 Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre, in an interview with Kommersant  newspaper

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group (original source: Kommersant]

Photo: RFE/RL

On 9 January, Moscow’s Tver district court fined International Memorial for the 21st time for not labeling itself a foreign agent on the organization’s resources. Total fines for International Memorial and Memorial Human Rights Centre Memorial have now reached 4.2 million rubles. Let us remember that, in all, Roskomnadzor [Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications] has drawn up 28 official court records against the organizations, each of which the court is considering separately (see Kommersant of 26 December 2019). In a conversation with Kommersant correspondent Valeria Mishina, Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize, could not recall there ever being such a full schedule of court hearings for a single NGO-foreign agent in Russia.

Why was Memorial fined this time?

On Thursday, there was a hearing regarding — this is a database for agents of the Great Terror (the site is entitled ‘Personnel of USSR state security organs. 1935-39.’ – Kommersant). This database has about 40,000 people in it, and, it turns out, it too should have been labeled a foreign agent.

Memorial has announced that it is collecting funds to pay its fines. How much have they collected? And how much does Memorial need for its work per year?

Right now more than 3.6 million rubles have been collected. For its work, Memorial requires about 180 million rubles a year. We’re talking about major net-based programme work, not only in the Moscow office but in the Migration and the Law network that has 40 legal consultation offices in Russia’s towns for refugees, forced resettlers, and other vulnerable groups. It is our work with the European Court of Human Rights, it is legal aid for the political prisoner programme, and it is the work of our offices in the North Caucasus. We’re not saying this money could possibly be wholly recompensed, but this does mean that more and more people are signing up for regular donations. Unfortunately, right now even well-known projects cannot be fully financed out of those payments. And the state has looked into cutting off major donors. One recalls, in the early 2000s, for example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky donating for the fight against torture, but Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia was quickly shut down. And right now, Aleksei Kudrin’s foundation has not been able to accept money from major donors for a similar programme of civilian oversight; possible donors know full well what does not have the state’s blessings here. What people do give for is relatable, one-time issues. In the space of a few days, the Civic Assistance Committee was able to collect money for a refugee child who had had acid splashed in his face. During the summer protests, the OVD-Info project was able also to crowdfund for itself, since people understand what it’s for, what it’s needed for. But even for them this can’t cover all their needs, since apart from such one-time issues as giving immediate help to people detained there are also the subsequent legal proceedings, appeals on administrative cases and the submission of complaints to Strasbourg, and assistance in criminal cases.

What kind of relatable issues do you have apart from collecting for fines?

Our relatable projects include the following. We collected money for a project we put out on 17 September 2019, the date Soviet troops invaded Poland in 1939. This was a memorial book, Mednoe, about the more than 6000 Poles who were detained at Seliger and executed in Kalinin (Tver) in 1940 and buried at Mednoe, a village 30 kilometers from Kalinin. Russian money was collected for this publication. We felt it was a matter of principle that this be public funds and not grants, since this is important for the Russian people. All kinds of people donated, from modest pensioners to the children of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who donated a significant sum. This way we collected 2 million rubles.

But there are issues where foreign money is better than our country’s. The phrase ‘nongovernmental organizations’ speaks to the fact that they truly are nongovernmental, and it’s preferable that any conflict of interests be ruled out. What we are doing in the North Caucasus is, in essence, civilian oversight in a zone of counterterrorist operations. We can’t accept state funds for something like this. For the past few years, they haven’t given us presidential grants, not that we could ask for that. You would be taking money from someone and then overseeing them.

It’s like the health inspector who goes into the cafeteria storeroom, comes out with heavy packages hanging off him, and says, “Everything’s fine.” Somehow there’s not much trust in that kind of health inspector.

Therefore, in certain instances, if the state understands that it has to look respectable, it has to make sure no such situation arises.

Our situation with crowdfunding is improving, but we’ll see what happens. We’re not talking about switching over entirely to those kinds of collections, but they truly can help. Rather, we have to be talking about a combination of several sources of financing.

In 2013 you, among other NGOs, made an application to the European Court of Human Rights about the law on foreign agents.

We submitted a complaint as potential victims at the time of the recently passed law on foreign agents. At the time we insisted on the urgency of considering it, but seven years have passed already. We regularly send additions to this complaint, including materials from various disputes over fines applied to us. If Strasbourg ever does consider this complaint, the court will rule that these fines have to be repaid to us and, moreover, the moral harm recompensed. In that case, the funds will in any case go to the organization’s work. So that Strasbourg can help us out with this bad joke.

In 2016, the Justice Ministry inspected some of the resources for which you are being tried right now, but the ministry made no claims against you.

At the time, they inspected us from the tip of our nose to the tip of our tail. In the years 2014-2016, Memorial Human Rights Centre underwent constant inspections, and we already had the social networks they’re fining us for right now. At the time, though, the Justice Ministry mercifully decided to consider them, shall we say, as in order. But in the past three years the criteria have changed. And what they write in the denunciation is what ends up in the court proceedings. The results of the Justice Ministry’s inspection were not considered now in the court’s decision. For example, in several hearings we appended documents from the review of pages by the Justice Ministry, where it was written that a given page was prepared with funds from a European Commission grant, and according to the law on foreign agents, the purpose of labeling is to inform that work was carried out using foreign money. That is, the necessary information was provided on the page.

You have called the law on foreign agents ‘elastic,’ saying that its formulation can be interpreted variously, especially the requirements on labeling formulations. What in it can still be ‘stretched’?

The main thing is above all the definition of political activity. Right now it is more or less everything: any articulated statement about a significant problem addressed to the state. This is the main place where they’ve stretched the owl to fit the globe.

Any nonpolitical public statement can be ascribed to politics. This is precisely why the law on foreign agents can’t be amended, it can only be repealed, because it’s faulty at its very foundation.

You’ve already been through more than 20 trials. Do you remember similar situations with regard to other NGO-foreign agents?

I can’t remember any. It’s usually a small number of legal proceedings. But this kind of constant nibbling away—in this, I think, we’re the first.

Is there any likelihood of the organization being liquidated due to this outside pressure?

They’ve done their best to create this danger. But in fact, this is a situation when the attack makes us stronger. The support we feel, including the support we feel through the site where we are collecting money, allows us to get through this affair. The authors of the foreign agent law scarcely had in mind increasing the national independent financing of nongovernmental organizations. Yet this, apparently, is exactly what we’re going to be able to achieve. You and I are speaking on the second anniversary of Oyub Titiev’s arrest. But after his prosecution the stream of information from Chechnya has not stopped. On the contrary, it’s intensified. Here is something analogous: as a result of the trials, there is more information for the public on Memorial’s work, more requests for support.
Translated by Marian Schwartz

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