An interview with Aleksandr Bekhtold: ‘Why Russian officials don’t need pictures of human rights defenders on billboards’ [7×7]

19 January 2021

Ekaterina Vulikh talks with Aleksandr Bekhtold, a human rights defender from Ryazan, for 7×7

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: интернет-журнал «7х7»]

‘Our government, by definition, is a violator of human rights,’ Ryazan human rights activist Aleksandr Bekhtold confidently states. He gave his first lesson this year at the local School of Human Rights on 16 January in a new format: he answered questions from the audience for about two hours. Bekhtold talked about which human rights defenders in Russia no longer receive presidential grants, why their pictures are as difficult to place on city billboards as Navalny’s, and why the defence of human rights has become disadvantageous for the Russian authorities.

Why pictures of human rights defenders are not put on billboards

‘Even if someone really wanted to place my picture on a billboard, they would need to have money and get permission from the municipal authorities to do this. This is not an advertisement for some product, this is not a deputy’s election campaigning. It’s just some city dweller deciding to hang his picture in the city with the caption: “I am good.” And even if this person is recognized by people, if he is regarded as an outstanding human rights defender, the authorities will not issue this type of permission.

‘A human rights defender, by definition, is an antagonist for a government that constantly violates human rights. They have already been blacklisted.’

Whether it possible to collaborate with the authorities in the field of human rights

‘I have often argued with Lev Ponomarev * [organiser of the movement ‘For Human Rights’] about this topic. He said that we need to seek out opportunities for interacting with the authorities, we need to collaborate with them and bring them back into the fold on the issue of human rights. I say: this is impossible, because our government, by definition, is a violator of human rights, which we have to restore. Collaboration with this government is an oxymoron, it is “hot ice.” We cannot be in the same boat. The authorities understand this, and as a result choose to bully us.

‘Take a look at what is going on with Memorial* [a human rights organisation that educates people about history], with Lev Ponomarev* himself, with Navalny. He began to fight corruption and what are they doing to him now? How can his pictures appear on billboards to popularize the fight against corruption?’

Why in many countries the state considers human rights organisations allies, while in Russia this isn’t the case

‘In other countries, the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government operate separately from each other and are not interconnected, as is the case for us. When they draw up the necessary laws for their citizens, they cannot always cope with the volume of work, which is why these “urban madmen” then appear to help them with this. The authorities have money, but not the capacity, so they provide funding for volunteers.

‘Until recently, we had something similar with presidential grants. Now, if you study this issue, you will understand to whom they are allocated. Currently it’s impossible for human rights defenders to receive funding in this way. Not long ago, even Lev Ponomarev’s organisation* received grants for human rights activities.

‘Starting last year, they began to persecute him, because he constantly said that in this country we torture convicts, that we have political prisoners. Ponomarev* himself says that the authorities are doing this – why would they give him grants?

‘Human rights activists say that in our country we persecute people who believe in the wrong God. They are prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses [members of the organisation]*. Some say that this is right, because it is a sect that takes away people’s apartments. So let them investigate the evidence for the illegal deprivation of apartments, the evidence of fraud, why were they registered as terrorists? What are these acts of terrorism?’

Why engage in human rights protection, when the chances of winning are slim

When it becomes clear that the defendant in the case is the government, the case is deemed to be a lost cause in court. But still, every person has a huge number of social, labour and other rights that need to be restored. It’s not supposed to be a political case, rather it is about reclaiming the rights from different areas. When you win a case like this, it’s an enormous pleasure when you have restored human rights. When you realise that you can’t get anything done in our courts, you know you have to go to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) because you want justice done. There is an opportunity to get the truth, and all of these opportunities have to be seized. It’s impossible not to. 

‘An example when the School of Human Rights helped a Ryazan resident to achieve justice in the ECtHR

‘In 2016, a slightly tipsy man from Varskiye [a village near Ryazan] was taken to the police station on 8 March and tortured and beaten. He left and registered the injuries he had received. When the investigation began, the police argued that he fell and started to roll around, banging his head and inflicted injuries on himself. Criminal proceedings against the officers were not initiated. The case went to the prosecutor’s office for verification and the prosecutor’s office revoked the order of refusal (to initiate criminal proceedings -translator’s note). The next day, the police department issued the same ruling, they did this several times. We went to court, as the previous day the prosecutor’s office decreed to revoke the previous ruling, the inspection began again.

‘In 2018, we went to the European Court of Human Rights. The practice of the ECtHR is already well established in such cases: once a person enters a police station, the State is responsible for whatever happens to them. If they injured themselves, the state had to take measures to prevent it, to protect the person. Our State realised that it was impossible to win the case, and offered compensation to the amount of seven thousand euros. On the eve of New Year, the victim received a notification with an offer to receive this money.

‘I would be happy to stop working on human rights issues, all my colleagues would be happy to give up this business, if human rights were no longer violated and we would simply be left without work.

The School of Human Rights opened in Ryazan in 1997 with support of Memorial*, an historical, educational, human rights society, and the Ryazan Association of Creative Education. The participants in the first courses were 14-17 year old teenagers, in groups of 20-30 persons. Since 2008, it has become more difficult to engage in human rights protection. One room of the SHR flooded accidentally, allegedly. Another room suddenly began to have problems with electricity. A lighter was thrown into the third, but they made a mistake — the neighbouring office burned out. After an extended break, the SHR reopened in December 2018. The head of the SHR in Ryazan is a teacher, a laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize for contribution to human rights education, an organiser of the regional school of election observers and coordinator of the regional Golos movement, Sofya Ivanova. The second trainer is her husband, head of the regional movement For Human Rights, Aleksandr Bekhtold.

Translated by Tyler Langendorfer and Ecaternina Hughes

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