22 August 2022
Pavel Chikov in an interview with Margarita Alekhina
Because of the ‘special operation,’ Russian human rights activists are faced with requests for help that do not fit into the ethical categories of peace time. Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International human rights group, describes several such cases. Help is needed, for example, for those military service personnel who first volunteered to go to the war zone and then refused to participate in the fighting. Or for prisoners who were enlisted into private military companies, who have faced promises made to them not being fulfilled. There has been an online discussion about the boundaries of what is permissible for human rights defenders. Advocatskaya ulitsa asked Pavel Chikov about the moral dilemmas Agora has faced since 24 February, how the organisation has resolved them and what he thinks about the ethical positions of other human rights activists.
HOW THE NATURE OF REQUESTS FOR ASSISTANCE HAS CHANGED
Since 24 February, 90% of the cases that we receive are in one way or another connected with events in Ukraine. Both military service personnel and people who are being prosecuted for anti-war protests and statements are coming to us for assistance.
At the same time, we have never dealt with military matters. Or rather, we have, but in the context of hazing or suicide. Or in cases of soldiers and slavery, when commanders force them to build their dacha or do some other kind of forced labor. Now those issues don’t exist anymore, there are completely different ones now…
In general, we’ve never had separate ethical standards, principles, a framework if you like, for providing assistance to service personnel. And we still haven’t fully formulated in what situations we should get involved and in what situations we should limit ourselves to giving consultations.
The very first ‘special operation’ challenge was when crowds of contract service personnel came to us. Some had initially refused to go to Ukraine. Others had decided not to fight when they were already out there, and then they returned. Of course, far from all of them were motivated by some lofty and humanistic idea. Many simply did not want to get killed. After all, at first they hadn’t expected that they would get shot at. For example, the Russian Federal Guard was told that first of all the army would go through and clear out the place, and then all they would have to do would be to maintain public order. But in the end they found themselves on the front line. And they came back, because that wasn’t ‘what they had signed up for.’
We had meetings and wondered what to do about them. And we decided to help them. Because refusing to participate in military hostilities is an anti-war stance, regardless of one’s motivation.
You also need to understand that military issues are extremely sensitive for the authorities. And here arise great risks for the safety of the lawyers themselves who take on these cases. We have traditionally worked on the basis of an understanding that we do not take on cases where there is a threat to the safety of lawyers. Because, after all, what we do is about rights and jurisprudence, not physical defence and martial arts. We are keeping to this principle. For example, in one case we had to go to the Supreme Court of the Donetsk People’s Republic [DNR]. And the lawyer was theoretically ready to go. But after that there was the incident that took place in Olenivka, where defendants were being held, including those under the jurisdiction of the DNR (the DNR and Russian authorities claim that the Ukrainian side shelled the pre-trial detention centre where the Ukrainian prisoners were held; the Ukrainian authorities insist it was the Russian side that destroyed the detention centre. – Advokatskaya Street). I told the lawyer to come back and said: ‘No, you can’t go. Because there are no guarantees for your safety.’
WHICH OF AGORA’S PRINCIPLES HAVE BEEN TESTED
Our prewar principles were these: we traditionally have not rendered assistance when it is a matter of violence. If someone commits intentional violence, if he propagandizes violence, calls for violence, if he practices the language of hatred and enmity—as a rule, we do not help people like that.
If someone is being persecuted for a text, we have to evaluate the situation, and we often refuse if, for example, there is any kind of xenophobia involved. But if it’s a call to kill police, we aren’t going to handle that case either.
This doesn’t mean we don’t help in any way at all. Sometimes we can recommend a lawyer on a paid basis. But that won’t involve our human rights organization, that won’t involve our name, and we aren’t going to write about those cases.
This principle encountered a challenge for the first time in connection with the “Bolotnaya case.” After all, the defendants were all charged with violence against the police. So we discussed whether or not to help. By the way, even then Amnesty International was seriously criticized for refusing to recognize those people as prisoners of conscience.
In the end, we concluded that the authorities on Bolotnaya Square had created conditions such that people were forced to resist police pressure. Accordingly, the actions the defendants committed were justified. They were reacting to illegitimate actions on the part of the authorities. This position was confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights.
In my post I mentioned an incident when someone attempted to set fire to an enlistment office and confessed. This case brings to mind another well-known story also connected with Ukraine. In May 2014, film director Oleg Sentsov was arrested in Crimea. Among other things, he was accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail into the United Russia office in Crimea. This was classified as a terrorist act and he was later sentenced to 20 years in prison. At that time it wasn’t even a question for us, we understood that we had to provide Oleg Sentsov with a lawyer and legal defense. Because the charge was obviously excessive.
Generally speaking, there is an important, purely legal aspect to stories involving Molotov cocktails. The authorities have very broad discretion in classifying these actions—depending on politics. We know of incidents when throwing a Molotov cocktail into a building brought a charge of minor vandalism, administrative punishment, and a thousand-ruble fine. Whereas there have been instances when such actions were classified as a terrorist act. We have to start from the facts. What was the actual damage, were there people present, was there a threat to their life and health? And if someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the empty office of United Russia, there was a contained fire a meter square, and besides a broken window, no one was injured, this event cannot be classified as a terrorist act. That is a clearly unjustified action on the part of the authorities.
That is, claims arise against the authorities most often when they react inappropriately. For instance, the “military” censorship package passed after the start of military actions is absolutely unconstitutional as a whole. Therefore we are going to take up those cases regardless of who is charged for what under Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code. Because the law itself is an excessive reaction.
WHAT ARE THE POSITIONS OF OTHER HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS?
In my post I didn’t cite more cases because doing so might accidentally identify those who turned to us. Although there is a disclaimer at the bottom saying that these specific stories are hypothetical, in essence, of course, they are perfectly real. We are encountering exactly these kinds of instances in our current work.
Some commentators have written that our readiness to help depends on our resources. But resources are always limited and have to be prioritized. My post touched only on the question’s moral aspect. The question was about the [special operation] bringing new challenges. New questions have arisen that hadn’t existed before or had existed only within the limits of rare, marginal stories. Previously, these questions could be ignored, but now they are coming to the fore.
The essence of the post was not that Agora supposedly doesn’t know what to do (although we had an internal corporate discussion process and there were also various points of view). Rather, there has been a collection of opinions. And an assessment of how different people are reacting to these dilemmas.
As it seemed to me, the approaches are very different, not even polar but covering the entire possible spectrum. Some things frankly surprised me. For instance, Natalya Zvyagina, head of Amnesty International’s Russian branch, wrote directly that Amnesty would not offer assistance to a single case on the list. And after all, this is an international human rights organization that has existed for decades, with principles and global and local standards, and that is involved in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, among other things. And now she has expressed this position.
Also, of course, I need to mention the post by Olga Romanova [founder of Russia Behind Bars (which has been added to the foreign agent registry)] on a similar topic. Russia Behind Bars does not try to hide the fact that it does not help servicemen because it considers their actions a crime.
There have been a few comments, for example from [artist and activist] Artem Loskutov, that demonstrated a lack of understanding of why in general the question arises of rendering assistance to those who attack enlistment offices with Molotov cocktails. This is an activist point of view. But we are lawyers. And we have a separate professional dilemma. Regardless of the situation, a lawyer presumes a readiness to offer legal assistance to anyone.
Some lawyers have said in their comments that everyone needs to be helped.
The collection of opinions showed that human rights organizations do not have a common approach about where to draw the moral line beyond which people should not be helped. I think that’s all right. It’s perfectly correct that different organizations are deciding this question for themselves differently. Ultimately, this gives very different people the chance to get help, after all.