12 February 2021
Valentin Baryshnikov in conversation with Alla Frolova, coordinator of legal assistance for the human rights project OVD-Info, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize
On 23rd January in Russia, during the protests in support of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, more than 4,000 people were detained, including more than 1,500 in Moscow. After the events on 31st January, there were over 5,500 detainees in Russia, over 1,800 of them in Moscow.
There were suggestions that the Moscow law enforcement system is not able to cope with anymore detainees but the coordinator of legal assistance for the human rights project OVD-Info, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize, Alla Frolova believes that the system is ready for more:
The police system and infrastructure of Moscow is much stronger than we think, they have prepared all these years. There is an tendency towards a police state when more money is allocated to law enforcement than to education and medicine in order to suppress civil discontent.
So it is easier for a police state to invest in the police and increase the number of policemen per capita than to solve the problems of the people?
Of course. Because the problems of the people are all social problems. Then we must fight corruption, strengthen social protection, and raise pensions. It is easier to increase the number of police officers. There are fewer police officers than pensioners, children, social programs.
Alla Frolova herself was an activist and organised Moscow protests against the restructuring of the hospitals but then took up human rights activities. Since 2016 she has been working for OVD-Info and has witnessed all the Russian mass demonstrations in recent years. According to her observations, the reaction of the authorities to current events is different:
The more people there are, the more law enforcement agencies are afraid. It’s one thing to confront ten people, or a hundred, or a thousand, and another thing – tens of thousands, even in Moscow. Of course they are afraid. I drove around Moscow, the barriers are still stacked in different parts of the city, they don’t even remove them, therefore, they are preparing for the fact that there may be more protests.
OVD-Info’s slogan is : “One should not be left to stand alone against the system.” The organisation is trying to provide lawyers and other assistance to the detainees, many of whom came out to protest for the first time and don’t have specific experience of detention and some were detained by accident. OVD-Info staff have had a hard time in recent weeks due to a record number of arrests at demonstrations.
At the same time, according to Frolova, there is a difference between the attitude of the riot police (OMON), who brutally dispersed the protests, and the places where the detainees were kept, even in the now famous Sakharovo detention centre in New Moscow, which turned out to be catastrophically overcrowded after the rally on the 31st of January.
I’m not saying that everything is wonderful in Sakharovo, because that would be a lie. Nevertheless, attempts are being made to engage in dialogue and to improve the situation, thanks to the efforts of Marina Litvinovich and Boris Klin – members of the Public Oversight Commission – who travel there every day. Progress is being made, despite the many problems that still remain. These include the poor conditions and the undrinkable water that comes out of the taps, but also the delays – those given permission to leave are not released immediately – the fact that personal belongings are not returned and the fact that surnames are entered incorrectly into the computer. The crux of the problem is that although they want to punish everyone for everything, they have failed to build the infrastructure that would have allowed them to provide people with a minimum standard of care.
Frolova explains that she discussed the issue of protester-police relations with the lawyer Mariya Eismont, who in recent weeks has been busy around the clock acting in defence of those arrested at the protests, and who said that – based on her experience of the Ministry of Internal Affairs facilities to which she had been granted access – “They show at least some kind of compassion for us, and they are less ill-disposed towards us.” Yet as Frolova emphasises, we must make a clear distinction between the “normal” police force and the OMON (Special Purpose Police) Units:
The members of the OMON units are specially selected, and one of their duties is to break up mass gatherings. They go through separate instruction and indoctrination, and trying to talk to them is essentially a pointless task. Specific conditions are put in place to ensure that they hate us, and by “us” I mean a society daring to take to the streets and express its opinion. And what exactly did these people do? Instances [of physical confrontation] occurred on 23 January. I did not see any protesters acting violently on 31 January or on 2 February. Whatever they have told us, the physical confrontations with the police were a result of provocation by the law enforcement officers who were cordoning off the location of the protest and who were the first to use violence. When someone near you is beaten, it’s only natural to respond. I’m not justifying what happened, and I believe that each individual case and everyone involved must be investigated. I’m merely making a general statement about what happened. The authorities initially acted in violation of Article 31 of the Constitution (on the freedom of association – ed.), thereby creating a situation in which people were likely to start using violence towards the police. The police had previously been prevented from going home, and they were brainwashed into thinking that everyone protesting was a miserable traitor and an enemy. They were sent out believing that all of the protesters were enemies with the underlying intention that they would use excessive force, and that’s why they hate us.
I encountered cases like this around four or five years ago, maybe even six years ago. I spoke privately to [representatives of the law enforcement agencies], and they told me different things. One of them said – quite politely, without wishing to cause offence – “The difference is that you don’t have to worry about getting paid”. Another said, “People give me orders, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Someone you call a ‘political prisoner’ has been arrested, and I’ve been ordered to detain him for 48 hours. If it were up to me, and if I were free to choose, I probably wouldn’t detain him, but I’ve been given my orders. If I ignored the orders, if I released the prisoner, tomorrow they would arrest me or sack me, and you wouldn’t ever know about it. Who would support my family then?” These are the kind of stories you hear all the time. It doesn’t justify their actions in fulfilling orders that are criminal in nature, but this is real life, where people are also afraid for themselves. Your average police officer is a thoroughly decent person, but he or she can be ordered to do anything, and if they don’t act on those orders, their life will be ruined. The people who talked to me weren’t lying. Given the difficult economic climate we are facing at present, they too are not particularly happy with their lives. We need to engage in dialogue with them, but not with all of them – there’s nothing to say to those who tortured the people who attended these protests, and who are nothing but common criminals.
At the same time, Frolova says that dialogue with the authorities is continuing with difficulty. In response OVD-Info launched “Let’s Destroy the Fortress and Return Detainees Their Right to A Defence”, a petition against police arbitrariness.
The “fortress” is a special status that is introduced to protect a police station from armed attack. It allows the authorities to prevent people entering and leaving a police station. Lawyers from independent human rights organisations, including OVD-Info, were not able to enter stations and help detainees. This meant the police were free to break the law. Detainees had their phones taken away from them, were beaten and were even tortured.
Here is just a cursory list of such cases that the detainees and their relatives have repeatedly reported to OVD-Info:
Twisting of arms, jumping on detainees, strangulation during arrest, artificial creation of a crush, the holding of detainees in the cold in front of buses and near police departments, the refusal to call an ambulance for the injured, beatings in police departments, coercion with violence and beating to exact fingerprints, photographing, unlocking phones, holding detainees without water and food, keeping in the basement all night and not letting them lie down, deliberately waking detainees up several times a night, a ban on going to the toilet in police stations and police vans, suffocation with a bag, retention in freezing cold conditions, being held in police vans in which not everyone can sit down, spraying pepper gas on the bus, intentionally communicating with detainees without masks and gloves.
This can happen to anyone, not only to those who came out on the 23rd, 31st and 2nd, to absolutely anyone. Dozens of people who simply got off the metro in the wrong place and at the wrong time and could not prove that they were there by chance (were detained). Everyone who got caught should be punished, this is their [authorities’] position. We will see what they will do next.
Now Tatyana Moskalkova (Ombudsman for Human Rights in Russia) has shown an interest in complaints about the restriction of access for lawyers – this is a direct violation of the very role of a lawyer, a violation of the article of the Constitution, in which every person is guaranteed protection. In our country, criminals and rapists have more rights to defence than, as they say, the “political” who came out [to protests].
Alla Frolova notes that people come out to express their civic position but that now “the state takes the position that whatever someone is dissatisfied with will definitely be political.” She talks about people’s dissatisfaction with the amendments to the Constitution, the economic situation, the covid epidemic, and recalls past protests:
“There is no professional activism – that’s just nonsense. People are faced with a variety of problems – longhaul truckers, mortgage holders – and until they are faced with a violation of their rights, they won’t go out on the streets, because they’re living their lives, and many believe that we have a reasonably lawful state. People want to live in better circumstances, and that’s normal. They want to raise their children, to have an education, and a good salary. And when we see how those in power live and how people survive, of course, discontent arises. When I became a widow twelve years ago, I had lost my husband because of this health care system; my daughter was left without a father when she was only 9. The state gave her a pension for the loss of her father of 1,114 rubles. This is the price of the lives of children and their parents, that is what it all comes down to. But when public officials and State Duma deputies give themselves pensions, what kind of equality are we talking about? It is social inequality, created by corrupt public officials. Not because everyone should have the exact same salary, but because there should not be such a gap. It seemed to me previously, that people were not there for the state, the state was there for people.”
Frolova does not want to prognosticate on the further development of the protests, but does not rule out that the actions of the authorities will be tougher if people continue to go out on the streets en masse, and expresses the hope that the police will behave lawfully, even if the authorities believe that people are breaking the law by joining an unsanctioned protest (despite Article 31 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to peaceful protest):
“OK, so you’ve detained them. But why, from that moment on, does everyone who has some relation to authority begin to break the law themselves? Violent and unlawful detentions; sometimes completely incomprehensible detentions, where someone is taking their dog for a walk and they are detained, and nothing can be proved; riding in police vans; banning defence lawyers from contact with clients; terrible conditions at the police station, where people sleep in an assembly hall, are tortured, things as simple as not giving permission to go to the toilet, not giving food or water; intimidation. Why do they think that they can break the law in relation to those who simply allowed themselves to go out peacefully into the street? I do not understand the position of several doctors, who, having arrived at the police station and looked over someone whose leg is broken, or whose head has been beaten, or who needs insulin, who has asthma, say that this doesn’t require hospitalisation. Doctors, come on and behave like doctors. You can be supportive towards Putin, towards the structures of power, to whomever you want, but remember that your job is to be a doctor. You don’t have to follow orders and be a senior assistant to the young policeman. You have arrived at the detention centre, observed [a detainee], and if you think they need help in hospital, provide them with that help, and don’t think that because they were arrested at a protest, they need to be left alone and not contacted or cared about. Why do the authorities think it is necessary to violate journalists’ rights? They deliberately put yellow vests on the journalists, so that at one moment they would not be touched but at another moment, they could remove it, and we wouldn’t see pictures of what happened? We should all be observers. You think that we went out on the streets wrongly – fine. You’ve detained us – now provide us with what is due: defence, medical assistance, fair treatment, conditions of detention, independent courts, and then bring charges against us.”