12 December 2022
An interview with Igor Kalyapin, human rights defender and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize, by Andrei Salunov, for Free Space
The Human Rights Council has just been through an important event. Before their meeting, Vladimir Putin changed the Council’s makeup, removing everyone negatively inclined toward the special military operation in Ukraine. Even after these events, though, the Kremlin, it was reported, put together a stop list of topics, writes Verstka, quoting two council members. According to those sources, Council head Valery Fadeev forbade asking the president questions connected with the implementation of the law on “fake news” in our country and the story of the execution of a PMC Wagner mercenary. The Human Rights Council considered questions about the men mobilized and provisions for them very dangerous. They also forbade bringing up the SVO and discussing losses at the front. The protest by mothers of mobilized men also fell under the ban.
Human rights activist Igor Kalyapin, now a former member of the Russian Human Rights Council, shared his first impressions from this meeting. For the first time in 10 years of work on the Council, he observed its session fromt he outside – via a broadcast over federal television.
The President’s Stop List
How has the president changed in these 10 years of the Human Rights Council’s work?
I haven’t seen any particular changes. He used to look a little more cheerful, he could make jokes.
During council members’ reports the president regularly writes things in a sweeping hand…
He makes notes on a notepad in large letters. Putin gives the impression of someone who is informed about everything and has his bearings on a stack of different specialized issues, from ecology to doctors’ salaries. From time to time he is brought certain information, certain files, which they prepare for him with terrific speed. While someone is asking a question, he is quickly slipped information, but I never saw him wearing earbuds for someone to prompt him. Many of the topics and questions he reacts to later become presidential directives to organs at various levels.
What did you think of the meeting between the new members of the Human Rights Council and the president?
I don’t know any of the new members. My strongest impression was that the list of the most pointed questions wasn’t asked. Nearly all of them fell on the stop list that many people are talking about now. None of my colleagues have confirmed whether or not this is true. Although I do know the people who were planning to ask those questions, none of them were asked.
A few days ago Dmitry Peskov stated that everyone would have a chance to express their opinion at the president’s meeting with members of the Human Rights Council: “Everyone can always express their opinion, absolutely.” Traditionally, he said some were “not for the press,” but one way or another the president’s press secretary promised to publish even those afterward. Peskov emphasized that there were no restrictions on topics. “There cannot be a stop list. People there are strong-willed, they have shown their worth in their fields, and they won’t be looking at and following a stop list,” the Kremlin representative asserted…
The Human Rights Council used to be smaller, and it was a place for discussions. The fact that the president is commenting on every question is already a big deal. I thank him. But sometimes he obviously fails to understand something in a speech, and one really wants to correct him and clarify something there, but the rules categorically prohibit that. In my whole time, I only saw one time when Sokurov shifted his report to a dialogue simply by taking advantage of his personal acquaintance with Putin.
I don’t understand why several topics were not heard. I can’t accept the very idea that there was some kind of stop list there.
Information has appeared on the Internet from two current members of the Human Rights Council about how they were forbidden to discuss with Russian President Vladimir Putin the events in the special military operationor, for instance, the execution of the PMC Wagner mercenary.
I read about that, but I don’t understand what they mean by “forbidden.” Who forbade them? The council was created by presidential decree. The people in it were included in this decree. Who can ban a member of a presidential council from talking about something with the president? For god’s sake, turn off the cameras if you don’t want this to happen in public. But how can that work? On one hand, I can’t believe in a stop list or any prohibitions. I just know that there are at least a few extremely principled people on the Council who simply would not put up with turning all this into a spectacle. Everyone understands that the Council exists in a well-defined channel of possibilities. The Human Rights Council cannot stop the special miilitary operation. And it makes no sense to discuss this with the president; that would yield exactly no result of any kind. But this certainly does not mean that someone is forbidding the raising of these topics. If you want to hear about “Ukrainian Nazis” and NATO expansion one more time—fine…
Just before the meeting, Vladimir Putin changed the council’s makeup, removing everyone negatively inclined toward the special military operation, including you…
Yes. But the point is that neither Kalyapin nor Svanidze nor Evdokimova would ever have asked Putin questions about why he started this whole thing, even though we have stated our positions in public more than once. Of course we would never discuss them with Putin. It’s pointless. But to ask him why in our country we are so demonstratively, indicatively, and publicly violating federal legislation and the Russian Penal Enforcement Code and ignoring trial verdicts, and why certain private individuals, businessmen – I’m thinking of Prigozhin – are going around to penal colonies and taking convicts from there and giving them weapons – now that’s a question we were planning to ask. I’d warned the General Prosecutor’s Office about this. We were demanding an answer from them, after all, as to what measures prosecutors were taking in relation to a whole series of facts connected with the activities of Prigozhin’s PMC, if they’d taken them at all.
And what was the prosecutor’s answer?
He sent our first letter, on the need to verify the facts that this recruiting was happening, to the Federal Penitentiary Service. In our second letter, which was maximally precise, we were no longer asking him to verify facts that had been confirmed and that were being talked about not only by the foreign media. Our federal channels were talking about it, showing PMC men who were ‘expiating their guilt with blood,’ who were being given certain certificates saying they were now free. The fact that this is illegal is something we, too, understand full well. There was one, very specific question: what measures have the organs of the Prosecutor’s Office taken?
Obviously, the Ukrainian theme is not going to come to an end in 2022. This is also because of the lack of clarity regarding the two traditional December events – Putin’s ‘Big Press Cconference’ and his Direct Line with the People.’ Online people are debating as to whether the time has come to rename the Human Rights Council the Council on Presidential Rights, since human rights have long been forgotten and the rights themselves have been abolished. For others, the Council is reminiscent of a theatrical meeting.
If the entire council went along with the deal to accept the stop-list and tolerated some kind of bans from officials, well, that’s it! That means the Council no longer exists.
Surely in all these 10 years with the questions you raise, you must have sometime or other gotten on a stop list?
No way! If that kind of thing had happened, then even among the current members of the Council, if we had not been excluded, I know of at least three people who would certainly have simply asked the question about the stop-list publicly at the meeting with the President. It’s absolute arrogance! Before, when the members of the Human Rights Council were preparing speeches for the meeting with the president and it became known what they were going to talk about, it happened sometimes that some of the high-ranking officials from the departments concerned or the presidential administration got in touch with them and would try to give them advice: ‘You know, it would be better not to talk about this,’ or ‘Don’t formulate the question this way, do it like this. So far as I know, people didn’t keep quiet about it, but they told these advisers to get lost. Far from everyone was approached with such ‘recommendations,’ and it was always done in a very delicate manner, as advice, as a wish. As for stop-lists and bans, I still can’t believe they could exist.
After the council was ‘cleansed’ of those who could raise forbidden topics, it was possible to talk to the president about everything, but not about what was most important…
Not only not about what was most important. It was also possible to discuss the subject of the ‘Wagner’ military company. This whole story about recruiting prisoners and Prigozhin, before whom the prison gates open and who promises god knows what to the convicts lined up in front of him, is a blow to the prestige of government in the country. The authority of the president, who is the only one with the right to pardon, has been appropriated by some Prigozhin. Maybe the president agreed to this, but it is not nice! There are a lot of problems connected to this outrageous [partial] mobilization. I understand it makes no sense to talk to the president about [the special operation]. It doesn’t matter what they call it. It’s a separate outrage that more than 200,000 people have been forcibly sent to take part in this [special operation]. Not voluntarily, not for money, not under contract, but dragged by the scruff of away from their tractor, away from their computer…
There is no point in discussing it, I agree. The fact that people, moreover without any training, who did their compulsory military service in the army ten years ago, where they had had the very minimum of practice in shooting, and now without any training are being sent to the front line often even without any uniform – this has to be talked about. I don’t understand why these topics have been banned. This is important not least for the President, for the Special Military Operation. And why has discussing the investigation of torture been banned? I was going to ask about that. Moreover, Eva Merkacheva was going to talk about it. It was her that Putin told a year ago that yes, it was an outrage; we shall investigate it and we shall personally make sure it happens, and so on. A year has passed. Everyone has already forgotten the torture in the Saratov tuberculosis prison hospital, in Kirov, in Mordovia, in Angarsk in Irkutsk region. What has been happening with all these investigations? A whole year has gone by. […] I simply don’t remember Putin avoiding any questions before. He always had an answer, even for the most unpleasant topic. Or he evaded an answer – that also happened. But there was never any ban on bringing up particular topics.
‘Important little particular issues’
There is no problem of desertion in the Russian forces; the guys, according to Putin, are fighting brilliantly. The questions of losses at the front or the protests of mothers were not discussed at the Council meeting. And they thanked the president for his timely incorporation of the regions of Donbass into Russia. Many people didn’t understand why this meeting was held at all.
Some topics were raised there. And if military action had not been happening, one could have thought that this was a normal working meeting. Svetlana Gennadyevna Makovetskaya made a long, detailed and businesslike proposal to clarify the legislation on nonprofit organizations, to amend the laws on NGOs and the Civil Code, and some others raised some other important small particular issues. You could have thought that this meeting of the Human Rights Council was taking place in 2013 or some such year when the country was not facing any global issues, as though there are no political prisoners, as though we are not conducting military action…
Why the issues connected to [partial] mobilization and the outrageous material and technical provisions for those being mobilized in military units were banned is not at all clear to me. In my opinion, such discussion should be in the interests of the authorities, including the interests of the Commander-in-Chief. It would at least be providing some kind of feedback.
If you were given five minutes to speak at this session of the Human Rights Council, what would you have asked the President?
Well, it was planned to give six minutes to each Council member. I would have asked him about the recruitment of convicts. What’s at issue is not the fact that the PMC recruits anyone. The point is that the Federal Penitentiary Service allows them to do this, in fact organizes this recruitment. The prison gates are opened to the PMC and convicts are handed over to some civilian. This civilian – who is not from the military and has no official powers in this regard – publicly tells the lined up convicts what kind of things they will be shot for, but if they spend six months fighting, they’ll get a pardon. […] In our country there is only one person who can grant a pardon – the president, no one else. That is, some private person, horribly similar to a certain cook, hands out promises in the name of the president, while completely ignoring all the Federal Laws, the Criminal Code, and court verdicts.
No one on this Human Rights Council has said a word about torture in Russian prisons and remand centres. Has that problem been solved?
Of course not. The changes approved in criminal legislation have nothing to do with what we were proposing and wanting. Here, though, one colleague of mine — smart, unlike me, evidently — turned out to be right when back last year he warned me that these were not the times to be changing legislation. Right now any change will only make matters worse. You don’t change a sailboat’s rigging during a storm. Everything will get smashed to hell and carry off mast and sail into the sea. That’s more or less what’s happening. These days, as soon as federal officials and deputies start to change something there in the legislation, no matter what positive goals have been declared in doing so, everything gets drastically worse, any law.
I’ve spoken about the necessity of passing three measures: introducing a criminal article into the Russian Criminal Code; creating a special subdivision in the Investigative Committee to operate under that article; and public oversight over how this all is going to come about. Expansion of the authorities of the Public Oversight Commissions that would track observance of the legislation banning torture. Of all this, the only thing done is the change in the Criminal Code, moreover it is so muddle-headed that in fact it only made the situation worse. They tried to take decorative measures. The intentions of Andrei Klishas [chair of the Federation Council Committee on Constitutional Legislation] are perfectly obvious. He decided to switch something so that an article under that name would appear in the Criminal Code but so that in essence nothing changed as a result. He succeeded, but this made what there was even worse. And here we have the result. Now raising this subject and asking them to do something about it in addition will only lead to making the legislation even worse. No one now is going to create a special department in the Investigative Committee for investigating official crimes, and we can forget all about public oversight, which has basically been eliminated.
What happened with torture this year?
Torture got bolder. I don’t have a flow of statistics on the investigations. The fact that complaints of torture have increased, complaints they’re not even trying especially to conceal, is obvious.
“A Total Crock”
Vladimir Putin said that the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society could become an effective international platform for the defence of human rights. What do you think of the president’s proposal?
The Council’s current makeup — it’s not about human rights at all. Right now there are all kinds of different public figures and activists, but they aren’t and aren’t even trying to look like lawyers or human rights activists. At one time I was reassured by members of the president’s administration when I expressed outrage over certain appointments or certain topics not connected with human rights that the Council had taken up. I was always told: “Igor Aleksandrovich, don’t you forget that our Council is not only about human rights but also about the development of civil society.”
The Council’s current makeup is entirely not about human rights. There are no human rights activists or any qualified lawyers.
Thank goodness, Anatoly Ivanovich Kovler is still there for now, for example. I respect him deeply, but he’s keeping quiet and sitting tight. When they start discussing in earnest in front of him the possibility of creating some kind of international court to replace the European Court of Human Rights — I can imagine what goes on in his head and heart. He understands that this is a total crock. Nonsense, simply. Something like that can be proposed by people who don’t understand what the European Court is in general, what it does, how it’s organized, and what kind of mechanism it is. And right now this is quite a serious matter. They can be forgiven, they’re not lawyers. But there are quite a few people like that in the present-day makeup, and they simply do not understand very well what human rights are even theoretically.
Where does the need for the Human Rights Council lie now?
There are classic human rights topics that human rights activists have always dealt with: from all kinds of police outrages and the problems of prisoners to public oversight over the activities of the courts. The basic rights that are written about in important international documents. Let’s take the European Convention on Human Rights, which contains a total of 13 articles on rights, the main ones being the right to life, the ban on torture, the right to respect for private life, and the right to liberty and security of person.
The 50 people on the Human Rights Council could reflect this entire spectrum of rights. Tell me, who among them is going to work on the right to respect for private family life? Who is going to on the right to personal liberty and security, and who is going to track how Articles 21, 52, and 53 of our own Russian Constitution are being carried out? No one is going to do that.
Human rights are rights that regulate relations between the individual and the state. Supplying soldiers with adequate equipment and issuing them bullets before a battle is a very important matter, but it has nothing to do with human rights.
When did you first have doubts about whether you would keep your place on the Human Rights Council?
My first doubts go as far back as late 2014. That was when exactly half of the Human Rights Council voted for a document condemning sending troops into Crimea. There was a major scandal there in connection with signing this document. Ever since, half the Council has been waiting for us all to be driven out. Nearly all have been driven out in the intervening years, and some left of their own accord. I lasted an amazingly long time on the Council after that, 10 years. I myself am amazed.
From the editors.: In connection with legislative bans that have gone into force, we are compelled to publish the text of this interview with minor abridgements.