Igor Kalyapin: I became caught up with the idea of proving the obvious – people are being tortured

30 December 2019

Igor Kalyapin, head of the human rights organisation Committee against Torture, talks about the main difference between human rights activists and lawyers, about his sense of duty ‘in the worst sense of the word’ and about where Gleb Zheglov went wrong. Igor Kalyapin is a recipient of a Moscow Helsinki Group Award.

Photo by Slava Zamyslov / ASI 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: АSI]

This interview is part of a project by the Agency of Social Information and the V. Potanin Charitable Foundation. ‘NGO Profiles’ is a series of conversations with non-profit professionals about their careers in the civic sector. The material is cross-media, published in partnership with the Jobs for Good People portal and Les.Media.

Many people have the impression that human rights exist in isolation from civil society. Even in the title of the Council on Human Rights and Civil Society these concepts are separate. Why is this?

This separation does not come from the human rights community. I would say this is the doing of state institutions which are trying to manipulate public opinion. A few years ago, under Surkov, we had the so-called GONGOs (Government-Organised Non-Governmental Organisations) which are supposedly independent and public. In fact they are created by the state in order to manipulate public opinion. They are simulacra, a decoration designed to create the impression of some kind of social activity or other. Remember all those groups like Walking Together, Ours and Yours.

In practice it has been shown that these organisations are not independent; they exist only in as far as they are fed by the authorities. They are not about human rights, of course. They are created to provide the appearance of public support for government initiatives.

When representatives of independent civil society organisations start to resent this and say, ‘Excuse me, but this organisation is a GONGO’, the authorities usually reply: ‘The fact that their people poured green stuff on you doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not part of civil society.’ I think this rhetoric gave rise to the idea that on the one hand there are human rights activists, and on the other civil society. Which is of course not so.

It seems to me that there is still a ‘glass wall’ between those who defend the rights of those who have suffered at the hands of the state, and the rights of everyone else: women, children, patients et cetera. Don’t you feel the same?

Again, this is quite an artificial difference. You see, when the authorities start to persecute one group of human rights activists, that group is stigmatised, and gets a complex about being different. They begin to feel that they are special. We are persecuted, and that means we are special – that’s how the logic goes.

In fact, the focus of state persecution is constantly changing. First to be labelled a foreign agent was the Golos movement – there was an impression that the legislation was created for Golos. And it wasn’t hard to protest against this law; people thought it wouldn’t touch anyone else. But then it turned out that activists protecting whales in the White Sea were also foreign agents. And people combatting AIDS, and a whole lot of environmental organisations suddenly became foreign agents. And then organisations were being systematically labelled foreign agents, because there was an instruction to unearth some in every region.

Are you being serious now?

Absolutely! Three or four years ago, at the Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov reported to Vladimir Putin, citing the example that in the Far North there were only two NGOs. The leader of one of them was quite openly summoned to the prosecutor’s office and told that foreign agents had to be caught. And if there aren’t any, well that shows the prosecutor’s office is not doing its job.

Our organisation has been labelled a foreign agent three times. Using my official position I got an appointment with Valery Fedorov (former first deputy minister of internal affairs); he was responsible for the identification and prosecution of all foreign agents. I bothered him for a long time; we probably discussed the matter for two hours.

In our organisation, my personal financial donation was considered foreign funding. I told him: ‘In Nizhny Novgorod, the Gorky Automobile Plant is the main enterprise. They sell their cars to the West. Am I to take it that any worker at that factory who gives us money will be considered a source of foreign financing?’ Mr Fedorov said yes, that would be so.

That was when I realised the Ministry of Justice was quite prepared to declare anyone and everyone a foreign agent. 
In 2015 you said, that you wouldn’t operate with the status of foreign agent.

We lost this status along with our status as a legal entity. The Committee against Torture is an organisation with its pockets sewn shut. We don’t have the technical capability to receive foreign funding, because there is no balance, no property, no bank account. We are an association of citizens. It’s what Memorial has been for a long time. And it’s clear that they’re being victimized with fines.

Generally speaking, NGOs appeared so that the state could provide some preferential form of support for civic associations. Previously, this made sense, it provided opportunities for interaction with the authorities and other organisations. But the beneficial legal form has turned into a Procrustean bed.

The additional reporting [required for foreign agent NGOs] is a form of intimidation, not a way of obtaining information. It is somewhat damaging, but we can survive. But the fact that, at any kind of event, I should present myself as a foreign agent is fundamentally wrong. Even a person who has committed a murder, proven in court, is not required to introduce themselves as a murderer.

What do you think about the changes to the Human Rights Council? One gets the impression that you have quite warm relations with Mikhail Fedotov.

I have always been on good terms with Mikhail Fedotov [chair of the Human Rights Council until October 2019], he is himself a very warm person. I can honestly say, and no offence to Valery Fadeev [current chair of the Human Rights Council], whom I have also known for a long time, that Fedotov is a person absolutely committed to human rights, and this has been characteristic of him for a long time. This is despite the fact there are lots of things we don’t agree on, but I learnt a great deal from him.

Fadeev, unlike Fedotov, is a political public figure. Although he is a liberal, he is a liberal in the mold of United Russia. And by the way, Fadeev is one of the strongest supporters and ideologists of the law on foreign agents. What can I think of that? This is a form of patriotism that turns into aggression: they are enemies, consequently we mustn’t take anything from the enemy. At the same time Fadeev is a clever person who is able to talk with all kinds of people. He understands that he has been appointed as a human rights defender. I think he will honestly try to perform this role.

Why does it happen at all that there are government-appointed human rights defenders in Russia?

I’ll express a fairly extreme point of view, but you are interviewing Kalyapin as a person, and not as a representative of the Human Rights Council? I consider that these are quite deliberate measures intended to replace human rights activism with a surrogate. I think that it is possible that Mr Fadeev is a figure through whom an attempt will be made to significantly reshape the work of the Human Rights Council.

The great majority of human rights ombudsmen in the regions are government officials. If there is a problem, then the task of the ombudsman is not to defend a person’s rights, but to smooth over difficult situations and lower the temperature of passions. Ombudsmen are defenders of the authorities, and not human rights defenders.
Not so long ago, on Russian Flag Day, you told your story of how you took part in a May Day demonstration thirty years ago, carrying the Russian tricolour. Soon after you started to have problems at work and your research career came to an end…

It would be an exaggeration to speak of a research career for a second year student. It would be better to say that I parted with my dreams of a career in science. Within the space of a month I was driven out from everything: from work, from the institute. It was a time when everything was rapidly changing; back then there were cooperatives, and I worked in them for some time, part-time. Then I did some work on the side in construction, and after a while some colleagues and I opened a private business. Up until 1993, if I had been asked, “What do you perceive yourself to be?” I would have said I was a future businessman.

Weren’t you involved in democratic developments at the same time?

I supported [democracy] as a businessman. I was one of the founders of the Nizhny Novgorod Society for Human Rights, I sponsored it and took part in its undertakings and actions. But it was not my top priority. Certainly, civil society has to be developed. But in our country people had the same attitude toward community activity as they have towards toward ‘total idiots’[pridurok], because in the USSR all civic organizations were organized from above, and otherwise they could not be established. ‘Pridurok’ is a subculture slang term. In prison that’s what they called amateur performers who sang about birches and mountain ash trees in prison clubs. The phoniness which permeated any and all community activity under the Soviet state is something we’ve inherited from those times.

It was very important to show that a new phenomenon had appeared, that truly independent new organizations had appeared which would now really do something good.

In 1995 I went to Warsaw to study at the School of Human Rights. The training there helped me a great deal and prompted me to study law.

In the 1990s my total faith in business, in a market which puts everything in order, began to waver. I clearly saw a tendency which did not lead to any sort of democracy. Gangsters enjoyed the open connivance of the law-enforcement system: it wasn’t that the state had no power to fight it – it had no desire. I had lots of friends and acquaintances in law-enforcement structures, and very high-ranking police officers in the department against organised crime told me: “Why should we be engaged in protecting businesspeople who work in private companies?”

What’s your attitude to the growing interest in the libertarian concept of economic freedom?

Libertarians have simply never had any experience of the realities of the 1990s, when gangsters did as they pleased. Libertarians never served in “construction battalions” in the Russian Far East, and they have no experience of spending time in a prison that is actually run by the top prisoners.

I’m no supporter whatsoever of the idea that the less government there is, the better. The state is not the greatest evil; it’s simply necessary to constantly work on perfecting it, because there are always people who want to make it serve them. We have to do things so that the government works for everyone and not just for some individuals.

I believe that democracy is possible, but everything depends on the condition of society: is it capable of democracy or not?Is society free in the Russian Federation?

I’ve got a big question about this, but it’s not officials I want to ask, but ordinary people. Democracy, to put it mildly, is in a bad way in our country – indeed, we don’t have democracy. It’s not because the president seized power, but because people don’t want to check up on anything: they want to spend a working day in the office and do as they’re told. If things are like that, we won’t have any democracy in the future. That’s the way it is now.

Coming back to the matter of how the Committee against Torture was set up, how come, of all forms of human rights violations, you chose to take up the issue of torture?

There was the episode you’ve already asked about [on a previous occasion, Kaliapin told ASI about when he was wrongly accused of embezzlement in 1992 and tortured. — ed.] I was brutally detained and beaten almost without breaks or with rare pauses for a smoke break. I was beaten almost to a pulp, spent three months in harsh conditions in a detention centre. There were 11 of us in a four-bed cell, it’s impossible to even imagine such conditions now. But I can say with absolute certainty that all this had nothing to do with my choice of what to focus on, although it was certainly a significant experience in my life.

Most of my friends were in the police, it just turned out that way. I’ve never had a negative attitude towards police officers or law enforcement agencies in general. This experience of torture added to my interest in how it all works in these organisations on the inside, because I saw and heard quite a lot. I was in jail while a case was being investigated in which I was the defendant.

I began working on torture for a different reason: I worked for several years with the Nizhny Novgorod Society for Human Rights, which worked on other things: family violence, xenophobia and prisoners’ rights. I was interested in topics to do with prisons, I travelled to many detention centres and found it very interesting: those detention centres run by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the prison colonies.

That’s what surprised me. For example, if the trees in a park are cut down, there are pros and cons, there’s a controversy. But the fact that they are cut down is beyond doubt. Torture was the only problem that was absolutely categorically denied. They said: “Torture? What are you talking about? It isn’t 1937, there isn’t any torture.” When a man is collected from the police station, beaten into a pulp, they say that he fell over ten times and it had nothing to do with torture.

We have a magnificent archive with examples like this in it: during interrogation he stood up and hit his head on the shelf. Did the expert record that he was hit four times? Well, that means he hit the shelf four times. This information isn’t an anecdote, but taken from a ruling not to initiate criminal proceedings. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes: everyone knows that the police beat people up, it’s an obvious fact, yet the phenomenon is completely denied.

I became caught up with the idea of proving the obvious.

How would you now evaluate your success in proving what is obvious? Has anyone budged?
Of course. Nowadays who could say that there’s no torture in our country? People have even grown accustomed to the word ‘torture.’ The concept was defined clearly in the Convention against Torture: firstly, it is a deliberate action, and secondly it has a definitive goal. For example, the brutal conditions in pre-trial detention centres should not exist, but those conditions aren’t torture.

I really believe that we shall succeed in classifying torture as a separate legally-defined crime, so there would be a special article for it in the Criminal Code. Now it’s dealt with under the article on abuse of power. The laws that we have are, in principle, quite sufficient for handling torture.

They’re just not applied.

I begin many of my speeches by saying that the symbol of Russia isn’t the matryoshka, the balalaika, vodka, or black caviar. The symbol of Russia is a Potemkin village. Our legislation is quite good, but it’s a village with a beautiful facade: the laws simply aren’t applied. Law enforcement and legislation exist on different planes, in different worlds.

Almost 200 years ago, British historian Thomas Macaulay said, “The law serves no purpose for those who don’t have the means and the courage to defend it.” This could be said about our laws. Nothing will change when we create new articles: what difference does it make which article it is that we’re not using?

We need a special body to investigate these crimes. Out in the real world, let’s say in a small district town of Berendeyevka or somewhere, there is a police department that employs ten criminal investigation agents. In this region, there’s also a department of the Investigative Committee, which employs two investigators. There’s a statement on the table for an investigator, saying that an officer beat and tortured someone, and the investigator recognizes that he will be told to dismiss the case. If the investigator begins to gather evidence, the officers won’t forgive him. And he’ll have to look the officers in the eye the next day. He can’t do his job without them.

How do we solve this problem?

It’s simple. This type of case needs to be handled by investigators who don’t work in the region. It’s best for them to be investigators from a special unit that the chief of the local police can’t bargain with.
Let’s get back to the Committee Against Torture. At the moment you have six regional branches in Russia. On what principle are they set up?

The methodology we’ve developed can be applied anywhere, you can set up a whole bunch of branches. But in Russia everything depends on people. To do this work you need qualified lawyers specialized in criminal law, prepared to work for a salary. It’s not meagre, but it’s a salary, it’s not lawyer’s fees. A lawyer with such a qualification can earn many times more.

It’s impossible to compare with working in the state sector – they get salaries there too, but in addition you have ID, a uniform, a gun, street credibility. You’re not embarrassed to explain where you work. When you say you work for a human rights organization you get the response: “So you couldn’t get a decent job?”

There were some dramatic events connected to the closing down of your branch in Mari El.

Yes, there were. But the press didn’t throw much light on it. Who likes to talk about unpleasant things?

We do creative work. Our investigating lawyer first thinks about how to go about things and understand whether there was torture or whether a person is making it up, and people can have a whole range of reasons for that. If the lawyer comes to the conclusion that there was torture, how do you assert the rights of the citizen? How do you make scoundrels from the police or the Penitentiary Service accountable? How do you gather evidence? It’s all a creative process.

If at the same time someone does some other legal work, the basic case will inevitably suffer. Because he’s sitting in a warm office rented and maintained by the Committee against Torture, typing a complaint on the Committee’s computer to an acquaintance of his at the court, who will later pay him five thousand roubles for it.

In our time we had a lot of arguments, we tried different things and we came to the view that anyone who is a regular employee of ours should sign an agreement that absolutely forbids him or her from carrying out any paid legal work on the side. Exceptions are made only by agreement with me, but it’s practically impossible to get my agreement.

Our top colleague in Mari El got in to trouble for working on cases involving “leftists”. I really hated to part with him, because we went through hell and back together; an extraordinary guy. A friend of his asked him to get involved in some litigation over a civil case, and then he got caught up in that case.

We said goodbye to him, and the people left without a leader couldn’t manage to work independently, so they closed the branch. We had an analogous situation in Bashkiria: there was a two-year interval, we had to fire people, it took a long time to find replacements.

I wanted to ask about Chechnya. It’s my understanding that you have a quite personal story connected with it.

It’s not personal, why does everyone try to make out there’s a personal enmity between me and Ramzan Kadyrov?

I wasn’t talking about a personal enmity with Ramzan Kadyrov. The North Caucasus office, which was in Grozny for a long time, was moved to Pyatigorsk. Is the work on Chechnya still going on?

It never stopped for a minute. Where did that myth come from? We moved our office to Pyatigorsk because of three pogroms in which all of our office equipment was destroyed. We replaced everything once, then a second time, we spent millions on it. How much can you spend? Apart from that, the second time around people were almost killed there.

Aren’t you afraid to continue working now?

We are very afraid, but we’ll carry on because there are people there who want to work, who are ready to do it and consider it their mission. If people want to work, they will. And the office in Pyatigorsk probably won’t be set on fire.

What would you reply to someone who says: “You’ll never find out the truth without torture, without beating someone”?

A person on the street or a law enforcement officer?

Do you have different answers?

Of course I have different answers. Ordinary people think that torture is bad, but should it involve a paedophile, then their attitude changes. They don’t understand that anyone can be detained and tortured and, by morning, they’ll confess to paedophilia and to terrorism.

And what about law enforcement agencies?

They know full well that it’s possible to force anyone to confess to anything. But they’ll tell you that they don’t torture everyone, only those who are actually guilty: “I know he’s a thug”, and they torture him so that he’ll admit it. It’s like Zheglov said: “A thief should be in prison, and no one cares how I put him there.” In this situation, he takes on the role of investigator, prosecutor and judge – all at the same time.

Is it possible to appeal to humanism when talking with representatives of the authorities, to say that human beings shouldn’t be beaten because it causes them pain?

No. I agree with such arguments, but I can tell you without a doubt that it doesn’t work. It is the value system I have, but those people usually have a different one, and you will never change their minds.

You have to show them in a different way. They need to be told: “In this case, you have assumed a power that doesn’t belong to you. You are committing a far more serious crime called ‘exceeding official powers.’ You are committing a crime against the state, while Kostya Saprykin [the main character, a pickpocket, in the film The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed – ed.] just stole a purse. What he did comes with a sentence of up to five years, but what you’re doing is up to ten years. What are you talking about? Who is the criminal? Here you are definitely the criminal.” They’ll understand that.

In one interview, journalists compared the Committee Against Torture to a business. You replied, “The Committee Against Torture is by no means a business structure.” These days, NGOs tend to adopt a business approach and they are very keen to adopt that approach.

I think some business approaches are definitely needed because we handle large amounts of money. The people who work for us receive salaries and bonuses, and there is an incentive scheme in place. We take lawyers rather than human rights defenders, and we spend a long time watching someone to see if we will be able to make a human rights defender out of them or not.

Do your employees have ‘Key Performance Indicators’? 
They don’t, because working them out would be rather difficult. As I see it, “business” is about earning money, and profit is a good indicator that a business structure is succeeding. That kind of approach is impossible in a human rights organisation. You might be a supremely successful human rights activist without anyone giving you any money for it or paying you to do it. The reward comes from bringing about change rather than from earning money.

How does a lawyer differ from a human rights activist?

They have different motivations. Lawyers are serving the interests of someone or other, and this is perfectly normal – a lawyer’s job is to defend his or her client’s interests. Someone might come to a lawyer and say that he or she has committed a murder, and the lawyer – despite knowing that the person is really a murderer – is obliged by law to help this person to deceive the investigators, to deceive the court and to escape criminal liability for murder. That’s just what the job involves. A lawyer working for some company or other might have to defend the company against customers claiming that the company sells defective goods. In reality the goods are indeed defective, but the lawyer’s task is to prove the opposite.

And where do morals come into it?

That’s a question that every one of us must answer for ourselves. Jurisprudence is a very specific area of knowledge. Someone appearing before a court needs the professional assistance of a lawyer, who will dress up his submissions to the court in the appropriate legal language. The lawyer knows how the procedure works, and the lawyer’s client is the one who knows what he or she wants out of the procedure. A lawyer should not be seen as no better than the individual he or she is defending – he or she is not defending a murderer or acting as an associate of a murderer, but simply acting as a legal adviser for someone who is defending his or her own interests in court.

So why can a lawyer not also be a human rights activist?

Because a lawyer defends someone else’s interests, and a human rights activist defends everyone’s rights.

If the situation regarding torture is deteriorating, what motivates you to keep on going?

A feeling of obligation, in the very worst sense of the word.

What kind of obligation? An obligation towards society?

Some time ago I read Orwell’s 1984, and found it the most chilling book I had ever read in my life – not least because society is sliding further and further towards 1984 before our very eyes. I believe that a society of this kind is a complete dead end, without any way out and without any hope.

I feel an obligation towards society in the sense that we must not allow it to become dehumanised, but my main motivation is a feeling of obligation towards specific individuals. If our lawyers do not set the wheels in motion for a particular case, that individual will not receive assistance from anyone. And behind each of these individuals, metaphorically speaking, there is a grinning police officer who carried out the beating but is not in the least bit alarmed when the individual lodges a complaint about it. This police officer doesn’t even try to hide how amusing he finds the whole thing: “The hell with it, I’ll write a letter of explanation and then a report. Nothing will happen. Complain away – who’s going to listen to you? The UN?”

Why you? Why not leave the task of helping these people to someone else?

It’s not a rational decision. I read yet another complaint lodged by someone, and I can imagine roughly how it all happened; I can imagine how the investigator will respond, how the Investigative Committee will respond, and how the police officer will respond when he finds out that the complaint has been made. I know straight away that not getting involved is impossible, since the individual who was beaten up also faces the prospect of being mocked and derided. The adrenaline simply starts to pump through my veins.

Is it a calling?

It’s not a calling, it’s a moral imperative. And I feel that imperative more acutely with every year that passes.

Translated by Anna Bowles, Nina DePalma, Suzanne Eade Roberts, Mercedes Malcomson, Alissa Valles, Nicky Brown and Joanne Reynolds


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