Justice Initiative director Vanessa Kogan on her work in Russia (interview with Kommersant)

19 December 2020

US citizen Vanessa Kogan, director of the Justice Initiative project, lived in Russia for 11 years, and here she married and had two children. On 2 December, at the Sakharovo migration centre, she was informed that her residence permit had been revoked because she presented a threat to Russia’s security. Vanessa Kogan talked to Kommersant correspondent Valeria Mishina about why she had come to our country to live and work, what had changed on the human rights agenda in recent years, and also why the Justice Initiative’s Moscow office had never been declared a foreign agent.

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Коммерсантъ]

The Justice Initiative NGO was created in 2001 in the Netherlands and has several partner organizations in Russia, including the Legal Assistance Organization Astreya in Moscow and a Justice Initiative affiliate in Nazran (Ingushetia), registered on 7 October 2005, which on 13 December 2019 was deemed a foreign agent. The Justice Initiative has partner organizations operating in 36 Russian regions.

How and when did you come to Russia? And why Russia exactly?

It’s a long story. Sometimes I joke that I was preprogrammed to come to Russia from birth. From a very early age I had a great interest in Russia due to my family story on both sides. My dad’s parents were emigrants from the Russian Empire. My dad didn’t talk a lot about his parents, who arrived in the United States in 1914. They died before I was born. I know they spoke both Russian and Yiddish. And occasionally I realized that my father could read Russian, too, but no particular attention was paid to that.

On my dad’s side, my grandfather was from Kamenets-Podolsky (now Ukraine), and my grandmother from Belostok (now Poland). My aunt would talk about how my grandfather served in the Russian army and fought in Mongolia. I started to write an inquiry to the Russian Defence Ministry in hopes of obtaining information about my grandfather, but I still haven’t gotten around to sending it.

Who on your mother’s side was connected to Russia?

My grandfather on my mother’s side, Walter Stoessel, was a diplomat, and in 1974-1976 he was the US ambassador to the USSR. He died when I was six, and I don’t remember him very well, but I know a lot about him from my grandmother.

As a child I loved to sit in his study with all his things – books, paintings, my grandfather loved Russian art.

I remember very well, there was some comic where my grandfather was depicted with the Chinese ambassador: the Chinese ambassador is kicking a bear, and the caption reads, “First, you get his attention!” while my grandfather is running down the stairs with his briefcase. At the time, I didn’t understand what that was about. Evidently it had something to do with the Soviet-Chinese clash in 1969.

On her little table my grandmother always kept the mirror cosmonauts wear on the sleeve of their spacesuit. My grandmother was given it, according to her, by one of the Soviet cosmonauts who took part in the Soyuz-Apollo flight. And all these different elements left their trace in me, evidently. I always wanted to learn Russian and always wanted to go to Russia.

Where did you learn Russian?

As a child I didn’t have an opportunity to study Russian. I went to an ordinary American school, where the choice of foreign languages isn’t great. I was lucky as a teenager to live in France for one year, where I attended a French school. It was a year full of new discoveries, and I fell in love with the country, but the feeling still never left me that I was going to study Russian and go to Russia. I’m a very goal-oriented person. I started studying Russian when I entered Columbia University in New York, where it was an elective.

And I first went to Russia in 2003, when I was still in college, and I lived in St. Petersburg.

This was part of a year-long study abroad program, an opportunity American students often have in their third year of study. I was on a partner program with the Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg State University. My first degree was in comparative literature – Russian and French.

But even then I had a definite interest in human rights. In America, I didn’t go to university right away but spent a year in France, where I interned at the municipal department of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). The experience made an impression on me. I was 18 and for the first time in my life I was encountering people, refugees, who had gone through terrible things, persecution, or they wanted to be reunited with their family. It was a completely different world. I found it interesting what regulations the lawyers relied on to get these people asylum. In university I was already attending courses in international law. I realized then that I could work in human rights specifically from the standpoint of utilizing international legal mechanisms.

How did you end up at Justice Initiative?

After university, I worked at Human Rights Watch, and it was there that I met the founder of the Justice Initiative, the Dutchman Diederik Lohman. At that time the organisation had existed for about five years and was involved in filing complaints to the ECtHR regarding human rights violations during the war in Chechnya. The organisation’s guiding principle was based on the fact that the European Court of Human Rights can play an important role in restoring the rights of the civilian population during armed conflict. It was incredibly interesting for me – I saw a huge potential in this – but at the same time no one really knew then what to expect from the ECtHR.

The first ECtHR judgment on Russian complaints originating from the Justice Initiative was in 2006 – this was the case of Bazorkina v. Russia (Fatima Bazorkina filed a complaint regarding the disappearance of her son in 2000 after he was detained by federal forces in Chechnya. The ECtHR, which Ms Bazorkina turned to in 2001, awarded her €35,000 in compensation – Kommersant). It was a triumphant decision and a good omen for those who at that time were awaiting a decision from the ECtHR. Then there was a lot of discussion about how the decision was to be implemented at the national level. Now we know that the Russian authorities largely ignore these judgments – we have one of the largest programmes in Russia on the implementation of the ECtHR judgments – and the results clearly show that the relatives of the disappeared still cannot claim that there was an effective investigation or any disclosure of the fate of their relatives. But around then everything was new. During this time, I applied for a grant to spend a year as an intern with a human rights organisation. In that program, there were several options for where I could be sent, but I ended up at the Justice Initiative. I spent about six months there, and then I worked in France at an NGO that was involved in helping refugees. And in the south of France, in Marseille, where I worked with refugees, there were a lot of people from the North Caucasus. After France, I enrolled at Cambridge and obtained a law degree.

I wanted to attend that university in particular, because I was interested in the European Court and thought that in Europe especially there would be better professors specializing in the European Convention on Human Rights.

And the programme in Cambridge was a lot less expensive than a similar programme in the United States. And in 2009, when I came to Russia, there was a call for applicants for the position of director at the Justice Initiative. I applied for this job and was successful in securing it.

During this time, there were many stories that really struck a nerve with me on a human level. For example, the case of Tabarik Israilova, who lost her son in 2002 at a checkpoint: he was detained by the military, then disappeared. The ECtHR ruled in her favour in 2009, after which the Russian authorities had to reopen the investigation. And this case was a landmark for us: we used every possible legal means to advance the investigation, even filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court of Russia. In the end, however, we had no success with this case, and then the investigators informed the applicant that they had found the remains of her son. But that was in 2015, and they still refuse to hand over these remains to her. And of course, Tabarik herself has already ceased to believe that it is possible to achieve justice in Russia. I am extremely concerned about the fact that this woman still does not know the fate of her son, although there seems to be an answer of some sort and, in a way, a form of closure. But she is still deprived of the truth. This, of course, is cruel and sad. And this is only one of such cases – we have more than 1,000 applicants from the North Caucasus.

What kind of cases did the organisation work on when you were in charge?

Back then we had one sole direction – defending fundamental human rights in armed conflict and post-conflict situations. The organisation worked almost exclusively in the North Caucasus on cases related to the right to life, freedom from torture, failure to return bodies and so on. There was also a project on Georgia and South Ossetia relating to the 2008 conflict – then the organisation filed exactly 35 complaints to the ECtHR, including in the interests of people living in South Ossetia who had become victims in the conflict. But the organisation gradually branched out and began to deal with issues of discrimination against women in the Caucasus, and later on, from some time in 2015 or 2016, issues of discrimination against women and children all across Russia. Then it was decided by the whole team – our mandate had expanded.

You have a unit for the problems faced by women in the North Caucasus, who complain that according to the existing tradition, after leaving their husband, they have to leave their children with the family of their former spouse. How do you work with these women?

This topic was an absolute breakthrough for us. When we were working in the North Caucasus, we simply started paying attention to what people were telling us. For example, when a family won their case in Strasbourg on their disappeared men, their wives would sometimes just mention in conversation with us that they hadn’t seen their children in a long time, because their husband’s family had taken them. We started talking to local lawyers who were going to the national courts defending the right of mothers to raise their children. It turns out that even if the lawyers managed to win their cases in favour of the mothers, the problem often persisted – the court’s decision that the children should live with their mother was often never enforced. And even now, when women appeal to the court officers, they are often told that if they want to see their children, they should go to their husbands.

However, it then seemed that enforcing court decisions was still possible, so we’re now talking about an escalation of the situation: court rulings in favour of mothers started being made even less often, and authorities started talking more often about national traditions.

And now, during the trials, our lawyers and their clients feel a lot of pressure, including receiving threats. At the same time, gaining access to the court has also become more difficult for women. This is currently happening in Chechnya, for example: women tell us that they are experiencing difficulties when appealing to the court to determine their children’s place of residence — they are required to prove that they have already visited the muftiate and were unable to resolve their issue there.

Your lawyers in Ingushetia handled the case of Aisha Azhigova, a girl who was living with the family of her aunt on her father’s side and lost her arm due to systematic torture. Last fall, the court sentenced the aunt and her husband to prison.

When we heard about this girl’s situation, we were in shock, like any normal person would be. Then we found out that relatives from her father’s side of the family may have been involved. Before long, the public began to accuse Aisha’s mother of inappropriate child-rearing practices, and the authorities even wanted to strip Lidia Azhigova of her parental right to raise not only Aisha, but her two other sons as well. When we found Lidia, she told us that she hadn’t seen her daughter in almost a year, that Aisha had essentially been kidnapped. Her husband’s sister took all of her children — she came to Lidia’s house threatening violence. She eventually returned the two boys. At that point, we decided to enter the case representing the mother, because we realized that it would be tremendously difficult for Lidia Azhigova to defend her rights. She was a fairly difficult client for us, since she has a long history of violence in the family, and the trauma gets passed down from generation to generation: Lidia Azhigova grew up without her mother and instead with her father’s family, where she was also subjected to systematic violence. Her own mother, Aisha’s grandmother, experienced the same — she also grew up without her mother. This is common practice.

The tragedy of Aisha, who lost part of her arm, is an extreme case, where a child was tortured to the extent that she will have a handicap for the rest of her life.

However, there are a great many children being brought up by their father’s family, not by their mother or even their father. In these families, there is both emotional and physical abuse. Therefore, Aisha’s case was representative of all of the problems of this practice — violation of the right to family life and a risk of violence.

At the end of 2019, we helped Aisha’s mother establish her custody rights. As for the criminal case, I think that our biggest contribution was that the child’s uncle was also indicted, not just her aunt. He was not part of the case initially. When Aisha was at the hospital in Moscow, we hired a psychologist so she could give testimony. (The Sunzhensky District Court of Ingushetia sentenced Aisha’s aunt, Makka Ganieva, to six years in a general regime penal colony, and her common-law spouse, Isa Marzieva, was sentenced to two and a half years in a maximum security colony.— “Ъ”).

We believe the sentence is not severe enough, and we can see from the case file that for some reason the prosecution does not contain the instances of physical violence that led to the amputation of the child’s arm.

This means that the case was poorly investigated, and elementary evidence was not collected. We appealed the verdict, but it’s quite difficult to persuade the child’s mother to stick it out — she says that the investigators are pressuring her and threatening to open a case against her if she doesn’t withdraw her appeal.

Justice Initiative also reported on female circumcision (considered female genital mutilation according to the criteria of the World Health Organization).

In 2013, during a trip to Dagestan with colleagues, we met a researcher, the president of the Caucasus Peace Development Centre Saida Sirazhudinova.  She told us about this practice. We had just startеd working on problems involving gender discrimination and violence. And we understood that, notwithstanding the testimony of victims, it was practically impossible to bring a criminal case involving mutilation. The topic was taboo, and women dealing with this problem were not going to turn to lawyers. In fact, that was the last thing they would do.  And many, on the strength of tradition, simply do not know that this operation is wrong, that it is a human rights violation.  Some actually consider it a common and proper manipulation.  We then began to search for new ways of working on this problem and conducting research.  We came to understand that many of the most serious violations of women’s rights in the region cannot be addressed right away by providing legal support: society has to become aware of the situation not through criminal cases but through high-quality studies.  Therefore, our first report was devoted to genital mutilation.

In 2019 the first criminal case was brought regarding female circumcision after such an operation was performed on a 9 year-old girl in a private clinic in Nazran.  In that case, judging by the material from the investigation, the child had been living with her mother but went to visit her father. 

A relative of the injured girl, her aunt, contacted us, took an active role in the case, and began to talk about the situation to the press.  Having already begun to represent injured parties, we got involved in the case.  Unfortunately, it was late in the process.  We think that the investigation made a number of mistakes, and now our lawyers are trying to correct them:  the case, which is still in court, was brought only against the doctor who performed the operation.  We asked that cases be brought against the father and the stepmother of the girl—they brought the girl to the clinic together.   Also, no measures were taken against the clinic.  And as far as the criminal case is concerned, one is struck immediately by the fact that the charge does not correspond to the seriousness of the action:  the case was brought under Article 115, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code (intentionally causing minor health damage).  In our view, the girl was caused serious psychological, to say nothing of physical, damage.

And there is yet another problem—under Russian law there is no definition of health damage with regard to alterations of female genitals.  It is impossible to define them under the classification of the Health Ministry, which ought to clarify the definitions of serious, medium, and minor damage.  If the clitoris is injured, then it is not considered severe health damage since, according to the classification of the Health Ministry, the clitoris is not an organ.  In addition to that, the question of psychological damage was not presented to the court. 

And here we have to ask, how can the child’s psyche and self-perception now properly develop when such a thing was done to her at an early age.  

Now we are trying to get the court to initiate a psychological evaluation and also revise the medical evaluation.

What other areas of work have you begun in recent years?

We have another area involving child protection—retraumatization.  It is a group of cases that, in general, are involved with sexual violence against minors.  Children are subject to repeat psychological trauma from investigative authorities during the investigation of these crimes.  This is independent of whether or not the investigation was effective or whether the offender was brought to justice. We say that, for a child, the investigation procedures can become painful and we try to call attention to this problem.  And now we are preparing recommendations for lawyers on how they can help a child avoid repeat traumatization; for example, petitioning the court to enable the child not to appear in person in the courtroom but to use a videotape.

This year, the Justice Initiative came up with a way to obtain an expensive drug for children with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA: a rare genetic disease that affects motor neurons and causes muscular wasting ), seeking enforcement measures from  the ECtHR.

Around every four to five years, the organization reviews its development plan and considers the prospect of working on new aspects of human rights violations, through those national and international mechanisms in which Russia is a participant. Earlier this year, my colleagues and I discussed a new aspect of upholding the right to life and freedom from torture. For some time, we have been monitoring topics such as access to painkillers for cancer patients, the effects of new import substitution laws, and  disruptions in the supply of essential medicines. We have observed how patients are fighting for their rights. We have begun to discuss issues around the right to health, which has become particularly significant in this year’s pandemic. And we decided that we wanted to help where patients are facing critical life and death situations. We didn’t start by saying, “Let’s work with SMA.” But we did want to see which essential life-saving medicines are unobtainable for patients because of governmental red tape or inaction.

And just a few months later we received information about a little girl in Krasnodar who had been diagnosed with SMA: she was in intensive care, because she could not get her “Spinraza” medication, despite the fact that the doctor had prescribed it for her and there was a regional obligation to supply it.  And so then we made our first appeal to the ECtHR through an urgent interim procedure – Rule 39, which can be invoked when a client’s life is under threat.

It was an urgent procedure that might have helped to achieve the necessary action from the state to save a person’s life. And it worked, the court responded and granted the request.

Most importantly, the government complied with the court order – within two months the child was able to receive the medicine. Unfortunately, in her case, it was still a little late, as every day is critical for somebody who has been diagnosed with Type 1 SMA. Even after receiving the medication, her health remains in the balance. And then we realized that obtaining SMA medication is a systemic problem, as this drug is very expensive and was not included in the federal list of essential medicines as presented in the list of pharmaceutical preparations considered crucial and essential to life (it was included on 26 November 2020 – Kommersant). This made it very difficult for patients to obtain it.  According to the law, this drug should be purchased from the budget funds of regional health ministries.

As it has turned out, we have discovered an effective mechanism that allows us to bypass red tape and resolve the problem. We have continued to make such appeals to the European Court of Human Rights for the benefit of other paediatric patients.

How many children were able to receive the medicine in this way this year?

The European Court’s approval of the request for urgent measures meant that the drug was administered to five children and two more were able to obtain it without applying directly to the ECtHR – they live in the regions for which we achieved the request for urgent measures from the ECtHR. This has led regional health ministries to finally start purchasing drugs for other patients.

In 2019, the ECtHR delivered its first decision on a complaint about domestic violence in Russia. The Justice Initiative represented the applicant in Strasbourg.

Yes, this is our most well-known domestic violence case – the case of Valeria Volodina. This was the first ECtHR ruling on domestic violence in Russia. I believe that this case was one of the reasons work on the draft law on the prevention of domestic violence intensified in 2019. Now the ECtHR is considering a significant number of such cases, including four applications which have been combined into one case, a pilot case that is. The European Court considers the issue to be systemic and does not believe effective mechanisms exist to prevent it at the national level. As a rule, the court indicates specific measures to resolve the situation, and Russia does indeed respond to pilot decisions by introducing new legislation or changes in law enforcement. Each applicant in this pilot case has their own story, each of them tragic and characterized by the authorities’ inaction in general. For example, our colleagues represent the interests of Margarita Gracheva (in December 2017, her ex-husband took her to a forest, where he cut off her hands. A month before the crime, Mrs Gracheva complained to the police about threats and abduction. – Kommersant). These stories should convince lawmakers that a more effective mechanism is needed to combat domestic violence in Russia. As such we are waiting for a pilot solution and hope it comes soon. 

What could the Russian authorities who decided to expel you not have liked? Do you think it related specifically to you or your organization?

I can only guess, but I am sure that this is related to my professional activities. Although it cannot be ruled out that their problem was with me personally as I received requests from the FSB to cooperate which I refused. People posing as FSB officers offered me a job as a director of a certain Russian human rights organization. I refused because I think that such an organization can hardly be independent. I was also asked to provide information about the cases we were going to handle and who we were going to defend before we got down to specific cases. There were also requests about our funding as well as the funding of other organizations.

Also, I don’t rule out that the decision to expel me was made on the basis of the results of the US presidential election. But even here I can only speculate. And if it is related to my work, I would link it to our activities in the North Caucasus – over the last few years we have been receiving information from other organisations and from our colleagues in the region that the local security services are hostile to us. I think the reason may be the cases we are conducting in Ingushetia, defending leaders of protests that took place during 2018-19 when people were protesting against the revision of the republic’s borders. We are defending eight people, they have been in detention for more than a year and a half and the trial is still ongoing. The decision may also be related to our cases on the protection of women’s rights in Chechnya, where we have cases that concern both custody and domestic violence.

Since 2017 we have been conducting lectures and training sessions for students in the North Caucasus, as well as for lawyers who work on the issues of domestic violence, discrimination and protection from torture.

And as those taking part in our training sessions told us, after our events people from the security services approached them and hinted they should not have any contact with us because we are a foreign organisation funded from foreign sources.

And how is your organisation funded ?

So far exclusively by foreign funding. We would very much like to diversify our funding and develop fundraising in Russia. But we understand that for the present there will not be enough, there won’t be enough funds to fully fund our organisation’s work. However, it is essential for us to develop in this direction because it is the key to the sustainability of civil society’s work.

For the most part, Legal Initiative’s member organisations have not been declared foreign agents in Russia. Only your partner organisation in Nazran has been entered on this register maintained by the Ministry of Justice. Why do you think your organisation has not yet been declared a foreign agent?

A very good question, I don’t have an answer. Every year we expect the situation to get worse. Like other NGOs, we have been inspected but we were not put on this register. We have had other strange signs of attention – for example, an ‘informal’ search of our office in Moscow in 2019. And we are still not able to rent an office in Moscow. In March 2020, our landlord refused to renew our lease without giving any reason. In July, I found a new office, we signed a lease agreement and redecorated the premises. Everything was fine until we submitted documents to the Ministry of Justice about the new address. After that the landlord started sending us proposals to terminate the lease contract.

If you have to leave, who will lead the organisation? Or will you continue the work remotely?

For the moment, I can’t answer these questions, but I will definitely continue to work at first, as it is necessary for the work of the organisation to continue. But I don’t know how the organisation will work in the future, or who will lead it. I believe that the leader should be in Russia – this is incredibly important, firstly for the applicants. And it’s very important for me to be here, to understand what we do, who we work with and who we help.

If you do have to leave Russia, where will you go?

Before the ECtHR’s decision to suspend my deportation, my husband and I were searching for tickets, as we wanted the family to leave together. Especially considering the fact that Christmas and New Year were so close, because we wanted to spend them with other relatives as well as our close family – it’s a tradition of ours. And we were really counting on being together, especially considering what a difficult year it was anyway. But I don’t know where we’ll go. Neither I nor my husband can imagine where our whole family can go.

We still haven’t come to terms with the thought that we’ll have to leave our home forever, leave our friends, our relatives, this city and this country. If I didn’t like it here, I’d have left earlier…I wouldn’t have stayed. But I like that people here, regardless of the political situation, are so caring, modest and amazing. Russians always ask: “Isn’t it hard for you here? Aren’t you treated badly?” That is to say, they worried about me, and this always touched me. I always heard the question: “Why did you come here? Everything’s falling apart in America, and you’re here! How? Everything’s so difficult here, everything’s so bad.” I replied that there really aren’t many differences between Russia and America, and I do believe that.

I can’t say that we never discussed the possibility of leaving Russia. But our children were born here, and we have a comfortable life. We already chose a school for our eldest child, and the youngest is going to kindergarten. And we didn’t plan to change this already difficult life. There was pressure in relation to our work in defending human rights, and it mounted up – it’s hard to live with such constant pressure. Nevertheless, we had plans for life here long-term. In 2017, we bought an apartment in Moscow, and wanted to refurbish it in March. We wanted to build a house in Moscow or Yaroslavl region. Sometimes we had thoughts and discussions along the lines of “We’ll redecorate everything and build our cottage in the country, and then something will happen.” I admit that that’s why I decided to apply for citizenship now, in order to have a kind of response as to how they feel about me and whether I can stay here for good.

The European Court of Human Rights suspended the deportation, usng Rule 39 on Emergency Measures. You also took the case to Koptevsky district court regarding the illegal decision of the Ministry of the Interior in Moscow on the deportation and asking for the deportation to be suspended until the court’s verdict entered into force. What is happening now in the Russian Court? 

I took the case to the Koptevsky court on 5 December. However, after several days the court’s chancellery told me the legal suit had still not been registered. Despite the fact that a decision on a defence motion to apply preliminary mesasures should be made in the course of a single day, this did not happen, so the procedural time frame was already violated. Then I discovered the court had already registered the suit on 9 December, but in the court’s chancellery they had labelled me as the plaintiff ‘Vanessa S.K.’ instead of ‘Kogan V.S.’ That is why they probably didn’t find it for a long time. On 17 December I called an assistant at the court who told me my request for preliminary measures of defence had been rejected on 14 December.

You were saying that you heard about the cancellation of the residency permit, the refusal to give you citizenship and the impending deportation in the Sakharovo migration centre. 

Yes, it turns out if the response to my question had been positive, I would have received the document in the district MFC [Multiple-Function Centre – an office providing access to a range of government services – ed.], but if the decision is negative, then they summon you to Sakharovo. On 2 December I went there and received the decision that I had to leave Russia in 15 days. It was all very impersonal and without a trace of sympathy. Very formal. The man stamped my passport, which cancelled my residency permit, then he looked at me and said: “So you understand everything?” I said, “Yes, I understand everything” and just ran away.  Later on I called my husband and just asked him to meet me. But he could tell from my voice what had happened. 

We met, hugged each other and cried. 

Then on 11 December the local police officer came to my home and told me I should have left Russia on 26 November as the decision had been issued on 16 November. The lawyers helping me insist the period for me to leave should only begin from the moment I received the announcement. However, they say there are cases where they come for a person before the time has expired and deport them anyway. That is why, when the police officer came, I took this as a sign my period for leaving wouldn’t be extended. And in fact that very day, literally half an hour before the local police officer, a group of police officers had come to the apartment and had asked questions about the former owner and also asked asked whether any ethnically Slavic people lived there. My husband replied that they did not. 

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Tyler Langendorfer, Elizabeth Rushton, Nina dePalma, John Tokolish, Graham Jones, Matthew Quigley, Simon Cosgrove, Cameron Evans, and Fergus Wright

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