Marina Litvinovich: I am the Canary in the Coal Mine
Marina Litvinovich

9 March 2021

According to “MBK Media,” a number of current and former members of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission (POC) have signed an open letter in defence of the human rights defender Marina Litvinovich, whom the commission wants to expel.  It had been reported earlier that the majority of POC members had spoken out in support of stripping Litvinovich of her membership in the POC, which monitors the human rights of the arrested and imprisoned.  The matter will now be examined by the Civic Chamber.

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Радио Свобода]

The question of expulsion was initiated by one of the POC members who felt that, in an interview with Dozhd, Marina Litvinovich disclosed information from an investigation into Liubov Sobol, a colleague of Aleksei Navalny.  Litvinovich maintains that she violated nothing.

The petition against the expulsion of human rights defender Marina Litvinovich from the Moscow Public Oversight Commission had gathered more than 12,000 signatures as of 9 March.  The signatories demanded that Litvinovich remain a member of the commission and that her work not be hindered.  The petition is posted on the site

The petition, which was initiated by the human rights defender Lev Ponomarev, states that the very possibility of expelling one of the commission’s most active members “undermines trust in the POC” and violates the law on public monitoring. It notes that in 2020, Litvinovich made 151 visits to various places of incarceration, and in 2021 she had made 37 visits through 6 March, including to the Sakharovo temporary detention center where hundreds of participants in the January protests in Moscow were being held.  The signatories include Valery Borshchev, Andrei Babushkin, Eva Merkacheva, Zoya Svetova, Evgeny Enikeyev, Kogershin Sagieva and other human rights defenders and public figures. 

In an interview with Radio Liberty, Marina Litvinovich spoke of why they want to fire her from the POC:

“As of now, I continue to be a member of the Public Oversight Commission.  At the POC session, my colleagues voted to send the documents for my expulsion to the Council of the Public Chamber, which is supposed to make the final decision.  It is not clear when they will make that decision. As far as the commission session where my colleagues voted to expel me goes, I was formally informed that I, they said, disclosed information about a preliminary investigation and therefore violated the law. They presented me with no evidence that I, in fact, had disclosed this information. There was not one official piece of paper from the investigators, absolutely no documents.  And even if we suppose that I really did disclose something, it does not follow that there should be expulsion from the POC, only a warning from the investigator that I am obligated not to disclose any information. But no one gave me any such paper and there was never any discussion of it.  Therefore, the vote on my expulsion from the POC actually turns out not to be lawful.”

But this meeting of the Public Oversight Commission, was it some kind of scheduled meeting, or did the committee gather specially to consider the question of your possible expulsion?

“It was a special, unscheduled meeting, it was unexpected for all of us. It took place on 5 March, began at 7 o’clock. We gathered on Zoom the day before a long weekend. Everything possible was done so that it could happen with as little attention as possible. Several issues were considered, including trying to issue a warning to Eva Merkacheva. A warning is in fact the first step towards expulsion from the commission. So they were also trying to state that Eva Merkacheva had violated something there, but we successfully quashed the attack, because there wasn’t any basis. Right after they had voted for my expulsion, they began to consider the question of issuing a warning to Liubov Volkova. Liubov Volkova is a very famous Russian human rights defender, she’s been doing it for 30 years. They issued a warning against her for violating the Code of ethics of the POC. And the reason given was that when they started going after me, Liubov Volkova, not mincing her words, accused her colleagues of being defamatory, that it was all a bit like in 1937. She began to call those who had voted for my expulsion a variety of names, polite, but offensive, shall we say. So she immediately received a warning for this. I think that I am just the canary in the coal mine, the first to be expelled from the POC. I fear that after me they will expel all the other independent people, there will be literally five people left.”

If we return to the accusations against you, how accurate is the information in the press about the fact that you were accused of disclosing some information about the criminal case against Liubov Sobol, after her lawyer had said this on Dozhd and had thanked you, supposedly, for disclosing this information?

“Formally, yes, my colleagues pointed to this interview, they even watched it during the meeting of the commission. In fact, only the investigator leading the case against Liubov Sobol can determine whether or not I disclosed information from the preliminary investigation. Only he knows whether I actually disclosed anything there. I think very few people except him know this. But, since the investigator has not contacted me, hasn’t found me, hasn’t said anything to me about disclosing anything, it means that the facts are not so simple.”

The State news agencies are writing that you are being accused of other violations of the Code of Ethics and, prior to that, improper performance of duties. What can you say about this? Have you already received warnings?

“Yes, I was cautioned for one very sad course of events. It was in connection to the fact that one of the scientists detained in the Lefortovo pre-trial detention centre accused of treason has been repeatedly asking us, as members of the POC, to find him a decent lawyer. Because, unfortunately, the lawyer that he had was not suitable. In his opinion, this lawyer was working in tandem with the detective and, instead of helping him, was sabotaging him. Therefore, he came to us with a request to find him a lawyer. I approached one of the lawyers who works with Ivan Pavlov; these are independent lawyers who handle cases related to charges of treason. I found one such lawyer and passed his contact details to the son of this prisoner from Lefortovo. And, for some reason, this son wrote a statement against me to the police, saying that I was forcing a lawyer on them. I explained to him that I wasn’t forcing anything and that his father had asked me to find such a lawyer for him, which I did. Since they didn’t accept this lawyer, this story ends with this prisoner unfortunately still without a decent lawyer. After this man’s son complained about me, a report was written against me, the matter was examined, and I was accused of forcing this lawyer on them. But this is a stupid accusation because the man himself came to us with the request, which has been recorded on multiple occasions. On top of everything else, he is an elderly man who is very unwell and suffers from many illnesses – I feel very sorry for him. He cried when he asked us to find him a lawyer so, as you can imagine, it was very distressing.”

Valery Borshchev, co-chairman of the Moscow-Helsinki Group and one of the authors of the law on public scrutiny in the Russian Federation, who was also a member of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission from 2008 to 2016, believes Marina Litvinovich is being expelled from the commission illegally.

“What is happening to Marina Litvinovich is a very disturbing symptom,” says the human rights advocate Valery Borshchev. “What’s happening is that human rights advocates have already been squeezed out of POCs for a long time: both during their formation and in their activities. Marina Litvinovich works very actively, visiting pre-trial detention centres and police departments. The tribunal that was launched against her in the Moscow POC is very indicative of the pressure on human rights advocates in the ranks of the POCs. When the first POC groups were formed, I was the chair of the Moscow POC with a double mandate. There were a lot of rights advocates then, and we investigated the murder of Sergei Magnitsky. Our conclusion then prompted court action, because the Prosecutor General’s Office had been silent for a long time and was then forced to acknowledge our findings as a serious accusation against officials in the penitentiary system. But then the government, via the Public Chamber, started squeezing out rights advocates from the POCs at the time their membership is chosen. What has happened with Marina Litvinovich is a very bad signal and an indicator of the attitude authorities have towards public scrutiny. Therefore, naturally, as the author of the law on public scrutiny, I signed an appeal in support of it. We lobbied for the adoption of the law on public scrutiny for a long time, and now we are having to stand up for and defend the very people who exercise public scrutiny.”

Zoya Svetova, columnist for MBKh Media and a recipient of the Moscow-Helsinki Group Prize, who worked in the Moscow POC for 8 years, is convinced that the FSB is behind the drive to expel Marina Litvinovich from the monitoring commission, one way or another. 

“I have signed an open letter to the Council of the Public Chamber. But to be honest, I don’t believe that the Council will listen to us. I think they will support those members of the Moscow POC who removed Litvinovich from the commission. There were 22 people who were for her expulsion, 7 were against, and 3 abstained. The fact is that the very pretext for her expulsion is absolutely unlawful. As far as I know, one of the members of this Moscow POC, a certain Nikolai Zuev, wrote a denunciation. He is the vice chair of the Moscow POC. I read a profile of him in the media – he is a small business owner who was on the POC for Moscow oblast and was then elected in Moscow. He was running in the name of some strange organisation supporting the disabled, completely unknown to anyone. He himself once worked as a top level security guard, and stood as a candidate for a couple of deputy positions. So this person’s profile is completely comprehensible to me – he was elected to the POC to further his career. It’s no secret that many people who are now on the POCs have absolutely no connections to human rights advocacy. They go there because for them, the commissions are a springboard to later becoming a deputy or civil servant.”

What can you say about Marina Litvinovich, was she good at her job in the PMC?

“Actually, I think Marina Litvinovich got into the Moscow PMC due to someone’s oversight. I don’t even know why she was elected because she’s an independent person with a different profile. Marina is known as a political strategist and at one time she worked with the authorities. Together with Pavlovsky, she worked as Putin’s political strategist. But then she changed her profile, as they say. She worked with Khodorkovsky, with Kasparov, with Sobchak. There was her famous website The Truth of Beslan where she was investigating the tragedy in Beslan. Now she has become one of the most active members of the POC of this last convocation. Marina published a report on her visits, and as far as I understand, she went to the Moscow pre-trial detention centres, police departments and special detention centres almost every day. She is the most active member of the POC.

Why did they decide to expel her from the POC?

“Officially, due to the fact that she gave an interview to Dozhd, where she spoke about her meeting with Liubov Sobol, and Sobol said that her mask, personal belongings and shoes were taken away from her during a search. This has nothing to do with the investigatory privilege, she did not reveal any secret. Actually, during the entire existence of the Moscow POC, not a single POC member was expelled for giving interviews to the media. Because the law on public oversight does not say anything about the fact that members of the POC do not have the right to give interviews. I know that at the same meeting where Marina Litvinovich was expelled, a warning was given to Liubov Volkova for her post written on Facebook which was not liked by the members of the Moscow POC. They also wanted to give a warning to Eva Merkacheva for her interview in the media on the case of the Khachaturian sisters. This is a completely unprecedented story. I remember when I was a member of the POC, our then chair Anton Tsvetkov was very unhappy that we were giving interviews and said that journalists were offended that we, members of the POC, had such an opportunity to meet with prisoners and then publish our articles or give interviews to the media. But he couldn’t do anything, couldn’t expel us or even give us any warnings because it was against the law. But as I now understand, those were more liberal times when we could give interviews, publish stories about our meetings with prisoners. Now it’s all forbidden.”

Are there still independent people in Moscow’s Public Oversight Commission (POC)?

“There are only a few real human rights defenders in Moscow’s POC – these include Liubov Volkova, Russia’s senior human rights defender, and she and I were both on the POC. Than there is Eva Merkacheva, a journalist from Moskovsky Komsomolets, who has also become a real human rights defender.   I think this is her third term on the POC. There is Marina Litvinovich.  There is also Aleksei Melnikov, I don’t know him well, but, judging by the fact that he visits many prisoners, he is genuinely concerned about this issue and is also actively working on it. 

“I have never heard of anyone going elsewhere and talking  about what they saw there. And the problems in the Moscow jails, detention centres and police stations have not gone away. There are forty members of this commission, and it seems that all the rest are just sleeping members who do not go anywhere, and, even if they did go anywhere, they kept very quiet about it, and nobody has any idea of what they have been up to. Because when human rights defenders visit prisons and  police stations, they must publicly report what they have seen there. Of course, there are some things that you cannot mention in the interests of the prisoners. Of course, there are some aspects about which we cannot talk too much, in order to safeguard our proteges.

“Marina treated her mission very passionately and enthusiastically: of course, she talked a lot about her visits. When I heard about all this and read about it, I knew that she would soon get kicked out, because prisons love silence. And, in my opinion, while the findings of her research might not be not confirmed by the evidence, they are confirmed by my own  intuition and my knowledge of the subject: I believe that Marina Litvinovich was punished because she talked a lot and wrote about what was happening in the Lefortovo prison. This is the most closed, the most harsh prison in Moscow, which is ruled not by the Federal Penitentiary Service, but by the FSB of Russia, although formally prisons are indeed  subordinated to the Federal Penitentiary Service . Marina talked a lot about what was going on there, about all the violations of the rights of prisoners in Lefortovo prison, and, of course, she was not forgiven.”

  • Marina Litvinovich joined the POC at the end of 2019. The term of office of the members of this commission is three years. Human rights defenders who are attached to it have the right to visit prisons, detention centres and penal colonie in order to check upon  the conditions of the prisoners, to communicate with prisoners on issues regarding their rights, and to collect complaints from them.
  • In 2016, the introduction of new members to the POCs was accompanied by an outrage over the exclusion of people who are  critical of the government. The commissions excluded, in particular, Elena Masiuk and Zoya Svetova. Svetova reported that the FSB had opposed her candidacy.
  • In 2019, the commission did not include the co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group  Valery Borshchev, Moscow Helsinki Group staff mamber Yevgeny Yenikeyev, POC secretary Anastasia Garina, leading member of the Committee against Torture Ivan Melnikov, and human rights defenders Yana Teplitskaya and Ekaterina Kosarevskaya.

Translated by John Tokolish, Mercedes Malcomson, Verity Hemp, Elizabeth Rushton, Ecaterina Hughes and Graham Jones

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