5 May 2023
By Dmitry Makarov, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group as of 27 April 2023
Respected court (I address you this way because I maintain my respect for the court … as the office where justice is supposed to take place), unfortunately, it is hard for me to treat what we have heard from the Ministry of Justice, the position they continue to insist upon with the support of the Prosecutor’s Office, with respect and understanding. Because if we take this position to its logical conclusion, then human rights activity in the Russian Federation ceases to be possible.
We have already cited arguments as to why human rights activity cannot be restricted by an individual federal subject, but let us look at more specific examples. If an organization is registered in Moscow and it is invited to events in other regions, should it refuse? If I, as co-chair of the MHG, a Moscow organization, want to attend a trial in another region, should I be thinking about how this will now affect our organization’s activities? Because I remain a public figure here, and I cannot say when I arrive at a judicial hearing in the court of another federal subject that I am no longer the MHG co-chair. Won’t this visit of mine be used against our civil society organization as something that goes beyond the boundaries of the sphere of territorial activity? Shall we perhaps be looking at passports and verifying everyone who has gathered and seeing where they work? Won’t their presence here become the basis for complaints in the future?
Here, previously, I had been worrying about circus artists. I thought they were just about to shut us down for violating the territorial sphere of activity and they too will be in for it, along with other organizations, also being registered in a given region, while at the same time one way or another inevitably coming into contact with their colleagues in other regions, taking part in online conferences, appealing to state organs, and interacting with their professional associations. This is not only a matter of human rights organizations… But here the Prosecutor’s Office has reassured me, saying that yes, everyone will be punished—circus artists and human rights activists alike. Everyone. I don’t know which is worse, selective application of the legislation in our case? Because, it seems to me, before this the interpretation we have heard here—it was a kind of know-how for our specific case. Now, evidently, other civil society associations are going to go under the knife as well. Now I don’t know which is worse… Maybe it’s better that they settled on circus artists and us and didn’t go farther cutting others and inflicting harm on public activity.
This is utterly backwards logic. The Justice Ministry, instead of rendering assistance, and the Prosecutor’s Office, instead of defending citizens’ rights, are restricting them, punishing them, not giving them the opportunity to correct themselves or alter their model of conduct in any way, and not even explaining what we’re supposed to do… And it’s unclear what there’s more of in this situation, cynicism or incompetence. Because either one can be shielded by the commanding authorities, as we have observed today in court. They don’t need to explain how we might alter our conduct or what measures of reaction the Justice Ministry has considered in general. It didn’t consider any. The answer is very simple. We can take you to court, we can demand your liquidation—and that’s what we’re going to do. We don’t care what arguments you cite in your own defence or what you think of the prosecutor’s actions, and it doesn’t matter what questions you ask us in court…
You can cover yourself in provisions of the law and somehow justify this, but the spirit of the law, nonetheless, is of course being flagrantly abused. Abused in the Justice Ministry’s interpretation as supported by the Prosecutor’s Office, and abused in the court of first instance. Because the court of first instance is in fact merely formalizing the demand for liquidation. What we have observed in the court of first instance is nothing more than the formalization of the liquidation of a respected civil society association. None of our arguments were taken into consideration. Yes, the court of first instance may have looked at some of the motions. For the most part it denied them with the very rare exception. In essence, though, it didn’t consider a single one because our position doesn’t matter. Cynicism and incompetence shielded by the commanding authorities—that is what we have observed.
Naturally, in conclusion I must say that the Moscow Helsinki Group has already gone down in the history of our country and the history of the international human rights movement. In any case, human rights activity will go on regardless of the decision of the court of current instance. Whether the decision to liquidate goes into force, or we get a postponement, in any case human rights activity is not carried out within the logic of limitations, closures, and prohibitions. It stems from aspirations for freedom and justice. This is what I was taught in law school and what my senior colleagues in the Helsinki movement that became an international phenomenon taught me.
I am very proud that the Moscow Helsinki Group was there at the outset. It is the founding of the MHG in 1976 that laid the beginnings for the Helsinki movement, which in general changed the way in which the Helsinki Accords are interpreted. Imagine if back then the Justice Ministry had stood in front of the MHG and said you can’t take your activities outside Moscow. Yes, those were different times. Then, people paid for this activity with their freedom. These are more vegetarian times now, and we are simply being shut down for human rights activity. So far they’re not putting us in prison. This is no less monstrous, though, because this is an abuse of the law and common sense, the spirit of the law. In this sense, of course, one can view this as simply a transitional episode—imagine, they’ve shut down yet another human rights organization, imagine, they’ve restricted the activities of yet another civil society association. But what is happening right now is a crime, and even worse than a crime. It’s stupidity. We cannot let ourselves be pushed around by this kind of absurd interpretation whereby representatives of the state, who aren’t listening to me now anyway because it doesn’t matter what I say—they know all the right answers simply on the strength of their commanding authorities, so they are digging their own hole. It’s impossible to build a society on the logic of shutdowns, bans, and restrictions.
Society always relies on those people who, regardless of bans and restrictions, worry not only about themselves but defend freedom and universal justice. The human rights movement, a part of which is and will be the Moscow Helsinki Group, was founded on these values. Don’t commit crimes. Don’t commit stupidities. Don’t allow lawlessness to go on in this court, which still deserves to be called “respected.”
Translated by Marian Schwartz