Svetlana Astrakhantseva: The state is using legal instruments against us that were intended to help civil society and human rights organizations function, not shut them down
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8 February 2023

Svetlana Astrakhantseva, member and acting director of the MHG [Moscow Helsinki Group]

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Spektr]

The Russian government has blocked the website of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), the oldest human rights organization in Russia. The reasons given for blocking it were its “multiple publications” “of inaccurate and discrediting information about the army,” OVD-Info explains.

Earlier, on 25 January, the Moscow Municipal Court ruled to liquidate the MHG at the request of Russia’s Justice Ministry, on the grounds that representatives of the group, which is registered as a regional organization, took part in events outside the borders of the Moscow region. The UN has condemned this decision.

The association came into the world through the efforts of Soviet dissidents in 1976, after the International Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which was held in the capital of Finland in the summer of 1975. Representatives of the Soviet Union, the United States, and other leading powers signed the Helsinki Accord. MHG members announced that they would be monitoring the Soviet Union’s implementation of the obligations it took on to uphold international standards in the area of human rights. Through the KGB’s efforts, the group was brought to the point of self-disbandment in 1982, but revived its activities seven years later, during perestroika.

After the war against Ukraine began, the MHG unambiguously condemned the Kremlin’s actions: “Russia has attacked Ukraine. This is war and this is aggression, a crime against the world and against humanity.” The human rights activists’ statement also contained a call to all opponents of the war to express their position any way they could and to unite for protests. Now the Justice Ministry, whose action the court satisfied, has blamed the MHG for the fact that its activities went outside Moscow’s borders, which means, according to officials’ logic, that the human rights movement has to be shut down. MHG Acting Director Svetlana Astrakhantseva spoke to Spektr about what options remain to the MHG for defending itself and what awaits the human rights movement in Russia.

 Have human rights activists ever encountered precedents of similar prohibitions when a civil society association has been accused of activities outside the borders of its region?

— We have been assessing this kind of judicial practice over the past few years, of course. There was a situation two years ago when they tried to liquidate Man and Law in Mari-El by bringing the same charge against our colleagues from that association. They, on the contrary, had a positive legal outcome, that is, the second instance overturned the decision to liquidate and preserved the organization. Right now this same association has once again had an action brought against it for liquidation, on the same grounds, I believe. 

Usually this article is applied in another vein. There have been punishments for formally giving visibility to broad-scale activity, when the organization declares itself to be Russia-wide but has no offices in the country. There have been many stories like that. Whereas instances when there have been punishments for rendering assistance outside one’s own region can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

— If we imagine that we are talking not about the MHG in 2023 but about some abstract NGO 10 years ago, then how legally well-founded are the Justice Ministry’s claims concerning the activities of a civil society organization extending beyond its region’s borders?

— This is exactly the stumbling block of this entire legal action. We interpret this article of the law to say that an organization registered in Moscow can have no other offices or regional departments anywhere. We report only in the capital, we pay taxes here. This indicates our attachment to the territory, not that we aren’t going to surface anywhere else in the public space.

As of recently, the Justice Minister literally along with changing its political course has been interpreting everything in a totally far-fetched way. If you have attended a trial in another region, if you contacted another region’s organ of power, then you have gone outside the borders. This is a totally distorted interpretation. It has no legal basis whatsoever. It is the kind of lacuna or fuzziness in the law that the Justice Ministry is now exploiting quite successfully and, evidently, intends to exploit further in order eliminate NGOs.

Naturally, we are planning to go to the Constitutional Court (CC) for some kind of clarification. Unfortunately, though, procedurally we can do this only after the MHG has been liquidated. That is how the procedure for appealing decisions in various legal instances is structured. Formally, the final violation of our right to freedom of association and human rights activity will be the decision of the second instance, the Supreme Court. If that decision is not in our favor, then we can go to the CC for clarifications, having ceased to be a legal entity.

— Have you already appealed the 25 January decision of the Moscow Municipal Court?

— We haven’t yet because we have in hand only the resolutive part and we need the statement of reasons as well. That is, for now the judge has simply told us that the Justice Ministry is right and we should be shut down, but in any case he is supposed to ground his decision in a statement of reasons, in which the judge sets out his arguments and conclusions in this decision. We will then appeal them in the second instance, the Supreme Court.

After the Supreme Court, of course, leaves the decision of the first instance in force, according to the laws of the genre, we will still have the opportunity to file a writ of appeal and go to the CC for clarifications. Since the MHG is going to be deleted from the register of legal entities, it will have no legal capability. The group’s defenders, our lawyers, will in any case still be able to submit filings on our behalf. I think that’s what will happen.

– If the appeal and cassation appeal are dismissed, how do the members of the MHG plan to proceed?

– We must, of course, decide this collegially, at a general meeting of MHG members. Right now, we are not ready to say how we plan to proceed. There has not been a general meeting. Everyone has their own feelings. I believe that as a community, the members of the Moscow Helsinki Group we will remain and we shall do what we can. We shall continue to protect people when their rights are violated by the state. We will try to help them stand up for their rights, as we did as a legal entity. I should think we shall be able to meet somewhere, discuss things and give a public evaluation of events.

This is roughly the format of our work in the Soviet Union era, when the group was created. There are people who are doing something on their own initiative. Someone creates a community to combat punitive psychiatry, someone is engaged in helping protect the rights of believers, someone else does something else. As a community, people gather together, discuss documents, agree on statements, and position themselves in the outside world as the MHG. I think that circumstances will bring us to adopt this kind of ‘Soviet format.’

– Don’t you think that, for MHG, being outlawed in today’s Russia is a more natural state than operating legally?

– No, it doesn’t. To be honest, legal activity seemed to me an absolutely normal state of affairs for MHG and any human rights organization. The fact that we are forced to work without legal status is just not normal. It doesn’t matter what Russia is like today. The sections of the Constitution on citizens’ fundamental rights, on civil and political rights, fully correspond to the Human Rights Declaration and have not been changed since the 1990s. This is the second chapter of the Constitution. It is what is happening with MHG that is unnatural. The state is using against us those legal instruments that were created in order to help civil society groups and human rights organizations work, not shut them down. There is nothing natural about using these tools to close down the MHG.

Memorial has been closed down, the Movement for Human Rights has ben forced to disband, the Sakharov Centre‘s premises have been confiscated, and the MHG is in the process of being liquidated. Do human rights defenders in Russia have any chance of continuing their work legally, or will they be forced to operate in a semi-legal fashion via anonymous Telegram channels?

– Modern technology offers slightly more opportunities than Soviet dissidents had. Independent-minded human rights defenders, not acting on behalf of the state, are clearly being squeezed out of the legal field in Russia. For ten years already they have been building a human rights movement from above, under the wing of the state. Take the Human Rights Council, for example, which has now completely perverted itself. Ombudsmen who probably help people point by point, but it is still difficult to view them as a systematic human rights institution. We see what is going on around us and the ombudsmen remain silent. A fake human rights community is being formed, but there will be no real independent community in a legal field.

Telegram channels, meetings of some kind or other in people’s apartments – that is all that is left to us by the circumstances. Thank God, there are many opportunities and people outside the country right now. This is a qualitatively very different situation from Soviet times. It’s good that there are media outlets that have actually gone away to continue covering the situation in Russia, including about human rights. This is very encouraging.

– Is this ‘cleansing’ a continuation of the campaign to suppress any dissent that began before the war, or is it preparation for something specific? For the presidential elections, for example?

– By the time of the presidential elections [in 2024], they plan that everything shall have been sterilised. There’s no need for guess work here. What is happening now with the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Sakharov Centre, and other colleagues really is a continuation of the trend that began a long time ago. By and large, since 2012. Here I agree with the assessments of many of my colleagues. That was the time they began to look for a ‘fifth column,’ internal enemies, and the package of laws was introduced on ‘foreign agents,’ ‘undesirable organisations’ and other kinds of ‘harmful’ structures.

– Could this also be a message to the West, speaking in general terms? This is what we are doing in response to your sanctions, in response to your assistance to Ukraine.

– This is the message to the West: we don’t need to save face right now, we don’t give a damn about your outrage and so on. These are our domestic affairs and we do what we want here. This is not the first signal, but now it’s a very frank one. There were hints, in general, for quite a long time before the war. This is a signal in the first place to the outside world and not for those inside Russia.

Unfortunately, the human rights agenda was a focus of attention immediately after the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Over the past decades, its importance even at the level of states and official meetings has gradually declined.

– Obviously, the first condition for the MHG to gain a new official registration is the end of the war. What needs to happen besides this?

– At minimum, the domestic political course must change. And foreign policy. You correctly said that in a country at war, there is no chance here for there to be anything other than state propaganda. By change of course, we mean a change of political leadership. Of course, there is no guarantee that after that the gardens of paradise will blossom in Russia. But it can be seen that the current leadership of the country now has a very definite strategy with regard to society, to people, and it has renounced the values of human rights and humanistic ideas.

If radical changes take place, then recognizing that everything that is happening now is a violation of fundamental rights and international obligations of the Russian Federation is already, as they say, a straightforward matter. The courts will have to do this. In our country, thank God, there is no time limit at the moment for appealing unjust sentences.

– Someone commented ironically on the court decision about the MHG: wait, the time will come when the group’s members will be defending the rights of those who are liquidating them…

– That is so true, because that is just what could happen. It doesn’t matter who the victim of human rights violations is. What matters is the restoration of justice and the violated right with respect to a specific person. That is the whole purpose of the work of a human rights defender. Victims of human rights violations can be people you may not like or with whom you don’t agree, but if their rights are violated, of course we will defend them.

Translated by Marian Schwartz and Simon Cosgrove

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