6 March 2021
by Leonid Nikitinsky, Novaya Gazeta correspondent, member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society (HRC), laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for Human Rights
The POC [Public Oversight Commission] is turning into a mere imitation of a human rights institution
The Moscow POC’s attempt to have Marina Litvinovich removed from it will be, for the POC members who voted in favour, an act that makes it impossible to restore their reputation, and the reputation of the POC itself, in the eyes of human rights activists. The Russian Public Chamber is supposed to take a final decision, but evidently the decision has already been taken.
The law on POCs, which was passed in 2008, another era, secured for its members a number of powers, the main one being unimpeded access to closed sites of incarceration under the jurisdiction of the FSIN [Federal Penitentiary Service] and MVD [Interior Ministry], as well as the opportunity to question those being held there about the observance of their rights. Regional POCs are a unique institution of civil society that have yet to perform the real functions of public oversight over the work of state repressive structures, although the degree of POC activity in different regions varies greatly.
According to the law on POCs, their makeup has to be approved by Russia’s Public Chamber Council. The first POCs functioned very actively, and the broad public came to know about the systemic problems in places of incarceration, which could not have pleased not only the FSIN.
Gradually, POCs began to include former law enforcement personnel and people close to them, there were scandals connected with POC members’ abusing their rights as members for mercenary purposes, and human rights activists were left with fewer and fewer chances of joining them. In particular, failing to join them during the most recent rotations for the Moscow POC were such active participants in them as Andrei Babushkin and Zoya Svetova, and the St. Petersburg POC failed to include Yana Teplitskaya and Ekaterina Kosarevskaya, who, in a former iteration, analyzed the practice of the use of torture, including with respect to the Petersburg branch of the “Network case” (Network being an organization banned in Russia).
The mechanism for selecting members of the POCs in the Public Chamber Council is not transparent. The last meeting of the Moscow POC was formally run by the head of the Good Technologies foundation, businessman Georgy Volkov, and an important role in it was played by the leader of an informal association of private security firms, Dmitry Galochkin, but it was Nikolai Zuev who announced Litvinovich’s expulsion. None of the three enjoys wide renown in human rights circles.
Litvinovich, who became an POC member in 2019, goes to Moscow prisons as if to work, she has spoken about the conditions of their confinement and their needs with each of the eight hundred prisoners in the Sakharovo detention centre sent there by the courts after January’s unsanctioned actions. Among the 22 commission members who voted to strip her of her mandate (with seven opposed), there is simply no one doing a comparable amount of work, but this is the kind of activity, evidently, that set the “leadership” against Litvinovich and several other POC members.
In 2021, this was the second special Zoom session of POC members. At the first, complaints were made against Eva Merkacheva, who is shedding light on her work at MK [Moskovsky Komsomolets], and Liubov Volkova, who supposedly insulted her Tver region POC colleagues with her report on the bad conditions of confinement for Aleksandr Shestun, who was sent there. Litvinovich was also rebuked for passing on to the family of one of the prisoners his request to get in touch with a specific lawyer.
On 5 March, a “comrades court” not only examined Litvinovich’s conduct but also bore in mind that she already had a “qualifying remark.” Zuev saw either her interview for Dozhd or her post on Facebook about Liubov Sobol’s visit to the temporary police detention centre on Petrovka in December 2020 as a “violation of the secrecy of an investigation.” Quoting Sobol, Litvinovich told how in the matter of “breaking and entering” into the home of a presumed participant in the special operation against Navalny, Sobol was interrogated at night and her shoes and face mask were taken away.
The investigator in Sobol’s case did not ask about Litvinovich’s violation of the inquiry’s secrecy and did not have her sign a nondisclosure statement regarding the facts of the preliminary investigation. The “shoes” in which Sobol “broke and entered” scarcely constitute a “secret” whose disclosure could threaten the progress of this case. Article 14 of the law on the POC, which regulates the procedure for discontinuing its members’ powers, does not include the grounds “violating the secrecy of an investigation.”
The method for emasculating the work of outwardly democratic institutions by quietly replacing their personnel has been used by the current state on all levels; the parliament and courts, as well as the Public Chamber, which actually was originally created as a simulacrum, underwent this long ago. Marina Litvinovich’s expulsion from the POC strips the rights from those who, legally or illegally, are in prison.
Herein lies the meaning of “domestic policy.”
Translated by Marian Schwartz