21 September 2022
an interview with Ivan Pavlov, human rights lawyer and recipient of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize for human rights
On 20 September, amendments to the Russian Criminal Code were adopted after two readings. Their passage took place in record time, in the span of just a few hours. The terms ‘mobilization’, ‘martial law’ and ‘wartime’ were introduced, as were punishments for looting, voluntary surrender, and refusal to participate in fighting. The next day, when partial mobilization was announced, Kholod asked Ivan Pavlov, a human rights lawyer and founder of the legal groups Team 29 and Department One, to explain the effects these amendments and the partial mobilization will have on the lives of Russian citizens.
–What precipitated these amendments to the Criminal Code?
They were preparing the ground to announce the mobilization. That way, from the very moment the president signed the decree, violations of it would be punishable by law.
Mobilization is extremely rare. It’s only brought in when all other options and resources have been completely exhausted. Mobilization was declared on 22 June 1941. You can’t compare the two events, but the fact remains [In Russia, mobilization has been officially declared only three times: in 1914, 1941, and 2022. –Kholod]. Partial mobilization is also a very serious matter.
–Who will be most affected by these laws: conscripts or those already at the front?
The amendments are aimed at those eligible for conscription. We usually think of conscripts as young people, but in some cases, if they’ve achieved a high rank, people up to the age of 70 could be conscripted. Soldiers and sailors up to the age of 50 will be called up. Individuals without officers’ ranks can also be called up if they are under the age of 50.
–So, even people who left the service 20 years ago could end up at the front?
Yes. This will affect all reservists: people who have only just returned from service as well as those who have been in the reserves for years.
–What will this mean for the contract soldiers who are already fighting in the war?
There are no escape routes left for them. Now they’re also subject to mobilization. Even if they had the option of terminating their contracts before, they don’t now. They’ll remain in the combat zone, but as part of the mobilization. If they refuse, they’ll face jail time.
–Are there criteria that will be used to decide who gets mobilized?
The presidential decree includes a classified clause, No. 7, which, in all likelihood, contains instructions for the Ministries of Defence and Internal Affairs, as well as other executive bodies tasked with carrying out mobilization measures [according to Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, the classified clause gives the number of people to be mobilized –Kholod]. Among other things, the Ministry of Defence will have to determine how many people are needed and with what specializations. The method used for determining this number is completely opaque. It will most likely be classified.
The Ministry of Defence gave a figure of 300,000, but I think that’s just an estimate. We haven’t yet seen the list of required military specializations, which means that we can’t say for certain how many people and who precisely they’re planning to mobilize. But that will also be classified. The selection process won’t be transparent. In all likelihood, there will be major issues with conscription. After all, people aren’t going off to defend their motherland, they’re going off to fight in someone else’s country. The authorities will round up whoever they can catch. They’ll take whoever they can, either by persuasion or by force.
— If people refuse to fight, will they face a crackdown?
— I think we will see a number of show trials to demonstrate what awaits objectors. At the same time, propaganda and normal independent media will spread information about these repressions, since they have an obligation to inform. And the regime itself has an interest in this. It needs as many people as possible to know about the repressive laws it can choose to enforce.
— Will the regime be able to place restrictions on leaving the country?
— Under the conditions of mobilization, those who are subject to conscription not only do not have the right to leave the country, they do not have the right to leave their place of residence or go to another region without the permission of the military commissariats or federal executive authorities. I suspect that in the near future, transport companies will stop selling tickets for people of military age unless they have a permit. We will see roadblocks on major roads where drivers’ licences will be checked.
— What kind of permits?
— This could be a certificate from the military enlistment office stating that a person is exempt from conscription for a good reason: for example, due to illness. Or there will be so-called “reservation documents”. If a person works as an official or performs state-important work, this person is under reservation, which means he is exempt from conscription.
— Today Shoigu said that the mobilization is a “one off”. What does it mean?
— It’s a Pandora’s box. The figure of 300,000 is needed to placate people: “300,000 are subject to conscription, but 25 million are free.” But this is only the beginning. This figure can be changed for as long as the authorities want to, without even any changes to the presidential decree. This will be regulated within the Ministry of Defence.
— What should Russians do who do not want to go to war because of their beliefs? According to the Constitution, they can do alternative service – is it really possible not to get into a combat zone somehow?
— There are no guarantees here. You will have to go where they send you. There can be only one universal recommendation now — to try to leave the country. It’s already become difficult, but there are still options available. I think after some time, it will become impossible [Ivan Pavlov himself has not been in Russia since 2021, after a criminal case was opened against him and he was added to the list of “mass media-foreign agents” — Kholod].
— A punishment for voluntary surrender has also been added to the Criminal Code; this is now punishable by 10 years in prison. Doesn’t this contradict the norms of international humanitarian law?
— There are no longer any concerns about being in step with international law. Putin has already made his decision. He will regulate everything based on internal instructions, without focusing on the UN, the ECtHR and other institutions. So you can forget about international conventions now.
— Besides mobilization, the new amendments also formalize the concepts of “martial law” and “wartime” — is there a chance these will also be announced in the near future?
— The authorities are now focused on solving frontline tasks, and everything else is unimportant to them. Martial law may be imposed if the conflict is transferred to some specific regions of Russia. The baseline program has already been established, and it suits the authorities quite well. We’ll see how the people react.
— What would you recommend people who don’t want to go to war to do?
— If you are dissatisfied, then seek out others who are also dissatisfied, and unite. You must make your discontent noticeable. The authorities must see this. If a significant part of the population comes out and protests, the regime will backtrack.