2 March 2021
Liubov Chizhova interviews Lev Ponomarev (pictured), human rights activist and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Russian human rights activist Lev Ponomarev announced the definitive liquidation of the For Human Rights civil society organisation due to the tightening of the legislation on foreign agents. Since Russia’s Supreme Court liquidated the all-Russian ‘For Human Rights’ movement in November 2019, the human rights organisation has existed without a legal entity. At the end of 2020, a law was passed enabling individuals to be classified as foreign agents. Five individuals were the first to be entered on the register, one of them being Lev Ponomarev.
The human rights activist recalled that, under the new law, unregistered organisations that engage in political activities and receive foreign funding must register as ‘foreign agents’ and report to the authorities. In his words, the organisation’s experts, of which there are more than one thousand across the country, would unlikely have been able to comply with the rule and would have been fined constantly. In light of this, the decision to liquidate the organisation was taken.
At the end of 2020 a law was passed which allowed for individuals to be classed as foreign agents. Five individuals were the first to enter the register one of which was Lev Ponomarev. That said, ‘Hotline’ and ‘In Defence of Prisoners’ Rights’, the two main organizations headed by Ponomarev which were previously designated foreign agents will continue their work.
Lev Ponomarev spoke about this with Radio Svoboda:
I will clarify the situation. For Human Rights is an all-Russian organization that initially existed for 20 years as a movement, the For Human Rights movement. In 2018, at the request of the Ministry of Justice, it was liquidated by the Russian Federation’s Supreme Court . After that we decided to work with the same name, the same For Human Rights brand, but in the form of an unregistered organisation. We worked for two years. But, as they say, business as usual. The authorities decided to force organizations that, in their opinion, engage in political activity and are financed from abroad, to register as foreign agents. Organisations that are not registered must be registered as ‘foreign agents’. This is, in of itself, an oxymoron but it is written in the law.
What is the difficulty for your regional employees in meeting the requirements of this law?
The fact is that I still manage two organisations: Hotline and the Defence of Prisoners’ Rights Foundation. They have long been regarded as foreign agents, they declare the money and whatever else they receive, but exist more or less stably. But For Human Rights is an all Russia organisation. We have more than a thousand people working across the country. According to the new law, if every person from this one thousand writes something somewhere and does not flag that they belong to an organisation deemed a foreign agent, they will be fined at least 5,000 roubles. So I realised that I have a great responsibility for these thousand people. The problem is that experts do not report to me, and they are unlikely to be able to comply with the new rules because they are ordinary people.They will simply be fined all across the country. It is quite difficult to explain to each of my thousand colleagues that if you write ‘I am outraged by this or that’ on Facebook, but do not mention that you are a member of the For Human Rights NGO, which is regarded as a foreign agent, then you will be fined 5,000 roubles there and then. So that is why I took this decision, just to be on the safe side. It is still temporary, and has been adopted by me and the Board – we need to hold an online congress. We are dissolving the For Human Rights NGO, but we will not dissolve either the Defence of Prisoners’ Rights Foundation or Hotline, and I will try to preserve the For Human Rights brand in some form. No matter what our opponents say, the For Human Rights brand and the very profile of human rights defender in general is in great demand in the regions, especially when people are persecuted there on a massive scale. It is not true that human rights defenders are outcasts and unwanted people of some sort, that is a complete lie. A number of people are being prosecuted because there is a great deal of injustice throughout the country.
In what capacity will you continue your human rights work?
I am still the head of these two organisations, Hot Line and the Defence of Prisoners’ Rights Foundation. I will definitely continue my work, personally at least. The authorities and the Chekists have done their best, of course, they burrowed into me like ticks. Let’s just say, I’m lucky I’m still alive. God knows, maybe they will whack me, like they tried to kill Aleksei Navalny. Because the situation in the country is very bad: the Chekists launched a direct attack against citizens, against civil society. The fascisation of the country is happening every day. And if people do not unite against real fascism, then the situation could end very badly.
You have said more than once, that the pressure on your organisation is linked to your work. You actively defend young people, like the defendants in the ‘Network’, ‘New Greatness’ and Jehovah’s Witness legal cases, saying that the cases are fabricated by the FSB, and that they are the FSB’s revenge. What do you expect from the state in 2021 when you consider the socio-political situation that is taking shape?
I, of course, would like to expect something from the citizens rather than the state. I would like people to finally understand this danger and unite to find an answer. It is very clear that the powers that be are going in one direction and could foment a resolution by force. Sooner or later young people will become indignant, and the number of them that are indignant will grow higher and higher. We already see how they are not particularly scared: the events around Navalny and subsequent protests in his support showed that they are freedom loving, and besides everything else the future belongs to them. So, a greater number of people could reach their limit and the authorities, losing courage, may begin to shoot. Above all we need to concentrate on the elections that are taking place in September of this year, in order that this doesn’t happen. We need to try and change the situation in the Russian parliament and we need to go to the polls in the regions. Perhaps, quietly, the situation will begin to change. Ultimately, not everyone in government is the same. Moreover, I am not scared to say, there are a variety of people in the security forces too. Perhaps, they will succeed in bringing to reason the unhinged ones, that rubber stamp these absolutely monstrous, ridiculous laws. Indeed, they want to name every human rights defender as an enemy of Russia.
Do you think the law on foreign agents can be enforced in its current form?
I think that it is practically impossible. However, they always use laws ‘flexibly’ and selectively apply them against those people that they want to ‘squeeze’. There is a great ‘margin’, and the interpretation of these laws is very wide. Moreover, I obviously haven’t studied them, as I don’t have time. We concentrate on the defence of the people, not our own defence. Not long ago I ended up in court for the fact that I was legally recognised as a foreign agent, both as an individual and as a media outlet. It is totally absurd. I appealed in court and I am waiting for the review of the case. We shall see how they prove that I am media, amongst other things.
In recent years there has been no reason to place any hope in Russian justice at all.
I agree with you that the courts are bad. Everything is bad. But, nevertheless, people are still not yet being shot and people are not being imprisoned en masse. We still have the opportunity to fight and to do so quite publicly. That is why we have to fight. Here I hope to rely not son much on the authorities, as on civil society.
The For Human Rights movement led by Ponomarev has been active in Russia since 1997. The goal as set out in its charter was ‘the establishment of the rule of law and the development of civil society in Russia’. In 2014, the organisation was listed as a foreign agent for the first time. At the time, Ponomarev claimed the movement had not spent foreign money on political activities and promised to challenge the decision in court. In 2015, the Ministry of Justice agreed to remove the organisation from the register.
In February 2019, the Russian Ministry of Justice forcibly put the For Human Rights movement on the register of NGOs performing the functions of a ‘foreign agent’. Throughout the year, the organisation was subjected to fines amounting to many thousands of roubles and attacks by provocateurs from pro-government groups, and was forced to work without electricity for months. In November of the same year, the Supreme Court upheld a demand by the Ministry of Justice that For Human Rights be closed down. Thereafter the human rights defenders established the national NGO, For Human Rights, without forming a legal entity.
As of 1 March 2021, stricter penalties for violators of the law on ‘foreign agents’ came into force in Russia. For failing to comply with the law, unregistered civil society groups engaged in political activity and supported by foreign partners now face fines of up to 300,000 roubles or imprisonment for up to two years.