Lev Ponomarev: Will the private sector save Russia from foreign agents?

16 December 2021

by Lev Ponomarev, activist, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, leader of the human rights project For Human Rights

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Эхо Москвы]


On December 17, the Congress of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs will take place. As part of the Congress, representatives from the Russian business sector will meet with Putin.

Russian businesses are often subjected to unlawful pressure and persecution. This issue has been on the agenda for many years.

But what could a source of indemnification be against unlawful persecution? Only an active, institutionalized mechanism to curb lawlessness and abuse of power by law enforcement agencies. In developed democratic countries, human rights organizations such as NGOs and citizen groups naturally fill the role of this mechanism. As a rule, they’re kept in operation by businesses and private donations, not the government.

2021 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of our outstanding fellow countryman, scientist and humanist Andrei Sakharov. But the main revelation of the year was the heinous discovery of the scale and brutality of torture that’s alive and well in the Russian prison system.

This hideous phenomenon is spreading like cancer and corrupting the prison and law enforcement system. The only force that is trying to solve this problem on a professional and persistent basis is made up of human rights organizations, which you can count on one hand and which are almost all recognized as ‘foreign agents.’ We, the human rights activists, receive support as well as reactions from government human rights bodies: the Presidential Human Rights Council and the Human Rights Ombudsman. But this support does not provide the resources needed for dozens of legal professionals to do their jobs, without whom we wouldn’t be able to protect human rights at all.

Lawyer and Human Rights Council member Henri Reznik spoke to the President on December 9, 2021, saying:

“It’s probably not normal, Vladimir Vladimirovich, when nonprofit organizations that are attempting to fight, to oppose torture are declared foreign agents. Why are they foreign agents, Vladimir Vladimirovich? Well, because it’s very difficult to find money within the country, because our for-profit entities and entrepreneurs are, shall we say, not exactly disposed to give money to nonprofit organizations.”

I am appealing publicly to the Congress of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs: talk with the President about the initiative to establish a National Foundation for Human Rights Protection, so that Russian businesses can help finance the work of human rights activists in Russia.

If such a Foundation were to be established and to start supporting human rights organizations, including those that are fighting against torture, then these organizations would be able to avoid the critical difficulties that the ‘foreign agent’ status creates for them today. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Russian private sector can save human rights organizations, which are on the verge of destruction in today’s Russia.

For our part, we the human rights activists are ready to propose a list of candidates made up of well-known people with impeccable reputations to serve as members of the Foundation’s selection committee for approval by its main donors.

Lev Ponomarev, Executive Director of the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights Foundation*,
Member of the Expert Council for the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Russian Federation

* The Foundation for the Defence Prisoners’ Rights is an NGO recognized as a foreign agent. Lev Ponomarev is an individual recognized as a foreign agent.

Translated by Nina dePalma

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