‘A kind of legal striptease.’ Genri Reznik’s speech in court on the Ministry of Justice’s suit to close down the Moscow Helsinki Group
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27 January 2023

by Genri Reznik, lawyer, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Advokatskaya ulitsa, 27 January 2023]

This week, the Moscow Municipal Court liquidated Russia’s oldest human rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group [MHG]. The action was brought by the Justice Ministry, which asserted that the organization, which is registered in Moscow, did not have the right to engage in human rights activities in other regions. Speaking at the hearing was Genri Reznik, vice president of the Moscow Bar Association and member of the MHG. He reminded the court of the human rights organization’s history—and laid out the political reasons for its persecution. Ulitsa is publishing his speech with minor stylistic edits.

Your Honor, I am not going to go into the judicial investigation. Listening closely to its progress, I saw that my young colleagues have defended the position of the utter unfoundedness of the Justice Ministry’s demands to liquidate the Moscow Helsinki Group in an exceptionally professional and convincing manner. I listened to my colleagues with mixed feelings, though. Predominant, of course, was the sense of satisfaction—when you see how professionally and extremely conscientiously representatives of the next, younger generation of jurists and lawyers are working.

My second feeling was, forgive me a minor tautology, sympathy. My colleagues had to dispute the absurd. From my large experience I know that this is the most repellent thing of all. The hardest.

I absolutely rule out the possibility that the Justice Ministry’s workers do not know that we do not have regional criminal legislation. This is federal legislation. The very posing of the question, that a ban would be placed on someone in the Russian Federation—a physical person, a legal entity, a public organization, a commercial organization, an association—against taking an interest in some matter… [a ban placed] against being convinced that [in another region] there is lawlessness going on and offering some assistance of one’s own… I think that this is very simply a kind of legal striptease. But that is what the Justice Ministry decided to do.

This speaks to the fact that the Justice Ministry itself—let me make it clear that I’m referring here to the main justice administration for Moscow—possibly by prior agreement with the Prosecutor’s Office, decided to liquidate the Moscow Helsinki Group no matter what. I have no other explanation for this.

Let’s look the obvious in the eye. For the last few years, the state has in fact ratcheted up its pressure on civil society. The Moscow Helsinki Group is not the first human rights organization whose liquidation has been demanded by an organ of justice. In general, though, the persecution of inconvenient human rights organizations has been channeled primarily through the unlawful law on “foreign agents.” Which in its current version has become total legal insanity.

Basically all money coming in from abroad has been [deemed] toxic. Including money from human rights bodies and various foundations, which, by the way, have nothing to do with states. Then they went further—when it was suggested to self-respecting organizations, this same Memorial, that they themselves recognize their own activities as political. Even though human rights activity is not political by definition! It does not pursue political goals. And when that same Memorial itself—I repeat, itself!—refused to declare itself a “foreign agent”… In that case [there were] fines and administrative charges—and the subsequent act that followed was liquidation.

But as soon as the law on “foreign agents” came out, the Moscow Helsinki Group refused foreign financing. What a disappointment for the opponents of the human rights movement! And what are we seeing now? I’m sorry, but ridiculous, trumped-up [grounds] for liquidating an organization like the Helsinki Group. And those charges were sent to trial!

I’ve touched on an issue that I think is badly traumatizing our procedural opponents. The Helsinki Group, 1976, who was it created by? Yury OrlovPetro GrigorenkoLiudmila Alekseeva, and Andrei Sakharov. Joining them later were the illustrious Russian lawyers Sofia Kallistratova and Dina Kaminskaya.

I want to draw your attention to something, Your Honor. None of them was a loser. None of them was marginal.

For the first time in the Soviet Union. A new type of Soviet person had been created: through the constant repressions, purges, and brainwashing, when a person felt like the serf of the single employer, the state… all of a sudden people come forward who want nothing for themselves. Moreover, they are taking risks. And these are people who have not simply secured themselves a respectable existence… They have been treated kindly by the state! One is a three-time Hero of Socialist Labor [Andrei Sakharov], and another is a general [Petro Grigorenko]. Astonishing! It turns out, you can live with dignity only when you are guided not only by your own skin. When you embrace the ideals of human freedom and dignity.

Then came 1989. The Helsinki Group is reconstituted [after being forced to cease work in 1982]. It includes outstanding people: Larisa Bogoraz, Lev Timofeev, and Kronid Lyubarsky. People famous on an international scale not only as human rights activists but as writers, creators, scientists.

I will cite a few more names of Moscow Helsinki Group members. Recently, Valery Borshchev appeared [in court], a man who at one time miraculously evaded political repressions and later, in the new democratic Russia, had a very successful career as a politician. Vyacheslav Bakhmin, someone who served a prison sentence and then had a very successful career as a Russian diplomat—he is a board member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Boris Altshuler, a physicist and member of the scientific council of a major scientific research institute. Boris Andreevich Zolotukhin, someone also persecuted under the Soviet regime. When he became a deputy, he ensured passage of the concept of judicial reform by which justice is now largely carried out in the country. Sergei Pashin, creator of the jury trial in Russia, author of the Law on the Constitutional Court and the Law on the Status of Judges by which the judicial community now lives. Ilya Shablinsky, a leading specialist in electoral law and international human rights. I am proud of my comrades in the Moscow Helsinki Group. I am proud of the fact that in 1989 I was one of the reconstituters of the Helsinki Group. I rejoice that we have been able to help people while taking time away from our professional work. Look at who is in the Helsinki Group now: scientists, jurists, writers, journalists. I might also mention Aleksei Simonov, Konstantin Simonov’s son, who is the director and creator of the Glasnost Defense Foundation. This is also an answer to the question of why other human rights organizations look to the Moscow Helsinki Group. Because people look to its authority. With what they believe is a real hope of resisting lawlessness, resisting persecution.

Generally speaking, the present turbulence—caused by the conflict with the West and the military conflict with another country—has awakened far from the best qualities. I would say, [many] galloped straight toward being “top students.” Rushed headlong—evidently to show their loyalty in serving certain powerful people at the top. There are different people everywhere, at all stages, at all levels of life and society, and the state. Right now the main administration of justice has evidently decided that doing this is a good idea. Right now there are a few other qualities flourishing—we have an atmosphere of a certain loutishness, of the use of force. And the law is now in danger.

Your Honor, I’ve been in justice for a long time, I’ve been in the law for a long time. I can’t complain. Fate has bestowed upon me successes, good fortune, wins. Including several times in Moscow City Court. But I have known something else, too. I have clashed with unjudicial decisions that, naturally, were issued primarily in politically motivated cases. Which involved the state’s powerful interest at some level. Therefore, in coming to this trial, I am not changing my focus. I am assuming that a given judge examining a given case would not want to take a sin on his soul. I ask you: leave this disgrace to the Justice Ministry officials alone. Reject the suit, which bears absolutely no relation to the law. I am addressing you wearing a suit that was fashionable a while ago—but I’m a rather old-fashioned person. Judge according to the law and your conscience, not according to current politics.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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