13 July 2021
Andrei Krasno of Kavkaz.Realii in conversation with Semyon Simonov
On 12 July the magistrate of the 101st section of Central District of Sochi sentenced Semyon Simonov, president of the Southern Human Rights Centre, to 250 hours of compulsory labour for “malicious avoidance of carrying out a court decision”. We’re talking about a fine of 300,000 roubles imposed on an organisation for refusing to voluntarily register as a ‘foreign agent.’ Simonov and his lawyer insist that the legal entity was fined, not its president.
The public organisation was recognised as a ‘foreign agent’ at the end of 2016 and was soon fined for not admitting this on its own account. The Ministry of Justice considered the report ‘The legal status of people without citizenship – inhabitants of Greater Sochi’ and the campaign ‘The Citizen and the Police,’ and foreign funding – a foreign grant – for the development of a website and compensation for the cost of tickets to Moscow as constituting political activity.
The Southern Human Rights Centre did not have the funds to pay the fine – the last 304 roubles in their account went to the Russian Federation. The enforcement proceedings were supposed to be closed after the expiration of the statute of limitations, but the court found that the organisation had not formally closed, although in practice it was not working and did not receive funds.
In an interview with Kavkaz.Realii, Semyon Simonov spoke about this case, the situation with civil society and why the legislation on ‘foreign agents’ is harmful to Russia.
You faced up to two years in prison. The court sentenced you to 250 hours of compulsory labour. Did it come as a surprise to you that the sentence did not involve jail time?
I think they couldn’t give me the maximum punishment under this article, since I had not been prosecuted previously. Except in this case, I have never had administrative records, no black marks. There was very little chance of real imprisonment. But the state prosecutor asked for the maximum punishment under these circumstances – 480 hours of compulsory labour.
The verdict has not yet legally entered into force and I hope the appeal will overturn it, either acquitting me, or sending the case for a new trial.
How did the trial go in general?
In spite of the fact that the hearing did of course not involve state secrets or other information that could have prompted a closed hearing, journalists and public figures were not allowed into the courtroom and filming was prohibited.
I know for certain that the tax inspectorate conducted a desk audit against the Southern Human Rights Centre, but it is not included in the case file. One of the inspectors said that she was checking on a different legal entity, and we were captured ‘by accident.’ We asked the court to request verification materials that could confirm the financial position of our organisation. A letter came from the Federal Tax Service saying that these materials were not available, and we got no answer when we asked whether or not the check was carried out. The court did not ask again.
But even without these documents, the defence provided a lot of evidence of inability to pay this fine. The organisation does not have property or other assets, or significant turnover in its account. The fine was imposed on a legal entity, not on me as an official or an ordinary person. As president I have frequently paid administrative fines levied for inability to comply with a court decision. Now I was brought before the authorities again for this. For some reason, even in the case materials and during the hearing they called me the debtor, although the fine was imposed on the organisation.
Semyon, tell us about the work of the Southern Human Rights Centre. What did you do?
We monitored and exercised civilian oversight over the work of the authorities, carried out educational activities, and provided legal aid.
One of the areas in demand was support for people who had found themselves in a difficult legal situation – migrants, refugees, stateless people and deportees. In the early 1990s, hundreds of Abkhaz Georgians fled the war and came to Sochi. For decades they have been living with USSR passports, stuck with an undefined legal status like Tom Hanks’ character in The Terminal.
Remaining invisible to the state, they are deprived of all social rights. They do unofficial side work in markets and construction sites, and cannot receive free medical care or an appropriate pension. We helped them with paperwork.
Before the Olympics in Sochi, there was a temporary detention centre for foreigners subject to expulsion and deportation. We were often approached by citizens of the republics of Transcaucasia, Ukraine, and Central Asia who were unable to get home for months on end even if they were personally able to buy a ticket. After the 2014 Games, an acute issue arose with foreign workers who had been deceived. Olympic construction contractors cheated them of their wages, and often even handed them over to the authorities for deportation from the country.
In the trial, you and your lawyer Aleksandr Popkov emphasized the political nature of the criminal prosecution. Why did the authorities want to get even with your organization? What have you done to ‘get in their bad books’?
I think that the issue does not concern the Centre’s specific actions, but the fact that the current government wants to have total control over all civic activity in the region. If an organization or individual activists are completely independent, it is difficult to influence them, so they begin to hinder their work.
The very phrase ‘defence of human rights’ refers to the defence of a person from the state. And this means that civil society activists are beginning to understand how the authorities work, and whether or not they are breaking the law. They conduct research and investigations, and make this information public. Unlike law enforcement and oversight bodies, human rights defenders cannot make proposals, cannot in any way administer punishment for violations – the only effective tool they have is to disclose the information they’ve received to the Russian and international community. And society, with the help of its tools, is already able to influence the situation.
In doing so, the Southern Human Rights Centre –as far as I know – cooperated quite closely with local police departments.
Since 2012, we have been carrying out public monitoring of police work each year. The bodies of the Ministry of Internal Affairs interacted with us and often responded to our recommendations, but this didn’t happen without difficulties.
You know, I cannot describe this cooperation in one sentence and say that everything was either good or bad. At different times, under different heads of the Directorate of Internal Affairs, the situation with the Sochi police would vary in terms of transparency. I repeat, sometimes we received a constructive and lively response to our findings, sometimes the situation only got worse. But there was dialogue, in any case.
What has fundamentally changed in your work since you received ‘foreign agent’ status?
We were added to the registry in December 2016, though the organization only remained a ‘foreign agent’ for a year. When this happened, we closed down all our resources and ceased all activity, since we didn’t want to give the authorities an excuse for new fines and further prosecution. At some point, we even started thinking about liquidating the organization. Even the Taxation Service supported us while this was going on. Then the authorities decided to block the Human Rights Centre’s account and to prohibit any form of registration.
My colleagues and I continue to work. We do not care whether we are defending human rights on our own initiative or on behalf of an organisation. The only thing was that legal entity status provided us with more opportunities.
As for me personally, my status as head of an organisation – a ‘foreign agent’ – did not affect me in any way. On the other hand, what did have negative consequences was a news segment by a local TV company, which titled its coverage from the courtroom (when the Human Rights Centre was recognized as a foreign agent) ‘Sochi human rights activist, Semyon Simonov, finds himself on trial’, even though during the trial I was only a representative of the legal entity involved, and not a defendant. After the story, one of my acquaintances thought that they had already jailed me. Others thought, since there had been talk of it on television, that they would jail me in the near future. […]