Zoya Svetova: “This is an absolute desecration and mockery of public monitoring”

25 May 2021

Pictured: Zoya Svetova, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize. Photo by Svetlana Vidanova / Novaya gazeta

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Echo of Moscow, 05/25/2021]

O. Zhuravleva: And our guest today is a columnist for MBK media, human rights activist Zoya Svetova. Hello, Zoya Feliksovna […] And this is exactly the same Zoya Svetova who was recently denied a place in the PMC […] the Public Monitoring Commission, where she had previously worked. If we can, let’s remind our listeners of the most recent story, because Zoya Svetova was engaged in helping prisoners, so to say…

A. Orekh: You worked in the PMC for many years. What went wrong on this occasion? 

Z. Svetova: Listen, I was a member of the Moscow city PMC for 8 years, from 2008 to 2016. Then, according to the law on public monitoring, members must have a break, like Putin did with Medvedev. Or rather, like Putin, he could not be president, so Medvedev was appointed. And I couldn’t be in the Moscow PMC again. In 2016. I applied to the Mordovia PMC, because I know that prison republic very well, and I wanted to be a human rights activist there, but they didn’t take me.

Then I got the chance to be elected to the Moscow PMC after three years, and again they didn’t take me. Then I tried to get elected to that same commission, because the famous human rights activist, Marina Litvinovich, a member of the Moscow PMC, was expelled from it and her place vacated.

So I submitted my documents there. Plus a Moscow Helsinki Group lawyer, Yevgeny Yenikeev, a wonderful human rights activist, who was also previously a member of the Moscow PMC, also submitted documents. But he was rejected with no reasons given. There were three vacancies on the commission, there are now 40 people, I think, 39… Well, it boiled down to there being three vacant places, because Marina Litvinovich had been expelled, and two members of the Moscow PMC had left themselves, for some reason. The funniest thing is that two people were elected to fill three vacancies, and one was left unfilled. Neither I nor Yenikeev were allowed in.

But I really liked the people who ended up in our places. I’ve forgotten their names, to be honest, but I like the appointments. The first was the head of the Russian Red Cross,  a young man of 26. At the age of 26 he is already the head of the Russian Red Cross, and also a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation. The second person, who is either in my place or Yenikeev’s, is essentially a political scientist, and also a very dynamic person… A very dynamic political scientist in the Donbass, who often visits the Donetsk People’s Republic. And now he’s also a member of the Public Chamber. The most important story in this story, if you’ll pardon the tautology, is that the Public Chamber elects the members of the PMC. Maybe our listeners have forgotten how this works. So: all over Russia public organisations, mainly human rights organisations, nominate their candidates. And the Public Chamber either elects or does not elect them. They can even nominate parties. For example, I was nominated by the “Civic Initiative” party, which is the same one that nominated Marina Litvinovich.

So that’s what’s going on. Since the Public Chamber really does not want to choose real human rights defenders, which I consider myself to be, because I was actually in the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission for 8 years, and received no complaints from either the FSIN [Federal Penitentiary Service] or any other law enforcement agencies. Those kinds of public complaints. There was a lot of gratitude from the prisoners and, frankly, I don’t like to praise myself, but I will still give praise, because I was not alone, there was a whole team in the Moscow PMC. We helped a lot of people, it’s true, because these people still write, call, and send us their best wishes on all the holidays. These are the ones who were released from prison. And there is really the feeling that we were there for a reason. 

So, the Public Chamber does not want to elect such people. They elect from among themselves, from the Public Chamber. How is that even the case? Well, the Public Chamber elects its members in the Moscow PMC. So I can bet anything that these people who have been elected will not go to the Moscow pre-trial detention centres often. Of course, they will go there several times. But this is not their job. Because if you have the Russian ‘Red Cross’ on your shoulders, if you are involved in some sort of activities of your own, if you are a political scientist and go to Donbass all the time, then why do you need Moscow pre-trial detention centres? Why would the people sitting in there matter to you? Why would you help them? What we are dealing with today is an absolute profanation and mockery of public monitoring.

A. Orekh: Look, usually such things are associated with politics, because now we have a lot of cases that are interpreted as political affairs. But in reality … The number of people who let’s say we can call political prisoners in comparison with the total number of prisoners is very small. So what does the fact that you and Litvinovich have been pushed out mean, exactly?

Z. Svetova: This is a very important topic, this is a topic … this is about the fact that the prison is being closed, because the law on public monitoring, which was adopted in 2008, was the law that allowed the opening of prisons to people from the outside, it allowed them to go there and defend human rights. And, to be honest, over the last three years I did not understand at all why we have been allowed to work. Why are they letting us into the Lefortovo pre-trial detention centre, which is filled with political prisoners and enemies of the regime in general? But they weren’t able to stop us from going there, because there was a law in place and there was no policy or order that condoned the harsh treatment of public monitors. They waited until they had removed all human rights defenders. And here, the last time the members of the commissions were chosen … We are talking about Moscow, not the whole of Russia, though this is happening all over Russia. So right now, I dutifully declare that there are now only two people in the Moscow commission who have anything to do with human rights protection. This is Eva Merkacheva and Liubov Volkova. The rest of the people come from other civil society organizations or are former police officers, former security guards, private security companies, entrepreneurs …

O. Zhuravleva: Some veterans from the FSIN, as I understand it.

Z. Svetova: These are people who don’t know why they are there and I understand why. On the one hand, they are taking our places so that there’s an imitation of social work. And secondly, some of them announced that they are going to be members of parliament. This is a springboard. Because thanks to the work of real human rights advocates throughout Russia, not only the Public Monitoring Commission of Moscow, in different regions there were very authoritative commissions that screamed about the lawlessness that is taking place in Russia’s penal colonies. So, these people felt that it was like a springboard into politics. They thought that it was a good place to be, the Public Monitoring Commissions, because the FSIN has to take note of them, the same went for the Ministry of Internal Affairs for a certain period of time. So people wanted to become members for that kind of reason. 

Therefore, I am very sad to say this now, because we see how the institution of public monitoring, the most powerful institution of public monitoring that has existed, has been completely destroyed. The hands of the authorities, the hands of the security forces, reached out to it. So it was very funny when Novaya gazeta took a comment from the deputy head of the Security Committee of the Public Chamber. I think Kholodov is his last name, if I’m not mistaken. They asked him: “Why didn’t you choose Svetova? The Public Chamber of Moscow asked for her to be included.” Aleksei Venediktov, deputy head of the Public Chamber of Moscow,  with the approval of Remchukov, head of the Public Chamber of Moscow, both spoke out for her. This is very important when the Public Chamber of the region is supporting you. This is, in general, very important. This shows that you are trusted in your region. So Kholodov answered the Novaya gazeta correspondent: “In Svetova’s case this didn’t play any role”. What do you mean, “it didn’t play any role”?

A. Orekh: So, the person told the truth.

O. Zhuravleva: This is what “reputation” means.

Z. Svetova: But this is ridiculous, because really … Well, I would be on this Public Monitoring Commission, so what? I couldn’t be alone, I would need a second person anyway. Well, we would be with Eva Merkacheva, we would be there. What would we do so terrible that it was necessary to arrange such an ugly special operation and choose people? Because they no longer have any human rights advocates left to replace us. And they chose these two gentlemen from the Public Chamber, perhaps respected, not respected … It doesn’t matter! Just people who are not human rights advocates. They just have a different … This is not a profession, being a human rights activist is not a profession. They just have a different mission, you know what I mean? [Read more in Russian]

Translated by Anna Bowles, Tyler Lagendorfer and Ecaterina Hughes

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