20 November 2020
Hi, this is Maksim Olenichev, senior lawyer at Team 29.
This week has brought a lot of news which is difficult to take seriously. But we have to.
The beginning was laid by Roskomnadzor [Federal Agency for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media – ed.]. On Monday, they agency decided (unexpectedly for us) to give Team 29 some free publicity. They demanded that a long read about conditions in a pre-trial detention centre be removed from our site. Earlier, a district court in the Saratov village of Stepnoe had declared this information was classified. The author of the text, Aleksei Polikhovich, is one of the former political prisoners in the Bolotnoe case. The problem with classified information is much broader than removing the Team 29 long read from the website. In Russia, about half a million people are in prisons: penal colonies and pre-trial detention facilities. Only sketchy information about what is happening to the detainees and prisoners reaches the rest of society. Torture is common in penal colonies, but prosecutions for torture are rarely brought. The public resonance of a case in an important factor in whether charges are laid or not.
However, in our case Roskomnadzor, by prohibiting the information, achieved the opposite effect. Yes, we deleted the text around midnight to prevent the Team 29 website from being blocked. But in the last few hours until then traffic to the site increased 10 times! We are not offended by Roskomnadzor. To some extent we are even grateful. Team 29 has never received support from the government. But this agency, which has the power to ban publications, that fights in the age of the Internet in a primitive fashion to prevent access to information, has done everything to ensure that our long read would not be lost: the article was republished by many media. In an instant, it became the most popular item on our website.
The good news did not end there. On Tuesday Team 29 reported how Rospotrebnadzor [Federal Agency for Oversight of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing – ed.] had lost touch with reality. Trying to prevent the international LGBT film festival Side by Side in St. Petersburg, the agency first of all broke up the opening ceremony. Then, on the basis of a complaint by a local homophobe, it closed the Zoom Cafe on Gorokhovaya Street. Rospotrebnadzor confused the online screenings of the film festival via Zoom with the name of the local cafe. What can one say about that? At first you can’t hold contain your emotions, then you shake your head in disbelief: what were the officials thinking of?
On Wednesday, a bill was introduced to the State Duma allowing the authorities to declare all those who do not agree with them to be foreign agents. Back in 2012 it had first been decided to stick that label on non-profit organizations, and then it was applied to media. Now the turn has come for citizens of our country and organisations that operate without state registration. If Russians don’t declare themselves to be ‘foreign agents’ the authorities will do it and publish their names on the Ministry of Justice’s website. Does this situation remind you of something? I laughed for a long time when I read the bill. It is impossible to write such nonsense in the 21st century. But then the seriousness of it dawned: this bill actually declares everyone who has their own opinion to be an enemy of the people.
Friday is the day of good news. Today, Delovoi Peterburg published its rating of lawyers for the year 2020. For the first time Team 29 took part and received a diploma. In fact, four diplomas! We presented the case of Ilya Gendelev whose great-grandfather was arrested in 1941 on charges of embezzlement and died in the years of the blockade in Kresty prison. For many years the Interior Ministry’s archive was secret, denying relatives the right to know the fate of their ancestors who had been repressed but not rehabilitated. But Team 29 won the case in court and the Ministry was ordered to provide access to the case files.
Good news happens even when the state is closing everything down.
Keep your optimism and sense of humour,
Translated by Simon Cosgrove