15 January 2022
by Vera Vasilieva is an independent journalist, host of Radio Liberty’s** “Freedom and Memorial,”* and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for Human Rights in 2018
It’s obvious that the events and phenomena observed in Russia’s judicial system at the end of last year are going to continue in this one, and there is scarcely reason to think that nice big surprises await us. Emblematic and most important among these events were the decisions on 28 and 29 December to close down International Memorial* and the Memorial* Human Rights Centre, which the Russian authorities have deemed “foreign agents.” Both nongovernmental organizations are appealing the verdict, international Memorial to the Supreme Court appellate board and the Human Rights Centre in the regular First Appeals Court.
I am not going to repeat what has already been said many times about how the course and character of the trial on 29 December reproduced what had happened the day before in the Russian Supreme Court, and with the same result; that in exactly the same way the Prosecutor’s Office went beyond the framework of the charges brought, starting with absent or improper labeling about “being a foreign agent” and ending with extremism and terrorism… It has been noted fairly and many times that shutting down International Memorial, which engages primarily in restoring historical truth and preserving the memory of the political repressions of the Soviet era, is fraught with forgetting those repressions and their return in the future on a Russia-wide scale. The elimination of the Memorial Human Rights Centre could deprive us of our present, too.
Everything Memorial has done and is doing is unquestionably significant: its work on conflict hot spots, its preparation and conduct of complaints at the ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights], and all the rest. Especially dear to me is the topic of the political prisoners this human rights organisation helps – by disseminating information about them and also legally and financially. And I am extremely alarmed by the question of what is going to happen to political prisoners if the Human Rights Centre cannot do its work. The same holds true for the OVD-Info*** project, which the Russian Justice Ministry has also declared a “foreign agent” and blocked on the Internet and which renders legal assistance to those detained in peaceful protests.
The problem of the judicial system in our country is pertinent here. In this regard, I recall an encounter that amazed me and that took place right there, outside the Moscow City Court, as the case on closing down Memorial was being heard. To my amazement, among the people standing there I met a judge (!). She’d come – from another city, where she works in civil trials – to support the human rights organisation. My interlocutor proved so expertly conversant with the legal statutes as she commented on the course of the trial that I had no reason to doubt the truth of her words. Once we got talking, we also discussed famous politically motivated criminal cases that, according to my new acquaintance, had been given quite harsh and unambiguous evaluations, in particular the case of Aleksei Pichugin, also heard in Moscow City Court. By the way, it is from that case, I believe, that “Basmanny” justice began, along with the degradation and destruction of our judicial system.
Literally the day before, on the Dozhd** TV channel, lawyer Genri Reznik, who is defending International Memorial in the Russian Supreme Court, said that those politically motivated judges who in full view of everyone are hearing well-known fabricated cases are a small minority. The majority of their colleagues rule in line with the law and their conscience. I admit I regarded this assertion with great skepticism. After all, it is a well-known fact that acquittals comprise less than a percent on average in our country. I myself, over nearly two decades of journalistic practice, have had occasion to be present at the announcement of many guilty verdicts and only one acquittal. So I was all the more surprised during my conversation with this judge from a provincial city outside Moscow City Court.
In a recent interview with Radio Liberty, Ilya Novikov, who represents the interests of Memorial Human Rights Centre at Moscow City Court, suggested that in the light of this encounter of mine seems especially noteworthy: in the creation of a new, independent judicial system in Russia, civil judges could temporarily take on the consideration of criminal cases, inasmuch as those judges who conducted politically motivated trials have discredited themselves.
*International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Centre have been entered into the register of NGO foreign agents by the Russian Justice Ministry.
**Radio Liberty and Dozhd have been entered into the register of media foreign agents by the Russian Justice Ministry.
***The OVD-Info media project has been entered into the registry of unregistered public associations deemed in Russia to be “foreign agents.”
The opinions expressed here reflect only the position of their authors and not the position of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
Translated by Marian Schwartz