Boris Vishnevsky: “Those who serve the law rather than the authorities, and protect citizens from criminals rather than the government from citizens, do not need anonymity”

13 January 2021

By Boris Visnyesky, a deputy in the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

State Duma deputies are attempting to make confidential all information about Russian law enforcement officers 

The worse the relationship citizens have with their state, then the more they distrust the people assigned to protect it. And all manner of means have been used to ensure this trust: money, bribes, benefits, privileges. When it became clear this wasn’t enough, they guaranteed impunity to all those concerned. And when this didn’t guarantee trust, they came to use the final means at their disposal; “Confidentiality”. They are hiding information about law enforcers, giving them the chance to carry on practically anonymously and without accountability. 

In December of last year, Novaya Gazeta investigated how laws granting the right to “confidentiality” – which in effect, grant classified status – were hastily pushed through the legislative process. This right to “confidentiality” related to information on personal identity and their property of “protected persons” – bureaucrats and a large part of the law enforcement apparatus. 

Previously these people could only obtain protection from the state if they were actually in danger. Now this condition was deemed unnecessary.  

Holders of government officese are basically already given government protection, and consequently there is no public access to information about their persons or their property. 

The author then mentioned (‘Secret People of State,’ Novaya gazeta, 15 December 2020) that this new law means it is now almost impossible to carry out any journalistic or parliamentary investigations into bureaucrats or law enforcement officials – and particularly, their property. 

But now they have decided to go further and State Duma deputies Vasily Piskarev (in the past first deputy chair of the Investigative Committee and one of the authors of the December bill) and Aleksandr Khinshtein (until recently press secretary for the National Guard) have put forward a bill that would provide government protection to all employees of the Interior Ministry, the National Guard, Ministry of Defence, and Foreign Intelligence Services, regardless of their position. 

The crux of the matter is that under the current version of this law, employees of these institutions can only receive government protection when they actively take part in measures to prevent the actions of armed criminals, illegal armed groups, and organised crime groups. Or directly take part in the fight against terrorism or in special operations. Or take part in criminal investigative operations or interrogations, in the protection of public order and ensuring public safety, or in the execution of judgments, rulings and other decisions of the courts.

Piskarev and Khinshtein have offered to repeal these provisions, suggesting, that it “gives employees (and military service personnel) of some law enforcement and security institutions an unfair position compared to employees of other similar institutions”. 

They added that “keeping in mind the specifics of the tasks which are assigned to the Interior Ministry, the National Guard, the Ministry of Defence and the Intelligence Services, threats to the lives and personal safety of employees (and military service personnel) of these institutions can appear regardless of whether they personally take part in certain measures mentioned in the Federal Law.” 

It is therefore being proposed to give the right to apply state protection measures “in relation to any employees of the internal affairs organs, military personnel and employees of the National Guard, military personnel of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, and military personnel of the External Iintelligence Agency [(SVR].”

And the state protection measures established by the current law are not at all limited to the confidentiality of information about “protected persons”. It applies to personal security, the protection of homes and property, the issuance of weapons, special protective equipment and warning about danger, temporary placement in a safe houses or relocation to another place of residence, the replacement of documents and changes in appearance…

If the law is adopted (which, for some reason, I have no doubt about), the right to all this state protection, including “confidentiality”, will be enjoyed not only by those who really take risks in their service (and there certainly are such people), but everyone who serves in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the National Guard, the Ministry of Defensc and the SVR. That includes those who don’t risk anything, but who don’t want anyone to know about them (or about their property). From fake generals who own property worth more than a hundred years of their wages to those who, sitting in police stations, mock detainees at protests and place them in torturous conditions.

One time I’ll never forget was when several young men and women who were detained in St. Petersburg on absurd grounds were placed for the night in cramped cells where it was almost impossible to breathe. And to my request to at least transfer them to a more spacious room, the head of the department, grinning, replied: “I told them that it was worse for the Young Guard [members of a Komsomol anti-fascist organisation in the Second World War – ed.].” It’s a pity that the logical answer to this: “If you compare them with the Young Guard, then aren’t you comparing yourself to a fascist?” – came to my mind only an hour later. And they’re the people you want to give state protection and confidentiality to? The meaning of what is happening is simple and transparent: in exchange for the fact that they protect the government from “internal enemies”, the government guarantees protection and anonymity to the gendarmes and guardsmen.

Meanwhile, those who serve the law rather than the authorities, and protect citizens from criminals rather than the government from citizens, do not need anonymity (unless they work in anti-terrorist units or intelligence). On the contrary, they can be proud of their work and talk openly about it. Others need anonymity: those who are involved in “dirty business”. Those who beat and detain civilians, who fabricate false “cases” and declare unbearable suffering from a plastic cup thrown in their direction. They are the ones who are promised “state protection” and “confidentiality.” Both citizens and the guards themselves must understand that under masks impenetrable to society they hide not associates, but accomplices, which, as we note, the authorities will hand over at the first sign of danger in order to save themselves. Those guards should really consider the question of whether they should be protected by the methods that they are demanding.

Translated by Fergus Wright and Cameron Evans

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