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"Half the country is infected with the disease of imperial nationalism and nothing can be done about it" - Ilya Shablinsky, MHG member


At the beginning of the year, Russian authorities decided to liquidate the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), the oldest human rights organisation in the country.

The reason was that the group had violated its charter by conducting activities "outside the Moscow region.

Since its founding in 1976, members have worked to expose human rights abuses and push for compliance with international human rights obligations.

Media Loft correspondent Katya Kobenok spoke with Ilya Shablinsky, an IHH member and lawyer, about the difficulties the organisation is now facing in helping political prisoners and what laws should be passed after the war and the overthrow of Vladimir Putin's regime.

- Good afternoon, Ilya. Before the government's decision and the closure of the MHG, did you think this would happen? Especially given the story of Memorial? Did you foresee this course of events?

- Yes, we considered it. But neither I nor many other members of the MHG were certain that we'd meet the same fate. Between one year and six months ago, we were not entirely clear about the government's strategic plan to completely eradicate all civil society structures that were capable of criticising the government.

Human rights organisations have been active in Russia for the last 20-30 years. We cannot say that they had any great influence, but they existed.

Elimination is a strategy of the authorities to stamp out any institutionalised dissent. It is the strategy of a group of vulgar men, elderly FSB officers, who have become embittered against the world and anyone who criticises them.

So they started banning all the things they have long hated.

- The MHG was persecuted under the Soviets. Now it is being persecuted again. You were shut down in 1982, they shut you down again. Is it fair to say that history is repeating itself? Are you going to build on this past experience now?

- These are questions best answered by Vyacheslav Bakhmin, IHG co-chairman, who spent four or five years in prison and other camps and remembers well what happened in 1982.

I, for my part, will say that in 1982, it was, in effect, a self-dissolution, because almost all members of the organisation were jailed. They made the decision to dissolve themselves because it was impossible to act. But those people who were free, met and communicated, participated in samizdat. They used all the means that were possible.

So now there is a new phase, a new situation.

The court decision, by the way, forbids us to create any other organisation, even without forming a legal entity with the same name - "Moscow Helsinki Group".

This is an instruction from the same old evil FSB colonels to prevent us from gathering and reviving the group. Of course, we still communicate on Zoom, discussing all problems. No one can stop us there.

- How do you help political prisoners who are now in Russia?

- Quite a few members of MHG remain in Russia. Vyacheslav Bakhmin himself, Alexey Simonov, Svetlana Astrakhantseva, executive director, and Dima Makarov, IHG secretary. More than half stayed in Russia.

Of course, acting as an organisation is difficult. The last time we signed a collective letter on behalf of the MHG was in April. It was about Liliya Chanysheva, whom we consider a heroine. We have compiled a large letter to the UN Human Rights Committee - it is useless to complain to the Russian structures.

We used to be able to write letters to different structures on behalf of the organisation. Now we are not able to present ourselves as an organisation, but everyone can write on their own behalf.

Most of our members have connections with lawyers.

Most of the time, people who are in prison come and ask for help with a lawyer. Now help has to be given in a personal capacity, not referring to being an IHG member. For example, Vladimir Kara-Murza has every reason to be released from prison, because he has a disease that gives grounds to change his preventive measure.

Leo Ponomarev, a prominent physicist, played a huge role in our country. He was arrested for administrative reasons and spent six months behind bars. We also have Alexey Simonov, who created the Glasnost Defence Foundation. We have journalist Nikolai Svanidze and lawyer Galina Arapova monitoring violations of press rights.

- Imagine Putin leaves, the war is over and the opposition comes to power. Where should one start to build this new Russia? What legal documents should we start with? What should be written into the laws so that dictatorship and totalitarianism do not reoccur?

- If we talk about the most basic (constitution), it is necessary for the new parliament to adopt the following decision - to cancel all the amendments adopted since 2008. These amendments were introduced by Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, using massive fraud.

United Russia never got three quarters of the vote. They got quite a lot of voter support, sure, but not that much. It was all rigged, invented, drawn.

That is why we need to keep the Constitution that was adopted on December 12, 1993, for a start.

Then we need a new law on the status of judges and a new procedure for their appointment. Now judges are appointed by the Presidential Administration. We can see what they are now - absolutely loyal and fearful. But they are being selected and this selection has been going on for the last 20-odd years.

This was the strategy of Putin and his company. They wanted to make the judicial system completely controllable by the administration.

There should also be lustration of the judicial corps - not total, but partial. Yes, the judges who handed down those wild and terrible sentences that cost people their health and lives should be stripped of their status.

The MHG, by the way, appealed to [Russian Human Rights Ombudsman] Tatyana Moskalkova about the fact that the courts do not take decisions in relation to sick prisoners.

A prisoner is sick, a prisoner is paralysed, a prisoner has frostbite in one arm and one leg and they have been taken away. They should by law be released from prison. But they rot and die behind bars.

Our judges and investigators are out of line. I don't know how they can show their anger at the entire human race any other way.

There was a brilliant physicist, Dmitri Kolker, who had terminal cancer - and the judge put him in prison. He died two days later. He's a brilliant scientist. This is a mockery.

Next, a complete liberation of media space, a return to freedom of speech, as clichéd as that sounds. We have a lot of restrictions in the information law, we have a lot of stupid amendments to the media law. But the first thing people should feel is that the media is free.

Thirdly,  new laws on parties.  A new form of government should be introduced into the constitution. The State Duma should be given new, much wider powers and the president will be left with little power. He will no longer be able to play the leading role in appointing the executive. It will be a form of parliamentary republic.

- Can Russia after liberation from Putin use Germany's experience of reconstruction?

- Throughout the 1940s and 1950s a huge number of Germans believed that information about concentration camps was a fabrication. They gradually began to realise by the end of the 1950s. But eventually the German government found itself in a position where it had to criminalise Germans for denying genocide.

If you deny that your fellow countrymen killed members of other nations by the thousands and hundreds of thousands - go to jail, because you are spitting in the faces of millions of people whose relatives were killed by your fellow countrymen and you were there. Take responsibility for that!

For Germany it was a form of penance.

- Denazification is a set of measures that can only be carried out by the occupying authorities. Who is going to occupy Russia?  Do we want it to be occupied?

- Russians themselves should judge their murderers, organisers of the war; they themselves should tell their people, their audience that they are to blame.

But repentance is not worth waiting for.

Half of the country will say: "Well, they killed a few thousand Ukrainians, and that's all right. Half the country is infected with this disease, imperial nationalism.

And there's nothing you can do about it. We have to wait for a generation or two.

Evgeny Prigozhin and all these generals understand that they are killing innocent people, that they attacked the country, that they committed an act of aggression, that Russia unleashed a war.

If there was a proper political, psychological atmosphere in the country they would just admit it. Next you will hear - "we did not want to do  it,  we were carrying out  orders". But this will only be a partial truth, because many of them were gladly following orders, gladly killing, gladly bombing.

- In Europe, the disgruntled would immediately come out in protest. Why do you think that in Russia, immediately after the war, people did not come out en masse?

That is not quite the case. Several tens of thousands across the country came out to protest. My daughter came out to protest.

Here my daughter came out on March 6, 2022. There were 200 people around her. They were all pushed into police vans.

First of all, the opponents of the war were in the minority. Secondly, any protests were suppressed in a ferocious way - they were beaten, their arms were broken, their teeth were knocked out.

If you go out in the street to protest in Russia, trained men rush up to you, grab you and drag you away. How much would you protest under these circumstances?

- Russia has withdrawn from the Council of Europe and is no longer going to comply with ECtHR judgments. To what extent has the condition of political prisoners and all those persecuted for their freedom of expression in Russia deteriorated and will it continue to do so?

- Of course it has worsened. Have many people felt it? No, they haven't, because millions of people don't even know about its existence.

People don't think about guaranteeing their legal security until they are taken by the elbow and dragged into prison.

When Russia changes its state, when it condemns all the crimes committed by the state, it will have the opportunity to become a member of the Council of Europe again and accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. I have no doubt about that.

The MHG, by the way, has made full use of the ECtHR. The most successful lawyer from the MHG was Karina Moskalenko. There, at the ECtHR, she won several dozen cases against the Russian authorities.

- Years ago, Putin went to congratulate Lyudmila Alekseeva, who was chair of the MHG until her death in 2018. What would she say to him now?

- She would not meet him and she would not say anything . She would realise that even meeting him would be a betrayal of Ukraine.

Lyudmila Mikhailovna was in favour of a compromise that would save someone, get someone out of jail and help someone. That is, in this context, she was ready to cooperate with an authoritarian regime, but without conceding anything to the basic principles - the priority of human rights above all.

- Tell us about your activities before the invasion. Any interesting examples?

- In 2018-2019, I received a complaint from miners in the Rostov region - that's Russia's Donbass. All the mines there were closed a long time ago, and the miners were owed several million rubles  by the state.

So they asked us for help to get this money. They held rallies, were about to go to Moscow, they even set up their own organisation and I spoke in their own defence. I did not speak directly for the MHG, but the MHG commissioned me to do it.

I organised a visit there for the Human Rights Council under the President of the Russian Federation (HRC). It is hard to imagine now, but at that time there was still some interaction.

We went to these ghost towns - Gukovo, Krasny Sulin. There is total unemployment there, miserable pensions, miserable salaries.

This is a depressed part of the Rostov Region and the salaries of several thousand miners have not been paid. This should have been known to those Donetsk miners who were talking about miners in the Russian Donbass. They are out of work there, surviving on their plots. By the way, in the end the Rostov miners were  paid something.

- Okay, one last question. Your assessment of human rights in Russia,  from 0 to 10?

- Well, I am not going to say zero, I will say two because there is also the Yabloko party.

There's 'Zhivoy Gvozd'. Alexei Venediktov speaks. Valery Solovey gives his comments. Vyacheslav Bakhmin, co-chairman of MHG, now lives in Moscow.

And Yabloko has activist Lev Shlosberg, he interviews me. I'm in Latvia and he is in Pskov. So it turns out that so far the temperature is still above zero.

By: Katya Kobenok

Photos: Facebook