Defending theHuman Rightto a Fair Trial
July 11, 2017
Alessio Scandurra, Grazia Parisi, Michele Miravalle, Flavio Romani and Valentina Calderone, activists from Antigone, A Buon Diritto and Arcigay report on their time being held in custody by police in Russia.
In the office of the Public Monitoring Commission we had just started to discuss how difficult it is to be human rights activists in Nižnij Novgorod. In that region, 400km away from Moscow, the police is acknowledged to be repressive and unaccommodating. Suddenly four agents broke into the room and showed a letter in which a Russian citizen denunciated “suspicious presence of foreigners” on their territory. They took us into custody and invited us to follow them to the police station. Ten hours of interrogation and frantic contacts with the Italian Embassy in Moscow followed. Thanks to the support of the Russian activists, who acted as our defense, the custody ended at midnight with a fine of a few rubles.
Why did this happen?
However, the purpose of this action was not to verify our alleged violation of the rules of entry into Russia. Our visas were released by the same Russian consular authorities, which had been fully informed about the purpose of our mission and about the agenda of the various meetings. The victims of this incident, in short, were not just us, but those civil society organizations that were with us in those hours. Furthermore, the operation was probably scheduled with some advance: controls were carried out by officials who came with a van that had exactly the places needed to take us to the police station, reached within a few minutes by a competent and kind interpreter.
Since 2015 Antigone has been a member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, an international platform born to promote relations between Russia and Europe’s civil society organizations. In this context, we have been in close contact with organizations that in Russia, like Antigone in Italy, carry out monitoring activities of detention facilities. Russian colleagues came to Italy in July 2016 to learn about our work and invited us to Russia to do the same.
From June 25th to June 28th, as activists of Antigone, A Buon Diritto and Arcigay, we have visited Russia to meet some civil society organizations and to get to know their work better. The mission ended with the police breaking into our meeting and a custody measure against us. Now, lucidly, after having absorbed what happened and swallowed the bitterness for having abandoned our mission in Russia, we must give to the episode the right interpretation.
Human rights in Russia
For some years, the enthusiasm for the human rights culture that overwhelmed Russia after the fall of the Soviet regime has definitely fallen. In particular, since Putin’s second mandate (2004), and even more with his return to the presidency in 2012, many measures limiting fundamental rights have been introduced. Among them, probably the most widespread effect was the law on the so-called foreign agents, which compared NGOs receiving funding from abroad, including the European Commission or the large foundations that support human rights around the world, to agents who work for the stranger/enemy, imposing on them innumerable constraints and restrictions. The result was a greater dependence of NGOs on government funding, and hence their lower independence, but also their growing isolation from the rest of western civil society, especially European.
Human rights defenders in Russia are under siege. Obstructed by asphyxiating and pretexted bureaucratic measures, in a context where media control is increasingly pervasive and independent journalists are literally risking their lives, they are fighting a situation where human rights violations are massive and not decreasing.
In this context, it is crucial for the Russian civil society to feel the attention and support of Europe, the same support that they tried to affect through us. From now on Italian and European NGOs have to know that during their exchange visits to Russia something might not go as planned. Message received.
For our part we intend to challenge this decision in court, but we would also like to remind everyone that Russia is an extraordinary country, full of people conducting brave battles for the advancement of a human rights culture that is probably the most valuable endowment that last century left us. First of all, we must be thankful to them for their battles, which are ours too. On top of that, we promise that our support and our solidarity will always be there.
This is a guest post written by members of Antigone, A Buon Diritto and Arcigay.
Associazione Antigone is a non-governmental organisation based in Rome, focusing on the protection of rights and guarantees in the penal system. Arcigay is Italy’s first and largest national gay organization. A Buon Diritto is a civil liberties association formed in June 2001 for the purpose of promoting questions of great public importance regarding the exercise of rights which are either recognised by the legal system but not properly protected.
Alessio Scandurra is director of research activities at Antigone. Currently his main research interests regard prison conditions, penitentiary policies and alternatives to detention.
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