Watch the interview on YouTube (in Russian)
Anton, thank you that you agreed to give an interview to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. How important “Sutiazhnik” is, at least in Yekaterinburg and the Sverdlovsk Region, I understood, when found an entire chapter about your organisation in Alexei Ivanov’s book “Eburg”…
Indeed, the word itself, ‘sutiazhnik’, is quite interesting as well. In today’s Russia, it has two meanings. The first is a person who persecutes and suits everyone and thinks that everyone is against him. The second meaning is from the older times and stands for a claimant, a person who fights injustice through such civilised means as going to court. The authorities, the officials against whom we stand in the courts, use the word in its first meaning. We call ourselves ‘sutiazhnik’ taking into account the second meaning of the word.
Our organisation was established in 1994. We have three major directions of our work – strategic litigation; knowledge transfer and trainings, including the Ural School of Human Rights twice a year; press work, while we explain, what the human rights are about, what strategic litigation cases are and why they are important.
Are you successful in raising awareness of journalists, when it comes to importance of your court cases? Do you reach out to your readers?
I think that people who complain about the media do not work well enough with them. If you are sincere, if you work carefully with people, then you can always find a journalist who can convey your thoughts to the public. By the way, we also publish books based on our own practices and practices from Europe and the US. We motivate colleagues to write short stories about their experiences, so that their practice remains in history, and so that young human rights activists can read and use the information and experiences obtained in international practice. We also use the raised data at our Ural Schools of Human Rights.
One of the important problems that your organisation has been dealing with is organs’ removal from corpses without the consent of relatives. How acute is this issue for Russia?
Often we can speak of secret removals of organs for transplantation purposes. Unfortunately, only few people in Russia are aware of the extent to which organs’ removal takes place. Our opponents, transplantologists and resuscitators, tell that only single cases occur. In reality, these are few cases only, which became public, due to a coincidence. In today’s Russia, there is no system for obtaining consent for the removal of organs either from potential donors themselves before death or from their relatives. We do not have a register of donors, but there is a presumption of consent, which is often applied. The doctors do not even try to find out whether an accident victim has relatives or come up to the relatives, if they are in the hospital. During the first hour the patient is in emergency, the Head of the Department would inform resuscitators on that, but there are no attempts to approach their relatives. In the case of death, the doctors refer to the Article 8 of the Law “On Transplantation of Human Organs and (or) Human Tissues” and, in accordance with the presumption of consent, organs are being removed. And we see that doctors use the loopholes in the legislation to their advantage. In all advanced countries, for instance, in Spain, there is also a presumption of consent but that applies only if no relative could have been found. In Russia, they even do not try to search.
For how long have you been dealing with such cases? Do you only work in the Sverdlovsk Region or in the whole of Russia? Could you make an influence on this wicked system?
We have been dealing with this issue since 2014, when we accidentally took up one case like that. The removal of organs took place in Moscow but the girl herself, who became an unwilling donor, originated from Yekaterinburg. So, we are doing business all over Russia, as the removals happen in the regions, where institutes of transplantion are located. For instance, in the Moscow Region, where transplantologists have helicopters, anybody injured in the traffic accident might become a victim of this system. In four years, we have had only three cases like that. In fact, there were more of them, but only three people decided to go to court and sought our assistance. In most cases, people do not even know that they bury relatives without organs.
As for the influence on the system, despite the fact that all the cases in the Russian Federation have been lost so far, two cases are pending for the European Court of Human Rights decision. We see that legislation changes happen. All of a sudden the law of 1992 is allowed to be changed, a bill appears in the Health Ministry, then in the Government of the Russian Federation, but haven’t made it through to the State Duma yet. However, the idea of introducing a donor register is emerging. It seems to me, though, that the decision of the European Court is indispensable here. Such a decision is necessary to explain transpontologists and resuscitators that it is impossible to act the way they do it now.
You mentioned the European Court of Human Rights, ie Council of Europe. Russia is threatening now that it can withdraw from the organisation. In turn, the Council of Europe says that it may terminate the powers of Russia due to late payments. What current issues do you see for your organisation, when it comes to the common European context?
I was always interested, also within the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, in cooperation with organisations from other countries, which have been dealing with the topics similar to ours. If we had not encountered a human rights organisation from Lithuania that conducted two similar cases on removal of organs, it would have been very difficult for us to fight for justice in Russia. The fact that Lithuanians began to deal with a similar issue before and consulted us helped us a lot. If no communication within the “Legal Dialogue” Programme had occurred, there would have been no such assistance. Since lately, we have been working with the European Prison Litigation Network on another strategic case related to extended visits of relatives in jail, as well as the right for artificial insemination and natural conception… Such cooperations are interesting for our organisation, as it leads to tangible results. Working alone is not very effective in general. Why reinvent the wheel, if the cases on removal of organs ended with a success in Lithuania? We will further use the decisions by the European Court in Russia, which is currently allowed by the Supreme and the Constitutional Court of Russia.
As promised, I would like to come back to the Ural School of Human Rights, which is also happening online now. For me personally, that was a great surprise that such a school exists beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. What has been achieved over the years the school has existed?
This project is of great importance to me. When I got involved in human rights activities, I understood that, even though I was a lawyer with a higher education, I did not have an understanding of what human rights are. None of the universities in the Russian Federation offers a master’s degree in human rights; there are no courses on human rights either. I had to apply for a Chevening scholarship to study at the University of Essex. However, not everyone has such an opportunity in Russia, as one needs to know another language, to win a grant, to move to another country… When I returned from the UK, this time from the University of Cambridge, I set myself the task of creating a school for human rights in Russia. Ideally, there should be a master’s programme, but we started with a small step. At first, it was the regional Ural School of Human Rights, then it became international, with experts and participants from other countries. Such schools should be far away from Moscow, and ideally, they should be offered online, so that everyone would have access to such information, a possibility to pass an exam and go to court to apply this knowledge. This is the ultimate goal we have been pursuing.
Thank you for this interview, Anton.
Interview was shot on 1 November 2018 by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum at the EU-Russia Legal Dialogue Symposium in Berlin, Germany.