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Thank you very much for your agreement to give an interview to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Your organisation “MASHR” is the first Ingush human rights organisation in the Republic of Ingushetia. Can you please tell us how the work of human rights defenders is now possible in the Caucasus, particularly in Ingushetia?
The work of human rights defenders is not always a quite comfortable one because no one likes criticism, no one likes, when people point to their violations. Therefore, we have never felt absolutely secure. In recent years, human rights advocacy, independent media and civil society have increasingly been discredited. Of course, it is becoming more difficult to continue our work: We face unfounded accusations, constant pressure and constant checks. They have certain consequences, including psychological and legal ones. Evidence-free accusations and coercion waste a lot of our energy. We have to resist, to litigate, to take part in many legal processes. And then we become a little limited in helping people. We have always provided free legal and information assistance to the population of the republic and internally displaced persons, refugees, who by force of circumstances appeared on the territory of Ingushetia. Actually, we continue this activity, despite the pressure. For some reason, one always tries to accuse us of being active in the political opposition activities. In the Russian legislation, the provision of free legal assistance and even paid legal assistance is called charity work. That is what we are doing. All of us – the staff of our organisation, friends, partners, volunteers – continue to work within the legal framework. At this point, no one is going to abandon human rights activities.
At the end of 2015, your organisation and you personally came under attack. You were charged with absurd accusations. Has this situation been resolved? Or has the pressure been going on?
This is pressure, political speculations, the case is beyond any legal boundaries. Yes, indeed, on 6 November 2015 my house and the “MASHR” office were raided. On paper, it sounded like an ‘inspection’. But no documents were given to us, neither copies nor a chance to make a photo. All documentation of “MASHR” and all my (and my children’s) electronic devices were confiscated. They restricted our movement for seven hours. No one could enter the office or my home. My children did not go to kindergarten. I am convinced that all this was possible only because we were involved in the trial – we upheld the illegality of the act of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic. We won the lawsuit, the act of Ministry of Justice was ruled illegal. But in defiance of all norms, the judge adopted his personal ruling on us in addition to the satisfaction of our claims and ruling the actions and acts of the Ministry of Justice illegal. We are now having legal proceedings; our complaint is already in Moscow. Of course, no one has provided me with a ruling. I was not given a copy. I applied to the courts, all to no avail. The authorities tried to initiate several criminal cases through security agencies, quite offensive cases – porno peddling, justification of terrorism, and other things.
Finally, on 28 December 2016, an order was issued to dismiss a criminal case – due to the lack of evidence of a crime. This is the first ruling, which was given to me in early January. This ruling clearly said that the Investigative Committee requested compromising information on Magomed Mutsolgov or “MASHR” from the Federal Security Service of the Republic of Ingushetia, the Criminal Investigation Department, and the Centre for Extremism Counteraction. I was surprised by the request format, because there is no such a thing as “compromising information request” in the legal framework. They should have asked whether there were facts of violation of law by Mr Mutsolgov or the Human Rights Organisation “MASHR”. Fortunately, all three agencies said that there were no proof of my involvement in any violations, including porno peddling and justification of terrorism. The pressure was also connected with the upcoming election campaign. My younger brother headed the “Yabloko” party in Ingushetia at a time. These attempts to discredit me, the organisation, and my family were two-fold.
Now we have put the lid on the matter. There was no crime. However, we lost all our electronic devices. They returned everything, but when they say ‘we have found some videos on your computer’, of course, we could no longer use these devices. It is simply a security measure. I formatted hard drives and gave the devices to my friends, civil society activists and low-income families. A few things were spoiled – camcorders, one system unit… They did not return several financial documents, our business cards, badges, and a number of reports of human rights organisations, including international organisations. In due order, we drew up an act, documented all items, which had not been returned to us, and put in our internal documents file. I bought new devices. We work now again, everything is alright.
In your report for 2016, you indicate that despite the fact that the organisation has no funds for development, you continue to provide free legal assistance. What motivates you to keep up the human rights activities?
As an NGO, from the very first day of our work, we have never aimed at making profit. Previously, we participated in various grant bids. We received donations, donors funded our targeted charity projects. In recent years, we have rejected foreign funding, because some of the donors were included on the list of “undesirable organisations”. We are law-abiding people and do not want to risk either our own or other people’s money. There was another opportunity – to participate in the presidential grant projects. Sometimes, we even won. But then, at the request of the regional authorities, we were excluded from the list of winners. So it makes no sense to take part in bids, where procedures are not transparent and where you cannot be sure that there will be a fair distribution of these funds and how officials will deal with these funds. We know 2-3 cases with Russian NGOs, when funding was withdrawn in completed or almost completed projects. Therefore, we have decided not to seek the assistance of foreign funders for the moment. And we do not participate in Russian grant bids not to have anything to do with public money, whatever it may be.
There are two more points. It is clear that the business will not fund human rights movements, if there is pressure on the part of regional authorities. We continue our activity only for one reason. The main purpose of “MASHR” is to help people in defending their rights by legal means. We know that the republic has the highest unemployment rate in the Russian Federation. And the people almost do not have a possibility of using the paid services of lawyers. So we provide people with free legal assistance, and I hope our lawyers will continue doing it. We want people to seek justice, demand respect for themselves and for their rights. It does not matter whether there is funding or not, whether there are charity projects or not. The main objective is to help people. And we do help them.
We are talking with you at the 7th General Assembly of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in Helsinki. The “MASHR” organisation is our long-standing member. Why is it important for you to be a part of the Forum?
I think that any representative of the civil society, who is actively involved in the human rights and charity activities, values support and educational processes. It is important to constantly improve yourselves and learn from the colleagues – not only in your home country but at an international level. We are a part of the Russian and the international human rights community. As co-founders of the Forum, we had a hand in the creation of this platform. Today, we have almost 200 NGO representatives from Russia and the EU here. We communicate, exchange experiences, learn from each other, and support each other. What could be better in a normal, civilised society?
Which current challenges do you see for the work of the Forum and the EU-Russia relations in general?
I do not know what kind of relations the EU and Russia will have, after all, Russia is a part of Europe. There is no doubt that any country, which wants to progress, should interact with its neighbours, participate in international institutions, and so on. I hope that everything will be fine with the Forum. Here we have active, educated people with a responsible civic position, who know, how to maintain their attitudes. Unfortunately, non-governmental organisations in the Russian Federation have been experiencing some difficulties in recent years. It has to do with several laws –  the “foreign agents” law, the law on “undesirable organisations” – as well as with constant pressure on and discrediting of the human rights activities and the hostility towards a different opinion. We hope that we will survive this. It is vital to hold you ground and feel the support of your friends and colleagues. Today is not the best of times, but it will come to an end sometime. You just need to believe it.
What would you like to wish to the members of the Forum? Apart from passing through the hard times?
First and foremost, I wish health to the families and friends of all the members of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. After all, the Forum’s members devote a lot of time not to their families but to the problems of other people and other organisations. These people are among the most active in their cities and in their countries. It seems to me that the main thing for them is not to give up on their activities, not to burn out, and go forward and believe in a brighter future. And, of course, to work for the benefit of their people, families and countries. To develop these countries and change the world for the better in a civilised way. I wish good luck, strength, and health to all of us!

The interview was recorded on 2 February 2017 by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in Helsinki, Finland.