Watch the interview on YouTube (in Russian)
Thank you so much for having agreed to give an interview for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Next year, the Public Verdict Foundation will be celebrating its 15th anniversary. What do you consider to be the most important achievements of all these years?
The Public Verdict Foundation was created in order to help people who suffered from arbitrariness and illegal actions on the part of law enforcement authorities. In the beginning of the 2000s, it seemed like a miracle to initiate a case against a police officer, who for instance used illegal violence and tortured a detained person in the police department to obtain confessions of guilt from him. Today, it is not only possible to initiate a criminal case but also to bring it to court and get a conviction during the trial. This is probably the main dynamics, the main change that we have seen during the period of our activity.
Now you are saying that the situation in this regard has improved, but we constantly hear that it is deteriorating…
The situation regarding the prosecution or the fact that it is possible to bring to justice a person from the law-enforcement system has indeed changed. Many of these changes are largely due to the actions of human rights organisations, ours in particular, as well as our colleagues in other regions. However, I do not presume that the police stopped torturing or started investigating torture-related cases in full. Unfortunately, torture remains a common practice. In addition, we can say that torture is in fact used as one of the tools for obtaining confessions.
Unfortunately, the investigation of crimes committed by the law enforcement officials continues to be extremely ineffective. Probably, the main effort of our lawyers and counsels goes to making investigators initiate the case, investigating it properly and, in the end, issuing an indictment and transferring the case to the trial. Fifteen years ago, it was basically impossible. There was a small number of cases initiated, and only a few that reached the court. As a result, a law enforcement officer could get a suspended sentence. As of now, our organisation alone counts around 100 sentences where police officers were found guilty. In some cases, several people were convicted instead of just one, and there are at least 143-145 police officers who were found guilty thanks to our lawyers and counsels alone.
Since the process of criminal prosecution continues to be complex and doesn’t always end in victory and the restoration of justice, our lawyers use Russian legislation together with the European Court practices as well as a database of successful cases to develop legal techniques. They are tested in a range of regions. If we see that a tested technique is working, we transfer it to the lawyers and counsels whose work is related to the human rights issues.
One of these techniques is a civil suit for bureaucratic delays and for failure to investigate effectively. Even though this is not a criminal but a civil procedure, the government acknowledges its failure one way or the other. Therefore, it recognises that the investigation was done ineffectively and, as a consequence, the government awards a compensation to the victim who suffered from torture, unlawful violence and maltreatment. We can see the dynamics here as well. If five years ago the amount of compensation was minimal (around several thousand roubles, ie 10-50 euros), today it is tens of thousands (starting from 150 euros).
The second technique is once again linked to the civil procedures. When we understand that in the context of investigation, the time is wasted and substantial evidence cannot be restored for various reasons; when within the framework of the criminal procedure it is impossible to bring a specific person to justice, but a citizen got out injured from the Police Division. Consequently, in this case there is a civil suit against the government for causing body injury, namely torture occurred on the territory of a state authority. We already have several court decisions, when use of illegal violence within the civil procedure is convicted, and the victim is compensated.
The Public Verdict Foundation does not necessarily work with high-profile cases; you work with individuals who may not be able to effectively protect themselves. Would you say that there is more torture now than before?
Unfortunately, we cannot say that there is a decline in the practice of torture, the victims keep on addressing us. Moreover, at the end of last year – the beginning of this year, the cases where torture was used by the investigators of the Federal Security Service (FSB) were made public. To some extent, it could be said that this was a new negative trend, at the same time we cannot be 100% sure that the FSB didn’t use torture before, given that such cases remained completely unknown to the human rights defenders.
The problem is that, on the one hand, there are more criminal cases, more sentences being applied to the law enforcement officials. After the reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, we could say that there was a recognition of the issue of torture on the ministerial level. On the other hand, no measures are implemented to stop the practice of torturing. Thus, the whole reform implemented in 2009-2012 has hardly tackled the human rights dimension. It didn’t change anything, nor did it increase the degree of responsibility of the law enforcement officials. It didn’t introduce the principle of the inevitability of punishment, therefore the use of torture goes on. Meanwhile, the reporting system remains the same. Even though it was modernised and underwent some changes, its foundation remains essentially the same. This system pushes law enforcement officials, mainly police officers, to illegally use violence in order to fight crime.
My explanation for this is the lack of understanding of the harmfulness of such practices at the systemic level, the understanding that would then be transferred further, of the principle of the inevitability of punishment for an illegal act, torture or ill-treatment.
The Public Verdict Foundation has been the member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum since the very beginning. Your final term as a member of the Steering Committee (now Board) of the Forum is about to end. In your opinion, to what extent did the Forum manage to achieve its initial goals, for instance, supporting nonprofit organisations and civic activists? What could be done to improve Forum activity?
Based on Forum global goals, one of its purposes is promoting dialogue between civil societies in Russia and the EU. In this area, I think, we can always aim for better and for creating new challenges. During the 7-year period of working in the Steering Committee and the Board, I could see that the Forum started implementing many interesting and innovative projects and initiatives, such as the “Different Wars” Exhibition, the “EU-Russia Legal Dialogue” Programme, the “Europe Lab” Forum. The formats with a lot of space for a dialogue not only between civic institutions but also between citizens themselves appeal to me very much. It is crucial, especially today, when the world is polarised and media wars with militaristic rhetoric are occurring on the state level. The civil dialogue implemented through different initiatives of the Forum heartens me. It is vital to develop it further. However, my core thought is that it is impossible to reach Forum goals in five or ten years. There is what has been called a “higher purpose”, which is just like our own lives, where we strive to evolve, achieving goals, making new challenges and progressing towards their implementation.
As Director of the Public Verdict Foundation, a member organisation of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, how would you like to engage with the Forum? What to get from it and what to share with it? What is missing?
It is essential today to create the projects, which are not standardised, the projects that human rights defenders are not used to, such as human rights monitoring or legal protection. Instead, it is important to involve the civic organisations and other communities through different interactive, innovative and multimedia projects, to talk to them about the humanistic values and human rights. This is not just about the situation in Russia. The populism that is largely present in the media landscape degrades the values of human dignity and the respect for the individual, which is inherent in us and which is what makes us humans and citizens. The Forum is a perfect place for having a conversation about values, about a return to what is important, to what makes us citizens with our own opinions, our own position and without being afraid to stand for it.
What would you like to wish the Forum members?
I would like to wish the Forum members, including our Foundation, to keep on doing what they do for the reason, which was there at the very beginning. To keep on going in today’s context, when in some countries civil societies are regarded with concern or seen as hostile to the state. It could be environmental activities, local self-governance, protection of human rights, historical memory – the range of topics is extremely broad. However, we should all be united in the commitment to the common principles upon which the organisation built its position.
The interview was shot on 19 April 2018 by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in Berlin (Germany)