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Interview with Lev Ponomarev

lev_ponomarev.jpgRussia-watchers are no doubt aware of the recent arrest of my good friend Lev Ponomarev. Lev is one of the leading lights of the Russian human rights movement, part of the original perestroika-era generation of human rights advocates whose courageous efforts ensured that democratic reforms were an integral part of the changes that followed the collapse of communism. These reforms have been steadily and vigorously eroded over the past decade under Vladimir Putin. Several days ago, for example, Lev was arrested in Moscow on Flag Day – while walking with a Russian flag. The irony is all the greater because Russia’s Flag Day commemorates the day in 1991 when the tricolor was raised for the first time over the Supreme Soviet building after the failed August Putsch, a time when Lev was a deputy to the Congress of People’s Deputies of the RSFSR and a key figure in the fledgling democracy movement. I spoke with Lev by phone after his release, and here is what he had to say:

The arrest itself wasn’t a major event for me. To be locked up for 3 days in conditions like these… I had summer jobs on collective farms and construction sites back in my youth, and the living conditions there weren’t any better, so I’m used to this sort of thing. It was no big deal.

But what was really a shock for me this time around was that I had to spend five hours in court – twice. First the trial itself, and then the appeal. I’ve been to a lot of trials, of course, but always as an observer. Being a defendant at my own trial doesn’t happen to me very often. I had really good lawyers working for me, including Karinna Moskalenko and my daughter Elena Liptser. I’ve got to say that this whole experience really opened my eyes up to a number of things.I observed how the judges were going through all the right motions, doing everything properly, by the book. But it was all just a formality, nothing more, just a show. They questioned the witnesses, they ruled on motions, everything just like it’s supposed to be. And then they write the verdict. In which they say, for example, that the various witnesses did not contradict each other in their testimony, and that my testimony also did not contradict the witnesses’ testimony. When in fact, things were just the opposite of this: there was plenty of very contradictory testimony, and the defense case was largely built around this very fact!So I got to experience firsthand the cynicism of a “contract” case, custom-ordered from above. And this has made me even more determined to give voice to these court decisions, to let the public know about them. We need to work to attain a fair judiciary in our country. That’s really the main thing. Because any conflict between a citizen and the state eventually ends up in court one way or the other. Dmitry Medvedev says lots of pretty words on the subject of judicial reform, but the fact remains that the court system is geared to receive political “contracts” and orders from above. So his words are nothing but hot air. I’ve experienced this intimately on my own skin now, and that was a very useful experience for me.We need to create name-and-shame blacklists of judges and to make these public. I’ve got a plan to create such a list, and to put it up on all the websites. I don’t see any other way of putting pressure on judges right now. But this will take money, grants. Right now I’ve got a staff of 15 people on the payroll at my NGO, the All-Russia Public Movement «For Human Rights». It’s a good team, and I very much don’t want to see it fall apart. But lately it’s been getting harder and harder for us to obtain grants from abroad, because I’ve now become “politicized”.