Interview with Lev Ponomarev, Part 1

levponomarev030208.jpgAs we have already covered the outcome of Russia’s presidential elections a day before they were held, we are dedicating the day to human rights leader, colleague and friend, Lev Ponomarev, whose efforts to raise awareness about torture and abuse within Russia’s prison system has garnered extraordinary attention in recent weeks – so much so that the authorities have filed charges against him as punishment for his advocacy. The following exclusive interview was conducted by the editor of my blog with Ponomarev a few days before the remarkable article by Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal was published. Q: In the past you have commented on the need to separate human rights work from politics – that in Russia there are times in which it is important to maintain this gap in order to achieve progress…

A: I have never really sought to maintain the gap, but rather it is life itself which forces us to make the distinction. If one tries to determine which activities relate to politics and which activities relate to human rights advocacy, it is a useless exercise. What I do not want to be involved in is the struggle for power. I am not fighting for power. However I have to be involved in politics because I am standing up for society. For example, consider advocacy actions in favor of freedom of speech – this is a political statement. When there are no democratic institutions, an advocate for human rights under an authoritarian system enters into politics. Freedom of speech, democracy, and voting rights – these are all human rights issues, and are all political. Human rights advocates have to be involved in politics, but by no means are they politicians.Q: Oftentimes when organizations and advocates criticize human rights in Russia, the most common response is to point toward the “double standards” argument – that there is no legitimacy to this criticism because of other high profile abuses by Western governments, such as Guantanamo and Abu-Ghraib. How do you respond to this?A: I think that this approach is fair, and vigorous criticism is necessary. Of course there is no country with a squeaky clean record on human rights, and the United States and its empire is vulnerable to this criticism. But it is one think to look outside the United States. If we compare what’s going on inside these countries, that’s what we can talk about. Of course with regard to something like voting rights, the United States sets an example for Russia, and it is possible to criticize Russia for the absence of active and passive voting rights. In the United States, these rights are real, and in Russia, we have nothing.For example, we talk about freedom of speech, but in the United States the television is not controlled by the federal government. In Russia, all the main channels are under government control – so why should I criticize the United States? In terms of the judiciary and justice system, they have real independence, but in Russia, courts are under complete influence of the state, like in the Khodorkovsky case.But we speak about armed conflicts, we often hear the Iraq and Chechnya comparison. When the United States attacked Iraq, I wrote a very strong statement in protest, denouncing the human rights issues involved.Q: Yes, but as a human rights advocate, what do you think can be done to get over this “double standards” issue? How do you fight these arguments?A: Just don’t pay attention! (laughs and shrugs shoulders) There will always be these people making excuses for their conduct by pointing at others.Q: One of the most high-profile human rights abuse cases in Russia so far this year has been the alleged medical blackmail of former Yukos executive Vasily Alexanyan. Despite many orders from the European Court of Human Rights, statements from major international outfits such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as diplomatic pressure, the Russian prosecutors continued to mistreat him in front of the world’s eyes. What do you think this experience means for the future of human rights in Russia?A: Let’s start from the essence of this issue. In my opinion, which I have discussed the lawyers, the reason for the overly harsh treatment of Alexanyan is Khodorkovsky. The authorities don’t want to release Khodorkovsky and they want his conviction on the second set of charges to be watertight. And to make sure they can sentence him by tying him to a new, invented criminal group. So their main task for now is to create legal precedent by securing the conviction of Alexanyan. That’s where the medical treatment issue comes in – the prosecutors are under enormous pressure to rush him through a trial, even if he is dying before the judge, so they can proceed with the trial of Khodorkovsky.They are not at all worried about his death, but rather only if he dies before a judgment. The Alexanyan case is a fundamental violation of human rights, by putting a terminally ill man on trial who is too sick to defend himself. If the Russian government followed the law and the European Court of Human Rights, first they would have to adjourn the trial, meaning that he could die in the hospital – and they can’t allow this happen. Of course he can die in trial, so it will be OK for the prosecutors in front of their bosses. They are truly behaving like the Gestapo.Q: It is clear that no country likes a foreign government telling them what to do, but to improve human rights in Russia, what should Western governments and organizations do and/or say? What can be done internationally to build incentives to encourage the Kremlin to make positive changes for human rights?A: I believe that the West should speak up and be tougher toward Russia. Whenever possible, economic negotiations should be directly tied to human rights – exactly as it was in Soviet times. It is very important to realize that the current leadership does not want to be isolated. They are Western-values oriented, and want to continue visiting Western capitals as equals, not as outcasts. They need to be told in no uncertain terms that they will be prohibited from traveling to the West. I think that would be very influential.The West should first demand that Russia release its political prisoners, and it might make the most sense to make this demand once Medvedev assumes the presidency, ideally by the next U.S. president – and this would be the real change. The next most important demand is that Russia stop torture in its prison camps, and open the system to international observers. From there you can begin with the list, going through freedom of speech, voting rights, and other human rights.I also want to note that when the famous photographs of Abu Ghraib were exposed to world attention, a major shift occurred, and the world demanded that those responsible be held accountable. But it seems, at least to me, that this video we have exposed is much more horrible. I would assume that such similar images of abuses would prompt strong reactions from governments – and it is my hope that we can get the world leadership to see this video and prompt them to do something about it.