I have just spoken by telephone with my good friend and leading Russian human rights advocate Lev Ponomarev, founder of the All-Russia Movement «For human rights» (see my earlier interview and translation). As you have probably heard, Lev has been having quite a month. Some time back, he began telling the world about the re-emergence of “torture colonies” within the revived Russian GULag. These colonies, many of which seem to be centered in the Republic of Mordovia, have a special regime that involves unconstrained violence against inmates by prison staff and a bizarre and illegal form of violent “policing” by “grass-roots initiative groups” of privileged prisoners known as “Sections of Discipline and Order”. Naturally, all the wielders of truncheons, be they guards or prisoners, are fully confident that they act with total impunity. Prisoners who refuse to “confess” to “crimes” are brought to these camps from isolators in other regions, and within a week or two they’re singing like canaries.
For his efforts to bring public attention to the torture colonies, Lev was accused of slander by the head of the Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments (FSIN), General Yuri Kalinin. The Procuracy has been building up the case against him for some time now. In February, Lev visited the US, where he met with government officials and human rights groups and did a series of interviews, including with The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Chicago Public Radio. In his interviews, he mentioned the existence of a smuggled videotape of beatings taking place in a torture colony, a video we had put up on our blog and on YouTube. Within days of the publication of a Wall Street Journal article that mentioned this video, it was mysteriously pulled from YouTube. You can read more about this fiasco here, but suffice it to say that after we raised a public furor, the video is now back online.Upon Lev’s return to Russia, he was promptly served by the Procuracy with formal charges of slander against Kalinin. He was forced to sign a pledge not to leave town and to “behave appropriately” in lieu of being thrown into an isolator prison. This “appropriate behavior” clause is particularly worrisome, since the investigator himself was unable to explain to Lev exactly what it means, leaving wide scope for its arbitrary application by the authorities. In today’s Russia, just about any behavior by a human rights advocate – for example, participation in a Dissenter’s March – is considered “inappropriate”, and could therefore land Lev in jail.In our conversation, I asked Lev to give me the latest news about his impending slander trial and other events going on in Russia today. Here is what he had to say:
“My lawyers and I are now in the process of preparing for the trial by going through the large volume of materials the investigators have put together in their criminal case against me. We had not seen many of the documents before, for example Kalinin’s initial complaint to the Procuracy in which he accused me of slandering his good name by saying that he had ordered the re-establishment of the torture colonies.“There has been a lot of press coverage of the case already. In addition, my colleagues in the human rights community are all eager to get actively involved in my defense. They’re offering to file petitions, make public statements, and so on. So you could say that there is a mobilization of public opinion taking place, but for now it’s all still only at the starting phase.“The fact that YouTube has put the video back online is a very big thing. The story of the torture colonies got a second wind in the press because of this. At first, when they pulled it off, people were saying that well, the video probably wasn’t authentic, and that’s why it was removed. But when it was put back up, then that showed that it must be real.“I’ve discussed the problem of the ‘Sections of Discipline and Order’ with a variety of experts, and they’re all in agreement that these Sections should not exist, they should be liquidated.“But the number-one tense issue for us right now is the Dissenters’ March that’s supposed to take place on Monday, March 3, to protest the presidential ‘elections’. The organizers obtained the approval of the St. Petersburg authorities to conduct a March in that city, but the Moscow authorities have refused to allow it to take place. Not only have they prohibited a March, they’ve even refused to give permission for a rally, which is completely illegal on their part. So we’re very afraid that there will be beatings of the young people who will nevertheless come out to join Kasparov, Limonov, myself, and other democrats of various hues to demonstrate our disapproval of how the ‘elections’ were conducted.”