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No Free Press in the Gulag

[Editor’s note: last week there were reports of a shocking story from Russia of a journalist, Yelena Maglevannaya, being convicted of libel for having written about alleged abuse and torture of one Chechen inmate. Today, our correspondent Grigory Pasko catches up with her to discuss the incident. – James]

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The Gulag can never be guilty?
Journalist who wrote about the beatings of convicts in places of detention has been convicted in Russia
Grigory Pasko, journalist

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On May 13th a court in Volgograd ruled that human rights activist and journalist Yelena Maglevannaya will have to pay 200,000 rubles in moral compensation to the Administration of the Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments (UFSIN) for a series of her publications, supposedly for besmirching the reputation of one of the institution’s clinical wards. Likewise the court obligated the journalist to write a retraction of her article in one of Russia’s key publications.

Following this incident the Russian newspaper Izvestiya, already well known to readers of the blog, afterwards published an article which did not hide its obvious sympathies toward the UFSIN. In particular, the article quoted Irina Antonova, the regional assistant chief of GUFSIN for observance of human rights in prisons, who asserts that the convict whom the journalist had defended as “a physically strong person, close to two meters in height, in the past a master of sport in freestyle wrestling and an instructor in hand-to-hand combat…” (As though the FSIN prison guards wouldn’t be able to pummel such an individual). Antonova continued with her opinion that “he is not as simple as he’d like to look, and has influential patrons. In my view he is determined to get himself transferred to serve his term to the Chechen Republic.

I telephoned Yelena in Volgograd and asked her several questions.

1. What is your version of what happened? Why did the FSIN decide in the first place to turn to the court for help?

– My version of what happened is simple. Zubairayev – one of a thousand whom they are torturing in our jails, but one of only a few who decided not to keep silent about this, but to openly speak out in defense of his human dignity and right to protection from indignities and abuses. Therefore, they are torturing him with doubled force.

For GUFSIN it is a matter of principle – after Zubairayev’s story was picked up by so many Russian and even foreign mass media – they had to prove that all this is supposedly untrue, to cleanse itself of these suspicions, to create a whitewash. Otherwise, this would threaten them not only with dismissal, but even criminal prosecution – if the facts are confirmed.

For them it is vitally important to whitewash themselves. That’s why they filed the lawsuit. Here, in Volgograd, you’ve got a “one hand cleans the other” system – the FSIN, the procuracy, and the courts. Evidence of this are the numerous refusals to initiate a criminal investigation based on facts of violence against Zubairayev. If I’m not mistaken, there have been already 5 checks, but they ended with “the facts were not confirmed”. Even though the facts are right there in front of you.

And this trial, without a doubt, was a contract operation. The “arguments” of the prosecutors were falling apart right before everybody’s eyes. For example, they promised to present a video recording, supposedly bearing witness that Zubair is himself inflicting beatings on himself. We looked in the trial at this recording, the only thing visible there was how Zubair is holding his head – in my impression, suffering from strong pain – and then falls under the table, where, I will note, he lies during the course of an hour, while the recording lasts, and nobody comes up to him, and then a person in a uniform comes and kicks him with the foot, attempting to force him to get up. It’s exactly the same with the recording of his supposed attempt at suicide. Zubair himself appears on this film only for several seconds, and subsequently the entire recording goes without his participation.

Naturally, these arguments did not convince anybody of those present of anything, but the judge, obviously, had another opinion. What elicited it – one can only guess. Bearing witness to the non-objectivity of the court is also the fact that despite the many written petitions of our side about summoning Zubairayev himself to court as a witness, we were denied in this.

2. What other evidence is there of the torturing of Zubairayev besides video?

– There are photographs, in which the traces of torture arevisible. The FSIN is attempting to declare these photographs as forgeries.There are numerous testimonies of eyewitnesses – of the sisters, of thewife of Zubairayev, of his lawyers, of human rights advocates, who sawhim after he had been beaten up, . There is the report of doctor fromGermany Alikhan Soltakhanov to president of the International Fund”Good without borders” Imrat Ezheyev, where he describes his conditionin detail and in medical terms.

3. In Izvestiya they’re writing that you are the author of numerousarticles on the theme of rights protection. Did you write previouslyabout torture in places of deprivation of liberty? If yes, then werethere claims against you on the part of GUFSIN previously?

– Yes, I wrote. As a journalist, I researched the theme “Situation of theChechens in Russian jails”. I wrote about Zaurbek Talkhigov, whom theybrought in jail to a heavy affliction of the liver and continue to holdfor a contrived violation in an icy dungeon – from December through thepresent moment. About Islam Taipov, on whom in Tomsk they set guarddogs. About other instances of beatings and torture of Chechens injails. I always brought attention to the fact that, as a rule, theseinstances of torments take place because of nationality, that is, whatis taking place is discrimination of inmates of certain nationalities(first and foremost the Chechen one) in jails.

The incident when GUFSIN decided to file suit – the first. Until this,they preferred to make believe that they don’t notice articles on thistopic, and in response of addresses to official instances they sentrun-arounds. In an extreme case – they attempted to threaten me by email and on Internet-forums. But they did not decide on openconfrontation, moreover, to the best of my knowledge, with otherjournalists reporting on this story as well.

4. Has an appeal been filed against this decision from the Kirov Civic Court?

– On Monday we – likewise my public defender Vladimir Shakleyin -will receive the decision of the court in hand. Naturally, we intend toappeal it during the course of 10 days in the cassational instance – inthe Oblast Court of Volgograd, and so forth, right on up to Strasbourg.

5. Who determined the sum of the moral compensation at 200,000rubles – GUFSIN or the court? Were there such precedents in Volgogradbefore (towards journalists and for such a sum?)

– 200,000 – this is the decision of the court. GUFSIN at firstasked for 5, after a certain time the demands were changed to 500thousand. Such precedents in Volgograd are unknown to me, to the bestof my knowledge, there haven’t been any.

6. I have formed the opinion that only human rights advocates report on stories of torture in the jails of the RF, but the topic is avoided by most journalists at well known media outlets. Am I mistaken?

– I don’t think so – that same Anna Politkovskaya of illustrious memory wroteabout it more than a few times, and yet from she was a professional journalist. Andyou could no doubt find other examples. It is another matter that,unfortunately, many journalists are afraid to take on such a story.With the article about Zubairayev, I went to a series of localpublications, but everywhere they refused to take it, having said thatthey fear possible lawsuits for slander towards the editorial board ofthe newspapers. I think that these publications do not recommend totheir staff journalists to take on such “fraught” stories either. It’seasier and less dangerous, after all, to write about a dance contest orthe visit of the latest pop-star. And that’s why it happens that thethem of abuses against inmates remains in the main to the human rightsadvocates, who, as you correctly noted, are usually non-professionalsin journalistics. But somebody’s got to write about this, after all.

7. Yelena, tell readers of our blog a bit about yourself: where didyou study, work, why did yo start to write on the theme of rightsprotection and so forth.

– I am a teacher of physics by education, but I never worked in myspecialty. My principal place of work – the editorial board of theacademy for the elevation of qualification of workers of education. Ialso do not have a journalistic education, only recently did I receivethe certificate of a correspondent of the newspaper “Svobodnoe slovo”[Free Word], and otherwise engage in this, so to speak, on a volunteerbasis. Why do I engage? Well, how can one be silent when they’reabusing people, beating them to death in jails? I felt that I can notlive in peace when such things are taking place next to me, and donothing whatsoever to hinder this.