When unsanctioned protests for the registration of opposition and independent candidates for the Moscow City Duma take place in the Russian capital and in some 40 other cities on August 10, one 69-year-old human rights activist with access to Russian President Vladimir Putin will be watching. Mikhail Fedotov chairs the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, a consultative group that makes proposals to the Russian leader about how to improve the defense of human rights in Russia.
Yet after the police detentions of thousands and brutal beatings of people at unsanctioned rallies for the registration of opposition and independent candidates in upcoming Moscow City Duma elections, the Council has, so far, remained officially silent. On August 6, Current Time anchor Iryna Romaliiska discussed with Fedotov his views about the ongoing demonstrations.
How do you evaluate security forces’ actions in the last week, on July 27 and August 3?
I don’t have any single opinion on this question because what I saw live, with my own eyes, is one story. What other members of the Council saw with their own eyes is another story. What we’ve seen on computer screens in various video clips is a third story. It’s important now to put all these stories together.
For that, we had a meeting yesterday – there were rather a lot of us – and we discussed precisely who saw what, who had what impressions, who had what conclusions. Because the members of the Council worked as public observers at the unsanctioned events on July 27 and August 3. And we have questions for which we would live to receive answers.
Without a doubt, we can receive answers only from law enforcement bodies – from the prosecutor’s office, from the Investigative Committee, from the police, from the Russian Guard. And, having already received all these answers, gathering all the information, including information from the [protest] participants, from the organizers of these massive public events. Because, unfortunately, we don’t have enough of this information.
Let’s say they write you in the prosecutor’s office, in the Investigative Committee that the police did not exceed their powers, but, nonetheless, you see lying on the ground people whom are beaten with police batons. They beat them on their knees. Or, even before the start of the protest, the detention of a designer whose foot was broken during the detention. You receive these answers – what next?
We are beginning to work further on each of these facts. On each of these facts. We have, unfortunately, very little information, concrete information. For example, you say a designer whose foot was broken. Unfortunately, we haven’t received a message from him. And we would like to know his last name, where he lives, how he feels himself.
He was on air with us. We’re ready to pass on to you all this information: his last name, first name, his view on what happened.
Very good. The same with the cyclist whom they detained together with his bicycle.
He also was on air with us. Absolutely we’ll pass on his contact information to you.
On the basis of any information, we’ll be able to get down to the nitty gritty with this.
And what’s online is not enough for a rather tough statement from the Council?
The Council makes statements, as a rule, once a year. If you go onto the Council’s site, you’ll see that there’s a Council Statements section. You’ll see that there were even years when the Council didn’t make any statements at all. Because a statement is, first of all, not the most effective form of work and, in generally, it doesn’t lead to any progress. It simply heats up the airwaves, but doesn’t create any positive agenda. What we’re doing is different. We’re putting together reports, analyzing all information.
Speaking of which, in 2017 we created a very big report about freedom of assembly in practice in our country. We presented it to the president. It’s on our site. It’s very concrete, very critical.
I’m familiar with how this works in Ukraine: If, for example, the police use excessive force or if anything happens that violates human rights, then rights defenders are among the first to react. As a minimum, making references that this is a violation and this has to be prevented.
That’s absolutely correct. We also speak about the fact that, in the given case, we consider it very important to figure out for each case, for each fact of the use of force, to evaluate to what degree it was legal, to what degree it was appropriate. We constantly underline that the right to use of physical force is given to the police and employees of the Russian Guard only for aims defined by law and only in forms and within limits defined by the law. And if these aims are not observed, if these limits are violated, then the Investigative Committee should get involved in the matter.
We were talking on our channel with Igor Kalyapin, a member of your Council, a well-known Russian rights defender. He shared his story of his detention. This isn’t an excessive use of force? A person simply was going along and they packed him into a police van. And a phone call set him free. Speaking of which, is it possible it was yours?
Let me keep quiet about my modest role in this issue. In the case with Igor Kalyapin, thank God, no force was used.
At a minimum, his right to freedom of movement was violated.
In general, the police themselves have doubts about the basis for this detention. Because if they had considered that there is a violation of administrative law in Igor Kalyapin’s actions, I think that then they would have drawn up a protocol and sent it to court.
And if you hadn’t called?
Igor Aleksandrovich [Kalyapin] said to me that he would want to go all the way down this road to the end.
The Council head can’t make a call for each detainee, though.
Of course. But the head of the Council calls not only about Council members, believe me.
Will you go to bat for other detainees?
We always stand up for people so that, in interactions with them, their rights will be completely observed. It’s another matter, if you understand me correctly, that we can’t defend people who organize unsanctioned public events. Indeed, the law exists so that such events are conducted in a civilized way.
The right to assembly is provided for in the Constitution . . . Citizens know that they have such a right, that it’s provided for in European institutions. They go out to express their peaceful protest. But you say that you can’t stand up for those who organize unsanctioned meetings.
That’s correct. Because it’s possible to organize sanctioned meetings. In particular, on August 3, Moscow City Hall agreed to a demonstration on Academician Sakharov Avenue, but the organizers said, ‘No, Academician Sakharov Avenue doesn’t suit us. We want to assemble on Lyubyanskaya Square.’ I said right away, then, that, for me, personally, for example, Academician Sakharov Avenue is much closer than Lyubyanskaya Square.
It seems to me that the Moscow government was ready precisely here to compromise, but the organizers decided to go for an escalation.
Is such a massive number of detentions [as occurred on August 3 when more than 1,000 estimated detentions occurred] also an appropriate measure of the police?
In each case, you need to look at what was the reason for the detention. If a person participated in an unauthorized event, this constitutes an administrative offense, and a detention may take place.
And if a person participated in a demonstration permitted by the Constitution?
Wait a second. What is permitted by the Constitution must be done according to the procedure established by law. It is the law that provides the mechanism for how to implement constitutional law ... It is so in all civilized countries ...
We spoke with Kalyapin. He says that he just sees these massive, unjustified detentions and the fact of the beatings. There is nothing to argue about, he says. What percentage of Council members share this idea?
We discussed this yesterday. But we did not even vote on this issue because we can’t say for sure. The security forces acted lawfully and unlawfully, reasonably and unreasonably in each specific case. We must study each case for this. Otherwise, it would be absolutely superficial.
What will you do afterwards with this information?
Summarize all this information, analyze it, draw our conclusions, make our recommendations, present it to the president of the Russian Federation at the next meeting with him.
In general, is the Presidential Human Rights Council an effective body?
If you calculate how much we have done, we probably have a certain rate of useful activities. For example, all the [prisoner] amnesties that occurred in recent years in Russia were made at the initiative of the Human Rights Council. Many laws that were stopped were stopped at the initiative of the Human Rights Council. We also managed to achieve some positive changes in those laws that we do not like. And the same thing in law enforcement.
Even referring to what I said, we achieved the Supreme Court adopting a ruling on judicial practice in cases involving freedom of assembly. This ruling provides very clear guidelines for law enforcement. We can now see to what extent these guidelines were applied on July 27 and August 3.
The most important thing -- our main slogan, our main message -- which we send both to the authorities and to organizers of public events is to learn to find compromises, to learn a culture of democracy, and to learn to use our rights in accordance with the law. Then the level of confrontation will immediately decline and the level of civilization will increase. That is the main task. The best means of battle with unsanctioned mass events is an agreement about these events.