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Champion of human rights in Russia Yury Schmidt dies

Yury Schmidt, defence lawyer for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and very very many victims of political persecution in Russia has died in St Petersburg. His courage and commitment was vital in recent years and his death is a great blow. .


Yury Schmidt, defence lawyer for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and very very many victims of political persecution in Russia has died in St Petersburg.  He was 75.

Yury Schmidt was connected with the dissident movement from the 1960s when he began his career as a defence lawyer.

He was Chair of the Russian Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights which he himself founded in 1991, and the laureate of a large number of Russian and international awards.

His courage and commitment was vital in recent years and his death is a great blow.

Вечная память  

The following is an interview taken just months ago in which he spoke of recent “spymania”

Translated byMaria Kaminskaya

Yury Schmidt: A nation where law enforcement run unchecked is doomed to see its civil liberties dwindleTo isolate the opposition

– Yury Markovich, on September 21, State Duma members passed a first reading of amendments to the Criminal Code’s Article 275, On State Treason, and Article 283, On Divulging State Secrets. All the while, Russia is yet to pass a multitude of badly needed legislative acts, which, furthermore, have already been developed. What is your assessment of this concentration of the authorities’ focus on “spy” laws?

– That was a good point you made: There are huge legislative gaps in Russia, which demand regulation in many various spheres of our life. The Duma should have long ago put together a clear plan of legislative work and define its priorities. But since the last presidential election, we have been witnessing a curious trend: All systematic work plans that the parliament’s Lower Chamber likely had in place have been put aside, and the legislators have been passing laws dedicated exclusively to the curtailing of the domain of civil liberties.

These include “selective” legislation and the laws on public gatherings, on criminalization of defamation, or on state secret. In these past weeks, parliamentaries have found nothing better to do than devote their time to a law on blasphemy… So there you go. In other words, the mentioned laws fit quite seamlessly into the task that the Duma seems to have set before itself. Or someone has set before it.

– So, you think we should be expecting other shoes to drop?

– In all likelihood, we will have the “honor” of witnessing other such documents see the light of day in the future. For instance, discussions have already started on a bill on the Internet... Taken all together, this is testament to the government’s apparent decision to build up its assault potential. Instead of seeking contact with the opposition, it has set a course for direct and bitter confrontation. Paying no heed, in doing so, to such catastrophic consequences as widening what is already a very real chasm running through society.

It was once that the Bolsheviks divided Russia into the Whites and the Reds. The Whites were to be exterminated. The same was to be done with the clergy. The kulaks – the “expropriators” – “expropriated.” Yet another group, exiled. In other words, it was decided that a part of the nation was to be physically done away with – problem solved.

We seem to be seeing something similar today. The authorities are after if not physically exterminating, then intimidating or at least discrediting the opposition’s most vocal ranks, herding them off into a reservation. Not literally, of course, not behind barbed wire – though many are facing that, too – but isolating them from society in order to quash their influence on the processes that are under way.

A “special op” offensive

– One would think it’s as if a special operation were unfolding in Russia’s legislative domain…

– That’s absolutely right. One need look no further than the way some of these laws were adopted. For instance, the “protest law, ” rushed into effect within a matter of days before [the] June 12, 2012 [Russia Day public holiday, when a next thousands-strong protest rally was planned to take place]. If it hadn’t been [ramrodded through during just one 11-hour session], the Federation Council wouldn’t have had the time to “review” it – read, stamp its perfunctory approval – on the following day. One more day was needed to have the law signed by the president, and one more to have it published. Indeed, lawmaking has lately started to resemble special ops, with not a hint, even, of observing procedures or regulations while hurriedly slapping new bills together.

The hand that lays down the law

– I now see the main meaning behind passing laws that have to do with incrimination of “state treason.” This was the charge used to prosecute Alexander Nikitin,  Grigory Pasko,  Valentin Danilov, people whose cases I have worked on either directly or in a consultant capacity. I can testify that the [Federal Security Service, FSB] was perpetually exasperated by what they thought was the “inadequate” language of the definitions sections of articles on state treason, espionage, and divulgence of state secret. For instance, these articles did not establish accountability for collaboration with international organizations, and in the Nikitin case, it was an international ecological organization to which “state secret” information, as was alleged by investigators, had been handed over. And so on and so forth.

If there are certain statutes or provisions in law that stand in the way of carrying out premeditated repressions, then there are several options for how government agencies might act. A legitimate one: painstakingly prove all elements of the corpus delicti at hand, without filling the “gaps” with something for which no accountability is provided for; an “easy” one: ignore all provisions of the law; and one that’s just ideal: simply change [the language of the Criminal Code] by eliminating those items that don’t fit. Because there is no independent legislative branch in Russia, Lubyanka has no problem making sure that the amendments it wants are added for its convenience. Thus, today, the laws on state treason and divulgence of state secret are as expanded as they can be. It’s hard to imagine now what kind of actions will not be deemed punishable offenses.

– If, say, a Russian citizen now decides to have contact with representatives of Greenpeace or Bellona, and, God forbid, make a charitable donation of 100 roubles to their account, this could be considered an act of treason?

– Technically, it looks to be so, yes.

A spree of lawlessness and disorder

– Alexander Nikitin, when his case started, he got lucky. After his arrest in 1996, [the then Russian President] Boris Yeltsin promised not to interfere with the prosecution. And I assure you: Despite all of the FSB’s attempts to use it to put pressure on the court, the president’s Executive Office remained absolutely neutral, which determined, to a significant degree, the positive outcome of that unique case.

The FSB is now gaining back its former clout but apparently someone still believes its potential to be insufficient. And, as it would befit a country where there are no checks and balances between the various branches of government, no system of control (on the part of the state or the public), no independent parliament, and no independent justice, each of the existing security agencies is looking to grab as much power as possible. By, among other methods, seizing new ground via legislative means.

On top of that, unseen by the general public, there is a behind-the-scenes brawl going on between law enforcement agencies. The [Ministry of Internal Affairs] is squabbling with the Investigative Committee, the latter with the Prosecutor’s Office, and the FSB with both of them and the [Federal Guard Service]. There is a rivalry and a fight for priorities under way within each of the security and law enforcement entities as well. And each agency is striving to prove its indispensability and usefulness, demonstrate that if something is not being done effectively enough, then the only reason for that is that this particular agency lacks a sufficient mandate. And a new mandate is a new field of operations, more budget appropriations, an expanded sphere of influence, promotions and decorations, etc.

A state where law enforcement agencies are essentially running unchecked – and each is acting in its own self-interest – is doomed to binge on lawlessness and disorder, to see its legislative domain hijacked by special ops and its civil liberties curtailed.

– Sounds like a classic story: The humble are in danger when the powerful disagree… 
The FSB vs. the People

– To be sure, the entire history of the Soviet [KGB] basically boiled down to [the Committee] crudely fabricating cases that they then so expertly investigated. It’s much more difficult to catch real spies and traitors than artificially created ones. But you do all this work, so you just have to show something for it, don’t you, and how…

What we proved in the Nikitin case – and this is unfortunately something that went almost unnoticed by the public – is that this case was a big provocation from the very beginning. Ever since the first day that Nikitin started working with Bellona, the FSB was aware of it. The agency had information that Nikitin had called his teacher Artemenkov and was arranging a meeting with him, telling him about the work he was doing. It was on the phone – without computers back then – that discussions were being held about everything with co-authors in Murmansk, Oslo, in other cities, discussions about the plan and versions of the report on sources of nuclear contamination at the Northern Fleet, the same which later served as the subject of the criminal case. And all these records were later introduced as “proof of treason” during trial – in other words, they had been in the FSB’s possession since the beginning.   

There was that time when Thomas Nilsen came to Murmansk from Oslo for a wrap-up meeting with the co-authors. It took place fully under the FSB’s watch. But it wasn’t until Nilsen returned to Norway with a notebook that had that very report on it that a massive raid was launched in several Russian cities, at sixteen, I think, different addresses simultaneously, with searches and seizure of copies of the report.

– Do you believe that Nielsen was purposely allowed to take the controversial document out of the country?

– Absolutely! They could have put a stop to this work many times, and if they indeed were certain that an act of state treason was being planned, they should have, because a first and foremost goal of a state security agency is to prevent state secrets from being disclosed. But here, participants in the case, people whose every step was being watched, were given an opportunity to take a document containing state secret information abroad. The FSB had been eagerly anticipating this moment. And once it took place, they opened a long-prepared criminal case and hurried to report it solved.

– I don’t quite understand – why?

– In order to preclude the continuation of détente and easing of international tensions, and, by extension, a diminishing of their importance and, possibly, their authority and ranks. You’ll remember it was during the time when Andrei Kozyrev, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, went to Norway (a NATO member, by the way), where he signed a comprehensive memorandum on cooperation including, in particular, in the field of decommissioning of nuclear waste. And this gave me grounds to assert at the time that the FSB was using this case to pursue a policy of its own – an anti-Russian, and anti-presidential, one. Because initiating a criminal case like this practically simultaneously with the signing of the memorandum would go a long way toward undoing the success that the memorandum certainly was. Which obviously didn’t help promote the relaxation of tensions between our two countries. Nor did Nikitin’s arrest, which was apparently deliberately delayed until Yeltsin’s visit to Norway (contrary to what is usual practice, Nikitin was arrested six months after the start of the criminal investigation, literally two or three weeks before Yeltsin’s visit). In other words, this was a strike that torpedoed to a considerable degree the possible positive outcome of this visit. This was in fact the title I used for one of the interviews I gave at the time: The FSB against Russia.

And notably, the direct result of the work that Bellona and Nikitin were doing to draw attention to the catastrophic situation with the management of spent nuclear fuel at the Northern Fleet was that it raised significant financial flows pledged by Western nations to the cleanup of nuclear contamination of the region.

– In Bellona’s estimates, some $30 billion has been allocated over the past fifteen years.

– I don’t rule that out.

Where the weathervane of propaganda is pointing

– Yury Markovich, going back to lawmaking, don’t you think that this kind of laws could be viewed as an assault on the horizontal links within society? As an attempt to disunite and intimidate the Russian public?

– Most likely so. You might have noticed that in the past several months – I would say, since Vyacheslav Volodin’s appointment to the Kremlin’s chief ideological post – there has been a change in the direction of state propaganda. Not to mention its drastic rise. It has become standard practice today to try to plant a footing of “legitimacy” under the way that the Duma’s lawmaking activity serves to abridge human rights, by making references to supposedly analogous laws in effect in other (democratic) countries. The lawmakers have no scruples about glaringly misrepresenting facts, either. We will yet remember the era of [President Vladimir Putin’s former chief ideologue Vyacheslav] Surkov as an age of almost unlimited freedom…

For instance, the initiators of that “marvelous” law that requires non-profit organizations to register as “foreign agents” cite a 1938 bill that was adopted in the United States, and where almost everything is different: The background, the circumstances, the goals, the people, finally, the definition of “agent” itself. In Russian, the word means either a physical person or a legal entity “acting on behalf of, in the interests of someone, as well as of a covert or staff employee of a secret service.” What do Russian non-profit organizations have to do with this definition? Besides, there is something called the Constitution of the Russian Federation, Article 13, Part 4, according to which “non-governmental organizations are equal before the law.” Who sanctioned this discrimination of NGOs?  

– Indeed, how does one go about violating the supreme law of the land?

– They believe they are powerful enough, and there is no one and nothing they are afraid of. Neither their country’s courts, nor a new Nuremberg trial. And, it must be said, they are indeed very ably splintering the opposition, plugging all possible holes that might allow uncensored information to circulate relatively freely within the country and in the global community as well.

With this advance of total propaganda, which targets dozens of millions of people who never touch a computer or browse the Internet, any underhanded methods work – or achieve at least a partial effect, as they widen the schism in society and keep tensions at a boil. Meanwhile, national TV channels are shaping public opinion, painting a perfect picture of us being on par with the everyone else where human rights and freedoms are concerned…

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