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March 15, 2016

Pavel Chikov: “Closing down an organization is not the same thing as a ban on its work”

For the first time in the history of modern Russia a court has ruled to close down an NGO – Agora Human Rights Association, which brings together a number of prominent Russian lawyers. Among Agora’s lawyers are those acting for Ukrainian citizens Oleg Sentsov and Aleksandr Kolchenko. Examples of their cases include the defence of the Pussy Riot group, suspects in the Bolotnaya Square case, victims of torture in the Dalny police station in Kazan, and, currently, Petr Pavlensky who did an installation of the Maidan on Maly Koniushenny Bridge in St. Petersburg and set fire to the door of the FSB headquarters in Moscow. Ukrainskaya pravda spoke with Pavel Chikov, founder of Agora, to find out what it was like to head the now-closed human rights organization, why human rights activists are unable to agree about what to do regarding the protection of human rights in Crimea, and how the case of Sentsov and Kolchenko will end.

For the first time in the history of modern Russia a court has ruled to close down an NGO – Agora Human Rights Association, which brings together a number of prominent Russian lawyers. Among Agora’s lawyers are those acting for Ukrainian citizens Oleg Sentsov and Aleksandr Kolchenko. Examples of their cases include the defence of the Pussy Riot group, suspects in the Bolotnaya Square case, victims of torture in the Dalny police station in Kazan, and, currently, Petr Pavlensky who did an installation of the Maidan on Maly Koniushenny Bridge in St. Petersburg and set fire to the door of the FSB headquarters in Moscow. Ukrainskaya pravda spoke with Pavel Chikov, founder of Agora, to find out what it was like to head the now-closed human rights organization, why human rights activists are unable to agree about what to do regarding the protection of human rights in Crimea, and how the case of Sentsov and Kolchenko will end.

Closure 

Closing down an organization is not the same thing as a ban on its work. In fact, the closing down of a legal entity is quite a common thing to happen if we are talking about commercial companies. 

In Russia, yes, and I think in Ukraine also, businesses work for two or three years and then the owners close down the company and set up a new one in order to avoid all the inspections. This is standard practice for commercial operation. But what we are talking about is a non-profit organization, and one involved in the protection of human rights. The closure was initiated by the Ministry of Justice on the formal pretext that there had been a violation of the law. 

During the hearing of the case in Tatarstan, the judge suggested that the Ministry of Justice set out its complaints and give grounds for their law suit. The Ministry of Justice said there was a violation of the law in the organization’s accounts, since the wrong accounts were given to the tax authorities, and there was a violation of the law in the conduct of the general assembly of the organization, and there was no review of the organization’s accounting. 

Our lawyer in court showed a document from the Tax Inspectorate to the effect that there had been no violations. We also resolved the issue concerning the conduct of the general assembly. 

And so far as concerns the lack of a review of the organization’s accounting, we had instead an annual audit by an international firm of auditors that complied with all requirements. In other words, we had dealt with all the violations. And here the judge asks: ‘So the violations have been dealt with, what is the complaint?’ The Ministry of Justice responds: ‘That the organization continues to influence public opinion and moreover is trying to get removed from the register of “foreign agent” NGOs.’ 

It is in reality a matter of fact that nowhere is it forbidden to influence public opinion or to seek to be removed from the register of foreign agents. All the more so since the procedure for removal is written into the law. After this, the judge withdrew into his chamber and when he returned said that the NGO should be closed down. 

Context 

Over the last four years – if we start from the moment that Putin became president for the third time – the number of NGOs has been radically reduced. We can in fact say the Third Sector is dying out. 

The NGOs that remain rely on government funding to which federal-level politicians and the public chambers can give them access. Only they have money. After all, business does not fund the non-profit sector or gives funds only to some quite harmless, vegetarian things, like assistance to sick children. 

Because everything is politicized, right down to the protection of animals’ rights. Environmentalism is also a political issue, impinging on national security. The purpose of human rights defenders, it’s thought in this country, is to destabilize the situation and organize a Russian Maidan. 

Funding and relations with the Kremlin 

We haven’t had a single, source of funding for everyone. Each lawyer has their own sources, and this is confidential information for each lawyer. In general, it’s nobody’s business where in fact a lawyer’s money comes from. 

We partly get funds from the Zona Prava organization that was set up by Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, partly from the European Court of Human Rights. 

We have not had Russian money for a long time. The last funding that the Association received was a presidential grant. Altogether we have had three grants worth in total about 12m roubles. 

And the greater share of this money supported Agora’s legal school. There was a trick in this, if you like: we spent the funds from the Russian government on training dozens of lawyers to work on human rights cases. 

Thanks to the participants in these two legal schools we tripled the membership of Agora’s legal team. 

In other words, in practice Putin’s money was used to increase the number of lawyers working on human rights issues in Russia today. Perhaps this what the people who accuse us of having a ‘link’ with the Kremlin have in mind. Moreover, I am also a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, this also has a certain impact.

rightsinrussia.info

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