Lev Ponamarov (human rights leader), 2008

Interview with Lev Ponamarov, May 20, 2008
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Interpreter — Olga Medvedkov (refers often to P. in third person)

My name is Lev Ponamarov. I am a leader of Russia’s movement for human rights. This movement is very broad. Anybody can apply to them on an issue that relates to human rights on any level. This is the broadest movement in Russia. It has its branches in about 100 different localities in Russia. They react fairly fast to requests on matters of human rights. It they see that there is a flurry of requests for actions on one specific area, they concentrate their resources to deal with this area. Since Putin came to power they started getting more and more complaints from prisoners and they created a ___ for human rights of prisoners.

Olga asked why after Putin came to power there was much more complaints from prisoners. He said “torture. There was much more torture used on prison population. It isn’t because Putin gave the order – as you know, the leader is always innocent; it’s just boyars who are doing those bad things. The power structure came to power – KGB, FSB, — and they just fight against limitations and what could be more isolated from limitations than prisoners? You can check on You Tube. Those tortures going on in Russian prisoners make the things going on in Abu Ghraib just pale in comparison. As soon as we saw this flurry they put their resources in that direction. And now it was new regulations introduced into the municipal residential areas and now they are getting a lot of complaints and requests from this area. And now they also attracted some _____ working parallel in those areas, so they are trying to utilize the resources in areas that they feel are most problematic. Also they have always been concentrating on areas where the police are involved. Starting with this year the police have been using excessive power and arresting young people for looking “nyformaly” – informal.

Olga asked what that means. Some people such as Gerry Hudson dress quite formally but lots of others do not.

He said it means outside the mainstream. If you have a mohawk haircut, or earrings in unusual places, you may be stopped. There are lots of cases of police stopping and checking youth who look informal. There is a lot of tension, even hate crimes, against different ethnicities, and there are lots of different groups such as skinheads and Nazi skinheads. And human rights activists have been _____ a long time so there would be some regulations against Nazi skinheads. Also those dressed informally.

So the police got the message but what they did was – you know, nowadays internationally anybody can be considered a terrorist, so they just blow everybody up to be terrorist. It’s the same here. Nazi skinheads dress informally. But lots of other people also dress informally. So the police are detaining everybody who dresses informally. And because inside they are much more sympathetic to Nazi skinheads, being nationalistic you know, so they really turned this thing inside out. They are trying to trace the order that was given to check people dressed informally. They couldn’t find anything in writing. Maybe it was given but they have turned it inside out and now it’s much more against other informal people rather than Nazi skinheads.

They detained seven people. Some of them under the age of 18. They beat them and broke their bones. They pooled their resources together and originated a movement against police who are using excessive power in detaining informally dressed people. On Saturday they had a workshop here to teach youth how to behave. When young people are detained they have no idea what rights they have – and they are probably right that they don’t have any. Nevertheless, on paper they do. And if you follow those rules, you are creating a life for police that’s a little more complex.

The same kind of human rights movement is happening in different regions of Russia. If in the West there are human rights organizations that are working and they actually get some resources from various foundations, in Russia it’s practically not happening. In Russia most of the NGOs are financed by Western organizations and foundations — MacArthur, USAID, IREX, Soros, NED, etc. Putin is paranoid and not sure that they want Western financing.

Olga asked him about some decrees that have been issued regarding NGO activity here. He said that deputies from the council of federations, parliament, and a lot of deputies – there are people from KGBFSB – and power structures who consider that the nongovernmental sector (NGOs) may be dangerous. So they create all kinds of regulations to hinder their activity. You have to be accountable for so many different things, it became such a bureaucratic process that it’s impossible to get through that – just on that ground. Any NGO can be closed because they do not comply with those regulations. There are five human rights organizations in different regions and two of them have already ceased functioning and there is pressure on the others.


About the police?

I’ll give you my phone number just in case. (laughter)

To the police you have to show your identity. If they stop you and want to check your identity, they have to explain – maybe not to you but later – why they singled you out. Do you resemble some terrorist or what?

When you’re detained and you are asked to follow them to the police station, if you try to resist, you will be accused of resisting the police. He (Ponomarov) spent three nights in the police station because he was accused of resisting arrest. It was written. Of course, they can come up with all kinds of fabrications. He was accused of standing on the ground. He should have stood on the side.

Administration, police, and judicial power are all working against the law – defending the system, not the people.

Question: There seems to be a very large police presence. Have there been any human rights cases involving the police and security?

Answer refers somehow to the Mafia and their bodyguards.

Q: When it comes to hate crimes against homosexuals, how does that work?

A: They are really getting it. They are forbidden to have any action. There are lots of gays in show business. They have expensive clubs and they are shown on TV often. But if you are not a celebrity and you are homosexual, you would have a lot of problems.

Q. Olga asked him about some old human rights activists. He said they are getting together on Saturday and are going to ask for amnesty for a number of prisoners.

He said that it is difficult to say what to expect because a lot of them are indicted, not for – well, anybody can be indicted because if there are political prisoners that means it’s not a democratic state. God forbid that anybody would think like that! So they are going to appeal for a lot of cases. He said that a lot of Muslims live in Russia. Somebody will be found with a gun and will be accused immediately of terrorist acts. This is a huge number of people.

Metta: I’m interested in the funding of various organizations by foreign organizations – NED, Norwegians, Westminster Foundation, etc. I understand that has been virtually forbidden – that it is illegal to use such foreign funds. I also understand that there are ways around that – that money is funneled in from outside organizations. Can you say anything about that? I assume that most of these organizations – from Soros to NED to MacArthur etc – that that is used primarily for democratization projects rather than for other human rights projects, such as the rights of homosexuals and other types of more private things. Is it possible that the work is continuing by democratic opposition movements using this money from channels that didn’t have to exist before when direct funding was possible?

Answer: It’s the reverse. We are not allowed to get any money for democratic projects because it’s political. NGOs cannot get foreign money. But if they want to defend the rights of prisoners, then yes they can get money for that.

Olga asked, can you get money to defend Khodarkhovsky? He said no. I said, well, he was not a political prisoner; he was an economic –

Metta: Can I pursue it a little. I am interested in the political opposition movements, but it is not clear to me what is a legitimate organization to fund and what is not. For example, I think it would be really wrong to fund a political party. NED wouldn’t do that. But they would fund things like exit polls or political campaigner trainings, and that sort of thing to help develop democratize. So I wonder what are the criteria here for determining what are legitimate to fund?

On one side, they all function only due to outside foundations – there are no other sources. On the other side, Putin announced several times, accusing NGOs living on foreign funds – that they are bad people. Putin is saying to bureaucrats that human rights activists are good people and we have to tolerate them but of course as soon as they are funded by western foundations (and there is no other source of funds for them) they are immediately considered bad people. Very often human rights activists are not funded but quasi-human rights organizations that are serving the government, they might get money because they structure their application in such a way that they might get funded. So it’s very contradictory, what’s going on.

Q: How does he think the prison system defines Russia?

A: Good question. If Russia is not yet totalitarian, the seeds of that have been obvious in the prison system since the year 2000. You can see much more dramatically the tendencies that are prevalent in the country because they are starting first of all in the closed parts of the society. Our idea is that if we are able to stop the totalitarian tendencies in the prisons maybe they will not spread out over the whole country. Otherwise Russia will be again as the Soviet Union, with the Gulag. I am now in a quarrel with the minister of penitentiaries. I publicly accused him of being the author of the torture system in the prisons. I can prove it. But he sued me for slander. The process is going on and very soon there will be a hearing. I was indicted already and I signed a paper that I cannot leave Moscow.

Olga: What’s the punishment?

A: From a fine up to three years. The main lawyer is saying, give up hope. You will not be in prison. It will be impossible to put me in prison because there will be a hearing and I can prove my allegations.

Olga: It will be a closed hearing.

A: No, it will be open.

Olga: Yeah, but all the seats will be taken so nobody can come in.

A: You’re right. But I think that journalists would be allowed to come. There 700 penal colonies across the country, but torture is used only in 50 of them. We hope to stop it before it spreads. In one region the minister of penetentiaries of that region was dismissed. And already for several months there is no torture in that region.

There are a lot of soldiers coming here with complaints – but not only soldiers, officers. And officers from the space program.

Putin could put and end to the human rights activities but he doesn’t do so because they are helping to solve some problems in the society.

Audio file

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The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books