Khodorkovsky and Human Rights Defenders

posted 23 Jan 2014, 09:04 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 23 Jan 2014, 09:24 ]
20 January 2014

Source: (info)
Since he announced his support for prisoners in Russia, the former head of Yukos Mikhail Khodorkovsky has begun to make contacts with Russian and international human rights organisations. All last week he held meetings and consultations with human rights defenders, including Director of Human Rights Watch for Europe and Central Asia, Hugh Williamson, and the Director of the Russian branch of Amnesty International, Sergei Nikitin.

Khodorkovsky also met with human rights defenders at a Henrich Boell Foundation event in memory of the lawyer Yuri Shmidt, who died last year. Among the participants at the event was Arseny Roginsky, the head of the board of the International Memorial Society.
Left to right: Arseny Roginsky, chair of the board of International Memorial Society; Marieluise Beck, chair of the German-Bosnian Parliamentary Group; Mikhail Khodorkovsky; Ralf Fücks, chair of the board of the Heinrich Boell Foundation. Photo from the Facebook page of Marieluise Beck.

On Saturday 18 January, Khodorkovsky also met with activists from the German branch of Amnesty International, who actively supported Khodorkovsky and Lebedev all the years that they were under investigation and then in prison.

The director of the Russian branch for Amnesty International, Sergei Nikitin, said:

- It was very easy to arrange the meeting. I was going on a business trip to Switzerland and found out that Khodorkovsky was there, so I contacted his lawyers and literally within a couple hours my request was addressed.

We agreed on a time and place to meet. Nobody asked which themes would be discussed. In my opinion it is obvious by itself – we are a human rights organization, so we talked about the protection of human rights. Our main interest was naturally not political activities, regardless of whether Khodorkovsky is planning to get involved in them or not, but instead the situation with human rights. I was very interested to find out what he thought regarding this. I asked whether he sees himself getting engaged in human rights work, and what from his point of view is the most effective kind of work for human rights defenders. Because there is a colossal number of violations of human rights in Russia we need to understand which direction it is best to take. The situation for people behind bars served as the main topic of our meeting. Firstly, he naturally worries about his colleagues still in jail. The conversation covered Platon Lebedev and Aleksei Pichugin. He has strong feelings about this. Mikhail Borisovich shared his thoughts about this kind of work. He said the authorities are to some extent committed to introducing changes in prison conditions. He also noted that the prison authorities have demonstrated unwillingness to change, as with any bureaucratic structure. But his intuition and his knowledge of the issue tells him that changes can be achieved. I asked him about the medical care in jail. He told me that if you are referring to the prison medical clinics, the level of training of the doctors then it is all at the level of a rural paramedic.

- Did Khodorkovsky not mention that he is prepared to create a Fund to help prisoners or any other kind of non-profit organisation?

- No, we did not get onto the topic of specific funds. After discussing his friends in jail we moved onto a theme that is painful for everybody – the Bolotnaya prisoners. He said that he is in contact with Memorial as the Bolotnaya Issue is also a concern of theirs. But considering I have met with Mikhail Kosenko’s sister, Ksenia Kosenko, I told him my impressions of my conversation with her and my understanding of what fate awaits Mikhail Kosenko.

Mikhail Kosenko was found guilty in court of participating in mass riots and was sentenced to compulsory psychiatric treatment. However, until the confirmation of the sentence by the court of appeal he remains in a pre-trial detention facility.

When Khodorkovsky found out the details of this story from Sergei Nikitin, he swore, unable to contain his emotions. Nikitin wrote in his blog on the organisation’s website “that it was the completely appropriate response to the injustice of the authorities”. Nikitin also published a letter from Khodorkovsky, written on the organization’s note paper, addressed to Amnesty’s activists, in which he expressed his thanks for their letters of support, which he received whilst in jail.

The letter writing campaign is one of the main means to put pressure on the authorities. The activities of Amnesty International basically started with the writing of letters. Activists and supporters of the human rights organisation from across the world sent letters with specific demands to the authorities in different countries, as well as letters of support to the victims, congratulating them on their birthday or New Year. Amnesty International included Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in the 2004 list of addressees, already during the first Yukos trial. Despite this Amnesty only recognised Khodorkovsky and Lebedev as prisoners of conscience after the second Yukos trial, which led to many complaints from Russian human rights defenders.

But this fact did not have any impact on the letter writing campaign in support of prisoners of conscience. However after Amnesty recognized Khodorkovsky and Lebedev as prisoners of conscience, the demands to the authorities called for their “immediate release”, rather than just referring to "the lack of a fair trial".

The same demand - immediate release - is in the letters to the authorities regarding the ten accused in the Bolotnaya trial, who Amnesty International have recognised as prisoners of conscience - Vladimir Akimenkov, Artem Savelov, Nikolai Kavkazsky, Stepan Zimin, Leonid Kovyazin, Aleksei Polikhovich, Denis Lutskevich, Sergei Krivov and Yaroslav Belousov.

Thirty people in total have been charged in the Bolotnaya case. Maksim Luzyanjn and Konstantin Lebedev pleaded guilty and were sentenced to jail. Another defendant in the case, Mikhail Kosenko, was found to be not mentally competent and sentenced to compulsory psychiatric treatment. In separate proceedings, Leonid Razvozzhaev and Sergei Udaltsov have been investigated for allegedly organizing the mass riots.

After Khodorkovsky’s release, 8 of the Bolotnaya prisoners were amnestied at the end of last year - Nikolai Kavkazsky, Maria Baranova, Leonid Kovyazin, Vladimir Akimenkov, Anastasia Rybachenko, Dmitry Altaichinov and Fedor Bakhov. Eight other people were not included in the amnesty.

The hearings in the Bolotnaya trial are currently being held in the Zamoskvoretsky court in Moscow. It is possible that by next week the hearings will be completed and the accused sentenced.

Source: Kristina Gorelik, Radio Svoboda 

The head of the Moscow office of Amnesty International, Sergei Nikitin, writes in his blog on Echo of Moscow Radio’s website about his meeting with Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

I first saw Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 at some sort of diplomatic function in Moscow. He was surrounded by a dense circle of journalists with microphones and cameras. Platon Lebedev had been arrested the evening before, so Khodorkovsky answered numerous questions and gave his prognosis on how events would develop. 

Sergei Nikitin, head of the Moscow office of Amnesty International, with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Zurich, January 2014. Photo from the Facebook page of Sergei Nikitin.

The situation unfolded in such a way that the next time I saw him was almost 11 years later in a hotel lobby in the Swiss city of Zurich. We agreed to meet the evening before my business meeting with colleagues from the Swiss Amnesty International branch. I should say that I was pleasantly surprised at the swiftness with which I was able confirm the meeting.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was on a morning stroll, when I – a little earlier – arrived at the hotel. He appeared in the hotel lobby at the exactly the time arranged and, ordering tea for us both, led me into a small room by the lobby. 

I had the feeling that everything happening was completely unreal. In front of me sat a man who was no longer young, clearly tired, with piercing wise eyes and short grey hair. He was wearing quite ordinary jeans, a sweater, and glasses. In his hands he held a tablet and a leather folder. The waiter who brought the tea almost dropped the tray with the tea onto our table. 

In front of me was the very same Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who only three weeks earlier had been in jail, from which, if I am to tell the truth, nobody thought he would be getting out of in 2013.

The conversation began with Mikhail Borisovich sharing his plans for human rights work, about which he was clerarly very concerned. He started to talk about his colleagues who are still in jail – Lebedev and Pichugin. It was obvious that thoughts about these people gave my conversation partner no rest. I think that this feeling is particularly strongly when one is no longer in the penal system oneself.

We got on to talking about other people. We spoke about many others wrongfully convicted, in particular about the Bolotnaya prisoners. “How can I help? How can anyone help?” – These questions were posed often by Khodorkovsky on that day. I told him about my worries relating to Mikhail Kosenko. It is known that they want to send him to compulsory treatment in a psychiatric hospital on the basis of an decision by the Serbsky Institute. However, it is unknown how long this “treatment” will last or what consequences it will have for Misha Kosenko.

At these words Mikhail Borisovich stood up and it was clear that this is a matter of great concern to him. Evidence for this was his inability to hold back the abusive language that issued from his mouth, which seemed a completely adequate commentary in response to the injustice of the authorities.

We spoke about the conditions for prisoners in penal colonies. In Khodorkovsky’s opinion, it is possible to change aspects of this situation, if society tries. He spoke about the reasons why he thinks it is possible to change the conditions in which people are held. I, by the way, remember a book I read recently – “Hostage” by the former manager of Yukos, Vladimir Pereverzin. The author, “appointed” by the authorities as Khodorkovsky’s “accomplice”, wrote in detail about his painful experiences over more than seven years in jail. It is clear that Khodorkovsky knows about all of this very well, and not by hearsay.

We then turned to the topic of freedom of expression. Mikhail Khodorkovsky said that in his opinion the authorities are set to assault the last bastion of freedom of speech - the internet. “The plank of freedom will be lowered, if the internet is also closed down.”

I asked Mikhail Borisovich how the declaration by Amnesty International that he and Platon Lebedev were prisoners of conscience helped them.

“The declaration as a prisoner of conscience was very significant”, he said. “It didn’t just help Russian society understand the situation, but also restricted the authorities from applying pressure. Judge for yourself – if after the first trial I was sent 6,000 km away in violation of the law (and then the law was changed because of my case), then after the second trial – as a result of being declared a prisoner of conscience – the authorities did not dare do such a thing. Of course, those who do not get such attention have bigger problems.”

Our meeting approached its end and I asked Mikhail Borisovich to say something to Amnesty International’s activists, to write some kind of message in reply to the letters he received from them. Khodorkovsky happily agreed, adding that the continuous flow of letters from them and from other people really helped him in jail.

He took my request remarkably seriously. Mikhail Borisovich began to write in my notepad under the emblem with the candle, thinking about every word. It took time and in the meantime I carried on a conversation with his lawyer who had joined us later.

Translated by Chloe Cranston