29 September 2009, 23:00

FIDH President Souyer Belassen: "It is impossible to work in Chechnya because it is Russia"

28 September 2009, 3 p.m.

On 25 September, the president of the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) Souyer Belassen attended the Moscow court sitting that was considering a suit of the Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov against the chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center Oleg Orlov. After the sitting, the human rights activist gave her vision of this legal process and the overall situation with human rights in the Russian Federation.

- Has your visit related to the suit initiated by the Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov against the Memorial's head Oleg Orlov?

- Memorial as an organization is a member of the Federation of Hunan Rights Leagues. Our Federation unites 155 leagues from different continents: Asia, Africa, the Arab world. It was natural for us to come here to be with Oleg Orlov who is a chairman of the member-organization of our Federation.

- Apart from the court sitting, were there any other reasons for your visit? 

- Also, I have come here because of Natalia Estemirova. I met her before. First time it was in May 2009, when we had a workshop on the international tools that would enable human rights advocates to protect their rights at international level, i.e. to tell about situations and protect their rights in the UNO and by means of the European Convention. It was within the workshop that Natalia came there. She arrived then from the Crimea and she passed through Ossetia. Having arrived to Georgia after the night she had to spend at the border post - she did not tell us much about it, being rather modest, though it could not be a funny night for her - Natalia spoke about what we would be able to do jointly for facilitation of public awareness of the developments in Chechnya. We also discussed what can be done with the murders repeatedly occurred in Russia, including that of Anna Politkovskaya.

Natalia was writing an article for Liberation on a series of assassinations of the human rights activists in Russia…. 

When I became a president of the Federation - it will be shortly three years already - we decided to focus our work and improve it in the Central Asia and the North Caucasus. The East European countries have already integrated into the European Union; even Belarus is turning more and more towards the Europe. But on such region like Chechnya, which is a constituent entity of the Russian federation, we think we must focus our work because it is here the most of infringements of the law and non-observance of human rights take place.

Specifically, XXXV Congress of our Federation in Yerevan (Armenia) will centre on the North Caucasus region, and 450 participants will come to Yerevan from all over the world.

By the way, it was not yesterday that we made our discovery of the Russian Federation. We know this country and we have long-time relations here…. It was obvious to us that this legal process (at the suit of Kadyrov against Orlov - Caucasian Knot's note) required our presence here. Oleg Orlov heads the human rights movement in the Russian Federation. Speaking specifically of today's process, it is of great importance, because, you might say, it was the trial against Kadyrov. The Kadyrov trial he wanted himself, because he moved the court himself. And the main argument used by Oleg Orlov is political and social responsibility, not the criminal responsibility of Kadyrov. Orlov demonstrated well what he meant by the word "responsibility". 

What does the political responsibility mean? What does the responsibility for the current events mean in constitutional context? Kadyrov keeps under control the situation in Chechnya, keeps under control the law enforcement bodies, leads a number of special operations in Chechnya, and all home policy-related issues are solved directly by Kadyrov. He has control over all operations against armed insurgents in the war on terrorism, or on what is classified as terrorism.

During the trial, Oleg Orlov, as well as the appearing witnesses, referred each time to a certain number of the official statements of Kadyrov that contained treats - the direct treats - to Natalia Estemirova. There was mentioned their (with Kadyrov -Caucasian Knot's note) first meeting with Anna Politkovskaya ... When Kadyrov said that ... ... you can… kill the activists, and that the human rights organizations must be equated with the terrorist ones ... Today, the witnesses just recollected those situations.

The worst thing is that Kadyrov not only admits his involvement in those operations, but a kind of assumes the responsibility for them. Today, they quoted one of his phrases, 'Yes, my arms are blood-stained, up to my elbows'...

Today, the witnesses said that Kadyrov met Estemirova twice -first time it was with Anna Politkovskaya, second time- a bit later, but in both cases there were threats that might be taken as the threats to her life. Having based on the public statements of Kadyrov, Orlov proved - well, tried to prove, so did the witnesses - that the statements of the Chechen president were widely known.

Personally I was touched by the following situation: I myself come from the Arab-Muslim region - from Tunisia - and I was very moved by the fact that Estemirova addressed the problem of wearing headscarves in Chechnya, she refused to wear a headscarf, though she knew about the directive from Kadyrov on this point.... She somewhat made head against machismo and sexism, but also against misinterpretation of religion, which leads to the secondary role of women and their absence in the public life.

Estemirova's refusal to wear a headscarf could be actually interpreted as a personal insult. Today, many people said that Kadyrov had a personal enmity with Estemirova, and that her murder might be interpreted as manifestation of that personal animosity.

During today's process it has also turned out that Kadyrov repeatedly offered Estemirova, as well as the Memorial representatives, to address him directly without covering in press the existing human rights problems of Chechnya. Thus - that is, through corruption and manipulation - he was trying to somehow tame them. At her time Estemirova said - the same way as Anna Politkovskaya did, and now Oleg Orlov does, and all those witnesses who have spoken openly, 'We are not that kind of organization which can be manipulated'.

It is very important that the legal process was held in Moscow today. The suit was turned by Kadyrov, but today the situation has been turned "visa-versa" because in fact it were the Memorial members who were holding trial against Kadyrov. Everything that was said here could be interpreted as the Chechen President's trial. 

For a long time the human rights activists were frightened and kept their mouths shut, but today at least they could tell what they were keeping at their hearts. There was a very friendly atmosphere in the courtroom that helped the human rights advocates say what they said today. Maybe due to this trial, their work will make sense, because perhaps its sense has been already lost and they mechanically kept doing what they were used to do. All documents presented by the activists today have been enrolled and would be considered by the court. This might invigorate the human rights advocates, too. This might be that minimum which can be made for those who are not with us today, who died, and the minimum we can do for Natalia.

- Could you suspect that this process is an attempt to attract the attention from the investigation of Natalia Estemirova murder?

- Medvedev said that the investigation will be conducted. Human rights activists are doing what they can and should do. We can say that this is a brave decision - to participate in this trial and tell the whole truth - all the things they did not speak about in the past. 

For example, in my country, in Tunis (Tunisian League for Human Rights operates there) - 33 trials against representatives of the official authorities of Tunis are in progress ...One could feel various administrative obstacles, plus all sorts of interferences. Our office and other departments face the hindrances just because we criticize the regime.

- Just because of your statements?

- Right, because of our statements and because we say that there is an authoritarian regime in Tunis and that the country is closed for the rest of the world. That is why I think that when there is bravery and people say openly what they have said today, we regard it as a very courageous step.

To find a killer is very important. One can prove and talk about the disability of the regime, the absence of any actions from the authorities. Unfortunately, the international community very often turns a deaf ear to the warnings of human rights activists, and then sheds crocodile tears when it is too late.

France is a democratic country. Naturally, it is not ideal, but democratic institutions are functioning and you can go to court. For example, at present in France there is a trial of former prime minister, targeted in the investigation of the former Foreign Minister and current President of France. Information on the process is on the front pages. And here, in Moscow, information on what is happening seems not to be much circulating- here lies the difference between France and Russia.

- Do you think that the Kadyrov claim is an attempt to produce a precedent when a human rights activist is punished for her/his attempt to fight against the regime in order "to teach" the public and to strengthen the position of impunity of the authorities?

- Orlov, is likely to be punished in any case, i.e. the decision will be against him, and most probably, the claim will be satisfied. What is important to us is that today, the human rights activists at least have got a chance - perhaps in not the best possible way - to tell the truth publicly about what is going on in Chechnya. To tell the truth to the international community, to the foreign journalists, who have been in the courtroom today, and to the Memorial members - there have been very many of them from different cities who came to say what they perhaps feared to say before.

For advocates, it is important to talk about what is happening, and not to hush it up. It is important to engage people ... And our role as an international organization is to protect those people who bravely speak about the developments in their country. 

As for the idea that the process is a kind of test, we can say that in this country the authorities can actually overshoot themselves and they do it not for the first time, namely, Kadyrov himself does.

- It is not improbable that this case will reach the European Court of Justice. But this is a very lengthy process…

It is possible that it comes before the European Court of Justice. But this is a very long process ... 

The protection of rights always takes very long time. Look at the case of the guerrilla movement and vice-president of Congo who must appear before the International tribunal and account for, specifically, what happened in the Central African Republic. This is a long process - 5 years, but for these 5 years we have collected the necessary documents proving his guilt - evidences of families, testimonies of survivors, and today he is in The Hague, awaiting his trial. It has taken 5 years.

- Could it so happen that during the long legal procedure of the Orlov case, the human rights activist would be harassed? Could the international community meanwhile somehow influence the situation?

 - The international community facilitates its activity when it sees that inside the country there are people who are also fighting against human rights violations. Your question was "what can the international community do for those advocates who ..." The components of the international community - if we can speak about some kind of homogeneous community - have very different interests, and it is very difficult yet to talk about some kind of international solidarity because it does not exist as such.

But in the international community there are democratic regimes where the public opinion could put pressure on the government - these are the regimes with some established limits they do not go beyond. And when the government goes beyond these limits, the public in these countries presses forward and forces the government to respect the border. Any way, the international element intervenes in the state only when the public inside the country, within the state become more ready for action.

- How will the international community react to the Orlov verdict?

- Everything will depend on the length and the pressure of the international community, which will be organized according to the length of sentence to be awarded to Orlov. That is, if it is 6 months, year or a fine, the reaction will be also quite different. But specifically, what can be done is just not to leave him. Perhaps, he should be taken from the country. This has been offered to him today. What for to take him from the country? So that he could hold on talking about what is going on in Russia. 

I offered him to come to Warsaw next week - it will be ...Next week there will be held the OSCE Commission on Human Rights with participation of representatives of all OSCE member- countries, Asian, Eastern European countries. I offered Oleg Orlov to come and talk about what is happening in his country. At this international forum, the Human Rights Leagues, for example, the League of our Federation, share their problems. I will open the sitting and at the beginning of my opening speech I will talk about the trial and lawsuit against Orlov.

- Human rights activists often assume responsibility for the information about human rights violations, putting themselves in jeopardy, while the sources of information - ordinary people - fear to provide data officially. Do you have any plans concerning some preventive protection of human rights activists? 

The same thing happens in Colombia, in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is a real horror for the activists. We are trying to take Uzbek human rights advocates from the country. In any case, there are moments when the country develops a very tense situation, which then may become less tense. In those moments of tension it is necessary to have people inside the country who believe in what they are doing. It is necessary that they keep on fighting. The geopolitical situation may change - remember the fall of the Berlin Wall - but this is a long process. It is necessary to have a spark inside the country. Today, in the courtroom we have seen such people.

In the process of protecting human rights activists, as in any process, there are moments of failure, when you try to do something, but fail. That is what happened in the case of Estemirova. The human rights activists can be protected, you can take them out, but sometimes you do not succeed.

Natalia left the country at certain moments. On the other hand, she refused to leave Russia, because she knew that when she leaves she somehow admits her defeat.

What I find very impressive is that, despite all these killings, the people still have strength and they still keep on moving forward. Here today we have seen the Memorial members, which appeared in the court - they are ready to move on, despite what has happened. 

- In your opinion, the current process in whole was formed spontaneously or it was the result of actions on Kadyrov "dethronement" planned by the human rights activists? 

What happened today is the result of a long and painstaking preparatory work, too. Because in his speech, for instance, Orlov referred to some public appearances. That is, even the witnesses, responding to the questions, spoke about the past situations and facts: in public statements, speeches made by Kadyrov on the Grozny television. All this is the result of preparatory work and did not appear spontaneously within the very process.

- Is there any interest in the West towards the legal process "Kadyrov vs. Orlov"?

Not so very strong. But nevertheless, today's process was attended by representatives from French television, from German television as well. The question is how to maintain this interest now ... You might know how the press works: today the event is very important but tomorrow it is quickly forgotten. It is important that journalists inside the country do not forget and keep on focusing on this topic. 

- Representatives of Amnesty International told that the leadership of Chechnya has been requested to allow them to work in the region, and that the local authorities responded, "we're fine, there's no need for it.' As a result, the organization was not allowed to work in Chechnya. Is it possible for your organization to act in Chechnya in cooperation with the organization that has been already working in the country, for example, Memorial, and to prepare joint reports?

It has already been done and joint reports were prepared. For example, a long and painstaking work preceded the Report "Chechnya: 2004 - 2006" that required indirect approaches because we could not come to Chechnya and conduct the investigation. The leaders of Chechnya were sent the requests but they remained unanswered. We had to find some back ways. We will send another appeal to the Chechen authorities. 

- Are there differences in the work of your organization in the CIS countries, South Caucasus and North Caucasus?

- In Armenia, it so easy to work. In Yerevan, we even organize the congress. You can conduct investigations there. For example, in June we conducted investigation in prisons - we went around and visited the prison. In Uzbekistan, the regime is slightly different, we can do absolutely nothing. In Uzbekistan, for example, a journalist can be simply poured on with boiling water. It is better not to work there at all. In Georgia, the regime is quite different. I was in Georgia. In Georgia, people go out and protest peacefully on the streets. The opposition was able to become active and force Saakashvili to make some steps towards the opposition. And the opposition can act in this situation. The opposition is not physically destroyed, as it happens in Uzbekistan. You can feel a great difference between Georgia and Uzbekistan. But in principle, for Saakashvili it is easy to act, for example, through the United States. On Uzbekistan, I think, there are no tools of influence. 

In Chechnya, it is impossible to work not because it is Chechnya, but because it is the Russian Federation. Chechnya is Russia's business card and if Russia allows us to work here, this business card will be slightly tainted then. If you set Kadyrov over as president, it is no mere chance. The authorities are not ready to let Chechnya go from Russia, and this was proved by the two wars, because Chechnya is the key to the entire region.

Souyer Belassen was interviewed by Dmitry Florin, personal correspondent of Caucasian Knot.


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