The Real Russia. Today. Prison torture denials, questions about the ‘Dossier Center’ report on the CAR murders, and a stalled RuNet crackdown
Friday, January 11, 2019
This day in history (25 years ago): On January 11, 1994, Russia's new bicameral parliament (elected the previous December on the same day as a constitutional referendum) got to work. This was the first and only Federation Council elected by popular vote.
- Ex-convict creates prisoners’ rights group denying prison torture, and sues human rights activist Olga Romanova for two million rubles
- Oleg Kashin says a new report about Russian journalists murdered in Africa is biased
- Russia's Federal Investigative Committee disputes report blaming ‘Putin's chef’ for murder of three journalists in Africa
- Maxim Trudolyubov says the Putin's era reliance on emergency ‘legitimacy’ has obviated the need for facts in disasters
- In new investigative report, Coda follows a nonprofit freeing Russians from modern slavery
- Ivan Davydov says new RuNet crackdown legislation shows how weak lawmakers really are
- The State Duma is reportedly pumping the breaks on that new RuNet crackdown legislation
- Grigory Dobrygin’s film ‘Sheena667’ has been accepted to the Rotterdam Film Festival’s central competition
Olga Romanova is the leader of Rus’ Sidyashchaya (“Rus’ Imprisoned”), and Lev Ponomarev leads a movement called Za Prava Cheloveka (“For Human Rights”). Both organizations aim to defend human rights in Russia, especially for those imprisoned in the country. On January 10, Inga Krivitskaya’s lawsuit against them was heard in Moscow’s Khoroshevsky Court. Krivitskaya, who was formerly imprisoned in an IK-2 prison colony in the Russian Republic of Mordavia, has accused Romanova and Ponomarev of defamation and is demanding two million rubles in compensation. Krivitskaya claims that the two activists spread false information about her by reporting that she “colluded with the prison’s administration, took part in beatings of imprisoned women, and took packages away from their recipients.” The former prisoner denies all of these claims and says nobody was tortured in the colony where she was held. She has also created her own organization to provide aid to prisoners, but its name is the same as that of Romanova’s group.
- Read Meduza's full report here: “An ex-convict has created her own organization for prisoners’ rights. She says there is no torture in Russian prisons and is suing human rights activist Olga Romanova for two million rubles”
Challenging Dossier Center's report on the CAR murders
In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin questions the objectivity of Thursday’s report from Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s investigative project, Dossier Center, about the murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic last July. (Read Meduza’s summary of this report here.) Kashin says the five-month-long study is caught between two conflicting narratives: either Khodorkovsky’s Investigations Management Center handled the documentary expedition so incompetently that he effectively “sent these men to their deaths,” or Evgeny Prigozhin is so bloodthirsty that he used one of his reporters to orchestrate the murder of three Russian journalists. Given the fact that Khodorkovsky funded both the Dossier Center and the Investigations Management Center, Kashin says the new report’s conclusions are inherently biased.
Ignoring the Dossier Center’s information about Prigozhin’s apparent connections to Alexander Sotov, Evgeny Khodotov, and Valery Zakharov, Kashin claims that the evidence for Prigozhin’s role in the CAR murders hinges on the claim that Federal News Agency reporter Kirill Romanovsky deliberately recommended a fixer who set the multiple homicide in motion. Kashin defends Romanovsky as an amateur military enthusiast who became a war correspondent, arguing that the journalist community in St. Petersburg isn’t as politicized as its cousin in Moscow. Kashin also insists that the Dossier Center’s research shows only that a local gendarme tailed the three journalists, which he says is not proof that this man was responsible for their deaths. (For example, the agents following Boris Nemtsov were probably shocked when Nemtsov was murdered, Kashin says.)
On January 11, Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee published a press release summarizing its own leading theory about the July 2018 murders of Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko, arguing that Dossier Center’s report, shared with journalists a day earlier, is merely an attempt to avoid responsibility for sending three journalists into harm’s way. Federal investigators say they believe the reporters’ deaths were the result of a robbery gone bad, and could have been avoided if the film crew and the Investigations Management Center took the proper safety precautions.
Specifically, the Investigative Committee claims that the journalists’ driver, Bienvenu Duvokamoy, has no ties whatsoever to any local gendarmes. This directly contradicts claims by the Dossier Center, which says it has phone records showing that gendarme Emmanuel Touaguende Kotofio called Duvokamoy at least 47 times in the three days the journalists were alive in CAR. Kotofio reportedly tailed the Russian journalists throughout their stay in the country.
“It should be noted that the Internet project Investigations Management Center, by initiating publications on this issue in the news media, clearly aims to justify its own miscalculations in preparing for a dangerous trip, preferring to advance its own theories and blame others who were not involved,” said the statement from Investigative Committee spokesperson Svetlana Petrenko.
According to Dossier Center's report, shared with journalists on January 10, call records and other documents link the July 2018 murders of Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko to figures with ties to Evgeny Prigozhin, a catering mogul with close connections to Vladimir Putin.
In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Maxim Trudolyubov argues that facts don’t determine how the state explains disasters like the recent apartment building collapse in Magnitogorsk. Trudolyubov says these incidents are actually labeled “accidents” or “attacks” based on political infighting between groups advocating and opposing new emergency powers for the state. The issue boils down to a question of war and peace.
According to Trudolyubov, the truth in Magnitogorsk doesn’t really matter to either the victims or the authorities. Why not? The benevolent state and local businesses were quick to swoop in with promises of assistance, meaning that compensation doesn’t depend on the conclusions of an independent investigation or hearing. The state itself is moving forward without a clear understanding of what happened, Trudolyubov says, because competing security agencies have flooded the media with conflicting versions of events, obscuring the truth.
In other words, Trudolyubov argues that the Russian authorities attribute disasters to terrorism based on political expediency, as determined by lobbying from “the Emergency Party.” Throughout the Putin era, the hawks have typically won, and Putin’s presidency has relied more on threats and “emergency legitimacy” than “justice” or rule of law, but Trudolyubov says recent polling shows the tide is finally turning. The Kremlin’s hesitates to step back from emergency rule, Trudolyubov says, because it exposes the authorities to the “gigantic problems” of Russia’s “ordinary life,” such as its dilapidated infrastructure and unsafe residential housing.
In an investigative report for Coda’s Russian-language edition, journalist Vladimir Erkovich follows activists from “Alternative,” a movement founded by Oleg Melnikov that frees people in Russia from slavery. The group is registered in Moscow and Dagestan, where members say their relationship with local police is surprisingly good. With upwards of 800 volunteers around the country, Alternative relies on a core staff of just nine people, coordinating efforts to remove modern-day slaves from situations where they are being forced to work jobs without compensation.
According to Erkovich’s report, Alternative relies entirely on money generated by Melnikov’s private businesses (ranging from dry-ice production to hookahs). The group is unique, he says, because it actually sends people into the field to liberate men and women from labor slavery — situations where individuals have been lured somewhere on the promise of gainful employment, only to lose their passports and any wages. Most of these “jobs” are at sawmills, brick factories, sheep farms, and brothels.
Russia's latest Internet crackdown legislation
In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Ivan Davydov argues that the Russian authorities behave like a persecuted minority when they promote legislation like the draft law now in parliament that would make it illegal to insult state officials on the Internet. The irony here, Davydov points out, is that federal lawmakers are responsible for the real persecution of minorities in Russia, like the LGBT community, whose members State Duma deputies have also happily insulted. Davydov says Russia’s many infrastructural failings fuel the insults that flood the Internet, and officials show their weakness by cracking down on speech, instead of addressing the real problems. Fortunately for the country, he says, the Russian language is rich enough to sustain the public’s mockery of the state, no matter how many words the government tries to ban.
On January 11, the television network Dozhd reported that the State Duma steering committee responsible for green-lighting three bills drafted by Senator Andrey Klishas and other lawmakers (on Russia’s “sovereign Internet,” banning unverified information, and prohibiting the insults described above) is indefinitely delaying its consideration of this legislation. The law that would prohibit Internet users from insulting state officials already has the approval of the Duma’s Safety Committee, but the legislation can’t go to the floor for a vote without a nod from the Information Policy Committee, chaired by deputy Leonid Levin. A source in the ruling political party United Russia told Dozhd that lawmakers decided to put Klishas’s bills on hold after the senator told Novaya Gazeta that using the term “Gosdura” (State Idiot) wouldn’t necessarily qualify as illegal under his law.
- Read Meduza's summary of Klishas's Novaya Gazeta interview here.
Sheena667, a new film by the Russian actor and director Grigory Dobrygin, will be one of eight films to be evaluated by an international jury as part of the Rotterdam Film Festival’s Tiger Competition. Dobrygin co-starred in the 2014 film A Most Wanted Man alongside Rachel McAdams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his leading credits in Russia include Black Lightning and How I Ended This Summer. Sheena667 is Dobrygin’s feature-length debut as a director.
- The film stars Vladimir Svirsky (And Quiet Flows the Don) and Yulia Peresild (Secret Passions). The 2019 Rotterdam Film Festival will take place from January 23 to February 3. Sheena667 will be screened on January 28. The last time a Russian film participated in the Tiger Competition was in 2014, when Natalya Meshchaninova’s The Hope Factory was nominated.