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"NGOs have fallen out of love with the authorities"

An interview with the head of a Mari El human rights organization that the Justice Ministry is trying to shut down for the second time, and now they might succeed.

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"It is horrifying to see this speedy return into the past, but we have been through this before,” Irina Protasova says. She is head of the Man and the Law human rights organization from Mari El. On February 20, Irina and her colleagues were at hearings on a lawsuit from the Ministry of Justice to shut down their organization. Before the hearings, Protasova talked to our correspondent about her experience in dealing with the Russian government, the pressure on non-profit organizations and human rights activists, and the reasons for optimism in 2023.

"We knew that we would be liquidated"


- How did you feel when you heard that the Ministry of Justice had asked the court to liquidate the Man and the Law?

- I was pretty calm because it is not our first encounter with the Ministry of Justice. When we found out about the inspection [the Ministry of Justice conducted an unscheduled inspection in December 2022], we were already ready [for the lawsuit] and understood the purpose.

We are a well-known organization with many partners and supporters. As news of our potential liquidation spread, we received calls from various areas offering help. However, we understand that if the Moscow Helsinki Group can be liquidated in a minute [in January 2023, it took the court half a day to consider and rule in favor of the demand from the Ministry of Justice to liquidate the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization in the country; the formal reason for dissolution being that the NGO operated across the country while having only a regional status], they can do the same to us.

We will fight to the very end. We will appeal to the UN and defend our interests because it is important to preserve the institution of NGOs in Russia. No state can function properly if businesses, NGOs, authorities, and media are not equal before the law.

- Were you surprised by the support from your followers?

- It was a pleasant surprise! We have been focused on moving forward for many years and haven't looked back. However, when we searched through our archives, we were amazed at how much we had accomplished and how many people we had helped. Now, these individuals are sending us words of encouragement and offering to assist us financially or in other ways.

- Your organization is still based in Mari El. Why have you chosen not to relocate?

- We adore our republic and take pride in it. Mari El is a unique and ethnically diverse place, with stunning landscapes, wonderful people, and nature. Even our swamps are fascinating! Personally, I have never considered leaving, and our team members share this sentiment. They feel a strong connection to this land. We might leave only if we have no other choice, but we would hate doing so.

- What have you been working on in the past year, during a time when authorities have been tightening restrictions?

- We completed a project we started during the pandemic, which focused on NGOs that protect the rights of children and families. Due to the military operation, the world has changed, and NGOs have faced significant challenges. Supporting these organizations has helped us discover new opportunities for carrying out our mission in this new environment. Additionally, we have continued to aid civil activists and individuals, as there is no one else to protect them in Mari El except us.

Necessary evil

- You believe that the demand from the Ministry of Justice to dissolve your organization might be connected to your consultative status at the UN. Why do you think so?

- On December 7, we were granted international status, and on December 9, the Ministry of Justice issued an order for inspection. After the survey, they concluded that our status at the UN is a confirmation that we violate the law by working outside the territory of our registration.

- Do you think that the check-up was initiated because of a specific episode, or did they just decide to crack down on you?

- I think they decided to crack down on all NGOs. It is an obvious trend.

- You said that the inspection could have been initiated by someone at the Ministry of Justice.

- We have information from journalist Alexei Seriogin, who had called Yandulov (the author of the complaint, after which the Ministry of Justice started the inspection of the NGO). At first, he denied writing anything, and then he said that his friend from the Ministry of Justice asked him to sign the complaint.

- If the court decides to close your organization, what will you do?

- We haven't thought about that yet, but no matter what happens, we will be looking for ways to continue our work. We have a great team, and we don't want to lose it. People who write to us hope that we will stay.

The Man and the Law is about Russia and about us. It would be difficult to shut down with such a background and great potential for expertise.

- In your opinion, do people understand what they are losing when the authorities close human rights NGOs like yours?

- Those who have experienced human rights violations and those whom we have helped do understand. In a local public forum, someone wrote about our liquidation: "I used to simply pass by this place (the Man and the Law office) until I myself was affected (by human rights issues); now I understand how significant this place is, an important organization, and what we will all be deprived of." But most people probably don't have that understanding. Many do not know how much we have done. In prisons in Mari El, human rights violations are rare, and that's also because we have been working for 20 years in that field. The authorities know us and see us as a necessary evil because we react immediately to any violations. If this work stops, the authorities' hands will be untied, and arbitrary treatment will be common in the future.

To open a window of opportunity

- In 2020, the Ministry of Justice tried to dissolve your NGO. How did you manage to win that case?

- The court decided that there weren't sufficient grounds for closing us. We have not had any serious violations in years, and the court could see that we complied with every demand from the Ministry of Justice trying to adjust to the constantly changing law.

And now, it is like we have been found to be persistent violators. For a long time, there has been no help from the Ministry of Justice to non-profit organizations. Instead, they have been persecuted and charged with violations for all sorts of nonsense.

- What has changed in the last two years?

- NPOs have fallen out of love with the authorities  - as Svetlana Makovetskaya, head of the Perm Center for Civil Analysis and Independent Research, said, and I agree with her. If previously they wanted to interact with NPOs, now they don't need NPOs.

We see this in the examples of Team 29, Memorial, and the MHG. Now we have the Man and the Law. The authorities have other aims now. They are afraid of independent opinion and freedom, and of the fact that someone will speak out about their wrongdoings. The priority is different - not human rights, but the preservation of their power.

- The consultative status at the UN you have been seeking for so long - will it mean anything after the elimination of the Man and the Law?

- The UN is an intergovernmental body established for interaction between states. Consultative status with the UN is the only mechanism that allows NGOs to express their position. For example, we were sent a questionnaire on the rights of people with disabilities in emergency situations. And we gave recommendations on how to act in an emergency to help people with disabilities in places of detention.

Specialists said that the liquidation of an NGO would not be grounds for terminating its status if we continue to work - as an initiative group, for example.

- If the court liquidates the Man and the Law - what will this say to the world community about the state of the Russian legal field?

- Even if they don't liquidate us, I can say that now, unfortunately, unlawful, incomprehensible laws are adopted, which contradict human rights. Regardless of whether we are liquidated or not, it has become difficult for lawyers to work, because the principles of the state and the law are vague and unspecific.

- In Yaroslavl, a lawyer asked for the termination of his status because he does not want to be a lawyer in a state that is conducting military operations in Ukraine, which has deprived its citizens of their rights and freedoms. He also wrote that the human rights community is "cowardly silent" and does not protect human rights and does not influence the events in Ukraine. What would you say to this?

- Everyone has his own way of fighting. If he thinks this is his way, he is entitled to do so. But I think that if you can help people until the last moment, you should do it.

There's always a chance, and if we can protect one specific person - that's what we should do and not give up admitting our own powerlessness. We have always worked in such a way that everyone is important to us. If a lawyer has lost his status, he has lost the opportunity to protect people. I believe that depriving oneself of the opportunity to defend people in our time is not a good gesture.

That's why I say it's important for us to preserve the institution of NGOs. It's a mechanism through which we could obtain information and push for change, and we are still taken quite seriously.

Why are the authorities so afraid of NGOs? Perhaps they feel that their power lies in institutionalism.

I believe that human rights defenders are not silent. If we have evidence of rights violations, we speak loudly enough about it.

- What has helped you to continue working all these years without succumbing to legal nihilism, unlike the Yaroslavl lawyer?

- We firmly believe in the concept of human rights and have a deep understanding of what they are. When we began our work in the late 1990s, we faced numerous challenges, including violations, unlawful laws, and corrupt law enforcement practices. However, we remained committed to our cause and actively participated in changing legislation and improving law enforcement practices. Although it is disheartening to witness the current regression in these areas, we have experienced setbacks before and remain hopeful that progress will be made.

Irina Protasova. Photo from her personal archive

                                                                                                                                                                                 Irina Protasova. Photo from her personal archive

- Have there been moments when you were afraid to continue your work?

The work itself has never been frightening. However, the fear lies in the possibility of being targeted by those in power. For example, being arbitrarily detained or facing prosecution for expressing a certain viewpoint or taking a specific stance. The loss of safety and security in such situations is truly terrifying.

- Recently, you mentioned that the Man and the Law organization's office in Yoshkar-Ola is located on a street named after Nikolai Zarubin, a Soviet KGB officer. What prompted you to notice this now, and how did it make you feel?

- It has recently become more relevant due to the ongoing changes in Russia's political landscape. We have always been in close collaboration with "Memorial" ["International Memorial" an “Memorial Human Rights Center” were permanently liquidated in January 2022 at the request of the Prosecutor General's Office. The organizations were dedicated to preserving the memory of victims of political repression and defending human rights]. While we were aware of the names of individuals involved in torture and execution during the years of repression, we had not previously investigated the origins of street names. We had assumed that the street was named after a hero of the Great Patriotic War, so discovering that it was named after a Soviet KGB officer was disheartening.

It was an unpleasant discovery. If we had known about it earlier, we would have taken the initiative to change the name of the street. Now we're considering what to do about it.

When I posted about it, people started arguing in the comments. Some justified the choice of such a name for the street, some said it was hard to talk about the past. Some blamed the whites, some blamed the reds. But we're not talking about who's right and who's wrong. It's about the fact that the Soviet power allowed extrajudicial executions, and that shouldn't be accepted. Regardless of people's political affiliations, if there is a blood trail behind them, streets should not be named after them.

- On the People and Law website, in the "About Us" section, it states that you are civic optimists. What does that mean?

- As civic optimists, we always believe in a better future. We try to find the good even in negative situations and share what has been done and what can be done to bring about change. We have seen results and changes, and we know that there are good people in the system who stand up for human rights. We have found allies in the Federal Penitentiary Service, the Interior Ministry, and other government agencies.

We once sat down and asked ourselves, who told us that things would be better? But how can we live differently? We continue to believe that things will improve, that human rights will once again be valued, and that there is always a window of opportunity. We look for that window and try to open it.


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