27th Oct 2016


Artists, dissidents look to EU after US human rights law

Artists, exiles and rights campaigners say the EU can help Russia by closing its door to regime officials with blood on their hands.

Vladimir Bukovsky knows what it is like to be inside a Russian jail.

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He spent 12 years in and out of them in the 1960s and 1970s for trying to expose the Soviet Union's use of psychiatric institutions to torture dissidents.

The 69-year-old scientist now lives in the UK, but travels to Russia from time to time.

Speaking in London on Tuesday (20 November) after the staging of a play on Sergei Magnitsky - a Russian accountant who was killed in prison in 2009 for trying to expose high-level corruption - Bukovsky said today's Kremlin reminds him of the old one.

"Russia is going around like a blind donkey ... They used to write plays about psychological abuse and now we are here to talk about this play," he noted.

He added: "Magnitsky was a political prisoner because corruption is at the heart of Russia's political system and this is exactly what he went against."

The play - One Hour and 18 Minutes, by Elena Gremina - tries to show the human side of what happened.

It uses home videos of Magnitsky - a portly, jovial 37-year-old - at family parties.

It quotes from the prison diaries he wrote in pencil on scraps of paper and passed to his lawyers, recording how he begged for 11 months for a cup of clean drinking water or how he used to jump from bed to bed to avoid the sewage on the floor of his cell.

Gremina interviewed some of the officials involved to get her facts straight.

In one scene, a prison doctor talks to his colleague about the ringtones on his Siemens phone, while Magnitsky is beaten to death by security guards in an adjacent room.

The case is already a cause celebre in the US.

Congress on the third anniversary of his death on 16 November passed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.

It still needs Senate approval and President Barack Obama's seal. But if it gets through it will force the State Department to publicly impose travel bans and asset freezes on people involved in Magnitsky's murder, or in the slaying of Russian journalist Alana Politkovskaya, or in the killing of human rights campiagner Natalia Estemirova and many others.

Human rights campaigners hope the US decision will see the EU take similar steps.

EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy has in the past called the case "emblematic" of everything that is wrong with Russia. MEPs and MPs in around 10 EU countries have also called for EU sanctions.

But the European External Action Service, whose job it would be to table a proposal, says there is no backing in foreign ministries to go ahead.

Its diplomats note there are too many rights abusers in the world to sanction them all and that EU courts would demand hard evidence in the inevitable lawsuits that would follow.

They are also well aware that Russia has threatened to retaliate - with its own blacklists, on co-operation in Afghanistan - if it goes ahead.

It prefers instead to keep asking Russia to take internal action when EU officials meet Russian counterparts in events like the upcoming EU-Russia summit on 21 December.

For people who know how the system works, the approach amounts to nothing.

"You don't get results by talking to the Putins or Pinochets of this world. You have to target the little people, to name them, to say: 'You can't travel. You can't hide.' This [the US bill] is a revolutionary breakthough and you should not underestimate what this is going to mean for human rights defenders around the world," Denis MacShane - a former British EU affairs minister - said at the London theatre event, referring to Russian President Vladmir Putin and late Chilean dictator Augustin Pinochet.

For long-term observers of Russia - such as British writer Tom Stoppard, who wrote the plays on psychological abuse inspired by Bukovsky - the Kremlin elite is deaf to criticism.

"One gets the feeling that shame is an unknown emotion with criminals at this level," he said in London.

For the people who most want to see justice, the US law will do much less than EU measures would.

"They [Magnitsky's killers] are more scared of this [EU sanctions] because they do not really travel to the US so much, but they do travel to Europe," Sergei Magnitsky's mother, Natalia Magnitskaya, told EUobserver.

"It's their [EU] right not to do anything. But maybe the US will set an example for them," she added.

Going back to Bukovsky, the veteran dissident said there are differences as well as similarities between the Soviet Union and Putin's Russia.

For one, larceny has replaced Communist ideology as the defining feature of the regime.

At the same time, Russia's borders and media are more open than ever before: hundreds of thousands of people are leaving the country each year in a massive vote of no confidence and the Internet has seen Magnitsky and Pussy Riot - a recently jailed anti-Putin punk band - become household names in urban centres, despite censorship of many newspapers and TV.

"Artists and journalists are more free. You can't just shut down the country like in the past," Bukovsky said.

He believes change is coming to Russia whether or not the EU takes part in it.

He also believes it will take longer than campaigners would like and that when it comes it will be unpredictable and sudden.

"It might take another decade to feel this change, but we will get there," he said.

"Lenin himself wrote in 1916 that there is more chance of something happening in the US than in his mother country and look what came next," Bukovsky said, referring to the Russian Revolution in 1917.

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