Whether or not the United States and France are wise to join a grand alliance with Russia against Islamist terrorism (not, in my view), it is critical that people like Natalia Taubina not get run over as collateral damage.
Taubina, 45, in Washington to receive the annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award on Thursday, is one of those stubborn and remarkable people who continue to fight doggedly for the rule of law inside Russia even as President Vladimir Putin does everything he can to impose his brand of arbitrary authoritarianism.
Since 2004, she has led the Public Verdict Foundation, an organization that seeks justice for victims of torture and other police abuse while promoting systemic reforms in law enforcement. Until recently, it enjoyed surprising success, not only in holding individual abusers accountable but also in persuading the government to take such abuse more seriously. As recently as last year, the organization even got some funding from the president’s office.
Now, however, as Putin tries to rub out every vestige of independent civil society, Public Verdict has been labeled a “foreign agent,” presumably because it also received some funds from U.N. groups and other non-Russian organizations. Taubina has gone to court to fight that designation, which sounds even more sinister to Russian ears than it does in English, and she says she will not use the label, as required by law, on her publications, for the simple reason that it is not true. This resistance may subject Public Verdict to fines that could quickly bankrupt the modest organization (it has a staff of 15). Which is, no doubt, what Putin has in mind.
I asked Taubina, when she visited The Post on Wednesday, how the West should respond to Putin’s crackdown. “Keep a focus on internal issues — not just Ukraine and Syria,” she replied. “The lives of ordinary people, their human rights and their dignity — I’m afraid this is almost forgotten.”
Taubina cautioned that public opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in countries where people are understandably afraid to speak honestly. “Around the world, people tend to think that Putin equals Russia — they don’t think of people like us, fighting for human rights,” she said. “Russia is not only Putin.”
After dismembering two neighboring countries and squelching freedom at home, Putin hopes to buy his way back into the West’s good graces by dropping a few bombs on Raqqa. Taubina’s courage should serve as a reminder that the West should not let itself be so easily bought.