Thousands of Muscovites came to the Central House of Journalists on Tuesday to pay their respects to Ludmila Alekseeva, a veteran Russian human rights activist and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group who died last week at the age of 91. The memorial ceremony was heavily guarded by the Kremlin’s security detail from the Federal Protective Service — not for the safety of those present but to protect Russian President Vladimir Putin, who stopped by to bring a bouquet of flowers. For the same reason, journalists who wanted to cover the ceremony had to apply to the Kremlin’s bodyguards for advance permission.
But the memorial ceremony was notable less for the presence of Putin (who graced the proceedings for a few minutes) than the absence of Lev Ponomarev, himself a veteran human rights campaigner who has worked with Alekseeva over the years. A few miles away from the Central House of Journalists, he was being held in a cell at the Interior Ministry Special Detention Center #1 after being sentenced to jail for the “repeat offense” of violating the law on public demonstrations. His crime was posting on Facebook about rallies in support of teenage opposition activists arrested on extremism charges.
“After speaking out against the injustices suffered by others at the hands of Russia’s so-called justice system, Lev Ponomarev is now its latest victim,” Amnesty International said in a statement, calling on the Russian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release” the activist. A similar appeal — “to release Mr. Ponomarev as a matter of urgency” — was made by Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights. Needless to say, the Russian authorities did not follow the advice. The benevolence of the appeal judge stretched as far as reducing Ponomarev’s jail term from 25 days to 16 days. On the news of Alekseeva’s death, Ponomarev made one more appeal for permission to attend the funeral of his longtime colleague — only to be told that he had no close connections with Alekseeva and therefore no reason to be present at the memorial.
Now 77, Ponomarev has been a staple of Russia’s civil society for more than three decades. A co-founder of the human rights group Memorial and the Democratic Russia movement, as well as a campaign assistant to Andrei Sakharov in the first semi-free Soviet elections in the late 1980s, Ponomarev was himself elected to the Russian parliament in 1990 and served in it until 1996. His most prominent legislative role was as chairman of the special commission of inquiry into the circumstances of the failed coup d’etat in August 1991. A few weeks ago, I sat down with Ponomarev in his small office on Kalanchevskaya Street in Moscow to speak in detail about that work. With documents in his hands, he recalled how the KGB’s role in the 1991 coup was a special focus for his commission. I doubt it had forgotten.
Ponomarev’s lawyers filed an emergency appeal at the European Court of Human Rights over violations of his rights to liberty and freedom of expression. No doubt the court will eventually rule in his favor — as it recently did in the case of anticorruption campaigner Alexey Navalny over his politically motivated arrests. Perhaps the Russian government will even pay Ponomarev the required compensation (unless Putin will have already withdrawn Russia from the Council of Europe, as he seemingly intends to do). For now, though, the activist is being held in conditions he described as “torture,” in a smoke-filled cell with no proper mattresses on cots, and with criminal convicts as cellmates.
“These cowards with badges and in robes do not even understand who … Ponomarev is,” Lev Shlosberg, an opposition lawmaker from the liberal Yabloko party, tweeted after the sentence. “Arresting him is like arresting Mother Teresa. The list of candidates for lustration has grown today.”
Lustration — restrictions on government service for former operatives and accomplices of totalitarian regimes, of the kind that were introduced in some Eastern European countries (but not Russia) after the fall of communism — is a matter for a future, democratically elected Russian parliament. It is to be hoped that it will not repeat the magnanimous mistake of Boris Yeltsin’s government that decided against lustration in the 1990s.
But in the meantime, the judges who put a 77-year-old human rights activist in jail for a Facebook post could be held to account internationally. Six years ago this week, the United States led the Western world in adopting legislation that provided for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers. The Magnitsky Act mandates the U.S. government to enact travel bans and asset freezes against people “responsible for … gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals seeking … to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms, such as the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly, and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections, in Russia.”