Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Yelena Maglevannaya, a journalist from Volgograd, who has asked for political asylum in Finland earlier this month. She risks persecution in Russia because of her writing about tortures of Chechens in Russian prisons. She also campaigned in defense of political prisoners such as Mikhail Trepashkin, demanded repeal of July 2006 laws which enable the Kremlin to assassinate enemies of Russia, and ran a web-site dedicated to the memory of Alexander Litvinenko.
FP: Yelena Maglevannaya, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Maglevannaya: Thank you.
FP: Tell about the events which have led to your flight.
Maglevannaya: The main reason why I decided to leave Russia was the threat to my liberty, and possibly even life, in case I would have stayed there. The authorities were about to fabricate criminal charges against me, since I refused to obey the unfair court decision - to publish a refutation of my articles and to pay 'libel damages' to the prison-guards. In addition, I received threats from nationalist organizations, as I was defending the rights of Chechens - 'enemies of Russia'. The FSB repeatedly summoned me for 'interviews' and warned me that I would be in big trouble unless I stop doing that. All that combined has led me to this decision.
FP: What kind of criminal charges have been fabricated against you?
Maglevannaya: The charges were that I had libeled the administration of Volgograd's LIU-15 prison camp. In my articles I claimed, truthfully, that the prison camp guards had severely beaten a prisoner from Chechnya, Zubair Zubairaev. However, the camp administration brought a lawsuit against me. The “independence” of Russian courts is well-known, so, of course, they won the case. I was ordered to refute my articles and pay 200,000 rubles in damages to the prison-guards. Naturally, I absolutely refuse to do that.
By the way, I have learned just recently that a similar lawsuit has been filed against Zubair's sister, Malika Zubairaeva.
FP: How are the rights of Chechens being violated?
Maglevannaya: Violation of rights would be a very mild description. Chechens were beaten, their feet were nailed to the floor, as in case of above-mentioned Zubair Zubairaev; impaled with iron rods and attacked with guard dogs, as in case of Islam Taipov in Tomsk's IK-3 prison camp. Severely ill Zaurbek Talkhigov, who is imprisoned for his efforts to rescue the Nord-Ost hostages, was denied a vitally important medical operation, or any medical treatment whatsoever. This is not to mention that they spend practically entire prison terms in punishment cells, in outrageously severe conditions, cold and dampness.
FP: Why is the Russian government oppressing the Chechens?
Maglevannaya: Although the Russian leaders have repeatedly claimed that the military action in Chechnya is over, the Chechens in Russia are still treated as enemies. When they are imprisoned, they are often guarded by people who have fought against them as Federal troops during the war, and now work in prison camp administration. Naturally, the former hangmen now victimize the defenseless Chechens.
Besides, I have heard many times from various officials of Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), as well as from Chechen prisoners themselves, that the very top leaders of Russia have given orders to destroy the Chechen inmates in prisons. Thus, the IK-25 prison camp chief told Zubairaev that there was an order to destroy the Chechen youth in prisons, and then the nation would die out by itself.
FP: What threat do Chechens pose to Russia?
Maglevannaya: I do not believe that Chechens threaten Russia in any way. What kind of threat can they pose? They only want to be free, to live their own life independently from Russia. But the Russian society – of course, mostly under the influence of official propaganda – sees Chechens as enemies, as a threat. The authorities constantly use the media to impose the view of the entire Chechen nation as a nation of gangsters and terrorists. No wonder this view is now shared by the majority of Russian population.
However, it is far from evident that Chechens were guilty of the notorious terrorist attacks attributed to them, such as the Moscow apartment block explosions or the infamous Beslan attack. Thus, Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Beslan only after some time had passed. It is possible he did so under pressure or in exchange for some promises from Russian authorities. A lot of people in Russia openly say that Russian special services were involved in those terrorist attacks.
FP: Ok, what threat does Chechen independence pose to Russia? Obviously it poses some kind of threat to Putin’s interests. What are those interests? Putin’s regime is persecuting Chechens not just for some vague and indiscriminate reason. Chechens are being targeted because in the mind of the Putin regime they pose a threat. What is that perceived threat? How does Putin’s Russia believe that Chechen independence would hurt Russia? What does Chechnya have that Russia needs under its control?
Maglevannaya: The Chechens are dangerous, first of all, because they aspire for freedom. They are a nation which can never be enslaved; and Putin's regime prefers people with a slave mentality.
An independent Chechnya would become prosperous very soon. The Chechens are born builders, creators, willing and able to work hard to achieve a good and wealthy life. Chechnya was reduced to the ground many times, but as soon as there was a truce, Chechens would immediately start recovering, re-building their country. They would build big, solid houses of five or six floors - only to see them destroyed during the next aggression from Russia. That is despite the fact that Chechnya has never been really free, it has always been under the heel of its northern neighbor.
Besides, independent Chechnya would be an example of genuine democracy, because the Chechens have no tradition of obedience to a dictator. From the Russian regime's viewpoint, that would be a bad example for Russians: a free and prosperous republic next door to poor and traditionally oppressed Russia.
Finally, the Chechens have always been leaning to the West - which is deadly for the Russian regime. The West is wrong to pay so little attention to the Chechens. While Russia is trying to present them as reactionary fanatics, in reality they are a nation of perfectly European culture and long-standing democratic traditions, who want to live by Western standards. So, when many Western countries close their borders to refugees from Chechnya, they make a mistake. Chechens are natural allies of the West; and that is why the present Russian regime sees them as a threat.
FP: What is the state of persecution of journalists and human rights campaigners in Russia?
Maglevannaya: Honest journalism has become practically impossible in today's Russia. Journalists are being killed (Anna Politkovskaya was the best known case, but by far not the only one), beaten, imprisoned. There was an outrageous case in Ulyanovsk recently, when journalist Sergei Krukov was abducted from his own flat. His door was broken, and he was driven away.
Only those journalists who serve the regime can enjoy still life. The same is true about human rights activists.
Recently in Yeketarinburg, prisoners' rights campaigner Alexei Sokolov was arrested on fabricated charges. And the situation is only getting worse.
FP: What are the fates of Sergei Krukov and Alexei Sokolov? What has happened to them?
Maglevannaya: Alexei Sokolov was arrested on 13 May and is still in detention. No doubt, this is done in revenge for his human rights activities. Just recently, two more human rights campaigners were arrested in Yekaterinburg, Gleb Edelev and Vyacheslav Bashkov. They are accused of unsanctioned protests, and will be detained until the end of the SCO summit-meeting in Yekaterinburg.
The fate of Sergei Kryukov may be even more tragic. There was no news of him since 21 April, when his flat was broken into and he was driven away in an unknown direction. Perhaps, he was put in a high-security psychiatric hospital. Shortly before that, the Prosecutor’s office made an order to subject him to a forcible psychiatric examination.
FP: How about the tortures and general situation in Russian prisons?
Maglevannaya: Torture is endemic in our prisons. I am talking not only about severe beating, but about truly sadistic methods of torture: prisoners are being attacked with guard-dogs; impaled with iron rods; have their feet nailed to the floor. All prisoners are being humiliated, but certain groups - Muslims, Caucasus peoples, and particularly Chechens - are the most hated.
The conditions in prisons are horrible. The cells are small and overcrowded, stifling in summer, cold and humid in winter. But of course, the worst part of it is the constant victimization by prison-guards. Very often, that literally drives people to suicide. 15 years in jail is considered to be the same as life imprisonment.
FP: Why is sadism in Russian prisons so prevalent? Yes, it is part of the human condition when we find people with power over others. But there is something also reflective about the Putin regime yes? This torture is not happening despite of Putin but very much because of him, right? The inhumanity trickles down from the regime into the jail system.
Maglevannaya: Yes, certainly. Putin seems to be a very cruel, or, to be more precise, a ruthless, heartless man. Remember his infamous ‘it sunk’ comment about the wreckage of Kursk submarine, where the entire crew died? And what about his reaction to the murders of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko, when he literally squeezed the words of condolence out of himself? Or when he called one captive Chechen commander ‘an animal’? What about all his jokes, which smell of corpses and Lubyanka dungeons a mile around? This is not to mention his clarion call to ‘waste them in a shithouse’. Could a normal person have said that? I am not sure that this man is able to have any human feelings, any compassion to anybody. He seems to me a soulless robot of some kind. And all his subordinates follow the example of the boss, so the whole system is the same.
FP: What can and should the West do vis-à-vis Putin? What would your advice be to the Obama administration? Does the Russian regime even care what the West or the U.S. does or thinks?
Maglevannaya: What can Obama do? First of all, stop flirting with them. Stop pretending that there is anything like democracy in Russia. Russia is still the same evil empire which it was in the past.
The weakest spot of Russia’s present leaders are their purses. Many of them have bank accounts in the West. This is something they really fear to lose – unlike the abstract ‘image’, which worries them only insofar as losing it would damage their financial affairs. They see that, despite the vociferous statements from time to time, the West shows no real intention to reduce its cooperation with Russia. So the Russian regime gets even more insolent: ‘whatever we do, they’ll make some fuss and then calm down’ is what they think about you. This has already gone as far as a radioactive terrorist attack in Central London (I mean the assassination of Litvinenko). And this will go even further unless the European and American leaders stop smiling at Putin and Medvedev. You need to be really tough, put real pressure, apply most serious sanctions for actions of this kind – not just talks and declarations.
FP: Yelena Maglevannaya, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.