MOSCOW – The mother was desperate. In June, her daughter died in what her daughter’s husband described as an accident, but the mother suspected it was domestic violence so extreme that it led to the murder. The husband worked in the Russian security service and the authorities did not appear to be investigating.
Because she was a woman, said Vanessa Kogan, US director of the human rights group Justice Initiative, investigators place “less value” on the girl’s life.
Like thousands of other desperate or disillusioned Russian citizens – political prisoners, victims of torture or abuse or indifferent treatment by the police – the mother turned to the Justice Initiative for legal assistance, in a case that leads to an appeal to the European Court. human rights.
However, Kogan will likely not be in Russia again if that day arrives.
She is being forced to leave the country amid growing crackdown on non-governmental organizations and civil society groups. First, Russian authorities have called one of the Justice Initiative’s branches a “foreign agent,” a designation that makes it difficult to work with everyday Russians. Then, in March, without any explanation, the group was kicked out of its Moscow offices. In September, they were forced to leave another part of the city.
And now the director, Kogan, a New York-born American citizen, is being deported from Russia after being viewed as “a threat to state security.”
On December 2, Kogan’s Russian residence permit was revoked, giving her two weeks to leave the country with her Russian husband and children. “I guess they wanted to kill two birds with one stone,” Kogan told the Daily Beast, of the deportation which would prevent him from working in Russia and threatening to break up his family. Her husband, also a human rights lawyer, and their two children, aged 3 and 6, will leave together, she said.
The news was “shocking,” Kogan said, if not a surprise. “The Federal Security Service has approached me several times since 2016, but I refrained from speaking to the media in order to protect my Russian colleagues.”
Kogan suspects that the case of Madina Umayeva, the young Chechen woman who died on June 12, could have been the tipping point. Umayeva’s mother wanted a proper investigation into the circumstances of her daughter’s death. Lawyers for Justice Initiative succeeded in securing an independent autopsy, angering authorities in Chechnya, Kogan said. “The victim’s mother approached our lawyers and we helped,” she said, acknowledging that the case surely seemed to cause friction. In Chechnya, “there is less taboo to kill an LGBT person or a woman, less value for her life”.
The victim’s mother was present at the autopsy. “She said her daughter’s neck had been cut,” Kogan said. Lawyers for the Justice Initiative were not allowed to testify. But the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, met the family of the victim after the autopsy. There, the head of the republic is reported by the MediaZona news site to have told Umayeva’s family: “When you are married, there are arguments, quarrels. Sometimes a husband can beat you. “
“Kadyrov made it clear that whoever helps the mother would be in the same category – would be kicked out and humiliated and lose their social status,” Kogan told The Daily Beast of President Vladimir Putin’s fierce ally. “The mother was completely terrified and intimidated, along with her cousins. She is now under the strict supervision of her male parents. But she didn’t tell us to stop. We want to take this case to the European Court of Human Rights. “
Justice Initiative is one of the few non-governmental organizations still in place in Russia that can receive foreign funds. Among other cases, its lawyers specialize in helping the families of victims of “honor killings” in Chechnya. The group has also pursued cases of forced genital mutilation of girls in Muslim areas of the North Caucasus. The practices are seen as odious for most Chechens and totally foreign to Russian culture at large. So why would the Kremlin target a group trying to help?
Just because the Kremlin approves genital mutilation or honor killings does not mean that Kogan is expelled. This is more likely because the system relies on impunity for those who support the policies of the Kremlin, like Kadyrov and his security apparatus. Independent NGOs are seen as a threat to this underlying principle of Russian governance.
“When we first started helping victims of domestic violence, it was not a political issue. But recently, the government has started to inspect shelters for victims in the North Caucasus and in St. Petersburg, ”Kogan said. “We defend women deprived of the right to raise their own children after divorce, which is a taboo subject in Chechnya; Kadyrov insists that women be ready to be beaten by their husbands, that all is well.
Over the past decade, Justice Initiative lawyers have won more than 300 cases for Russian citizens at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. The number of Russians who have gone to the European Court after failing to find justice at home has doubled in the past three years: there were 15,050 applications from Russia last year alone. Russia is bound to honor the decisions of the Court as a member of the Council of Europe, the pan-European human rights treaty that Russia signed after the Soviet break-up.
The Justice Initiative currently has hundreds of pending cases, including Russia’s first case against female genital mutilation in Ingushetia, a region neighboring Chechnya. The complainant in the group is a 9-year-old girl. “The girl’s father brought his daughter to a clinic for an operation that mutilated the girl’s genitals,” Ksenia Babich, a Justice Initiative advocate, told The Daily Beast. “The mother of the girl represents the interests of the girl in court. The parents are divorced. “
Human rights defenders are sounding the alarm over Kogan’s deportation.
“What happened to Vanessa Kogan is accompanied by a wave of new repressions against Russian non-governmental organizations, the parliament passes new legislation that will fundamentally strangle Russian civil society”, Tania Lokshina, associate director of the division Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia said Thursday in an interview with The Daily Beast.
Although she is already preparing to leave, Kogan wrote words of encouragement to her colleagues in the North Caucasus and Moscow to continue their fight, saying the organization will continue to advocate for victims of discrimination and violence. If only she had the chance to speak with the Russian authorities, she would ask them, “I would do a better job listening to the pain. If a mistake is made, admit it. It would mean a lot to thousands of victims.
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