Bill Bowring is Professor of Law at Birkbeck College, and his new book, Law, Rights and Ideology in Russia, has recently been published by Routledge. He is also a practicing barrister with wide-ranging experience of taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights. In this second of a two-part interview, Josh Black and P. Hansbury sought his opinions on the state of the Russian legal system, Russia’s relations with Europe, and his experiences defending human rights and minorities in the former Soviet Union.
I understand you were expelled from Russia because of your associations with Chechnya?
I have been expelled twice from Russia as I think you know. The second time, in 2007, I was saved by the Human Rights Ombudsman in Astrakhan who faced off the Federal Migration Service. It’s a very complicated country! Plus, when I was chucked out in 2005, I won my judicial review case, in 2006, and I got a really good woman judge who really lost her temper with the FSB and border guards.
In 2003, I got €1 million from the European Commission and I founded the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre [EHRAC], along with Memorial, which is the biggest NGO in Russia. EHRAC is now based at Middlesex University and they have over 400 cases, of which we’ve won 60 or 70; not just [to do with] Chechnya: we took the first environmental case against Russia, which we won in 2005. I’ve just recently we won a big case against Estonia: Korobov vs. Estonia. My clients are young ethnic Russians who were savagely treated by the Estonian police after the bronze soldier business in 2007. Russia was on my side in this case. When I was chucked out, I was on my way on behalf of the Bar Human Rights Committee to observe a trial in Nizhniy Novgorod. In fact the judge in a British Court, the Westminster Magistrates Courtfound as a fact that I was thrown out because I’d been giving evidence in an extradition case being heard in that court. The second time, the FSB tipped off the migration service and they tried to plant a story in Kommersant – the best daily paper in Russia – after I’d left Russia. But luckily Kommersant had my phone number and phoned me for my side of the story, and the FSB were trying to plant a story about a terrible British agitator being kicked out… but so they [Kommersant] printed the truth on the front page.
PH: Press freedom in action?
There are some very good newspapers, but lots of journalists have been murdered. Once you get outside of the big cities then the media is extremely circumscribed, and television completely state controlled.
PH: Perhaps we can stick with Chechnya for the moment. Can you say something about the risks volunteers take in standing up for rights?
BB: Well, I think right away you point to Anna Politkovskaya who was writing the truth about what was going on in Chechnya. Then a couple of years ago Natasha Estemirova was abducted in Grozny and her body was found a couple of days later; she was working closely with Memorial. In fact we have had applicants murdered. On the other hand, a chap I work with on a daily basis, Dokka Itslaev, who works for our project in Chechnya is still alive.
I’ve taught Chechen students in Nazran, Ingushetia, but I have never been to Chechnya, which is run now by a former bandit, Ramazan Kadyrov. So I’ve been involved in defamation cases that he’s been bringing against Oleg Orlov in Memorial. Memorial, after the murder of Estimirova, withdrew to an extent. I’ve just been reviewing an article for publication by the director of another human rights organisation working there, which is about the real threats people face, and actually the very interesting innovation of what they call ‘consolidated mobile groups’ from NGOs all over Russia, who take part in the investigations in Chechnya and other places; that’s how people responded. EHRAC tried to work in Dagestan, which is probably the most volatile area of the Russian Federation at present, but found it impossible. The level of threat and violence made it very hard.
You are currently representing Marina Litvinenko…
The basis for the case at Strasbourg – and you can see the pleadings, which are public dpcuments – is based on complicity. We have no evidence that the Kremlin organised the murder, but I think there’s no doubt that Lugovoi was the murderer; there’s overwhelming evidence, and that he did it with Pollonium. And the only place you can get this stuff from is a government factory in Russia. Therefore, by process of logic we say there must have been a green light [from the Kremlin]. I think Litvinenko was in no way significant to the Putin regime; I think Lugovoi almost certainly had his own reasons for murdering Alexandr Litvinenko.
This case by the way has been communicated to Russia. The case started off with the application, which was after a few years communicated to the State, which drafted its observations on the application, and applicants then had a right to reply. That’s the last stage before the Court decides whether there will be an oral hearing or it is to be decided on paper. And the Russians don’t really seem to have got the point of the case – or so it seemed to me when I drafted a reply to the observations.
How much has the British government hindered the process?
Isn’t it extremely strange what’s been going on? It’s rather disgraceful in my opinion that the evidence can’t be heard before the judge who was hearing the inquest. Now the question is whether there will be a public inquiry; now I know that is what Marina and her supporters are calling for, but then you have a situation with closed evidence sessions which is extremely unsatisfactory… but the British government is not prepared to make the evidence public.
Finally, Professor Bowring: what next?
My first book has been translated into Russian, and is being published by Novoe Liternaturnoe Obozreniye, which is rather strange under its initials NLO [Russian for UFO]. At the moment I seem able to come and go: the Russian authorities are rather capricious. They don’t seem to be able to make their mind up about me, whether I’m friend or enemy. I’m not anti-Russian; I think that’s very clear. I don’t like the present regime but I’ve taken a number of cases on behalf of Russia against Latvia and Estonia, on the behalf of ethnic Russians and this recent case [Korobov vs. Estonia] is a really important case, and so the Russians say great. Well, Estonia is trying to appeal but we’ll see what happens.
Professor Bowring, thank you.