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A Decade in the Struggle for Human Rights
Today there are many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia, but few are as old as the Russian Constitution or Russian Parliament. The NGO called “Sutyajnik,” born at the same time as the new Russian Constitution, has been fighting for the human rights protected by that Constitution and by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights ever since. Entering its second decade on 29 August 2004, NGO Sutyajnik can look with pride on its accomplishments over the past ten years.
“Sutyajnik”? A Russian would tell you that this is not a nice name; indeed, some might consider it slanderous. A dictionary might translate sutyajnik as: “a person inclined to sue for insufficient reasons” or “ a malicious litigator.” But we see a “sutyajnik” as a person prepared to use the existing legal institutions and mechanisms to defend his or others’ human rights, and to challenge government when it seeks to deny or infringe upon those rights. A “sutyajnik” believes that the Russian Constitution and the European Convention mean what they say about human rights, and will use every legal means at his or her disposal to realize the lofty declarations on human rights found in these documents.
NGO "Sutyajnik" is a legal services organization established on 29 August 1994 in Yekaterinburg, Russia. All of Sutyajnik’s efforts and activities relate to resolving important legal problems that affect the public at large, rather than just one or two individuals. Sutyajnik’s efforts are directed towards establishing legal practices that correspond to international standards of human rights protection and the rule of law in civil society. The members of Sutyajnik are primarily senior law students, working under the leadership of experienced human rights lawyers.
An Incubator for Human Rights Warriors: The Report of the Ombudsman for Sverdlovsk oblast on Sutyajnik’s activites in 2003:
“The President of NGO Sutyajnik, Sergey Belyaev, has managed to construct a unique "law protection incubator", which generates new organizations dedicated to the protection of public law. and trains their leaders. In fact, Sergey Belyaev has created a school for the preparation of professional human rights campaigners whose working environment exudes the aura of war-time conditions.”
“Working in the offices of Sutyajnik, young lawyers are learning how to fight for human rights under our Russian laws and Constitution. Activities include cases challenging legislation and judicial practices, attending seminars and training courses. The most useful concept taught by Sutyajnik is the relation of lawyers to the authorities as equal partners. Here people are taught not to be treated as puppets and made to dance by the authorities.” (T.G. Merzlyakova, The Annual Report on the Sverdlovsk Oblast Obmudsman's Activity in 2002).
Correcting the Errors of the Authorities: The Report of the Ombudsman in Sverdlovsk oblast on Sutyajnik’s activities in 2004:
“The NGO Sutyajnik continues to maintain a high level of activity […] the list of judicial decisions in cases initiated by Sutyajnik at all levels, including the European Court of Human Rights, which have led to various corrections of the decrees of the Mayor of Yekaterinburg, is truly impressive. There were three such decisions just in 2003. The Oblast Charter Court considered two cases against the administration of Yekaterinburg, and in another, the Federal Court for the Lenin district of Yekaterinburg struck down a decree of the Mayor of Yekaterinburg.” (T.G. Merzlyakova, The Annual Report on the Sverdlovsk Oblast Obmudsman's Activity in 2002).
Sutyajnik, the oldest human rights protection organization in the Russian Urals, stands as a shield against arbitrary officialdom. Sergei Belyaev, the president of Sutyajnik, tells Sutyajnik-Press about the results of the organization’s work, about protecting the interests of the "little" man, and about counteracting the powerful administrative machinery of a large city.
“Sergei Ivanovich, who are lawyers with Sutyajnik? What have lawyers gone on to do after spending some time at Sutyajnik?”
“During the past decade, several hundred lawyers have passed through Sutyajnik, young men and women studying to become attorneys. They are now working in many spheres including business, policy, and public prosecutor. Each of them uses experience gained during the one to two years of working in Sutyajnik. At present, about twenty young lawyers are working in the organization. Some of them are still studying, and some are defending dissertations in Russian and foreign universities. Those with university degrees are working here full-time. Some people have worked in the organization for a number of years.”
“Does ‘Sutyajnik’ coordinate its work with similar human rights organizations from other Russian regions or other countries?”
“Certainly. Many of our projects are implementated jointly with other organziations. Specialists from abroad conduct trainings and seminars here and share their experiences. Our members receive training abroad. We cooperate with such international organizations as: Interights (London), Central European Institute (Budapest), Helsinki Fund for Human Rights Protection, and the International Senior Lawyers Project (New York). As far as Russia is concerned, we are known in all corners of the country. We have branches in Vladivostok, Novosibirsk, Tumen, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Voronezh, and Murmansk. Our members participate in the fight for human rights from Vladivostok to St.-Petersburg.”
“Approximately how many people received assistance from your organization? How many cases have you won in the past decade?”
“We provided assistance to literally thousands of citizens who have requested our assistance. Since 1994, we have provided more than 18 thousand consultations to citizens and to non-profit organizations, and have won more than 750 proceedings in the public interest, including the abolition of more than 90 unlawful normative acts of local and federal government. For example, we have successfully challenged efforts to keep the public and the press from courtrooms during proceedings; we have struck down both local regulations that infringe on the right of assembly to protest government action as well as the illegitimate efforts by executive officers to veto municipal legislation. We have secured rulings which state that denials of the right to appeal administrative decisions is a violation of the Russian Constitution, and that civil psychiatric detention without a timely hearing violates both the Russian Constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. In general, I believe, we have done well.”
“Our plans are to continue sharing our experience with other human rights NGOs and activists, and to continue vigorous efforts to protect human rights in general, not only under our Russian Constitution, but also with the use of international mechanisms of protection which require our presence in the international field.”
“How has Sutyajnik supported itself over its first decade?”
“Sutyajnik has largely depended upon financial support from foreign governmental and non-governmental organizations. The organizations which have provided support over the past decade include:
USAID, National Endowment for Democracy, Eurasia Foundation, Know-How Foundation (UK), Ford Foundation, the Institute of International Education (Washington), Open Society Institute-Moscow, Open Society Institute-Budapest, John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation (Moscow), the Civil Liberties Foundation, the Moscow Helsinki Group (Moscow), the European Council (Strasbourg), etc.”
Ludmila Churkina, the head of the Ural Centre for Constitutional and International Protection of Human Rights, (an affiliate of Sutyajnik) adds:
“In the second decade of Sutyajnik’s activities, we will engage in new forms of activism. We will analyse, publish, and disseminate our experiences. In 2002 we launched Sutyajnik-Press, a human rights news agency. In 2003, Sutyajnik launched a new website, www.sutyajnik.ru. Our website contains human rights news, the publications of the organization's attorneys and interns, information about cases, as well as a case-law data-base, and legal advice.
“Our practice of publishing our official annual report in two languages (Russian and English) has become a tradition in Sutyajnik in recent years. In August 2004, Sutyajnik published a book entitled The Right to a Fair Trial: European Standards and Russian Practice. It is the second volume of the series International Human Rights Protection. The authors are Jeremy McBride, senior lecturer of Birmingham University and Vice-President of Interights, Anna Demeneva and Elena Goncharova, lawyers with NGO Sutyajnik, and Svetlana Muchambetova, a lawyer with Social Fund Pravoborets. The book contains the legal analysis of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees a right to a fair trial, as well as judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. Also, several Russian authors explore Russian judicial procedures and existing problems in connection with fair trials.
“Sutyajnik’s most recent project is The Russian Constitution: 10 Years of Implementation, a collection of cases interpreting the new Russian Constitution. Featuring an introduction by Demyan Bakhrakh, the distinguished professor of Russian Administrative Law and a member of Sutyajnik’s Board of Directors, the book is composed of the judgments of the Russian courts of different levels and jurisdictions on the human rights cases advocated by the staff of Sutyajnik. The publication of these decisions is crucial to developing a tradition of human rights protection because there is no official reporting system of judgments delivered by district courts in Russia.”
Last year for the first time the entire Sutyajnik team got involved in the project “Preparing and Litigating Cases in the Supreme and Constitutional Courts of the Russian Federation and European Court of Human Rights”, an independent project supported by the Open Society Institute (Budapest). The project will provide support for the organization's conduct of public interest cases in two areas. The first area includes cases that seek to reform Russian legislation that is contrary to the Constitution of the Russian Federation and international norms. The second area includes cases that seek to reform judicial practices in the region with respect to the defence of human rights by applying constitutional and international human rights standards in the national and international courts.
The project also will provide free legal counselling to citizens concerning challenges to enacted laws that violate citizens’ rights and are contrary to the Constitution of the Russian Federation and international standards.
The project’s activities are publicized in the media through articles and commentaries, as well as through radio and television interviews on the conduct of government officials or legislative enactments that are inconsistent with international norms. This project is continuing. May it enjoy success and future victories!
Additionally, while the European Court of Human Rights is still only planning direct broadcasting of its public sessions, Sutyajnik has already managed to set up broadcasting of the session in the case of Rakevich v Russia, (right of psychiatric inmates to a timely hearing) which it, incidentally, won against Russia.
Meanwhile, two lady “sutyajniks” gave birth, each to a girl. Three “sutyajniks” entered graduate programs in law. And another “sutyajnik” went off to the University of Essex (Colchester, the UK) to get “degreed” (to earn an LLM in International Human Rights Law).
And, all of the organization’s activity is guided by the Board of Advisers.
What else can we add?! Happy Anniversary, NGO SUTYAJNIK! Long live!
Special correspondent for the News Agency Sutyajnik-Press
Colchester, the UK.
Judith Ahrens and Douglas Kramer
Volunteers with the International Senior Lawyers Project
New York, USA
NGO Sutyajnik Annual Report 2003
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