Standing up for rights in Russia
2014-02-15 19:52:36 -
Human Rights

As the Winter Olympics shines a spotlight on Russia, human rights defender Stefania Kulaeva tells Lois Kapila how state oppression won’t prevent her organisation’s work in the country

At the end of last year, as Russia geared up to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, human rights defender Stefania Kulaeva and her colleagues at the Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial packed up in boxes, cancelled their bank account and closed their St Petersburg office.

A few weeks earlier, a court had ruled that ADC Memorial had been carrying out the functions of a “foreign agent” and had to register as such or shut down. If they’d registered, it would have been like saying their work had been driven by outsiders’ agendas, so they refused.

“It’s not true. And it takes away from the value of all the things we have done,” says Kulaeva on a recent Tuesday afternoon in Dublin, as she leans back into her chair and brushes her square-cut pale brown hair away from her face.

Kulaeva is in Dublin to launch a Front Line Defenders campaign, piggybacking off the attention around the Winter Olympics to highlight the repression of human rights defenders in Russia and the region.

Death threats
At Front Line Defenders’ calm office in Blackrock, with the sunlight pouring through the window, it’s easy to forget the harassment Kulaeva has faced because of her work: court cases, swastikas on her door, even death threats.

For more than a decade, ADC Memorial has been one of the few organisations taking on the growing racism in Russia, she notes. Long before international media tuned in to problems in Sochi, ADC Memorial was pressing for action against the city’s mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, who greeted news that the town was to host the Winter Olympics with plans to pressgang Roma residents into construction.

“He said [to municipal officials] if they won’t go freely, then take them to work by force,” she Kulaeva. “It’s not only hate speech, it’s also hate action.”
And it’s issues like this that should be getting more attention during the Olympics, she added. “LGBT is important, but so is Roma and also migrants.”

Roma face all kinds of discrimination in Russia, according to Kulaeva. “In one city, we had a complaint from [Roma] parents who said that their children weren’t allowed into the fifth form.”

ADC Memorial helped take the case to court to try to get a judge to order the school to let the eight students back in. The judge was reluctant until “one parent said, but I adopted this child, he is ethnic Russian. And the judge said, ‘Okay, we’ll let this one study.’”

Criminalising children
Roma children are not the only minority kids finding it difficult to access and stay in school, said Kulaeva.
Children from some migrant families are going to be hit hard by a new law that means visa-free travellers to Russia who don’t find work within 90 days are expected to leave for three months before they can re-enter the country.

It could affect “maybe hundreds of thousands of children” who study rather than work, so have to leave the country every three months, for another three months. “They are criminalising children,” she said.

In the meantime, ADC Memorial has appealed the court ruling marking it as a “foreign agent” and registered the organisation abroad. They might not have an office now, said Kulaeva, but they’ll continue to do whatever work they can.

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