Finnish authorities have granted asylum to the Russian journalist and human rights defender, Elena Maglevannaya. She fled from Russia in May 2009 after receiving threats for her press reports about the abuse and torture of Chechens in Russian prisons. In a trial that was seen as heavily tilted in favour of the prosecution, Elena was convicted of libel because of her articles. While waiting for a decision on her asylum application in Finland, she continued her investigations into prison conditions in Russia.In July 2010, speaking in an interview with YLE News, Elena expressed confidence in the European justice system: “Here in Finland, there is rule of law. I have often been in a situation where law has no meaning or it does not exist at all,” she said. Earlier, several leading human rights defenders started a petition to the Finnish immigration authorities on Elena’s behalf. Many Russian journalists and human rights defenders who have highlighted human rights abuses in the North Caucasus have either been killed or imprisoned. Oksana Chelysheva, board member of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, noted that the Finnish Immigration Service, once again, showed its impartiality in its conclusion that Elena’s asylum application was warranted and that she was indeed in need of international protection. Elena found a lot of support in Finland, and today’s decision gives joy to everyone, Oksana wrote. She recalled that Elena started her human rights work alone in Volgograd. Thanks to her efforts, the case of Zubair Zubairayev received international attention. Read on for an interview with Elena… Please accept the congratulations of the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum over the decision of the Finnish authorities to grant you asylum. I would like to thank the members of the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum and all those who helped and supported me while I was waiting for the decision of the Finnish authorities. Also, I would like to thank the wonderful country of Finland that has treated me so well. Finland will undoubtedly become not my “second home,” but I think my primary home, given that Russia, for various reasons, could not become my home. Did you receive any congratulations from Russia? I have not yet received many congratulations from Russia because most people do not yet know about the decision. The first congratulations came from the Moscow-based human rights defender, Tatyana Monakhova, who said the news made her very glad. What status did the authorities grant you: asylum or a residence permit on humanitarian grounds? I received the status of a refugee; the document says the status is “Category A,” which I am told is the “highest” status that a refugee applicant can get. My residence permit is valid for four years, with a possibility to prolong it later. What is the attitude of Finnish authorities and the Finnish Immigration Service to asylum seekers from Russia — not just those from the North Caucasus? Has something changed in the Finnish policy toward asylum seekers from Russia? I was told that in the refugee centre where I was located, my case was the second in the centre’s entire history where a Russian citizen who was not from the North Caucasus had received asylum. The first case was a family reunification. I do not know about the other refugee centres, but I do know that such decisions have been very rare. The fact that the decision in my case was so swift suggests that Finland and Europe in general have begun to understand what is behind the pseudodemocratic rhetoric of the Russian authorities, and what is the actual situation of human rights in Russia. At least I very much hope that this is the case. What is the importance of the decision of the Finnish authorities to you personally? Naturally, I cannot overstate the importance of today’s decision to me personally. It means that I can now continue my life and work in peace, and not be in fear of being arrested, jailed, tortured, or simply killed at any time. I can now live in a free and peaceful country. I am very happy. Does the decision have any baring on the fate of other Russian citizens who have applied for asylum in the European Union? What impact does the decision have on granting protection to persecuted journalists and human rights defenders from Russia in countries of the European Union? I do hope that my case will serve as some sort of precedent, since the European justice system does usually lean on precedents, and that independent journalists and human rights defenders will find it easier to receive asylum in the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many in the West naively believed that people would no longer be persecuted for their political opinions in Russia. I recognise that the decision in my case did not simply save my life, but it was, first and foremost, a recognition of the fact that political repression continues in Russia. For me, this is very important. Naturally, I hope that the same recognition in each future case of human rights defenders and journalists who apply for asylum in the West will help those persecuted in Russia to receive protection more easily, as then it will cease to be news to you that those who fight for human rights are actually being persecuted in Russia. I know that many European countries have been reticent in recognising this fact. Does the decision in your case have any baring on the European Union’s refugee policy in general? What is your personal opinion about this policy? As someone who has lived in a refugee centre and followed the cases of many applicants, I can say that the European Union’s refugee policy is, in most instances, just. However, I have one serious bone of contention, and that is the Dublin Regulation. I have witnessed several cases where the Dublin Regulation has been employed to separate families by deporting one of the spouses to, say, Poland, which is unable to guarantee even the minimum security to Chechen refugees; killers sent by Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov roam openly in Poland. We have to do something with the Dublin Regulation — if nothing else then at least include some exceptions into the text. Another issue that is extremely worrysome is the fact that European countries have begun denying asylum to Chechens — including Finland,– which never happened before. Can it be true that authorities in Europe have come to believe the claims of Kadyrov’s puppet regime that the situation in Chechnya has “stabilised”? It is not important that there is no open warfare in Chechnya at the moment. What is important is that human life, if the person is not to the liking of the Chechen dictator Kadyrov, does not cost a penny. People are abducted and killed in broad daylight, and those who are left alive are afraid to talk lest they become the next victims. You have mostly defended people from the North Caucasus in Russia, but also in the countries of the European Union. What are the most acute problems faced by refugees from the North Caucasus in Europe? The biggest problem is, again, the Dublin Regulation. Russian authorities are hampering the possibility of Chechens to get visas to other countries, and the only country where they can travel is Poland, which has a visa-free regime with Russia. In Poland, Chechens face threats from Kadyrov’s people. However, they cannot move to another EU member state because of the Dublin Regulation. Thus they are stuck — quoting one of my journalist friends — in the “Polish trap.” Yet another problem is the fictitious idea that the situation in Chechnya would have “stabilised.” Kadyrov and his masters, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, are making a big effort to convince Europeans about this. Unfortunately, sometimes European authorities do listen to them, and that is why people end up in trouble. Just recently, I heard of another such case in Slovakia, where two Chechens — Ali Ibragimov and Anzor Chentiev — were detained due to the charges they face in Russia, and now they are to be deported — most likely to a certain death. What do you think will be the reaction of the Russian authorities and the authorities in your hometown, Volgograd, to the decision of the Finnish authorities to grant you asylum? The reaction will, of course, be negative. Mind you, they may harbour hopes that now that I am living outside Russia, I will cease my fight against them. To that I can say with absolute certainty: their hopes are in vain; on the contrary, having escaped their pressure, I will only redouble my efforts. What would happen to you if you returned to Russia? Would you be able to enjoy the same level of support that you had in Finland? If I returned to Russia, I could not, naturally, enjoy such support, that is obvious. Yes, I did have friends among human rights defenders, but most media and their audience would welcome my deportation to Russia and subsequent arrest. I have no doubt about this, given the reaction of pro-Putin media to my court sentence. Frankly, this was one of the things that depressed me the most while I was waiting for the decision on my case. The thought that my foes would have triumphed and thrown me behind bars strengthened my wish to do the utmost so as not to let this happen. Now I can bravely say to all those people: do not even think about it! In Finland, I was met with simply unbelievable support, not only from the state and local journalists, but from ordinary citizens as well. The concern that they had for me was, at times, very touching. After the publication of my interview in a local newspaper, I received a gift from a Finn who had read the interview: a plastic can with raspberries from his garden and a book that he had written about his own life. The book had an inscription, in which the author said that my story had moved him. Last New Year, an elderly lady whom I did not know sent me a touching postcard. I simply cannot express the gratitude I felt. In Russia, I could not have even imagined something similar. I was called a terrorist, a supporter of bandits, and even worse. No raspberries and postcards, for sure! What are your future plans in Finland? What will you begin doing? Where will you live? Will the Finnish authorities help you settle down in Finland? I will, first and foremost, take care of myself and my work. I will continue writing and fighting for the rights of those who are being tortured and persecuted in Russia. I will continue to insist that those responsible for these crimes and the most heinous crime of all — the genocide of the Chechen people — will be brought to justice. The culprits for these crimes are the Russian authorities, headed by the quasi-president Medvedev and the country’s real leader, Putin. The help I have received from the Finnish state has been great from the very beginning. Having grown up in Russia, I could not imagine a state that takes such good care of people, let alone non-citizens. I was given an apartment and social benefits; if I asked the social workers for something, my requests were usually met, even though I have really not done anything for Finland yet. In Russia, a person can work for the state all her life, and finally come to the conclusion that the state is absolutely indifferent to her. This is a big difference. When I first arrived in Finland, I was quite startled at this, in a positive sense. I did not expect anything of the sort. I have been promised help in finding a rental apartment very soon. I was told that the apartment will, most likely, be located here in [Finland’s] South Karelia. Naturally, so as not to be a burden to the Finnish people who have given me protection, I intend to get a job. I will, however, first need to learn the language, which, unfortunately, I do not know well enough yet. Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers? Once more, I would like to thank all those who helped me and who supported me. This was also something unusual and unexpected for me — that so many people were on my side. I am very grateful to you all and love you very much. I will, of course, continue my work and tell everyone about what has happened and what is happening in Russia, so that here in Finland and all over Europe people would learn to know what sort of a neighbour they have.
The Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (FINROSFORUM) promotes cooperation between the peoples of Finland and Russia by supporting civic initiatives for democracy, human rights, and free speech.
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