MOSCOW—The mother was desperate. In June, her daughter had died in what her daughter’s husband said was an accident, but the mother suspected it was domestic violence so extreme it led to murder. The husband worked in Russia’s security services and authorities didn’t seem to be investigating.
Because she was a woman, said Vanessa Kogan, the American director of the human rights group Justice Initiative, investigators put “less value” on the daughter’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 Justice Initiative for legal assistance, in a case that is wending its way to an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
However, Kogan likely will no longer be in Russia if that day comes.
She’s being forced to leave the country as part of an escalating crackdown on nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups. First, Russian authorities labeled one of Justice Initiative’s branches as a “foreign agent,” a designation that complicates its work with everyday Russians. Then, in March, without any explanation, the group was kicked out of its Moscow offices. In September, they were forced out of another location in the city.
And now the director, Kogan, a New York-born U.S. citizen, is being expelled from Russia after being deemed “a threat to state security.”
On Dec. 2, Kogan’s Russian residency authorization was annulled, 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 expulsion that will prevent her work in Russia and threatened to break up her 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 have approached me several times since 2016, but I restrained myself from talking to media in order to protect my Russian colleagues.”
Kogan suspects 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 managed to obtain an independent autopsy, angering authorities in Chechnya, said Kogan. “The victim’s mother approached our lawyers and we helped,” she said, acknowledging the case seemed sure to cause friction. In Chechnya, “there is less of a taboo to kill somebody who is LGBT or a woman, less value on their life.”
The victim’s mother was present at the autopsy. “She said her daughter’s neck was cut,” Kogan said. Justice Initiative lawyers were not permitted to be witnesses. But Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, met with the victim’s family after the autopsy. There, the republic’s leader is reported by the news website MediaZona to have told Umayeva’s family: “When one is married, there are arguments, quarrels. It happens that a husband can beat you up.”
“Kadyrov made it clear that anyone who helps the mother would be in the same category—would be expelled and shamed and lose their social status,” Kogan told The Daily Beast of the fierce ally of President Vladimir Putin. “The mother was completely terrorized and intimidated, along with her cousins. She is now under strict supervision of her male relatives. But she has not told us to stop. We want to take this case to the European Court of Human Rights.”
Justice Initiative is one of very few surviving nongovernmental organizations in Russia that can receive foreign funds. Among other cases, its lawyers specialize in helping 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 considered abhorrent to most Chechens and completely alien to broader Russian culture. So why would the Kremlin target a group trying to help?
It is not because the Kremlin approves of genital mutilation or honor killings that it’s expelling Kogan. It’s more likely because the system is reliant on impunity for people who support the Kremlin’s policies, such as 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, the issue was not political. But recently the government began to inspect shelters for victims in the Northern Caucasus and in St. Petersburg,” Kogan said. “We defend women who are deprived of a right to bring up their own children after divorce, which is a taboo issue in Chechnya; Kadyrov insists women should be ready to be beaten by their husbands, that this is all right.”
In the past decade, lawyers of the Justice Initiative have won more than 300 cases for Russian citizens at the European Court of Human rights in Strasbourg, France. The number of Russians applying 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 obligated to honor the court’s decisions as a member of the Council of Europe, the pan-European treaty on human rights that Russia signed after the Soviet breakup.
Justice Initiative has hundreds of cases pending now, including the first case from Russia against female genital mutilation from Ingushetia, a region that neighbors Chechnya. The group’s plaintiff is a 9-year-old girl. “The girl’s father brought his daughter to a clinic for a surgery that mutilated the girl’s genitals,” Ksenia Babich, a defender at the Justice Initiative, told The Daily Beast. “The girl’s mother represents the girl’s interests in court. The parents are divorced.”
Human rights supporters are raising alarms about Kogan’s expulsion.
“What happened to Vanessa Kogan comes with a wave of new repressions on Russian nongovernmental organizations, the parliament pushes through new legislation that is going to basically strangle Russia’s civil society,” Tania Lokshina, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, said in an interview for The Daily Beast on Thursday.
Though she’s already preparing to leave, Kogan wrote words of encouragement to her colleagues in the Northern Caucasus and Moscow to continue their fight, saying the organization would continue to defend victims of discrimination and violence. If only she had a chance to speak with Russian authorities, she would ask of them: “I would do a better job listening to pain. If a mistake is made, acknowledge it. That would mean a lot to thousands of victims.”