Russia rights activist must be on guard

The bodyguard is a thick and bullish man with a bald head and black turtleneck. He trails his client in the front door and then lurks around the entryway. The client, a slight, tweedy and unassuming man, slips behind his desk with a sigh. His face still bears the ghosts of bruises.

“I feel uncomfortable,” Lev Ponomaryov said with a shrug when asked about his hulking guard. “But that’s what my children asked me to do, and I didn’t argue.”

The prevalence of bodyguards and muscle-bound thugs is nothing new in this town, where “corporate raid” is often a literal term and businessmen -- or their drivers -- are well advised to pack heat.

But in today’s Moscow, even human rights workers like Ponomaryov need bodyguards. His grown children insisted on hiring the guard after their father was attacked and left confined to bed for a week.


Ponomaryov is probably Russia’s most respected human rights advocate, a former lawmaker and tireless crusader. His organization, For Human Rights, has fought the government on issues ranging from torture in prisons to atrocities in the Caucasus.

He looks thin and serious in the morning light as he recalls his assault. At 10 on a Tuesday night a few weeks ago, he arrived home from work and parked his car outside the apartment house. As he headed for the door, a man appeared “from nowhere,” Ponomaryov said, and gestured a request for a cigarette.

“I spread out my arms and said, ‘Sorry, I don’t smoke,’ ” Ponomaryov said. “At that moment, somebody came from behind and knocked me to the ground.”

The blows came raining down, fast and silent. They kicked the 67-year-old man until he lost consciousness. There were three of them, he believes, and two others kept watch.


“It was like being in a meat grinder,” he said. “At some point I realized they’d stopped beating me. I stood up and there was nobody there. I’d passed out.”

To Ponomaryov and his Russian colleagues, there is little question that the attack was a warning to ease up on his human rights work. The assailants didn’t bother stealing his cash, cellphones, laptop or car keys.

“It’s quite obvious I was a target. No doubt about it,” he said. “I’m in direct confrontation with several big, influential power structures. I don’t suffer from delusions of grandeur, but they single me out as a uniquely aggressive investigator.”

Most chillingly, Ponomaryov’s Wikipedia entry was reportedly edited shortly before the assault to say that he’d been killed in an attack. The assault is under investigation. But some of his colleagues are already blaming the government and security services for, at a minimum, helping to breed a culture of impunity.


“Such actions are not just the outlet for evil emotions. They are meant to scare people,” said Sergei Kovalyov, chairman of the Memorial human rights group. “It’s quite obvious that the authorities have something to do with creating this kind of atmosphere in the country.”

At a time when government-linked spin doctors talk of a softening grip of authority and a loosening up on dissent, Ponomaryov’s attack is a reminder that the rule of law remains elusive in Russia.

Kremlinologists lit up this month when President Dmitry Medvedev, after a year in office, granted his first interview to a Russian newspaper. He elected to speak with Novaya Gazeta, the paper most critical of the government and home base to several slain journalists.

It was enough to set off speculation both in Russia and abroad. Perhaps Medvedev, who so far has avoided asserting himself visibly against the will of his predecessor and longtime mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was poised to change Russia’s increasingly autocratic political culture. Maybe Medvedev, a lawyer who once famously, criticized Russia’s “legal nihilism,” was sending a signal.


But Ponomaryov is skeptical.

“Many beautiful words have been spoken,” he said. “But the situation is not getting better, and on some fronts, it’s getting worse.”

On the walls of his office hang pictures of the people he admires. There is Andrei Sakharov, Soviet dissident and Nobel Peace Prize-winning antinuclear activist.

And then there are the contemporaries -- well, nobody calls them dissidents anymore, because this word smacks of the Soviet Union. Instead they are called “critics.” Photos of journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova and of lawyer Stanislav Markelov. All of them were assassinated; none of the killers have been brought to justice.


Last year, Ponomaryov traveled to the United States, where he gave newspaper interviews and public talks about one of his pet issues: widespread abuse and torture of inmates in Russia’s prisons.

Upon returning home, he was accused of slandering the head of prisons. A criminal case was opened. Ponomaryov was banned from leaving Moscow for nine months.

“I have information that, after my attack, they were telling inmates, ‘We beat you and we’ll continue beating you, and your friend Ponomaryov can’t help you anymore,’ ” he said.