Opinion: Russian grannies and their human rights | Opinion | DW | 16.12.2015
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Opinion: Russian grannies and their human rights

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree that allows Russian courts to overturn decisions made by international courts. In reality, it establishes the sovereignty of politics over the law, says Juri Rescheto.

Once there was a house in Perm. It was a beautiful house, but it was old. Many people lived in the house. And they were old too; they were grandmothers. One day a businessman came along. He was young, and he was rich. He took over the basement of the house, and decided that he wanted to build a private swimming pool in it. But that put the house in danger of collapse. The grannies complained to authorities, but no one listened to them. The courts didn't either. The young "Biznyessmyan" was apparently too rich to fight. And so, the grannies took their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. They sued to keep from being buried in their collapsing house one day.

Such cases are common in Strasbourg. People turn to the ECHR when they feel that they cannot get a fair trial in their home country. The cases are about human rights, torture, illegal imprisonment, religious discrimination, repression of freedom of speech and sometimes, collapsing houses.

Many Russians sue in Strasbourg

Rescheto Juri Kommentarbild App

DW's Moscow correspondent Juri Rescheto

According to Russia's Ministry of Justice, some 40,000 Russians took cases to the ECHR in 2011. A fifth of all cases. Three years later, in 2014, the country topped the list of cases brought. Since then, it has shared that inglorious distinction with Turkey and Ukraine.

Russians turn to international courts because they see them as their only chance to defend their basic human rights. It WAS their only chance. For now, effective immediately, the Russian Constitutional Court can overturn the decisions of international courts, including, and above all, those of the ECHR. And they can do so without hearings or consultations. Which lawyers say is a violation of law in and of itself. A number of prominent cases illustrate just how intently Russian courts disavow questions of human rights. Internationally, the most famous of these cases was no doubt that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. According to the ECHR, the Russian oil billionaire was unfairly treated in 2005, and was awarded 10,000 euro ($11,000) in damages. The Russian state in fact profited from the decision. What's 10,000 euro? But more importantly: The ECHR agreed that the case was not politically motivated.

No faith in justice before the court

However, in 2015, when that other international instance - The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague - declared the breakup of Khodorkovsky's oil empire by the Russian state illegal, and ordered Moscow to pay damages of $50 billion (46 billion euro), Moscow had apparently heard enough, and gave a resounding "Nyet!" From the Russian point of view, that "No!" was immediately legally binding.

Dismay aside - Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not poor. He will no doubt continue to fight for his rights. But now, with the signing of this new decree, the thousands of Russians that have turned to international courts in the past have not only lost any hope of collecting damages, but also all faith in any semblance of fairness before the Russian courts. And the grannies in Perm will likely lose the roof over their heads. Hopefully they won't have to lose their lives should the house come crashing down one day.