Documents on Democracy

Issue Date January 2011
Volume 22
Issue 1
Page Numbers 180-186
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Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for fraud in May 2005, was put on trial for fraud for a second time. Excerpts from his November 10 closing statement at the trial appear below:

I can recall October 2003. My last day as a free man. Several weeks after my arrest, I was informed that President Putin had decided I was going to have to “slurp gruel” for eight years. It was hard to believe that back then. . . .

I do not want to return to the legal side of the case at this time. Everybody who wanted to understand something has long since understood everything. Nobody is seriously waiting for an admission of guilt from me. It is hardly likely that somebody today would believe me if I were to say that I really did steal all the oil produced by my company. But neither does anybody believe that an acquittal in the Yukos case is possible in a Moscow court. Notwithstanding, I want to talk to you about hope. Hope is the main thing in life.

I remember the end of the 1980s. I was 25 then. Our country was living on the hope of freedom, hope that we would be able to achieve happiness for ourselves and for our children. We lived on this hope. In some ways, it did materialize, in others, it did not. The responsibility for why this hope was not realized all the way, and not for everybody, probably lies with our entire generation, myself included.

I remember too the end of the last decade and the beginning of the current one. By then I was 35. We were building the best oil company in Russia. We were putting up sports complexes and cultural centers, laying roads, and resurveying and developing dozens of new fields; we started development of the East Siberian reserves and were introducing new technologies. In short, we were doing all those things that Rosneft, which has taken possession of Yukos, is so proud of today. [End Page 180]

Thanks to a significant increase in oil production, partly as the result of our successes, the country was able to take advantage of a favorable oil situation. We felt hope that the period of convulsions and unrest was behind us at last, and that, in the conditions of stability that had been achieved with great effort and sacrifice, we would be able to peacefully build ourselves a new life, a great country.

Alas, this hope too has yet to be justified. Stability has come to look like stagnation. Society has stopped in its tracks. But hope still lives. It lives on even here, in the Khamovnichesky courtroom, when I am already just this side of fifty years old.

With the coming of a new president (and more than two years have already passed since that time), hope appeared once again for many of my fellow citizens too. Hope that Russia would yet become a modern country with a developed civil society, free from the arbitrary behavior of officials, free from corruption, free from unfairness and lawlessness.

It is clear that this cannot happen all by itself or in one day. But to pretend that we are developing, while in actuality we are merely standing in place or sliding backwards, even if it is behind the cloak of noble conservatism, is no longer possible. . . .

I think all of us understand perfectly well that the significance of our trial extends far beyond the scope of my fate and Platon’s [Lebedev], and even the fates of all those who have guiltlessly suffered in the course of the sweeping massacre of Yukos, those I found myself unable to protect, but whom I remember every day.

Let us ask ourselves: What must be going through the head of the entrepreneur, the high-level organizer of production, or simply any ordinary educated, creative person, looking today at our trial and knowing that its result is absolutely predictable?

The obvious conclusion a thinking person can make is chilling in its stark simplicity: The siloviki bureaucracy can do anything. There is no right of private property ownership. A person who collides with “the system” has no rights whatsoever.

Even though they are enshrined in the law, rights are not protected by the courts—either because the courts are also afraid or are themselves a part of “the system.” Should it come as a surprise to anyone, then, that thinking people do not aspire to self-realization here in Russia?

Who is going to modernize the economy? Prosecutors? Policemen? Chekists [security services]? We already tried such a modernization and it did not work. We were able to build a hydrogen bomb, and even a missile, but we still cannot build our own good, modern television set, our own inexpensive, competitive, modern automobile, our own modern mobile phone, and a whole pile of other modern goods as well. . . .

How is Moscow going to become the financial center of Eurasia if our prosecutors, just like twenty and fifty years ago, are directly and unambiguously calling in a public trial for making the desire to increase the [End Page 181] production and market capitalization of a private company a criminally mercenary objective, for which a person ought to be locked up for 14 years?. . . .

A country that tolerates a situation where the siloviki bureaucracy holds tens and even hundreds of thousands of talented entrepreneurs, managers, and ordinary people in jail . . . instead of and together with criminals, is a sick country. A state that destroys its best companies, which are ready to become global champions, a country that holds its own citizens in contempt, trusting only the bureaucracy and the special services, is a sick state.

Hope is the main engine of big reforms and transformations, the guarantor of their success. If hope fades, if it comes to be supplanted by profound disillusionment, who and what will be able to lead our Russia out of the new stagnation?

I will not be exaggerating if I say that millions of eyes throughout all of Russia and throughout the whole world are watching the outcome of this trial. They are watching with the hope that Russia will after all become a country of freedom and of law, where the law will be above the bureaucratic official; where supporting opposition parties will cease being a cause for reprisals; where the special services will protect the people and the law, and not protect the bureaucracy from the people and the law; where human rights will no longer depend on the mood of the czar, whether good or evil; where, on the contrary, power will truly be dependent on the citizens, and the court, only on law and God. Call this conscience, if you prefer.

I believe this is how it will be. I am not at all an ideal person, but I am a person with an idea. For me, as for anybody, it is hard to live in jail, and I do not want to die there. But if I have to, I will not hesitate. The things I believe in are worth dying for. I think I have proven this.

And you, my opponents? What do you believe in? That the bosses are always right? Do you believe in money? In the impunity of “the system”?

Your Honor! There is much more than just the fates of two people in your hands. Right here and right now, the fate of every citizen of our country is being decided. . . .

This is not about me and Platon. At any rate, not only about us. It is about hope for many citizens of Russia, about hope that tomorrow the court will be able to protect their rights if some other bureaucratic officials get it into their head to brazenly and demonstratively violate these rights. . . .

I want an independent judiciary to become a reality and the norm in my country, I want the phrase from Soviet times about “the most just court in the world” to stop sounding just as ironic today as it did back then. I want us not to leave the dangerous symbols of a totalitarian system as an inheritance for our children and grandchildren. [End Page 182]

Everybody understands that your verdict in this case—whatever it will be—is going to become part of the history of Russia. Furthermore, it is going to form it for the future generation. All the names—those of the prosecutors and of the judges—will remain in history, just as they have remained in history after the infamous Soviet trials.

Your Honor, I can imagine perfectly well that this must not be very easy at all for you, perhaps even frightening, and I wish you courage!

The Arab World

On October 22–23, the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and Morocco’s MADA Center organized a conference in Casablanca entitled “The Future of Democracy and Human Rights in the Arab World.” The participants, including academics, civil society activists, and politicians, drafted and signed “The Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights.” Excerpts appear below:

We, the signatories to this call, as politicians, intellectuals and civil society advocates, believe that the achievement of democracy and the embodiment of human rights in the Arab world is an absolute necessity and requires a broader engagement of all citizens and political and social forces. We observe, with great concern, the dramatic and alarming backsliding of political reforms in the Arab world, due to several structural obstacles since the beginning of the new century. We hereby appeal to all parties concerned with the future of democracy—governments, civil society institutions, political organizations, trade unions, and the media—in the belief that the achievement of real and effective reforms is the responsibility of all parties.

We affirm that confronting the various obstacles that continue to prevent the achievement of a peaceful transfer of power requires the following:

1. An immediate undertaking of profound and effective political reforms that respect the rule of law and institutional integrity based on the principle of separation of powers. This must be done in accordance with the principle of peoples’ sovereignty, respect for human rights and freedoms, and by confirming the ballot box as the only legitimate method of achieving a peaceful transfer of power, and ensuring the transparency of the electoral process, accepting its results, and enhancing the efforts of independent monitors in accordance with international standards;

2. Protection of an independent judiciary as a top priority for democratic change, as a prerequisite for the protection of human rights and freedoms, and as the guarantor for the supremacy of the rule of law and state institutions;

3. The immediate release of all political prisoners—numbering in the thousands in various Arab prisons—and putting an end to political trials [End Page 183] of any kind, torture of political opponents, and the practice of kidnapping;

4. Enabling and encouraging political parties and trade unions to engage in their right to organize freely, use all available media outlets, take advantage of public funding, and be free of any interference of the state apparatus in their affairs;

5. Acknowledgment of the right of civil society organizations to perform their advocacy roles freely and effectively, having their independence and privacy duly respected, their internal affairs not disrupted, and their sources of financial support kept open and active. . . .

6. Guarantee of freedom of expression; free access of the media and journalists to information and news sources; the respect for the independence of journalists’ syndicates and allowing them to disseminate information and opinion without censorship and undue administrative or judicial pressures. . . .

11. Appealing to democratic forces in the entire world to put pressure on their own governments to refrain from supporting nondemocratic regimes in the Arab world, and from adopting double standards in their relations with Arab regimes;

12. Reaffirmation of the interconnectedness of political reform with the renewal of religious thought, which requires support for, and expansion of, the practice of ijtihad in a climate of complete freedom of thought, under democratic systems of government. Furthermore, we support the dialogue that began several years ago between Islamists and secularists at the local and regional levels and emphasize the importance of continuing such endeavors in order to provide solid ground for the protection of democracy and human rights from any political or ideological setbacks.


On October 13, two dozen former officials of the People’s Republic of China, including journalists, academics, and publishers, wrote an open letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress demanding an end to censorship and expressing their concern that freedom of speech, while guaranteed in China’s constitution, is violated in practice. Excerpts from the letter appear below:

Article 35 of China’s constitution as adopted in 1982 clearly states that: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” For 28 years this article has stood unrealized, having been negated by detailed rules and regulations for “implementation.” This false democracy of formal avowal and concrete denial has become a scandalous mark on the history of world democracy. [End Page 184]

On 26 February 2003, at a meeting of democratic consultation between the standing committee of the political bureau of the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party and democratic parties, not long after President Hu Jintao assumed office, he stated clearly: “The removal of restrictions on the press, and the opening up of public opinion positions, is a mainstream view and demand held by society; it is natural, and should be resolved through the legislative process. If the Communist Party does not reform itself, if it does not transform, it will lose its vitality and move toward natural and inevitable extinction.”

On 3 October, America’s Cable News Network (CNN) aired an interview with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao by anchor Fareed Zakaria. Responding to the journalist’s questions, Wen said: “Freedom of speech is indispensable for any nation; China’s constitution endows the people with freedom of speech; the demands of the people for democracy cannot be resisted.”. . .

Our core demand is that the system of censorship be dismantled in favor of a system of legal responsibility.

The rights to freedom of speech and the press guaranteed in Article 35 of our constitution are turned into mere adornments for the walls by means of concrete implementation rules such as the “ordinance on publishing control.” These implementation rules are, broadly speaking, a system of censorship and approvals. There are countless numbers of commandments and taboos restricting freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The creation of a press law and the abolishment of the censorship system has already become an urgent task before us. . . .

The so-called censorship system is the system by which prior to publication one must receive the approval of party organs, allowing for publication only after approval and designating all unapproved published materials as illegal. The so-called system of legal responsibility means that published materials need not pass through approval by party or government organs, but may be published as soon as the editor-in-chief deems fit. If there are unfavorable outcomes or disputes following publication, the government would be able to intervene and determine according to the law whether there are cases of wrongdoing.

In countries around the world, the development of rule of law in news and publishing has followed this path, making a transition from systems of censorship to systems of legal responsibility. There is little doubt that systems of legal responsibility mark progress over systems of censorship, and this is greatly in the favor of the development of the humanities and natural sciences, and in promoting social harmony and historical progress. England did away with censorship in 1695. France abolished its censorship system in 1881, and the publication of newspapers and periodicals thereafter required only a simple declaration, which was signed by the representatives of the publication and mailed to the office of the Procurator of the Republic. Our present system of censorship [End Page 185] leaves news and book publishing in our country 315 years behind England and 129 years behind France.

United Nations

On September 30, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution establishing the first-ever special rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly. The rapporteur will consider best practices for promoting and protecting the rights to peacefully demonstrate and freely organize, monitor restrictions of these rights in member states, and expose abuses. Below are excerpts from the resolution:

The Human Rights Council,

1. Calls upon States to respect and fully protect the rights of all individuals to assemble peacefully and associate freely, including in the context of elections, and including persons belonging to minorities and those espousing minority or dissenting views or beliefs, human-rights defenders, trade unionists and others seeking to exercise or to promote these rights, and to take all necessary measures to ensure that any restrictions on the free exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are in accordance with their obligations under international human-rights law;

2. Calls upon the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to assist States to promote and protect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. . . .

3. Encourages civil society, including nongovernmental organizations and other relevant stakeholders, to promote the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, recognizing that civil society makes a valuable contribution to the achievement of the aims and principles of the United Nations;

4. Decides to appoint, for a period of three years, a special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association whose tasks will include:

a. . . . [T]o make recommendations on ways and means to ensure the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in all their manifestations. . . .

f. To report on violations, wherever they may occur, of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, as well as discrimination, threats or use of violence, harassment, persecution, intimidation, or reprisals directed at persons exercising these rights, and to draw the attention of the Council and the High Commissioner to situations of particularly serious concern. . . .

7. Requests the special rapporteur to submit an annual report to the Council and to the General Assembly covering activities relating to his or her mandate. [End Page 186]