PORTRAIT. Tamilla Imanova: “It was impossible for the Russian people to remain silent.”

At just 26, Tamilla already has a brilliant humanitarian and professional record. With a degree in law from one of the best universities in Moscow, the young Russian earn her stripes as a lawyer at the Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre in the capital. Winner of the 2023 Marianne Initiative, Tamilla Imanova talks to Eye about the defence of human rights in Russia, and the impact of activism on the war in Ukraine.


A life for human rights and civil liberties

Defending human rights was not, however, her first career choice. At the age of 16, during a school exchange to the United States in Rio Vista, Texas, she discovered a standard of living unknown to her until then, which she would like to bring back to her native city in Russia.

People lived better than we do. Children could drive at 16, they had modern computers at school (we had them too, but old ones), better education and teachers were respectful,” she lists wistfully. “In Russia, teachers very often disrespect you, just as the government won’t respect you as a citizen.” A reflection also nourished by her hobbies such as tennis lessons and the chess club, gradually giving birth to a vocation within her.

The sunny young woman remembers that she didn’t want to become a lawyer in her first year of law school, but that she had always wanted to help others. While looking for a work placement, she discovered Memorial, which quickly became the inspiration for her future career.

Memorial-International is a historic NGO created at the dissolution of the Soviet bloc in 1989, to document Soviet oppression, particularly during the Stalinist period. In 1993, another NGO was created: the Human Rights Center “Memorial”, to protect Russian citizens from the current repression.  “The two organizations are friends and exchange information regularly. The Nobel Prize has also been awarded to both branches, in recognition of their past and present work.” 

Tamilla joins Memorial as a trainee lawyer in 2019, on the recommendation of her teachers. She greatly appreciates the work done, far from the strict codes of the university. “I wanted to come back as soon as possible, as soon as I graduated,” she explains playfully into the microphone.

I often say it’s a love affair between me and Memorial,” she jokes. “A love affair that’s been going on for four years!“In her third year, Tamilla joined Memorial as a trainee lawyer, on the recommendation of her teachers. She really enjoyed the work, which was far removed from the strict codes of university life.

Before the invasion of Ukraine, her work consisted of representing citizens in remote regions of the country, for example in cases of domestic violence with her team. Human rights and the defence of civil liberties are the cornerstones of the organization.

In regions like Dagestan, tradition prevails over the law, and she was trying to change that. A genius in her field, she won her first case before the European Court of Human Rights in 2022 concerning domestic violence, a great source of pride for her. 

Most of the time, Russia paid the fines imposed by the ECHR. But sometimes, the Court’s rulings led to new Russian human rights legislation.” Memorial’s cases are often sent to the European Court of Human Rights when Russia denies them justice, which draws the ire of the Kremlin.

Memorial, 2022 Nobel Peace Prize and thorn in the Kremlin’s side

In 2021, the Russian government set its sights on Memorial, which it intended to dissolve thanks to the law on Western influence and foreign agents. Working with a number of European actors, Memorial had been labelled a foreign agent since 2014, when it denounced the conflict in Crimea, and its members, who are still free, still risk imprisonment.

 “In Russia, everything happens legally because the law can quickly be hijacked” by the government. Since this year, you can be labelled as a foreign agent without receiving subsidies from outside. “Anyone could be labelled a foreign agent, whether they worked for an association or not. The simple fact of using Facebook could incriminate you, the law remains very vague”, Tamilla explains.

On 28 and 29 December 2021, the Russian Supreme Court and the Moscow City Court ordered the dissolution of the two Memorial NGOs, the Memorial International and the Memorial Human Rights Centre,  a decision unanimously condemned by the Council of Europe and internationally.

Today, both NGOs had to leave Russian territory, despite the ECHR’s request for the dissolution to be suspended. “We made our fight public on Telegram, Instagram, Twitter and Russian VKontakte, informing the public of our dissolution, but that didn’t stop the government.”

A shocking decision for the Memorial teams, who are nevertheless trying to envisage the future: should the NGO be relocated, or should a new one be set up? Should they defy the ban and continue to work in secret in Russia? Before they could even make a decision, the teams watched in horror as Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

Very quickly, they started to arrest anyone who criticized the war. It was impossible for human rights NGOs like ours to remain silent“, says Tamilla forcefully. “It was impossible for the Russian people to remain silent. In February and March 2022, not a day went by without citizens demonstrating.”

And even if this protest is less publicized today, demonstrations against the war are still planned in Russia. “So we haven’t changed our stance, and have founded a new one: the Memorial HRDC, Human Rights Defence Center.” For now.

Some of her colleagues decided to leave Russia and operate from abroad, still facing possible legal proceedings. Like Bakhrom Khamroyev, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in May 2023 for “terrorism and treachery“. His offence? Providing legal advice to an Islamic group,  which the government has classified as terrorist, even though its members have never committed a single act of violence. 

Initiative Marianne, an incubator for all kinds of projects

The co-chairman of Memorial’s, Oleg Orlov, a leading campaigner for rights and freedoms in Russia, had decided to stay put. On 8 June, he was tried for “discrediting the army” in an interview with Mediapart, where he claimed that Russia was now “fascist“.

 After several fines, he now faces imprisonment. “We have covered the first two hearings of the trial, and we are eagerly awaiting the hearing on 21 July“, explains Tamilla, with a determined expression. “We don’t really have any hope, but he’s still very brave and is keeping us on the right track.”

I myself left Russia in April 2022 for Poland, which provided me with a humanitarian visa. This year they have granted me a temporary residence permit, they have been very welcoming.” Other countries such as Brazil and France have granted permanent residence to Tamilla’s colleagues,  allowing her to take some time off work and to participate in the Marianne Initiative

A photo from Marina Merkulova.
Launched in December 2021 by President Emmanuel Macron, the Marianne Initiative for Human Rights Defenders is a three-part program. The first is international, involving support for human rights defenders in their respective countries through the French diplomatic network.

There is also a national component, involving the hosting in France of human rights defenders from all over the world for six months, to enable them to develop their skills and network. Finally, a federative component aims to build an international network of human rights defenders based on French institutions (associative, public, private).

For six months, human rights defenders from all over the world can build and launch their projects in France. This year, thirteen people of various nationalities were honored for their struggles: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Uganda, Russia, Mali, Bangladesh, Bahrain and Peru.

After welcoming fourteen women last year, it’s now the turn of a mixed class to be welcomed to France as part of the Initiative. Laureates will have access to a training program to strengthen their capacities and commitment in their country of origin or in France, whether in favor of minority rights, freedom of the press and expression, civil and political rights, women’s rights or environmental rights.

Thanks to the program, the winners can develop their association or their work from the French capital, as well as weave a solid network of rights defenders. It’s also a way for France to unite its prizewinners and raise its profile abroad. Since 2022, the Maison des journalistes and the Marianne Initiative have been working together to strengthen exchanges between exiled journalists and human rights defenders around the world.

Come back to Russia to end up in jail

I’m not going back to Russia for the time being, it’s far too dangerous for me. You only have to Google my name to see my actions against the invasion of Ukraine and my positions on human rights.” Positions that could land her in prison, such as her work with Muslim ethnic minorities, which she continues to defend, and her research and legal support for Ukrainians detained on Russian soil.

What I appreciated most about the Marianne Initiative was being able to work not only with 14 people from various nationalities, but also from different fields. It was the first time I had met rights defenders from divergent sectors.” These encounters led to a change in her personal and professional development.

I discovered the work of activists, journalists and politicians who are different from me, but who serve the same cause. We share our work and want to keep in touch with everyone.”

Today, Tamilla would like to extend the Alumni network and meet the class of 2022.I’ve also encouraged two friends to apply for 2024,” she confides with a discreet laugh. “I hope to be able to start mentoring as soon as the program starts in 2024, rather than a few weeks later.”

Thanks to her Polish temporary residence permit, Tamilla is free to move within the Schengen area, which will enable her to continue her work for Memorial and with the UN with greater peace of mind.

A Memorial team is also entirely dedicated to supporting Russians who refuse to be mobilized in Ukraine. Many have been kidnapped and imprisoned, “or brainwashed and promised prison so that they will go to the front“, Tamilla explains.

“We have a Telegram bot where civilians can write to us, and we select our cases. It’s not a very secure system, but many Russians are on Telegram. We also have a hotline that is used a lot.”

We are working with a UN special rapporteur on the situation in Russia, Mariana Katzarova from Bulgaria, to whom we are providing our evidence of abuses of power by the Kremlin. We’re also planning to expand our legal teams,” says Tamilla proudly, undaunted by the sheer volume of work.

Through our work on the invasion, we have even developed solid expertise in Russian military jurisdiction and legislation“, she adds, still smiling. All of which adds up to an extraordinary experience at such a young age, which the Marianne Initiative has honored this year.

Photos credits : © Marina Merkulova

Maud Baheng Daizey

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