Continue writing: every letter matters

Back in December I was lucky enough to meet Russian human rights lawyer Rustam Matsev.

Rustam had spent the last few months studying in London and approached Amnesty before he was due to leave, asking us if there was anything he could do for us while he was here. He had been the subject of an Amnesty Urgent Action the previous year, when he was subjected to a harassment campaign by police.I jumped at the opportunity to meet him.

Rustam told me about his work on behalf of cases alleging human rights violations by law enforcement officials across the North Caucasus. As a result, he and other lawyers have been subject to harassment, pressure and even violence by law enforcement officials. In May 2012 Rustam received death threats from a senior police official simply for doing his job.

Harrassed by police

Rustam explained how he was interrogated and threatened by a police official while other police officers stood by and said nothing. He was asked to come to the police department for a 'talk' after a case he was working on made the media - bad PR for the police. He didn’t go, knowing full well what a 'talk' meant.

What it means to have Amnesty on his side

Rustam believes intervention from organisations like Amnesty can help him and others to defend human rights in the Caucasus.

He recounted a case where there'd been a shoot-out between law enforcement officials and armed groups somewhere in the mountains. Rumours started to circulate that Rustam's client, Murat Bidzhiev, had been killed. No one knew for sure and the authorities refused to investigate or answer questions on the matter.

Rustam contacted Amnesty and two days later officials called him and said that following the request from Amnesty International, they would reveal to him Murat's whereabouts. There was one problem: 'How can we reply to Amnesty International?  They have London fax number?!'

The threats continue

Despite the odd amusing anecdote, Rustam's general tone was very serious. He continues to fear for his safety, saying it depends on which police officer he ‘crosses paths with’.

When I asked him how he copes with the threats and the dangers he faces, he replied:

'If you don’t do anything it might become even worse.
Even if at first it could seem that there’s no results from our work, we still need to continue. If we didn’t do this we could only imagine how the situation would be.’
Rustam Matsev

So why does he do what he does?

I asked Rustam what motivated him to become a lawyer and to defend human rights. He went silent for a long time. Finally, he said that this was the hardest question to answer. This was the most overwhelming moment of our meeting for me – I realised I’d asked him to explain his whole existence in one sentence. None of us could reply to that question easily.

I remember a colleague telling me how she’d asked a similar question once to an activist working with young trafficked girls on the Thai/Burma border. The woman had replied, 'What do you mean, "What motivates me?" What else would I do?' She genuinely didn’t understand what was being asked of her.

It seemed similar for Rustam. To say it was humbling doesn’t do Rustam or his work justice.

You can support human rights defenders like Rustam

Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Writing one letter is better than writing none. This is something that I think all of us connected with Amnesty believe, but it is great to hear it from the people we’re writing on behalf of.

I asked Rustam if he had a message for Amnesty supporters who write appeal after appeal, and often don’t hear back from the authorities or even get an update – positive or otherwise – on the cases they work on.

This was his reply:

'I would tell these people who write and don’t receive replies back that first of all, don’t stop. Continue writing, because every letter matters, every letter counts.

'When you write a letter it might not take you long, but you are already part of something bigger. You are already one of those people who helped change the situation for the better.'
Rustam Matsev

If you're not already a member, join our Urgent Action Network to get the latest news on how you can directly support people like Rustam.

I hope you will continue to be part of something bigger in 2014. Together we are powerful.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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