After living nearly 11 years in Russia, Jennifer was deported from the country where she had built her entire family life. Not long ago she won her court case against the Russian government. In this article she explains in her own words why redress matters, even if it doesn’t get you your old life back.
I have struggled for years to place a meaningful frame around my deportation and its impact on my life and my family. Only a few weeks ago, after countless drafts of random documents on my computer desktop ended mid-sentence, did I understand that I could truly write freely now that my story has a beginning, a middle, an end, and a purpose. Writing this article began a healing process for me that is almost as important as the redress I received for my family’s pain and suffering. The emotional burden was lifted from me by the recognition of wrongs through an international court process that allowed me to finally find my voice.
On June 12, 2018, after three years of deliberation, the European Court for Human Rights ruled unanimously in the case of Gaspar v. Russia that the Russian State violated my right to a family life and to a fair trial. My deportation from Russia destroyed my family, but at least I was granted redress.
The images of children being torn from their parents’ arms on the US-Mexico border brought back the pain of my family’s destruction at the hands of arbitrary state power. Now that the Trump Administration’s deliberate policy of separating families has been reversed will they have an opportunity to seek redress for the inhumane treatment of these children? Will there be justice that will allow them to heal and someday write their stories?
I am a US citizen — born and raised. On August 5, 2014, after nearly 11 years of residing lawfully and peacefully in Russia, married to a Russian citizen and the mother of a Russian citizen, my residency permit was revoked on the allegation that I posed a ‘threat to national security and constitutional order’. Our 5-year old daughter, Lera, at the time holding only a Russian passport, was faced with either leaving her country with her deported American mother, or staying with her father in Russia. The Russian authorities completely ignored her right to a family life, but she was never separated from both parents.
I had 10 days to leave the country, my home, my livelihood, and my family. I knew that with such an accusation, I could be physically removed at any time, so I packed quickly and took Lera to the Czech Republic, where we could be close enough to my husband, who stayed behind in our home in St. Petersburg. I didn’t know what we would do next or how we would get by. I just knew that I needed to leave, and that we needed to fight the injustice done to our family.
Both my husband and I were well aware of the context in which we lived and worked. He is a persistent human rights lawyer who champions Russian citizens’ ‘right to know’ and pushes the government to declassify archives and needlessly categorized state secrets. Most of his clients are whistleblowers, academics, environmentalists and human rights defenders. In the years I lived in Russia, I worked as a consultant and advisor to NGOs and to philanthropies supporting human rights. In the US, this type of work is neither unusual nor abnormal. But in Russia, the government treats this as subversive, and works to oppress civil society at every turn.
After my deportation, my case was argued in my absence at every court level in Russia, up to the Supreme Court, but there was no justice to be had for me in the domestic system. At no time was Russia’s Federal Security Service compelled to provide evidence of the alleged threat I posed to national security.
Russia, however, signed the European Convention on Human Rights and is a member of the Council of Europe. This afforded me the right to appeal my case to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. As a signatory to Convention, Russia is obligated to respect and implement the decisions of the Court. In a testament to the country’s woefully weak rule of law, cases against the Government of Russia for human rights violations overwhelm the Court’s docket. It is court of last resort for citizens on issues such as torture, the right to life, and in my case, fair trial and a right to family life. In practice, the Russian Government usually pays compensation to victims in the amount directed by the Court. Judgments requiring systemic and structural changes often go unheeded by the Russian government, but individual redress is honored, and the moral and symbolic importance of this to victims of state sponsored injustice cannot be overstated.
Our family was wrenched apart, and sadly so was our marriage. The stress of my deportation, the distance, and the impossibility of my husband pursuing his life’s work from abroad proved too much. Our marriage is the one thing that the court decision could not salvage, but the victory — if only moral — is at least some compensation for our pain and suffering, and a reminder that justice can heal. This is the story that I now tell Lera.
The dissonance of my situation: an American citizen who successfully sought justice for human rights violations against the Government of Russia at the European Court for Human Rights while thousands of children have been permanently scarred by the tearing apart of families at the US-Mexico border gave meaning to my story and a reason to tell it now. While imperfect, the model of international justice from which I benefited is not available to these families who have risked everything for a chance at a better life in the US, only to be met with cruelty. Redress for human rights violations is a fundamental right. But for those families, and more specifically, for those children, who suffered at the deliberate punitive policy of this US administration, the possibility for redress is less clear. There are no certain paths to international justice and no human rights court to hear cases should US domestic judicial remedies fail. The rule of law in the US is still strong; our courts are still independent, and the legal professions still robust, but these worthy institutions are too, now under assault. While there is hope that our domestic system can address the wrongs done to these families in distress, we need to support the lawyers and caregivers in the US who are working diligently to find legal remedy for the horrific deeds done to these children and families, and demand accountability, transparency and swift action to be taken by our elected leaders. It is up to us to ensure that our systems work so that they are granted the same opportunity for redress and healing that I enjoyed an ocean away.