Controversial Ombudsman Mikhailov Dismissed
Published: October 23, 2009 (Issue # 1520)
Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
Former ombudsman Igor Mikhailov
A United Russia politician who was elected as St. Petersburg’s first ombudsman in the summer of 2007 amid indignant protests from the local human rights community, Igor Mikhailov, was stripped of his duties this week by the city’s Legislative Assembly.
According to the official version offered by the parliament’s speaker Vadim Tyulpanov, Mikhailov brought the trouble on his own head by endorsing several members of his administrative staff to participate in the municipal elections held this fall.
The ombudsman, who has vowed to defend his rights in court and said that he is prepared to take the fight to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, maintains he has apparently irritated the authorities by doing his job too vigorously. “Democracy is vanishing in St. Petersburg,” the ombudsman said about his firing.
The St. Petersburg Human Rights Council may well agree with the ombudsman about the state of democracy, yet many human rights advocates refused to buy into Mikhailov’s version of events, instead issuing an official news release welcoming his dismissal. “Our council has always regarded Igor Mikhailov as completely unfit for the ombudsman’s job, and the parliament’s decision simply proves us right,” the statement reads.
When Mikhailov assumed the ombudsman’s post, a group of the city’s leading human rights organizations refused to cooperate with him and formed an informal council of ombudsmen comprising experts from the city’s nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups.
At the same time, Olga Kurnosova, the St. Petersburg representative of Garry Kasparov’s United Civil Front said Mikhailov might be paying the price for his recent efforts to win the political opposition the right to hold public meetings without constantly getting in trouble with the authorities.
Mikhailov dismissed all allegations concerning his involvement with his staff’s election campaigns. “I personally never engage in any political activity; as for my staff, they have a legal right to take part in elections so I do not see a problem here,” he said. “Besides, two of my staff had previously been successfully elected to municipal councils and back then my colleagues at the parliament did not make an issue of it. The excuse the parliament has used to get rid of me is absurd.”
Reports that Mikhailov’s position was weakening began to appear in the summer, with the ombudsman’s critics — some of them members of his own party — alleging that he had made a joke of himself by regularly uttering ridiculous comments that attracted nationwide coverage and even reached foreign audiences. A glaring example was his opinion on children’s punishment, voiced during a televised discussion on Channel Five in June 2009.
When asked whether he considered corporal punishment to be appropriate for children, Mikhailov offered instructions to parents on how to select a “moderately hard” leather belt to do the job.
“I personally used it [corporal punishment] with my daughter, but I would give her two warnings, and only resort to physical punishment on the third offense,” Mikhailov said during the discussion. “Do not use your hand. If you feel corporal punishment is needed, try not to use a very hard belt because you may damage the child’s internal organs.” The speech prompted a wave of outrage in human rights circles. Television reporters went round local shops asking embarrassed saleswomen whether specific belts from the shop’s range would be suitable for punishing children. Within days of the incident, members of the local branch of the democratic party Yabloko had made a puppet of Mikhailov and publicly whipped it outside the ombudsman’s office with a specially chosen belt.
Tyulpanov said a new ombudsman would be elected before the end of the year. The Legislative Assembly is also introducing a new position of children’s ombudsman.
Mikhailov is preparing to file a libel case. “My dismissal appears to be a tit-for-tat game; apparently, when defending someone’s rights we somehow damaged the interests of an influential politician,” he said. “I do not know yet who is masterminding this game, but we’ll no doubt figure this out. We have to start by examining the most recent cases that I have supported.”
Despite numerous highly publicized human rights violations in Russia, most regions in the country do not have ombudsmen. Each of Russia’s 83 subjects, or administrative regions, has the right to elect an ombudsman, yet less than half of the regions have appointed anyone to the position.