2021 Oak Fellow: Olga Sadvoskaya

Olga Sadvoskaya

“I was really inspired by being here [at Colby] because when you are able to look at what you have been doing from a certain distance, it already gives you some other point of view.”

A human rights activist takes a well-earned break from decades of anti-torture work​

The Oak Fellow for the 2021 theme of Incarceration and Human Rights was Russian human rights lawyer Olga Sadovskaya. Olga is vice chair of the Committee Against Torture, the largest and most notable anti-torture organization in Russia. She, along with three other activists, began this initiative in 2000, and the Committee has been working on issues surrounding torture for over 18 years. Now, the Committee Against Torture is the largest and most notable anti-torture organization in Russia.

During the early stages of the committee, Sadovskaya’s role as an investigator included collecting evidence of torture in colonies, prisons, police, and psychiatric institutions. Over time, she transitioned to analysis and international defense with the European Court and UN bodies. Sadovskaya also trains lawyers on how to work with the European Court of Human Rights.

For the last 13 years, Olga Sadovskaya has served as the Deputy Head of the organization. During this time, she and her colleagues have built a dedicated team. Together, they’ve won many international awards, including the PACE Prize of the Council of Europe and Martin Ennals Award Frontline Defenders Human Rights Award. Sadovskaya, individually, has received the Andrey Sakharov Freedom Award and was included in the shortlist for Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

After years of experience with torture cases, Sadovskaya and her team have written and published a methodology for public investigation, which is now widely used by human rights organizations in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Olga has personally represented more than 300 victims of torture before the European Court of Justice, two of which have been included in the list of 20 most important cases that changed Russia.

The Committee Against Torture devised accountability measures for torture that were previously missing in Russia. Torture as an issue is scarcely talked about and often, victims decline to speak out due to fear, shame, and lack of hope for justice, and problems are still very prevalent. Investigations into torture also lack quality. This problem is amplified in the Chechen Republic, where Sadovskaya’s organization is the only one that continues to work on cases of tortures and abductions.

While working against state-sanctioned torture, Sadovskaya has faced personal threats, including threats of murder, particularly for her work in Chechnya. The Committee’s office has been burned down several times and members’ cars have been destroyed. Olga is also periodically monitored and constantly at risk of being accused of baseless crimes.

Sadovskaya hoped to use the Oak Human Rights Fellowship as respite so that she can continue her work in Russia, as well as an opportunity to connect with Colby students and raise awareness on issues of torture and incarceration in Russia and around the world.

After the Fellowship, Olga and her family traveled to Geneva where they are currently living. There, Sadovskaya helped secure an internship for Oak student Charlotte Mast ‘22. Olga is still an active collaborator with the Oak Institute and plans to return to campus this winter to teach a JanPlan course on torture.

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