The Moldovan Institute for Human Rights (IDOM) is renowned for its pro bono services in serious cases. People there, a group of enthusiastic lawyers, each time test if the system changes some of its vicious practices. The IDOM Director Vanu Jereghi says that pro bono services are not popular in Moldova due to people’s mindset. You can find out more from this interview about IDOM’s experience in this regard and about what they have managed to change along the years.
Bizlaw: Why do you provide pro bono services and, generally, what is the designation of your institute?
Vanu Jereghi: The institute was set up in 2007 by a group of human rights defenders. We were five people, with work experience of ten years in civil society at that time. Why? Everything done in the civil society, or the vast majority of activities offered by the civil society, are free of charge. We are a watchdog organization, those who fight against the state.
We are a strategic litigation organization. This means we take over several cases from the crowd, where there is a vicious practice for the people. We cannot represent everyone, so we choose the most representative cases and we go to court with them, to test and destroy the vicious practices. If there is a wall that impedes us and must be demolished, we do not break it up by taking away bricks from the top, one by one, but rather find the main pillars and destroy them. In new litigation cases, we change the practice, the law and state practices. And we have many examples in this area. For example, when we were founded as IDOM, we had experience in the nongovernmental sector and, at that time, we decided we should take those areas that were not covered by our other colleagues. We focused on such areas as HIV/AIDS because no one had worked in that area and during the years we had worked in other organizations we had not seen any complaints filed by people with HIV.
There are two reasons when no complaints are filed: either there are no problems, or there is fear to file them. In our case, it was the latter.
At present, we do not face any legislative barriers. Absolutely the entire legislation on HIV has changed in seven to eight years. And if there are any human rights violation practices they are individual and insignificant for the entire society or the HIV/AIDS area. The victim may consider it a very serious case but if speaking for the country or the system as a whole, they are insignificant cases.
We have a strategic plan. This means a document about what we will be doing in the next 3-4-5 years, where we will intervene, in which areas, using which methods, and what the outcomes will be. For example, this year we were supposed to have more strategic litigation cases for people with HIV. We have already changed the draft document because we do not have such cases. Not the figures count to us but rather having the problem solved.
BizLaw: What exactly motivated you to get involved in the provision of pro bono services, because free services are still treated with reluctance in Moldova?
Vanu Jereghi: Or there is something behind the scenes… for sure, there is something. And yet, we can speak about two big pro bono directions. All our beneficiaries think that we work pro bono, which is not always true. Most of my colleagues are attorneys who work full time for IDOM. They have fixed salaries and many cases as freelancers where they choose their own cases. My colleagues know that they will have an X amount of money each month, they are dedicated to the victims, do not look for clients who wear suits but may go to a psycho-neurological boarding school and speak with a person with disabilities who has lived their entire life there, or may sit at the same table with people having HIV. My colleagues are a team built during ten years and they enjoy what they do. They may sit in the office until the morning, which is something normal for them. We have not always had funds. We have four strategic areas: HIV/AIDS, which has been mentioned, then mental health – psychiatry, malpractice and detention sites. We work with one of the most vulnerable groups. Psychiatry in general…
I always say that if democracy has opened doors in prisons or in the police, the situation has remained the same in psychiatry. Things, of course change, but they move more slowly. Not as we would like them to, but they are changing for the better.
We have not always had money to cover all the areas. For instance, we worked from grants and from projects in the previous years. A donor, when announcing a grant, says they are interested in HIV/AIDS or psychiatry. When we take money for one area, this means that the other three areas remain uncovered, and my colleagues, receiving a salary from that project, offer their free time to the other three areas. They understood that those areas were important for the organization and for the society and they said if we had abandoned those areas, they would have died, and we would have died as an organization, too. In the past two years, we have had grants from the Swedish Government, institutional grants. They gave us money and said that it was for the implementation of our strategic plan. In such way, I can pay my colleagues proportionally. Of course, this is not 100%, they receive about 80%, and they work pro bono for the rest of 20%. For instance, we have a contract but I, as an NGO director, cannot foresee absolutely everything what an attorney should do because outside going to court we also do monitoring or write reports, different issues arise, or we are involved in various national or international fora. We constantly receive invitations to meetings or to submit reports. We do this pro bono.
For the beneficiary, this is pro bono but I can speak about 100% pro bono cases. Such cases do exist in our practice as well as in that of our attorney colleagues. For example, we were very much involved after the events of 7 April 2009, we worked with the victims. IDOM was the one to collect all the information and write reports.
Out of 108 complaints, we represented 38 victims. Back then, it was a request from the society for someone to intervene and we saw many good, young attorneys, who lacked experience but who wanted to change something.
They came to the meetings and said they did not have money but wanted to help the victims. A group of 20-30 attorneys got together and discussed which strategy to take and more experienced attorneys said we should go one way or another. It was an attorneys club where everyone was meeting everyone else, forgetting about money but wanting to do something. The pro bono work exists when the society expects something and people mobilize themselves to do it. Of course, for only 30 attorneys to come out of 2,000 was little, and yet, it was an indicator.
BizLaw: Regarding malpractice cases, how do they go in this area? There is no malpractice law in place and doctors usually get off with light sanctions. Have you had severe cases? How did it happen? Did the victim come to you or were you the ones to choose the case?
Vanu Jereghi: We have a few case selection methods. First, we go to the regions, to residential institutions, where we monitor them and take cases over from there. People have their freedom restricted. We receive phone calls, the door is open and people come here all the time. We have partner organizations that refer clients to us. It is not obligatory to have a malpractice law. We were the only ones to make a report on what was happening in the country because ten years ago we called this area “Patient’s Rights”, which is something much broader. In time, we have narrowed down within this segment in order to have better results. We have had very interesting cases, e.g. women convicted for late abortions. Convicted for murder and sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment. They were released in the end, but some had spent up to six years in detention. We take the cases from the media, each day you see what has happened, people complain on the doctors but then you do not see any continuity. The bomb exploded and that is it. I was always wondering and discussing with my press colleagues about who should follow it further.
I think we have now ten malpractice cases pending. They are the most complicated cases, and first of all for us, those who are lawyers. When such a situation occurs, you must read a lot of medical information. There is need for an expert examination and one must answer some questions. The prosecutor or investigator has no idea what questions to ask of a medical expert. There is no other profession more united than the medical one in this country. Maybe judges, too, but this is coming to an end. Doctors are the most united ones. And the problem that arises here is, whom do we approach to help us?
We have had cases when we had to translate case files. We initially decoded it, 70 pages, which lasted two months. We hired a resident doctor who decoded it between his classes. Then we had it translated to English, after which it was sent to a British expert. He reviewed the case and told us what was not correct in it and sent it back to us, we translated it to Romanian and took the document to court. The judge, however, said that the British expert, no matter how good, was not an expert in our country because he was not registered in our country. As in the Boboc case. We brought the expert who did the disinterment, he did not take any money, had come pro bono, having been invited by a civil society organization and not by a state institution. He worked for four days, gave his report to the authorities, with conclusions different from what our experts had written in the Boboc case. The death certificate written by our experts still says that he had died due to some unknown gas. The judge and the prosecutor said that the expert could not participate. The expert was an UN expert and participated in Yugoslavia had presented information at the Hague Tribunal, while here they claimed he was not registered. It was the only case when disinterment was done here with the participation of one of the best experts at global level. In our country, he was asked to show his diplomas. A pro bono case for our society. The person worked pro bono, and I think we will not get away without having to pay 20 or 30 thousand euros for his services.
BizLaw: Can Moldova now boast with a well-defined and well-established pro bono culture?
Vanu Jereghi: No. I always say that the initial upbringing is important and that school should teach us do things without waiting for remuneration. I am always surprised when people say they have received 200 hours of community service. I watched a news item yesterday about a Chinese billionaire who had been collecting the garbage on his street for 20 years because he wants it to be clean. While we expect those from the kolkhoz or from the party to give us things and do things for us. I have not seen anything happen pro bono in this country. And in the case of those 30 attorneys, I did not think they would come to work either.
BizLaw: Should such services be regulated in the law on the legal profession? Should there be some provisions in place, since many attorneys complain that tax authorities come to check on them?
Vanu Jereghi: In our case, it is easier because my attorneys sign a contract with the organization and issue mandates to their clients based on such contracts, without having to attach the legal agreement. But we have another problem – the Swedish Government tells us straight: “you are very vulnerable here, in Moldova, as an organization, and you must start making money.” We live from grants. We had periods with ten grants running in parallel, and we had periods with just one grant. This of course was at the beginning. Now we have grown up. But when you have only one grant, when it ends, it takes up to four or five months to find other money, and I cannot keep my colleagues here. They have families, a private life, must pay their bills and buy food. And until the next grant comes, in the period between them, I either lose my colleagues or do not have money to pay our rent and bills.
This organization started out on a pro bono basis, we were five people who got together and said, “let us make an organization.” They said, “Vanu, you will be the direct,” and then they were gone. In the following nine months, I rented an office, on a pro bono basis, and spent my personal money. We had just the name and we were left like that, with a bylaws and the name. The first grant that came and enabled us to develop was for nine months. I could not afford working from home for nine months because it only seems to you that you are working when you are home. When the first grant came, I already afforded hiring someone to help me.
BizLaw: What has been the most complicated case you have managed?
Vanu Jereghi: We like testing the system and we do it all the time. We have had a few examples. I tried earlier to talk about that girl who was convicted. Some American women came to us and said they had talked with many Moldovan lawyers but they did not want to take up that case. They reasoned that it was impossible to do it in the Moldovan realities or that they had other prejudices regarding abortions. They had met with super famous attorneys and offered money to them but they did not want to accept. Some did accept but did not do a good job. This was the Reproductive Rights Center from the USA. They said there was a case and they had found out about it from the media, about a girl who had been convicted for abortion. We worked on that case for about four years. The US people worked on it, two persons from Romania worked on it, and so did we. We went to the president. The person was sentenced to imprisonment in Rusca Prison. She was a person without any sexual or even general education. Her entire family were drinking and were working in the field by the day. The landowner for which the entire family worked raped her in the field. She found out she was pregnant in the fourth or fifth month. She had no idea she was pregnant and physiologically she was a bit different from the vast majority. She made an abortion, and I always wondered what would have happened if a woman who lived in Chișinău had made a late abortion.
In this girl’s case, who was from the countryside, she was in the garden killing the weeds when she had an abortion and two babies were born. Our experts called them babies while the experts did not call them babies. We review how our state assessed whether they had been alive or not. Our state takes their lungs out and puts them on water. If they sit on the water it means they had breathed and this is enough. But international practice says differently i.e. one must first see if they were viable.
We brought Andreea Marin from Romania, those were huge investments; UN Moldova got involved. People from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they had never received so many petitions on such cases. Our ambassadors to the UN and to the Council of Europe said they knew the case better than any Moldovan prosecutor did because representatives of other countries were approaching them on that case. Our authorities said no. The General Prosecutor’s Office saw there were super many pressures put on them, we brought the UN recommendation saying that the girl had to be released, we came with the recommendation to the political leaders and they said the situation was as it was. I went to the Prosecutor’s Office, they said, go to the Ministry of Justice, I went to the Minister of Justice and he said, go to the Prosecutor’s Office.
BizLaw: To how many years had she initially been convicted?
Vanu Jereghi: To 20 years. She meanwhile said she wanted to study English and the UN staff helped her learn English right in the prison. She was then pardoned and released; we finally convinced the president to pardon her. That was the only solution in her case, to be pardoned.
The abortion happened when she was killing the weeds in her garden and she saw that they (the babies) were not breathing and buried them in the garden. She was bleeding and went to the hospital and the first thing the doctor wrote in her record was that a late abortion had taken place. There is another little interesting thing here: our doctors are required to announce the law enforcement about anything. And they announced them about a girl having come with late abortion. The police from Glodeni came and asked her, “Where is your child?” She said, “Buried in the garden.’”
BizLaw: So she was honest with them?
Vanu Jereghi: Yes, she was honest and the prosecutors said, sign here if you want to go home. She signed the paper without reading it. But for a prosecutor from the remote region of Glodeni is a super thing to have a murder case discovered, so she was convicted. She did not even have a lawyer. She was bleeding and they arrested her in that condition. There is nothing more severe than infanticide or murdering orphan children for women’s prisons. Therefore, she was persecuted by those she was sharing the cell with. She finally was released and is ok. She has even learned a profession. The head of the prison tells me, “I would like all my female convicts to be like her.” She is super decent.
BizLaw: Nonetheless, she did serve a few years, didn’t she?
Vanu Jereghi: About six years, as long as we worked on her case. But there was no other solution. This is one case.
The second case comes from the times when our state was constantly claiming that all those kept in psychiatry were insane, absolutely all of them. This is how our society treats it. If I have been once to the psychiatrist, then I have something permanently, which is not true. We started visiting psycho-neurological boarding houses or psychiatric hospitals. We first entered such institutions in 2000. None of the human rights defenders had visited such institutions before then. I got scared of the things I saw there. When opening people’s files, I, as a lawyer realized very well that one may not have their rights limited if one has not been deprived by legal capacity by the court. Even if the approaches have completely changed, but this is something else. And I asked them, how do you qualify these people as insane if they have not been tried by a court? Who qualified them as such? The doctors told me that judges understood nothing. I looked at it in legal terms and, de jure, they are like you and me.
“Let us monitor the elections in these institutions,” to which many told me we were more insane than they were. How could one monitor the elections in psychiatry? We were the first ones in the region to say, “let us see how they are voting.” The then minister of health, from the communist government of that time, called all the institutions and asked, “How could your crazy people vote?” We had meetings with them before the elections and told them about the voting procedure and what the doctors were supposed to do. In fact, it is the same procedure as in the emergency hospital. The doctors told me that they would not provide for the voting procedure because they had received phone calls/letters from the minister telling them those people were not voting. We then opened the Criminal Code and said that if they opposed, they would be held liable. And the people voted. About 260 people voted in the first year. Even the media covered the fact that the crazy people voted, that the crazy people supported the communists. This did not matter to us. What mattered to us was to secure their rights. About 60% of all the institutionalized persons votes in the past elections.
We are now having cases in court. The Non-Discrimination Council has already issued decisions and the cases are now in court. If a person is in psychiatry, the Central Election Commission does not enter them in the database. When they go to vote and show their ID, a red sign comes up indicating the person is not entitled to vote. We are having such cases in court right now. So now, we do not have any problems with the psychiatry, none whatsoever. They vote there now as they do it in the Emergency Hospital or in “Sfânta Treime” one.
And the third case is also a very interesting one among those we have had. We are all patients when we take a sick leave and are absent from work. What do we do in such case? We bring a medical certificate to back to work, so that our manager and the accountant know how to calculate those days. It is a sheet of paper saying for how many days I am incapable to work. In the past, the medical certificate issued always mentioned the person’s illness. So, if I brought such a certificate to work, the accountant or anyone else could see what I had been ill with. Why would this be needed? It is a secret.
Certificates now do not mention the illness anymore. We went to court with the Ministry of Health for three years and have changed the system. This work was done on a pro bono basis; we did not have any projects. It was our initiative and we said, let’s change it. We have a colleague who is attorney and was absent from the court hearing, and then reasoned her absence by a medical certificate. The judge attached it to the file. And the certificate said that the person had had an abortion. Why is this necessary? I, as a manager of an organization, need to know that my employee was unable to work for five days, for instance. That is all, nothing else is needed. But in big institutions, try and bring a certificate to a factory or to the trade unions, and every one finds out. It is an even more serious situation for people with HIV, their certificates used to say the same. We went to court, took with us a person who had been recently ill, and claimed that eight legal acts were being breached, including the Moldovan Constitution. This is confidential information, between me and my doctor, and that is it. No one else should know.
The Ministry, the one that makes policies in this area, was saying that we could not do something like that. Then they said that they had printed one million sick leave certificates and we said, ok, then simply change the internal order so that doctors do not write anything in that section. They did not want to do it. Meanwhile, they found a way out and said, let us take the standards of the World Health Organization. Let the illness’ code be indicated instead of its name. So that it is clear for everyone. If I go to a different country, using the same certificate, doctors should understand. We said it was not enough. They came to court and said they had changed it and that they now indicated codes rather that the diagnosis. We said, “honorable court, please open your computer and search for the WHO codes and you will immediately find the person’s illness, why do this at all then?” We won in the end and no such information is indicated now any longer.
BizLaw: And the last question, which are the organization’s plans for the future? Will you choose other areas? What other problematic areas exist in Moldova?
Vanu Jereghi: We are right now working on our strategic plan, because the current one is expiring soon. Our donors asked us to tell them what we are planning to do in the next three years, from 2019 to 2022. I think we will keep our current areas, and we may even narrow them down. It is impossible to cover all the areas. An organization may surely exist in each area, one that either defends only people with HIV, or only people with mental health issues. While we are the ones who change the major things. We will only change our activities and will focus more on changing policies and not just on individual cases. However, it remains to be decided with our colleagues together.
BizLaw: Thank you!
This interview was produced under the project “Strengthening Paralegals Network,” implemented by the Associate Lawyers Office “Efrim, Roșca and Associates” and cofounded by the Justice and Human Rights Department of the Soros Foundation Moldova. This item does not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.
Author: Dumitrița Ciuvaga. The item was taken over in full from www.bizlaw.md