The human rights community is mourning the passing of Yelena Ryabinina, a longtime advocate for political refugees from Central Asia widely praised for her fearless and tireless defense of the disenfranchised.
Ryabinina, who died in Moscow on May 4 at the at the age of 59, “had a boundless drive to right wrongs and do battle on behalf of migrants and asylum-seekers with government officials at all levels, from patrol officers to those at the very top,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement
A native of Odesa, Ryabinina’s friends and colleagues credit her with saving the lives of dozens of Central Asian refugees as a Moscow-based activist. She created programs to assist these individuals as they attempted to secure refugee status in Russia.
Often these people were kidnapped on Russian territory by secret services of the Central Asian governments they had fled, and they frequently ended up in Russian jails awaiting extradition home.
Ryabinina, whose death was preceded by a long battle with cancer, was not a lawyer by training. But after beginning her work with human rights groups more than a decade ago, she became a preeminent legal expert in asylum matters and secured legal victories both in Russian courts and at the European Court of Human Rights.
"There is hardly any refugee from Central Asia who did not know her name and phone number. She was on call for them 24/7, ready to rush to a police station at 3 a.m. to rescue someone threatened with deportation," HRW said.
Friends and colleagues also praised her warmth and wit. The Fergana news agency said that she referred endearingly to the refugees she assisted from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as "my bunnies."
“We and dozens and hundreds of such ‘bunnies’ will remember you and love you always,” the news agency wrote
Ryabinina worked with several rights organizations in Moscow, including the venerable Memorial Human Rights Center. Most recently she oversaw a program to assist asylum seekers from Central Asia at the Human Rights Institute, a Moscow-based advocacy group.
Ryabinina was "the kind of person who is usually unnoticed until they are needed," wrote the independent online portal Uznews.net
, which covers news from Uzbekistan. "In a time of trouble, they are the ones who come to the rescue first and usually achieve success. They leave quietly, and only after they are gone does one realize the void they leave behind.”
A correspondent for Uznews.net met with Ryabinina just a few days before she passed away, the news portal reported.
"She spoke about her health problems calmly and directly,” Uznews.net wrote. “The last time when asked about her health, she responded, ‘Same as always. Cancer. There is nothing to be done with it.’"
Human Rights Watch noted that Ryabinina’s battle with cancer “was the only one she had ever resigned to losing, but she remained courageous, selfless, and feisty to the very end.”
Written by Carl Schreck in Washington based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service