Russia: Civil Society and Human Rights Highlights, June 2007

Russian Cases at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)

Russian-Chechen Friendship Society v. Russia

On 7 June the ECHR registered a complaint against Russia by Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS) Director Stanislav Dmitriyevskiy over a Russian court’s decision to liquidate the Society in 2006. The RCFS was the first organization to be liquidated after amendments to Russia’s NGO law came into force in early 2006. In October 2006 a court in Nizhniy Novgorod upheld a demand by the Federal Registration Service (FRS) to halt the NGO’s activities because of “numerous legal violations.” Russia’s Supreme Court upheld this decision in January 2007.

One of the reasons given for the liquidation was Dmitriyevskiy’s prior conviction in February 2006 for publishing “extremist” literature (a two-year suspended sentence for publishing articles by Chechen rebel politicians Aslan Maskhadov and Akhmed Zakayev in the RCFS newspaper). Major Russian and international human rights groups condemned the sentence as unjust and politically motivated. In July 2006 Amnesty International awarded Dmitriyevskiy and his colleague Oksana Chelysheva a special prize for human rights journalism under dangerous conditions (Hro.org, 7 June).

Bitiyeva and X v. Russia

On 21 June the ECHR ruled that Russia had violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to life, right to freedom, and the ban on the use of torture and inhumane treatment with regard to the murders of Chechen residents Zura Bitiyeva, Ramzan Iduyev, Idris Iduyev, and Abikabara Bitiyeva.

Zura Bitiyeva was a well-known Chechen human rights activist who took part in anti-war protests during the first and second Chechen campaigns. In early 2000, Bitiyeva and her son Idris Iduyev were arrested and Bitiyeva spent almost a month in prison before all charges against her were dropped. That year Bitiyeva appealed to the ECHR over her unfair detention and ensuing torture, and she again began attending protests against human rights abuses in Chechnya. In May 2003 Bitiyeva and three of her family members were shot dead in their home by unidentified men in masks.

The court acknowledged the Russian military committed the murders and ruled the Russian authorities had failed to investigate the case effectively. Bitiyeva’s daughter, Plaintiff X, who could not be named for security reasons, was awarded 85,000 Euro in compensation (Hro.org, 21 June; Kavkazkiy Uzel, 22 June).

Beslan Victims Appeal to ECHR

On 26 June a group of those affected by the Beslan hostage tragedy in 2004, in which 344 people including 186 children died, submitted a complaint against Russia to the ECHR. According to Ella Kesayeva of the Voice of Beslan Committee, 89 people have signed the appeal. They contend that the Russian authorities violated their rights since they failed to prevent the seizure of the school by terrorists and to ensure their safety (Hro.org, 26 June).

Khodorkovskiy’s Lawyer Holds On To Professional Status  (Gzt.ru,1 Aug 2006)

On 22 June the Moscow City Bar Association declined a request by the FRS and the General Prosecutor’s Office that it deprive well-known human rights attorney Karina Moskalenko of her professional status.(1) According to Bar Association President Genri Reznik, the Association’s disciplinary committee found that there was nothing in Moskalenko’s conduct that constituted a disciplinary offence. The committee’s decision is final and is not liable to appeal.

The General Prosecutor’s Office and FRS accused Moskalenko of failing to act in the interests of her client, Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, and of failing to go over the case with him. Yet Khodorkovskiy himself made no complaint against his attorney and declared himself satisfied with her work. Moskalenko maintains that the attempts to remove her professional status began when she submitted a complaint to the General Prosecutor’s Office about her detention in Chita (where Khodorkovskiy is serving his sentence) when she was anxious to return to Moscow to care for her sick son (Hro.org, 22 June; The Times, 20 June).

North Caucasus Ulman Verdict Reached

On 14 June a Rostov-na-Donu military court found Captain Eduard Ulman and three of his fellow servicemen guilty of the premeditated murder of six unarmed Chechen civilians.(2) Ulman, Lieutenant Kalaganskiy, Ensign Voyevodin, and Major Perelevskiy face sentences of 14, 11, 12, and 9 years respectively. The court awarded the sentences for Ulman, Kalaganskiy, and Voyevodin in absentia since the men have been missing since April.

Human rights activists welcomed the verdict but some observers have expressed doubts that the real perpetrators have been punished. Gennadiy Gudkov, a member of the Duma Committee on Security, pointed out that “those troops who gave Ulman’s group the criminal order to kill the captive Chechens have not been named…the real organizers of this shooting of unarmed civilians have remained behind the scenes.”

Initially some believed that the three men had gone on the run to avoid serving their likely sentences, but the Rostov-na-Donu Voroshilovskiy Rayon Prosecutor’s Office is now investigating their disappearance as a possible kidnapping, with some accusing relatives or friends of the murdered Chechens of involvement. On 25 June Chechnya’s Human Rights Ombudsman Nurdri Nukhazhiyev accused investigators of using the disappearance to put pressure on relatives and human rights activists representing the victims. According to Nukhazhiyev, “Chechnya’s human rights community sees the actions of the Prosecutor’s Office as an overt attempt to put direct psychological pressure on those who have actively achieved an objective investigation into a crime and the bringing to justice of those responsible” (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, 14 June; Newsru.com, 14 June; Kommersant, 25 June; Hro.org, 25 June).

Human Rights Activists Concerned Over Disappearances in Dagestan

On 15 June a number of well-known human rights activists, including Lev Ponomarev of For Human Rights and Lyudmila Alekseyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) held a press conference to publicize their serious concern over the number of disappearances of young men in the troubled North Caucasus republic of Dagestan. Between April and May of this year 18 people disappeared, but local law enforcement bodies have opened only two abduction cases. Often relatives of the disappeared will not turn to the Prosecutor’s Office or to human rights activists as they fear for the safety of other family members. According to Ponomarev, Dagestan’s position as a large, multiethnic republic could mean the situation there could become more serious than that in Kabardino-Balkaria or even Chechnya, while Alekseyeva accused troops rather than rebels of responsibility for the disappearances, which Dagestan’s Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD) denies are taking place (Mhg.ru, 15 June).

Human Rights Group Rejects Kadyrov’s Criticism (Moscow News, 30 March)

In early June the Memorial human rights NGO and several of its fellow NGOs rejected criticism directed at it by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov at a meeting with the republic’s NGOs at the end of May. Kadyrov had accused Memorial of “spreading biased information” and trying to “discredit the republic’s leadership” by alleging that the Kadyrov Charity Fund was engaging in extortion. The NGO said in its defense that it received approaches from a number of people, including firefighters from Groznyy, who accused the authorities of demanding large sums of money from them “for the Fund” if they wanted to keep their jobs. Memorial also pointed out that in recent months it has highlighted positive developments in Chechnya, such as the sharp reduction in the number of abductions.

Tanya Lokshina, a human rights activist with the Demos NGO, who has worked extensively in Chechnya, pointed out that major international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International often use Memorial’s information and that it is the only rights group to have employees working in Chechnya on a permanent basis. She described their information as “completely trustworthy” and Kadyrov’s accusations as “unjust” (Hro.org, 13 June; Kavkazskiy Uzel, 31 May).

NGO Law Causing Major Problems

In early June Pavel Chikov of the Agora Interregional Human Rights Association spoke of the problems caused for NGOs by the adoption of the new law on noncommercial organizations in early 2006. Chikov claimed that 80% of Russian NGOs had not filed reports on their activities for 2006, as now required by the FRS. If an NGO fails to file a report on sources of funding, the structure of its income, and the activities carried out, it cannot operate. Having initially thought that the new legislation was an attempt to make NGOs “more modern and responsible,” Chikov now believes “the objective is to make it impossible to register a noncommercial organization at the first attempt.” He claimed the FRS “is turning into a punitive body” which watches NGOs “like a snake watching a rabbit.”

Chikov highlighted a number of problems caused by the FRS’s implementation of the new legislation including the length of time registration takes (six to nine months), the number of refusals of registration, and the lawsuits filed by the Service for termination of activity and liquidation. He also spoke of how the cost of hiring the personnel necessary to complete all the registration documentation is forcing many smaller NGOs out of business, and the pressure foreign charitable foundations in Russia are under. Yet Chikov does believe there may be some relaxation of the law in the next few months, along the lines of the simpler registration process recently introduced for religious organizations (Gazeta, 5 June).

In a related move, the Public Chamber held a consultation on 20 June with NGO representatives on “new legal working conditions for foreign noncommercial organizations.” Participants spoke of how registration requirements for foreign NGOs in Russia are seriously obstructing their work, and Human Rights Watch spokesman Aleksandr Petrov said there was a “presumption of guilt” regarding NGOs (Hro.org, 20 June).

On 26 June the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Interregional Human Rights Group, and the Youth Human Rights Movement (MPD) sent an appeal for changes to the legislation on NGOs to all 450 Duma deputies. The rights activists also presented their recommendations, which include lifting the reporting requirement for NGOs and the requirement that any new head of an NGO must be registered. According to Dmitriy Makarov of the MPD, “many of the fears expressed by rights activists when the changes were passed in 2006 have been borne out. We hope now that our recommendations will be considered. After all, better late than never” (Hro.org, 26 June).

Educated Media Foundation Head Forced Abroad  (Grani.ru, 18 Apr)

On 19 June the MVD announced it had finished its investigation into charges of currency smuggling against Educated Media Foundation (EMF) head Manana Aslamazyan and her British colleague Gillian McCormack, and was ready to charge both women with a “serious violation of Russian criminal law.” The MVD had accused the women of smuggling $25,000 in undeclared currency into Russia in January, although they insist they had brought in a far smaller amount of undeclared currency by mistake.(3) Both are currently in Paris. Media and NGO colleagues have widely seen the case as politically motivated, although the MVD denied this. On 27 June Moscow’s Golovinskiy Court rejected an appeal made by Aslamazyan and McCormack to the General Prosecutor’s Office which claimed the investigators’ seizure of EMF’s documents in April was illegal.

On 20 June Aslamazyan published an open letter on the Foundation’s website announcing her resignation from her position as director-general and her decision to accept employment abroad as a consultant with Internews International, of which EMF is part. Aslamazyan said that, taking into account “the modern Russian judicial system,” she did not know what awaited her in Russia and that she was “scared” of what could happen if she returned. She also maintained that she should be held responsible for her mistake, not the organization, which has been forced to cease all but a few of its activities. Earlier in June EMF had to make more than 50 employees redundant, and only a few remain to finish up ongoing projects and to deal with accounting. Almost the entire workforce has joined the Higher School of Journalism at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. Aslamazyan said she did not plan to seek asylum or citizenship abroad, and would continue to pay taxes in Russia in the hope that someday she might return.

Irina Yasina, former head of the Khodorkovskiy-funded Open Russia Foundation, which was shut down after its accounts were seized by the General Prosecutor’s Office in 2006, said the EMF would not be able to operate in its former capacity again and that it was “useless to fight the state machine” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 20 June, 27 June; Kommersant, 20 June).

Freedom of Speech Congress Calls for Probe into Journalists’ Deaths in Russia

On 18 June the US Congress passed a special resolution calling for a more thorough investigation into the deaths of journalists in Russia with the involvement of US law enforcement agencies. Among the murdered journalists named in the resolution whose killers have not faced justice were Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov, Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya, and Kommersant reporter Ivan Safronov. The resolution highlighted the fact that all three reported on controversial issues such as corruption, the Chechen conflict, and arms sales, and cited information from international organizations which puts the number of journalists killed in Russia since 1996 at 90. The resolution called on President Bush “to offer the assistance of US government law enforcement bodies to President Putin” in helping to investigate the murders.

Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Duma Committee on International Affairs, responded by saying Congress was simply “generating anti-Russian prejudices” and was getting its information from “radical opposition parties and no less radical non-governmental organizations.” Igor Yakovenko of the Russian Union of Journalists accused the government of “sympathizing with the killers” and said the resolution would achieve little since “the problem is not the inability of our authorities to investigate, but their fundamental lack of desire to do so” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 20 June; Kommersant, 20 June).

Extremism Rights Activists Demand Ban on Extremist Literature

On 20 June the Moscow Human Rights Bureau announced it had prepared an appeal to the General Prosecutor’s Office calling for a ban on 12 books containing racist and anti-Semitic elements. The works accuse Jews and Americans of being the cause of all Russia’s problems and of the destruction of the Russian people. The rights activists believe the books present a threat to public safety since they could act as a “stimulus” for extremists and cited the example of Aleksandr Koptsev, who stabbed several people at a Moscow synagogue in January 2006.

The list was compiled as the result of an analysis of nationalist literature published in Russia in the last three years. According to Bureau Director Aleksandr Brod, the 12 books listed are the “most vile” the organization’s analysts came across and include such works as Boris Mironov’s “The Jewish Yoke” and Oleg Platonov’s “Myths and Truths About the Pogroms.” To classify the works as extremist, the General Prosecutor’s Office will need to open a criminal case and then win it in court. According to Brod, “these authors have nothing in common with freedom of speech and are abusing it to propagate ideas of racial hatred.” The FRS is compiling a list of literature which has been banned on the basis of court rulings and should publish it in Rossiyskaya Gazeta in July (Novyye Izvestiya, 20 June).

Wider Changes to Extremism Law Mooted

On 19 June a group of Duma deputies met with representatives of the Presidential Staff and the Federal Security Service to discuss amendments to a bill on changing the Law on Countering Extremist Activity which passed its first reading in the Duma 16 May. Whereas the earlier bill recommended classifying rioting, hooliganism, and the destruction and desecration of monuments as extremist if such crimes are motivated by ideological, political, racial, nationalist, or religious hatred, the latest amendments propose widening this category to include crimes motivated by “social enmity” and would allow the imposition of harsher sentences on those found guilty of “extremist” crimes.

The bill’s second reading is expected to take place at the end of June and, if passed, will face a third reading shortly afterwards. It could then come into force in the early fall. Lawyers and rights activists have sharply criticized the amendments, with lawyer Sergey Belyak saying “it will result in increasing pressure on the opposition forces. It has one aim — to equate them with common criminals.” According to Aleksandr Verkhovskiy, director of the anti-extremism NGO Sova Center, “the definition of extremism is now flexible and almost any lawbreaker can fall under it. And the more general it becomes, the more convenient it will be to use it” (Gazeta, 20 June).

Xenophobic Crime on the Rise

On 19 June the Sova Center presented its new report on violence committed by right-wing radical movements in Russia. The report reveals an average increase of 20-30% year on year in crimes committed on nationalist grounds. In the first five months of 2007, 245 people suffered attacks motivated by xenophobia and neo-Nazi ideology, with 32 of them dying of their injuries. Moscow and St Petersburg are the main locations for such crimes.

According to the report, far-right movements are becoming increasingly active as the State Duma and presidential elections approach. Its authors also contrasted the lack of police interest in the rally held by the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) on 1st May, where participants openly used xenophobic slogans, with the total ban on the opposition Dissenters’ Marches. Sova’s Verkhovskiy accused major political parties such as United Russia of capitalizing on nationalism’s increasing popularity: “Under the influence of the events in Kondopoga,(4) political figures increasingly believe it necessary to include nationalist slogans in their arsenal. What used to be marginal and unacceptable has now become mainstream.”

Verkhovskiy did, however, praise the efforts of local police who averted attempts by skinheads to create a “Kondopoga scenario” in Krasnoarmeysk and Stavropol earlier this year (Hro.org, 21 June; Gazeta, 20 June).

Rights Activists Accuse Pro-Kremlin Youth Movement of Extremism

On 25 June the For Human Rights NGO submitted an appeal to the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Prosecutor’s Office for Moscow and Moscow Oblast requesting that they open a criminal case against the pro-Kremlin youth movement Mestnyye (Locals) and recognize it as an extremist organization. The move came after Mestnyye activists held a protest against immigrant taxi drivers entitled “Don’t Let Migrants Drive” in Moscow and nearby towns in late June.

According to For Human Rights, “this campaign of ‘boycotting migrants’ contains elements of such socially dangerous acts as inciting hatred, enmity, and disparagement on ethnic grounds.” The NGO also pointed out that Mestnyye had previously held similar events such as anti-Islamic and anti-Caucasian protests at several of the capital’s universities and appearances at markets which ended in scuffles with migrants. A Mestnyye spokesman dismissed the claims as a “provocation” and said such protests were “our civil right” (Novyye Izvestiya, 27 June).

(1) For more on this case see the 31 May OSC Summary, Russia: Civil Society and Human Rights Highlights, May 2007 (CEP20070531019001)(2) Ibid(3) For more on this case see the 9 May OSC Summary, Russia: Civil Society and Human Rights Highlights, April 2007 (CEP20070509503001) and the 31 May OSC Summary, Russia: Civil Society and Human Rights Highlights, May 2007 (CEP20070531019001)(4) In September 2006, riots targeting Chechens and other minorities broke out in the Karelian city of Kondopoga after a restaurant brawl between ethnic Russians and Chechens left two of the Russians dead. Groups including DPNI and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia backed the rioters (RFERL, 6 September 2006).

Russia: Civil Society and Human Rights Highlights, June 2007

OSC [US Open Source Center] Summary July 3, 2007

 

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