The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders has published their Annual Report 2009. Here we publish the section reporting abuses in Russia.
In 2008, repression against Russian human rights defenders and the independent media worsened in a climate of tightening policies. The transfer of power from Mr. Vladimir Putin, now Prime Minister, to Mr. Dmitry Medvedev, the new President, did not change the policy of the country.
The economic crisis, which severely affected the population at the end of the year, and the August war with Georgia in 2008, led to a consolidation of repression against defenders, opponents and, more generally, against anyone critical of the authorities.
Opposition activists were again having trouble enforcing their right to peaceful assembly, and during the year the sometimes brutal arrests increased. Several protests of discontent were violently repressed by the police across the country, as seen with the “Dissenters’ Marches”, regularly organised by the opposition and which some human rights NGOs joined, or the event held in Vladivostok on December 21 following an increase in taxes on imported cars.
On the other hand, in search of political stability, the Duma amended the Russian Constitution in November to extend the presidential term from four to six years without any public debate.
Moreover, legislative counter-terrorism efforts continued to be the authorities’ main instrument, which made extensive use of certain articles of the Criminal Code to investigate numerous “fabricated” cases, under the guise of the fight against terrorism and extremism.
In addition, several legislative changes strengthened the exploitation of the judiciary: on December 12, 2008, the Duma adopted a new law, promulgated on December 31, 2008 by the President, which bars juries from hearing cases on terrorism, treason, hostage taking, insurrection and organisation of mass disorder. This new law represents a significant decrease of the possibilities for citizens to access justice, in a context where the judiciary is already widely exploited by the authorities.
Finally, against the backdrop of the financial crisis and global economy, migrant workers, already exposed to the xenophobia and violence of far-right groups, were increasingly used as scapegoats by the Government.
Administrative and judicial harassment of human rights organisations and their members
In 2008, human rights organisations again faced many judicial and administrative obstacles. At the normative level, the noose continued to strangle civil society: on July 2, 2008, Prime Minister Putin signed a decree abolishing the list of foreign organisations whose grants were exempt from taxes, rendering the financing of independent NGOs even more difficult, particularly as human rights were not included on the list as being tax exempt.
During 2008, the 2006 Law on NGOs had again negative effects on the development and functioning of civil society, and the proposals that its representatives sent to the authorities to improve and soften legislation were still dead-letter. Many NGOs therefore continued to face great difficulties in complying with the new legislative requirements.
With Presidential Decree No. 724 of May 12, 2008, the responsibility for the registration and dissolution of NGOs, previously performed by the Federal Registration Service (FRS), was transferred to the Department of Justice, and the FRS was closed. These institutional changes led to a temporary suspension of inspection, registration of new organisations, and alteration of the statutes of existing organisations.
Nevertheless, the greatest danger to human rights defenders in 2008 was still inspection procedures. The legislation defines these procedures vaguely, giving the authorities even broader powers. Many organisations were thus subject to excessive searches, in which the authorities used any pretext to prosecute human rights defenders. Organisations’ activities were scrutinised, and documents were often confiscated.
Throughout 2008, the Nizhny Novgorod Foundation to Support Tolerance was for instance subjected to constant harassment from authorities. On March 20, the police confiscated all the organisation’s computers, as well as the cell phone of Mr. Stanislav Dmitrievsky, a referent for the organisation. The homes of several members of the organisation, including Mr. Ilya Shamazov and Mr. Yuri Staroverov, who investigated war crimes and human rights violations committed during the war in Chechnya, as well as Ms. Elena Evdokimova, were also searched by the police.
In addition, on September 16, the Dront Ecological Centre in Nizhny Novgorod, one of the most important environmental organisations in Russia, was subject to an inspection for a “tax return error”. All files were inspected, and some documents, including maps of the region dating from the mid-twentieth century, were confiscated. The leaders of the organisation pointed out that no mail was sent asking for the missing documents, nor giving notice of the inspection, as required by the law, and denounced the fact that the inspection was conducted in their absence.
These inspections sometimes threatened all of an organisation’s activities. In May 2008, pressure from the FRS on the charity Child Dignity Unesco Club (CDUC), based in Volgograd, led to the temporary cessation of its activities: on May 19, the Department Against Economic Fraud (SFEC) of the Internal Affairs Division of Volgograd conducted an inspection and confiscated documents, even though a routine inspection had been carried out on May 8.
On May 30, criminal proceedings were initiated against Ms. Irina Malovichko, President of the organisation, for “misuse of public funds” for an amount of 8,584 roubles (about 194 Euros), on the pretext that she had incorrectly completed financial forms related to the management of the organisation. Her home and her accountant’s home were subsequently searched without a warrant, and working documents, including invitations in support of visa applications, information on booking air tickets, and 64,400 roubles (about 1,455 Euros) in cash, which had been sent by the German “Ost-West Trikster” through the cooperation project “Students from Germany and Russia for Peace and Cultural Diversity,” were confiscated.
In the wake of her indictment, Ms. Malovichko was pressured and threatened by investigators to plead guilty. The complaint she filed on June 7 with the Voroshilov District Tribunal (city of Volgograd) for “illegal actions” undertaken by the SFEC had not led to any result as of late 2008. Ms. Tatiana Zagumennova, Vice-President of the organisation, was also detained on December 1 following an interrogation in connection with this case. She was released the same day, following an intervention by the Ombudsman for the region.
Repression of human rights organisations and their members under the pretext of the fight against extremism
Assimilation of human rights organisations to extremist organisations
The pretext of NGOs being manipulated by foreign or terrorist organisations to destabilise Russia was again repeatedly used in 2008 to discredit the work of human rights defenders within the general public. On April 8, 2008, Mr. Nikolay Patrushev, Director of the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB), accused NGOs of being “the main support of terrorists” in the northern Caucasus, without giving concrete facts, and of “taking advantage of social and economic problems and ethnic and religious tensions” for recruiting terrorists in Russia.
Additionally, on September 11, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated during a meeting with members of the Discussion Club of Valdas that if Russia did not provide military assistance in South Ossetia, certain NGOs, which he did not name, would lead a campaign for secession of the Caucasus Republics. Mr. Aleksander Torshin, Deputy Spokesman of the Federation Council of Russia in the Duma, also directly accused foreign NGOs of supporting “terrorists” on the Russian soil and said during the presentation of an informational report on the response to terrorism before the National Antiterrorist Committee (NAC) that “foreign NGOs are often used to recruit terrorists and extremists”.
Administrative and judicial harassment of human rights NGOs and their members on the basis of the Law Against Extremism
In 2008, human rights organisations and their members were often prosecuted on the pretext of the Law Against Extremism amended in 2007, which facilitates telephone tapping, expands the definition of extremist crimes, and prohibits the media from disseminating information on organisations considered extremist.
On January 15, 2008 for instance, prosecutions were launched against the NGO “Voice of Beslan” for “extremist activity”, “outrage to public service officers” and observatory for the protection of human rights defenders “undermining national pride”. The association, composed of mothers of victims of the hostage siege in Beslan in 2004, who are struggling for the opening of an independent investigation into the death of their children, received an order for closure in December 2007.
On February 8, 2008, Ms. Emma Tagaeva-Betrozova, President of the Voice of Beslan, Ms. Ella Kesaeva, Deputy Chair of the association, Ms. Svetlana Margieva and Ms. Emilia Bzarova were charged by federal investigators of the judicial police (UFSSP) of having assaulted police officers and a judge. Criminal prosecutions were also brought against Ms. Ella Kesaeva on the basis of Articles 115 (“deliberate grief over a minor injury”), 116 (“beating a person or causing him physical pain”), 129 (“defamation”) and 130 (“insult”) of the Criminal Code7.
As of late 2008, the Voice of Beslan was still not recognised as having a legal personality. Another case of misuse of these legal provisions reflected the worrying trend of the human rights situation in Russia: on December 4, 2008, a group of masked men, including two members of the Rapid Response Unit of the Ministry of Interior (SOBR), which deals with cases of dangerous criminals or armed groups, raided the office of the “Memorial” Research Centre in Saint Petersburg, which is internationally recognised for its work with the victims of Stalinism.
The masked men were equipped with a search warrant from the Prosecutor of Saint Petersburg, produced as part of an investigation opened against the newspaper Novyi Petersburg, on the basis of Article 282 of the Criminal Code (“incitement to racial and religious hatred”), for publishing an article deemed extremist.
While it was clear that members of the “Memorial” Research Centre were not related to this article, and that a court ruling of October 21 had already established that the article was not considered extremist, several members of the organisation who were in the premises were threatened and held in their offices for half a day. All computer hardware, including 20 years of research on Soviet repression and gulags, was confiscated. As of late 2008, this equipment had not been returned.
Furthermore, on December 12, 2008, a bill of particular concern was proposed to the Duma. This bill seeks to amend Sections 275 and 276 of the Criminal Code by providing a broader definition of the crimes of State treason and espionage. The concept of State security would also be extended to the “constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial and State integrity”, phrases sufficiently vague to be exploited against members of civil society.
In addition, cooperation with foreign and international organisations, including information-sharing, could fall within the definition of “hostile activities”, increasing the risk of harassment against most human rights defenders.
Attacks on human rights organisations by unidentified actors
In 2008, some human rights organisations were the target of attacks by unidentified individuals. On the night of April 9, 2008 for example, the offices of the International Protection Centre and the All Russia Movement for Human Rights, located in the same building in Moscow, were attacked by men claiming to own the building and damaging the premises. Ms. Svetlana Davydova, a lawyer of the International Protection Centre, was at the time working on a Chechen case that resulted in a complaint before the European Court of Human Rights.
Attacks against defenders of economic and social rights
In an environment generally hostile to civil society and a revival of socio-economic problems, advocates of labour rights, ecology, the right to land and the fight against corruption became victims of intimidation and brutal attacks in late 2008. Furthermore, no proper investigation was able to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of these attacks.
For example, on November 13 and 14, four defenders were attacked almost simultaneously in four Russian cities. Ms. Carine Clément, a French sociologist active in defending labour laws in Russia, was the victim of an attack with a syringe, following two other assaults against her that occurred a few days earlier.
Mr. Mikhail Beketov, Editor-in-chief of the Khimkinskaya Pravda newspaper, which denounces acts of corruption by local authorities, and an activist for the preservation of the forest from “real estate speculation”, was also found on the same day in a coma in the courtyard of his building in the town of Khimki after being beaten.
Mr. Sergey Fedotov, defender of the rights of small landowners in the suburbs of Moscow and leader of a support group of small private landowners who lost their land as a result of fraudulent actions of privatisation, was also attacked on November 13.
The next day, Mr. Alexei Etmanov, co-Chairman of the Inter-regional Trade Union of Automobile Industry worker (ITUA) in the region of Saint Petersburg, was attacked for the second time in a week.
Serious threats against journalists and defenders fighting against racism and xenophobia and for the promotion of minorities and migrants’ rights
In 2008, human rights defenders and investigative journalists exposing the rise of xenophobia in Russia were particularly targeted. Discourse by authorities, sometimes with nationalist trend involving migrants as a reason for the financial crisis, contributed to the development of a wave of threats against those who fought for the rights of minorities and against racism.
On April 17, 2008, the extremist website www.vdesyatku.net published an article accusing journalists of defamation against skinheads. After stating that “journalists and radio stations [were] Jewish”, the authors called on skinheads in Russia to “recognise the Jews as their true enemies” and concluded that “their elimination should be a priority”.
A list containing the names and personal details of 34 journalists and human rights defenders working on the issue of minorities, racism and fascism was attached to the article, including those of Mr. Alexander Verkhovsky, President of the SOVA Centre, and Ms. Valentina Uzunova, a lawyer, member of the NGO “For a Russia Without Racism” and an expert on racial issues and hate crimes. Mr. Verkhovsky and Ms. Uzunova both defend persons belonging to ethnic minorities, including migrants.
In August 2008, a criminal investigation was opened for “disclosure of personal data” and “death threats” after attempts by members of a neo-Nazi group to enter the home of Mr. Verkhovsky. As of late 2008, the investigation was still pending.
Violence and murders of defenders in the north Caucasian Republics
The situation of human rights defenders in the Caucasian Republics, particularly in Dagestan and Ingushetia, remained of particular concern in 2008. More than in any other region, defenders were prosecuted,arrested or executed under the guise of the fight against terrorism.
It is in this context that Mr. Mustapa Abdurakhmanov, a member of the NGO “Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights,” was found dead on October 30 in Makhachkala. Mr. Abdurakhmanov would have been tortured and then shot in the head. Witnesses reportedly saw members of the security forces arresting him. As of late 2008, no investigation had been opened to identify those responsible for his murder. The authorities also argued that Mr. Abdurakhmanov was part of an “illegal armed group”.
In addition, on July 25 2008, Mr. Zurab Tsechoev, a member of the human rights organisation “Mashr” in the village of Troitskaya, in the Ingush district Sunjenski, which helps victims of torture and relatives of the disappeared, was arrested in his home by fifty officers of the security services, who conducted a violent and illegal search of his home. Mr. Tsetchoev’s computer and phones were confiscated, and the latter was taken, beaten, and then abandoned a few hours later on a road.
Obstacles to the freedom of movement of foreign human rights defenders
Against a background of increased pressure on foreign organisations, in 2008 European and American human rights defenders faced an increasing number of problems with their Russian visas, in order to discourage them from organising and participating in seminars and conferences with their counterparts in Russia. For instance, members of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, co-organisers of the seminar “Dialogue on Human Rights” held in Murmansk in November 2008, were fined 2,000 roubles (about 45 Euros) for having attended the seminar with tourist visas.