Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2003 - Russian Federation

In Russia, human rights defenders are finding their position weakened as the ruling political party grows in strength and the administration mobilizes behind it. The Observatory's international mission sent in November 2003 noted that the pressures placed on associations are, on the whole, indirect, but with long term consequences for the spread of activism, as well as for public perception and financial support. These pressures may be increased, as an example to all associations, when human rights defenders criticize federal or regional authorities.

Indirect constraints on the actions of human rights defenders

Recent years have seen an increase in the number and variety of associations in Russia. Almost 400,000 associations are registered nationwide,39 yet human rights associations remain few in number and appear to be subjected to increased government monitoring.

Uncertainties about cooperating with the government

Since his election as President of the Russian Federation, Mr. Vladimir Putin has engaged in a policy of rapprochement between the government and human rights groups. A civic forum, bringing together defenders and political representatives, was held in Moscow in 2001, and in Ninji Novgorod from 23rd to 25th October 2003. These presidential initiatives have served to create deep divisions within the movement, between supporters and opponents of such cooperation. On the whole, the civic forums have proved disappointing for the human rights groups that took part, who point out that there have been no definite outcomes. Similarly, controversy surrounds the role played by the Human Rights Commission to the President, headed by Ella Pamfilova. This Commission, made up of several respected representatives of human rights organizations, exists to convey the associations' requests to the government. Its influence on government policy, however, remains limited, with government departments (particularly those concerned with enforcement) refusing to cooperate with human rights defenders.

Fiscal pressures: a Sword of Damocles

The modification of article 251 of the tax code, signed by Vladimir Putin in May 2002 and brought into effect on 1st January 2003, constitutes a real fiscal sword of Damocles for organizations. In effect, it imposes a tax of some 25% on all their resources (contributions being classed as profits), from which non-profit organizations had previously been exempt. These new fiscal rules do not apply, however, to associations in the fields of art, culture, scientific research and training. Lobbying to have human rights work added to the list of non-taxable activities was unsuccessful in 2003.

This new legislation puts human rights organizations in a particularly precarious position. Unable to pay the tax, organizations and donors find themselves outside the law, thrust into a shadowy economy and fearing prosecution or the threat of closure if the law is rigidly enforced.

An unfavourable political context: the loss of parliamentary intermediaries

The elections of 7th December 2003 saw the heavy defeat of opposition parties, in particular the liberal Yabloko Party, which had had brought Sergei Kovaliov, one of Russia's most ardent defenders of human rights, to parliament. This has robbed human rights groups of parliamentary intermediaries to promote universal standards and principles for the protection of human rights. The new Duma will be in place until 2007.

Control of the media : a debased image

Human rights organizations are also indirectly affected by state control of the media. Their activities go unreported, when they are not publicly disparaged. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, alternative media still exist, (notably the Novaia Gazeta newspaper), but the rest of the country has no access to pluralistic information. This lack of representation in the media has long term repercussions on the associations' image, and may explain the problems they have in recruiting new members and volunteers.

Direct attacks on human rights groups

NGOs targeted40

Association of Soldiers' Mothers of Saint Petersburg. In a letter to the Justice Minister dated 20th January 2003, the Leningrad district military prosecutor, Igor Lebed, demanded an investigation into the activities of the Association of Soldiers' Mothers of Saint Petersburg. Mr. Lebed accused the association of defamation and 'incitement to desert', amounting, he argued, to a "call to crime". He denounced the disparity between the association's activities and its statutes, in particular its monitoring of enrolment conditions and the publicizing of enquiry reports. The staff of the organization were unaware of this letter until after the investigation had begun, and they were not informed of proceedings. Mrs. Kaznacheeva, head of the investigation and of the department of the Justice Ministry that deals with associations, demanded the personal files of soldiers defended by the organization.

On 23rd June, the ministry insisted on a review of the statutes for the purposes of a new registration, on the pretext that the association's name did not appear in its entirety on its official documents and that its statutes contravened the law on social groupings and non-profit making organizations. On 26th June, the Soldiers' Mothers presented a new version of the Statutes, which was rejected for registration by the Justice ministry on 13th August. In June 2003, the ministry also informed the association that a hotel was about to be constructed in the building where it rented offices. Although no other tenant received this information, the staff was asked to find new premises.

On 14th June 2003, the head of the Nachimov military school, Mr. Bukin, began legal proceedings against the Soldiers' Mothers of Saint Petersburg, and against the newspaper Smena, which had published information supplied by the association concerning the physical and psychological torture of pupils. Mr. Bukin demanded two million roubles (about 67,000 euros) in damages and interest for defamation. Yet these acts of torture had already been acknowledged by the admiral of the Russian fleet, Mr. Kuroedov, who had stated that the officers responsible had been punished. The trial opened on 22nd September, and the next hearing is scheduled for 21st January 2004.

The Soldiers' Mothers of Saint Petersburg continue to work and organize weekly information seminars for young draft evaders, as well as peaceful demonstrations against the war in Chechnya. During one of these demonstrations, on 11th September 2003, the procession was violently attacked by a group of individuals. Their banners were ripped up and one of the women demonstrating was savagely beaten. The attackers fled on the orders of a man who was watching the scene from a distance. It appears that he announced to someone on his mobile phone, 'We're leaving; we've won.'

Memorial – Saint-Petersburg. On 14th August 2003, a young man came to the office of the Memorial Association in Saint-Petersburg41 and asked to meet members of the anti-fascist commission, claiming that his sister had been murdered by a right wing group. The commission's staff were not there at the time, so the young man returned later in the day with another individual. The two men threatened an employee, Mrs. Anna Chmygara, with hammers, then tied her up, gagged her, locked her in a cupboard and cut the telephone line. The two attackers then burst into the office of Mr. Schnitke, head of the organization, telling him that they belonged to the Committee for the Defence of Budanov, a committee that no one had heard of.42 Mr. Schnitke and another employee were also bound, gagged and locked in a cupboard, the attackers claiming that they had booby-trapped the door. They then stole Mr. Schnitke's computer, his two mobile phones, his diary and address book. Before fleeing, the two men left a note demanding the release of Colonel Budanov. The three members of the Memorial were only freed later that day, thanks to the help of a visitor who then called the police.

Even though the assailants took no money and no computers except for Mr. Schnitke's, the press office of the Interior ministry (MVD) declared that this attack was an ordinary burglary, with no political motive. Memorial pressed charges and, faced with police inaction, employed private detectives who were able to identify one of the assailants, Vladimir Goliakov, and have him arrested on 26th September.

On 29th October, friends of Mr. Goliakov organized a press conference in his defence at the Press Centre, where they distributed copies of a letter of support from a member of the Duma, Viktor Ilioukhine, known for his nationalist sympathies.

Subsequently, a commander in the FSB (ex-KGB, Federal Security Service) was searched during an anonymous prison visit to Goliakov and found to be bringing him a list of names of people who could supply him with an alibi. There have been no repercussions in the wake of this incident.

Goliakov's trial for theft of equipment and assault on staff at the Memorial is due to take place soon.

The Russian Centre for Public Opinion and Market Research (VTsIOM). This Centre has, for 15 years, been the country's most reliable source of public opinion surveys. Since January 2003, it has been subjected to various sorts of administrative harassment. In August 2003, its members were informed that there would soon be an election for a new board of governors, with responsibility for naming a new executive director and drawing up new policies. The President of the Centre, Yuri Levada, and the rest of the staff were not consulted, nor were they invited to participate in this procedure. On 9th September, most of VTsIOM's 90 researchers refused to work for the reconstituted organization and founded an independent agency under Mr. Levada. Analytical VTsIOM (VTsIOM-A) has been registered with the Ministry of Justice as a nonprofit making organization.

Sakharov Museum. On 18th January 2003, six men from the Pyzhi Orthodox Church burst into the Centre for Peace, Progress and Human Rights in Moscow. On the pretext that the Museum's exhibition entitled, "Beware, religion" was an affront to their faith, they vandalized the artworks before being arrested by the police. They were immediately

released. Following a resolution of the State Duma dated 2nd September, legal proceedings began against the Museum, based on Article 282 of the Criminal Code ("incitement to racial and ethnic hatred") and for causing an affront to the Orthodox Church. The prosecutor had the artworks seized and ordered the setting up of a commission of experts – none of them art specialists – to examine them. The Museum's curator, Harutioun Zulumyan, has since been subjected to frequent harassment and was forced into hiding for some time. On 25th December, the investigator for the Moscow prosecutor's office, Iou Tsvetkov, accused the artists and organizers of "incitement to hatred" and of attacking the dignity of certain religious groups. If convicted, the exhibition's organizers face substantial fines and three-year suspended prison sentences, or up to three to five years imprisonment if the court decides that the "crime" has been committed by an "organized group".

In May 2003, the Sakharov Museum received repeated visits from police representatives telling them to take down the banner hanging over its façade, saying "End The War in Chechnya!". The Museum, however, refused to give in to this pressure and retained the banner.

Then, on 2nd-4th October 2003, the Sakharov Museum tried to organize a festival of documentary films about Chechnya. The Moscow cinema which was due to host the festival backed out on 1st October, and it could only be shown to a limited audience in a small screening room in the Museum.

Chechnya: a forbidden topic43

Since the conflict began, access to Chechnya and Ingushetia has been all but forbidden to aid organizations, journalists and international NGOs. The few, local human rights NGOs who attempt to work in Chechnya find themselves in an extremely precarious situation, subjected to daily pressures.44

The Coalition on the Interregional Public Movement for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Members of this Coalition, a Russian-Chechen association based in Grozny, have been subjected to very serious persecution since 2002. Mr. Gusigov Khac-Mohammed disappeared on 7th August 2002 and Mr. Djabrailov Khampacha on 10th April 2003. The association and their families still have no news of them. On 13th January 2003, a group of Russian soldiers searched the organization's premises and arrested Mr. Uctalkhanov Kazbek. The Coalition had to pay bail of $ 500 to obtain his release. Freed on 20th February, Mr. Kazbec reports that he was subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, and repeatedly tortured. Mr. Murstalier Okhazur Khazaevich was arrested on 28th November 2002 and found dead on 3rd April. He had been shot. Shortly before his death, witnesses saw him at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Grozny, under the guard of Chechen soldiers working for the Russian forces.

The case of Zura Bitieva

Mrs. Zura Bitieva, a famous human rights activist, publicly opposed both the first and second wars in Chechnya. The authorities, who accused her of hiding Russian deserters and putting them in contact with their families, had her arrested in April 2000 and continued to threaten her regularly thereafter. In February 2003, Zura Bitieva had joined an organization of women demanding the opening up of mass graves in the village of Kapustino in the Naur district, and she had publicly criticized the referendum of 23rd March. Her family had also been repeatedly harassed; in March 2003, her elder son and her brother were accused of possession of illegal drugs by police in Chervlennaya. During the investigation, Mrs. Bitieva was able to prove that the drugs had been planted by the police themselves. Her son and brother were, nevertheless, given one-year suspended prison sentences in April 2003.

During the night of 21st-22nd May 2003, Zura Bitieva and three members of her family were murdered in their home. Eleven soldiers from an unidentified military group first burst into the house of a neighbour, seizing her passport before gagging her and interrogating her about her identity. Realizing that she was not Mrs. Bitieva, the soldiers ran off with her passport, which was subsequently found near Mrs. Bitieva's body.

Zura Bitieva, her husband and her brother were tied up and gagged with adhesive tape before being shot in the head, and her younger son was suffocated with a pillow. Mrs. Bitieva's elder son was sleeping in the house next door. Woken by the sound of gunfire, he saw uniformed men leaving his mother's house. Thinking that she had been re-arrested, he thought it best to hide. A few minutes later, two soldiers inspected the bedroom by torchlight and left again, saying, "There's no one here any more". After the soldiers had gone, Mrs. Bitieva's son found the four bodies. His one-year-old son, who slept in his grandmother's bed, was found alive, tied up and gagged.

The Information Centre of the Society of Russian-Chechen Friendship

In March 2003, Imran Ejiev45, head of the Information Centre of the Society of Russian-Chechen Friendship (SRCF) in the Northern Caucasus and regional coordinator of the Helsinki Committee in Moscow, carried out an investigation in the Chali region for the SRCF's annual report into the human rights situation in Chechnya. He was also doing some research for OMCT into economic, social and cultural rights in Chechnya for a presentation, in November 2003, to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

On 15th March, Mr. Ejiev was kidnapped between the town of Chali and the village of Serjen'-Yourt. According to the eye-witness account of Mr. Zaour Saitovich Kharipov, an SRCF correspondent who used to accompany Mr. Ejiev on his assignments, two cars forced their vehicle off the road. A group of men, armed and wearing masks, demanded their identity papers. After checking Mr. Ejiev's passport, they made him get into one of their cars and then fled. He was found on 19th March, near the village of Berkat Yurt in the Chechen Republic, bearing the obvious signs of a beating.

On 19th October 2003, Mr. Ejiev was again arrested by Russian armed forces at the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia. While he was passing through a checkpoint into Chechnya with Khamzat Kuchiev, a colleague from the SRCF, a group of visibly drunk soldiers stopped their vehicle and took them into their office. They announced that their job was to arrest all human rights activists, especially members of the RCFS, who were accused of 'discrediting the army during sensitive military operations'. When Mr. Ejiev commented on the fact that they were drunk, he was arrested and tied up. Mr. Kuchiev alerted other people who were passing through the checkpoint, who mounted a spontaneous demonstration outside the office, and Mr. Ejiev was released after less than an hour.

Over the last two years and more, Imran Ejiev has been frequently and arbitrarily arrested and detained by the authorities.46

Memorial – Grozny

On 5th December 2003 the Martin Ennals Foundation announced that Mrs. Lida Yusupova was the winner of the 2004 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (MEA).47 Mrs. Yusupova is a lawyer and for the last three years has been in charge of the office of the Russian human rights organization, Memorial, in Grozny.48 She devotes herself to gathering testimonies from victims who are brave enough to go to the association's office. She visits the scenes of violent acts, massacres and forced disappearances. She also accompanies victims in their dealings with the Russian security services and the army, and gives legal assistance to those who try, not without difficulty, to obtain justice. The award will be presented to her at the session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in April 2004.

Regional difficulties: the case of Krasnodar49

Outside Chechnya and Ingushetia, the situation of human rights defenders is dependent on the regional powers. Things are especially difficult in the region of Krasnodar. S. Gannouchkina states that the authorities in this region, "constantly adopt local laws that contradict federal legislation" and that "those in power in Krasnodar harass associations". Three of the region's associations have been the subject of closure proceedings. On 8th December 2003, the court in the town of Novorossijsk (Krasnodar Region) demanded the closure of the Peace School foundation on the pretext that only one of the three founders still worked there. The Ioujnaia Vol'na association also came under pressure, but was able to maintain its activities thanks to the mobilization of associations throughout Russia. Finally, the Krasnodar Centre for the Defence of Human Rights, headed by Mr. Rakovich, was the subject of suspension proceedings.

Release of Grigory Pasko50

Mr. Grigory Pasko, military correspondent for the Journal of the Russian Fleet (Boeyava Vakh), was sentenced to four years in prison for high treason, following revelations about the dumping of nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan in 1997. This sentence was confirmed at appeal by the military chamber of Moscow's Supreme Court on 25th June 2002.

On the basis of an amnesty for "light sentences", Mr. Pasko was conditionally released for good behaviour on 23rd January 2003, having served two thirds of his sentence.

[Refworld note: This report as posted on the FIDH website (www.fidh.org) was in pdf format with country chapters run together by region. Footnote numbers have been retained here, so do not necessarily begin at 1.]

39. For the sake of comparison, there were around a million associations in France in 2002.

40. See Press Release 15th September 2003.

41. See Urgent Appeal RUS 001/0803/OBS 042.

42. Colonel Budanov is a Russian officer who was imprisoned for the kidnap and murder of a young Chechen girl in 2000.

43. See OMCT Report: "Chechnya, no means to live : an appraisal of violations of economic, social and cultural rights", November 2003.

44. Idem.

45. See Urgent Appeals RUS 001/0303/OBS 012 and RUS 001/0303/OBS 012.01.

46. See Annual Reports 2000 and 2001.

47. The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights constitutes a unique collaboration between ten major international human rights organizations. The jury members of the Martin Ennals award are: Amnesty International, Defence for Children, German Diakona, Human Rights Watch, HURIDOCS, International Alert, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, the International Service for Human Rights and the World Organization Against Torture, which is also the headquarters of the Martin Ennals Award.

48. See Annual Report 2002.

49. See "Alternative NGO Report on Observance of ICCPR by the Russian Federation", Moscow 2003. This very detailed report lists numerous cases of harassment in this region.

50. See Annual Report 2002.


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