HRF Details Recent Escalation of Attacks Against Russian Human Rights Defenders in the Wake of Anna Politkovskaya's Murder
New York – The October 7 murder of investigative journalist and human rights defender Anna Politkovskaya has been followed by new threats and accusations against leading human rights defenders and a court verdict ordering the closure of one of the few remaining organizations monitoring human rights violations in Chechnya.
“These recent events illustrate the dangerous environment faced by human rights defenders in Russia, especially those focusing on Chechnya and the North Caucasus,” said Maureen Byrnes, Executive Director of Human Rights First. “They operate in a climate of fear, stoked by defamatory official statements, anonymous threats and brutal violence. And their activities are constricted by broadly worded laws that provide ample scope for official interference and obstruction.”
Since October 7:
- Lidia Yusupova, a human rights lawyer who is director of the Grozny office of the Human Rights Center “Memorial”, received anonymous death threats on her cell phone on October 12. These threats were made immediately after media reports of Lidia’s inclusion among the top several candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on human rights in Chechnya.
- On October 13, the state-controlled television network, NTV aired a documentary that made damaging accusations against several human rights and humanitarian organizations. Among the charges made, the documentary accused Timur Aliev, editor of the weekly newspaper “Chechen Society” of being associated with the recently killed Chechen guerilla commander, Shamil Basayev. Basayev’s group has been implicated in some of the worst violent acts against civilians in Russia in recent years, and associating Aliev with the group defames him and places his life in danger.
- Also on October 13, a court in the city of Nizhny Novgorod ordered the closure of the Russian Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS), one of the few remaining non-governmental organizations monitoring and publicizing human rights violations in Chechnya, because of alleged violations of a new law on public associations, other NGO reporting requirements, and the law on combating anti-extremist activities. RCFS managing director, Stanislav Dmitrievsky, was convicted last February of “inciting ethnic hatred” on the basis of articles published in the RCFS newspaper Pravozaschita (Human Rights Defense) calling for peace in Chechnya. This offense criminalized by the Russian Criminal Code is qualified as “extremist activity” under the counter-extremist legislation. Under the new NGO law adopted a few months ago, Dmitrievsky is obliged to step down from his leadership position with the organization because of his criminal “extremist” record. Moreover, the organization has to publicly condemn its director for an alleged “extremist activity” within five days after a court ruling, otherwise it is itself considered “extremist”. For the time being, RCFS is continuing its activities while it appeals against the latest court judgment against it. However, on October 17 the court ordered the freezing of RCFS bank accounts, further impeding the work of the organization.
- On October 16 in Nazran, Ingushetia, Ministry of the Interior forces forcefully dispersed a peaceful memorial vigil dedicated to Anna Politkovskaya. Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a staff member with the Nazran office of Memorial, was reportedly hit in the face and suffered a broken nose and concussion. At least five other human rights defenders were detained at the vigil and held for several hours.
- Ministry of the Interior agents are questioning the registration documents of another organization based in Nazran focused on human rights violations occurring in the context of the Chechen conflict. The organization Mashr works to support relatives of those who have “disappeared” in the conflict. Its director, Magomed Mutsulgov, believes that this questioning could be preparation for official action to order its closure.
Human Rights First calls on the Russian government to comply with its obligations in international law to respect and uphold freedom of expression and freedom of association. In particular, in order to improve the hostile climate in which Russian human rights defenders, especially those focusing on the Chechen conflict, now operate, Russian officials should make clear their support for the legitimate and essential activities of independent, non-governmental human rights activists. Specifically, Russian officials should publicly condemn all threats and intimidation directed against human rights defenders, should disassociate itself from baseless and irresponsible accusations made against the newspaper editor, Timur Aliev, and should cease misusing laws, like the counter-extremism law or the law on associations to restrict the legitimate activities of human rights organizations.
The killing of Politkovskaya cannot fail to have a chilling effect on all of those involved in monitoring and promoting human rights in Russia. It is essential that the Russian authorities carry out a prompt, thorough and transparent investigation into the murder, and bring those responsible to justice.