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February 03, 2006

Russian Human Rights Activist Convicted in Politically Motivated Case

Conviction is Serious Setback for Human Rights
in Russia

NEW YORK – In a dramatic setback to the protection of human rights and the development of democracy in Russia, human rights activist Stanislav Dmitrievsky, the managing director of the Russian Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS) and editor of the newspaper Pravozaschita (Human Rights Defense), was convicted earlier today of “inciting ethnic hatred” under a counter-extremism law by a court in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. This is the first time a human rights defender has been convicted under counter-extremism laws, which are intended to control religious and nationalist extremists who incite hate crimes and violence against minority groups, for publishing articles calling for peace in Chechnya.

“This conviction signals a serious setback for freedom of expression and all human rights in Russia,” said Maureen Byrnes, Executive Director of Human Rights First. “Not only will it have serious consequences for Mr. Dmitrievsky and his organization, but it sends the message to journalists, human rights activists, and other independent critics of Russia’s government that they may be prosecuted for what they say. It will have a chilling effect on open debate.”

Dmitrievsky was convicted under article 282, part 2b of the Russian Criminal Code. Though he was allowed to leave the courthouse today, he was given four years of probation with a two year suspended sentence. In other words, Dmitrievsky must remain silent for the next four years or risk immediate imprisonment. Dmitrievsky’s supporters are still unclear whether additional restrictions on his ability to move within Russia or leave the country during this time will apply. Furthermore, under a law signed by President Putin on January 10, 2006 Dmitrievsky will no longer be allowed to manage the activities of the RCFS or to serve as editor-in-chief of the newspaper,

When Dmitrievsky’s lawyers receive the text of the ruling on Monday, they will appeal the verdict. If the superior court does not overturn the verdict, the legal team plans to appeal to the European Court for Human Rights on the grounds that Dmitrievsky has been denied his right to freedom of expression, protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Background

The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society is a registered non-governmental organization based in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, the third largest city in the country. Since its establishment in 1999, RCFS has helped to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees, children, aged and disabled people in the conflict regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia.

As part of a joint project with the Nizhny Novgorod Society for Human Rights, the organization works with independent journalists and human rights activists in Chechnya to produce Pravozaschita, which exposes the occurrence of beatings, disappearances, and other violations to a wide audience.

For the last few years, RCFS has been the subject of intense persecution and harassment apparently as a result of its work on the Chechnya conflict. More than a dozen employees, volunteers, and journalists associated with the RCFS or their family members have been pursued, beaten or killed. Mr. Dmitrievsky was himself the subject of a brutal beating. Despite the risk associated with its work, the organization has continued the critical activities of monitoring and reporting on the situation in Chechnya.

In the latest bid to seriously undermine RCFS, Russian authorities have attempted to manipulate Russian laws to force the organization to close. The criminal case, begun in September 2005, is based on two articles published in Pravozaschita in early 2004. The first was written by now-deceased separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov who, in the article, appealed to the European Parliament to classify the conflict in Chechnya as 'genocide.' The second was written by Akhmed Zakaev in which he encouraged the Russian public not to vote for President Putin during his re-election campaign. As editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Mr. Dmitrievsky was charged under a law that criminalizes "incitement of hatred or enmity...with the use of the mass media... and with the use of [one's] professional position."

The law was intended to prosecute racist and extremist groups as part of a reaction to an increasing number of unpunished attacks on racial and religious minorities in Russia. It is a misuse of this law to apply it against a human rights defender who publishes calls for an end to conflict in a newspaper. In a recent statement, the prosecutor in the Dmitrievsky case tried to justify the use of this law against a human rights defender by referring to a recent hate crime in which eight people were stabbed: "in a time when incidents like the recent crime in a Moscow synagogue happen more and more often, it is necessary to be strict within the boundaries of freedom of expression.”