Background Briefing

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Nongovernmental Organization: the Next Crackdown?

In the 1990s, NGOs mushroomed all over Russia and, according to recent estimates, there are more than 300,000 registered NGOs in Russia today.43 The vast majority of these organizations perform social or charitable work but a considerable number, including human rights and environmental organizations, actively seek to influence government policies and regularly criticize the government’s performance. It is these NGOs that are at prime risk today.

In the 1990s, the human rights and environmental movements grew rapidly. A number of large networks emerged around groups with roots in the Soviet-era dissident movement, like Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group. But thousands of individual groups also came into existence around the country. During President Putin’s first term, these NGOs conducted their work largely without government interference. They developed contacts with governments at the federal, regional and municipal levels, they began to conduct intensive work with legislatures at the various levels to promote legislative change, they became known voices in the media, and were increasingly invited to sit on committees dealing with issues on which they had expertise. Although they still had very limited real influence on policy, these NGOs had started to play the type of role NGOs play in established democracies.

The demise of plurality in the media and parliament of recent years has had twin effects for NGOs: they are among the few independent voices in Russian society that are left, yet the ability of NGOs to work effectively has been considerably undermined. The lack of press freedom has made it increasingly difficult for NGOs to relay their opinions to a large audience, and human rights NGOs have lost almost all their supporters in parliament as practically all parliamentarians with whom NGOs had developed fruitful working relationships lost their seats during the 2003 elections.

However, the president’s public attack in May 2004, quoted at the beginning of this report, and the recently introduced draft law appear to herald troubled times for groups actively critical of the administration. Since the president’s speech, the atmosphere in which NGOs work has deteriorated considerably. As with the crackdown on the media in 1999, NGOs working on issues related to the Chechnya conflict were the first target. A sustained campaign against many of these groups is now underway. But signs of an impending crackdown on critical NGOs more generally are legion. Numerous officials have verbally attacked NGOs since President Putin’s speech, and a number of NGOs have faced direct interference by officials in their work.

Crackdown on NGOs Working on the Chechnya Conflict

NGOs working on the conflict in Chechnya are the first to have come under sustained attack from the Russian government. Over the course of the last few years, these groups, their activists, and the people they work with, have increasingly faced administrative and judicial harassment, and, in the most severe cases, persecution, threats, and physical attacks.

Administrative and Judicial Har assment of NGOs

Russian government agencies in Moscow and the regions have repeatedly harassed NGOs working on Chechnya, refusing to register them, arbitrarily closing down existing organizations, or accusing them of extremism. Although most of the NGOs continue to function, the government interference with their activities has disrupted their activities and forced them to focus on defending themselves rather than working on substantive issues, often for extended periods of time.

A June 2004 letter from the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Ingushetia to the regional prosecutor’s office is characteristic of the hostility apparently felt among the authorities towards humanitarian and human rights groups working on the Chechnya conflict. The letter accuses international humanitarian groups of “collecting and disseminating biased information about the policy of the North Caucasus branch of the FSB in counterterrorist operations it carried out in Chechnya, with the aim of discrediting Russia in the eyes of the international community.”44 It also maintained that these groups use local citizens for these purposes and requested that the prosecutor’s office conduct an investigation of all international humanitarian organizations working in the region.

Below are some of the concrete incidents documented by Human Rights Watch:

  • On February 28, 2005, the Nizhnii Novgorod department of justice and the tax inspection conducted audits of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society. During the audits, department of justice officials demanded copies of confidential letters to the organization from victims of human rights abuses. When the organization refused to hand over the documents, the department of justice initiated a court case to liquidate the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society,45 but on November 14, a Nizhnii Novgorod court rejected the department’s liquidation suit.

    The tax inspection audited the organization off and on for several months. In June 2005, it issued a decision to claim a million roubles (approximately U.S.$35,000) in back taxes from the organization. The organization appealed the decision and in August 2005 the tax service issued a new decision, still claiming a million roubles for what it said was four years of profit. According to the organization, the tax inspectorate designated a grant it had received from international donors as profit. As of this writing, the organization had appealed the decision with an arbitration court.

  • In January 2005, the Nizhnii Novgorod prosecutor’s office opened a criminal investigation into the publication of two written statements by Chechen rebel leaders Aslan Maskhadov and Akhmed Zakayev in the newspaper Pravozashchita, or Human Rights, which is published by the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society.46The newspaper’s editor was initially charged with making public calls for extremist activities, but the prosecutor’s office later reclassified the charges to “incitement of ethnic, racial and religious hatred or enmity.”47 In connection with the criminal investigation, the Federal Security Service has called several members of the organization’s staff in for questioning, including a number of its correspondents in Chechnya. Court hearings in the case started on November 16. That same day, Russia deported Bill Bowring, a respected academic and Russia expert who was on his way to Nizhnii Novgorod to monitor the trial, to the United Kingdom. The two statements, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, do not contain any language that could legitimately be prohibited under international human rights law. The prosecution thus violates freedom of speech.

  • On January 12, 2005, masked gunmen claiming to be members of the Ingush FSB stormed into the press center of the Council of NGOs, an umbrella organization for Chechen NGOs, in Nazran, Ingushetia. Without producing a warrant, the security officials checked and photographed everyone’s documents and ordered all men to get down on the floor. They then searched the premises, photographed documents, tore out the telephone wire, and confiscated two computers. An FSB investigator later explained that the FSB had received information that a group of rebels was hiding in the Council’s premises.48

  • In August 2004, the prosecutor’s office in Ingushetia filed proceedings against the Chechen Committee for National Salvation, a Chechen NGO that has reported extensively on abuses by Russian troops against Chechens during the conflict, to suspend the organization’s activities. According to the prosecutor’s office, twelve press releases that the organization had issued in 2004 were “extremist” in content and violated article 280 of Russia’s criminal code, which prohibits “public calls to carry out extremist activity.”49 Although the Nazran district court cleared the Chechen Committee for National Salvation of the charges in October 2004, the republic’s Supreme Court quashed that decision in February 2005 and sent the case back to the court of first instance for renewed consideration.50 Court proceedings resumed in May 2005 and were ongoing as of this writing.51 The Independent Council of Legal Experts, a leading legal NGO in Moscow, conducted an analysis of the press releases and concluded that they did not violate the relevant provision of the criminal code and fell within the scope of speech protected by the Russian constitutional and the European Convention on Human Rights.52 The investigations and court hearings, which lasted more than four months, have considerably disrupted the work of the organization.

  • In April 2003, a court in Ingushetia liquidated a local human rights group claiming that the organization “no longer existed.” The staff of the organization, which asked to remain unnamed, only found out about the court decision in October of that year when officials from the tax inspectorate informed it that “since the organization was liquidated” it had been struck from the tax inspectorate’s records. After the organization’s staff obtained a copy of the court ruling, they learned that, ostensibly, the local justice department had sent someone over to the organization’s official address to verify its continued existence and had not found anybody there. The department then initiated the liquidation of the organization before the courts. The organization was never informed of the court proceedings or of the court’s ruling.53 Although the liquidation of the organization violated numerous provisions of Russia’s legislation on NGOs, the organization’s director has not been able to have the court ruling overturned, as the appeal period had already expired by the time he received a copy of the decision. He has since sought, unsuccessfully, to re-register the organization.

    Threats and Attacks against Human Rights Activists

    Over the past few years, Human Rights Watch has documented an increasing number of cases of threats and attacks against human rights defenders working on Chechnya. These include the following:

  • On January 20, 2005, a group of armed men in camouflage uniforms seized Makhmut Magomadov, a Chechen lawyer and well-known human rights defender, at a friend’s home in Grozny and drove him away. According to eyewitnesses, the armed men belonged to the pro-Russian Chechen armed forces known as the “kadyrovtsy” after their commander, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is also Chechnya’s deputy prime minister. Magomadov’s whereabouts were unknown for several weeks, while human rights groups launched an urgent campaign on his behalf. Eventually, the armed men released him on February 13, 2005.54

  • On January 10, 2004, around fifty masked men arrived in military vehicles in Avtury, Chechnya, and abducted Aslan Davletukaev, a correspondent for the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society. Eyewitnesses were convinced that the masked men were Russian servicemen as they spoke unaccented Russian (although most Chechen rebels speak Russian well, practically all have a clearly distinguishable accent). On January 16, 2004, Aslan Davletukaev’s mutilated body was found near the highway to Gudermes, Chechnya’s second largest town. Davletukaev had died from a gunshot to the back of his head. The prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case into the circumstances of his murder but has since suspended it for “impossibility of identifying suspects” in the case.55

  • On January 29, 2004, Ingush police detained the head of the Ingushetia office of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, Imran Ezhiev, after he held a meeting with Ella Pamfilova, head of the Presidential Human Rights Commission, and numerous displaced Chechens at a tent camp for internally displaced persons.56 He was released the next day, after Ms. Pamfilova personally intervened on his behalf. Russian law enforcement agencies and troops have detained Imran Ezhiev on numerous other occasions, always releasing him later without charge.57

  • In 2004, the Federal Security Service in Ingushetia summoned a human rights activist (who requested to remain anonymous for the purposes of this report), to its offices, ostensibly to discuss an application for a passport. At the FSB office, an officer questioned the activist about his professional activities, tried to force him to become an informer for the FSB, and threatened him and his family with repercussions when he refused. Human Rights Watch is aware that the FSB called in at least one other human rights activist for a “talk” as well but does not know what happened as the activist w as unwilling to talk about it.58

    Har assment of Victims of Abuse

    The Russian government has not limited its crackdown on NGOs working on Chechnya to organizations and its activists; it has also targeted victims of abuse that have spoken out or have decided to seek justice. A number of victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch have complained that law enforcement agencies had singled them out for harassment because of their interviews with human rights groups. Several organizations that help victims of abuses from Chechnya file complaints with the European Court of Human Rights—Stichting Chechnya Justice Initiative (now renamed: Stichting Russian Justice Initiative), Memorial, and the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre—have complained to the European Court of harassment of their clients by Russian law enforcement and military.

    In a joint memorandum to the European Court, the organizations described how Russian troops murdered one applicant and her family, and abducted another applicant, who has since disappeared:59

    • The Murder of Zura Bitieva. In April 2000, Zura Bitieva submitted an application to the European Court of Human Rights, Bitieva v Russia, no. 57953/00, alleging unlawful detention, ill-treatment and torture at the hands of Russian officials at Chernokozovo detention center in Chechnya. In May 2003, early in the morning, fifteen men wearing camouflage uniforms and mostly speaking unaccented Russian drove up to Bitieva’s house and shot dead Bitieva, her husband Ramzan Iduev, her son Idris Iduev, and her brother Abubakar Bitiev.
    • The Disappearance of Said-Magomed Imakaev. In February 2002, Marzet and Said-Magomed Imakaev filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights regarding the December 2000 disappearance of their son at the hands of Russian servicemen. Four months later, on June 2, 2002, Russian federal forces detained Said-Magomed Imakaev at his home in the presence of his family. Said-Magomed subsequently also “disappeared.” Marzet Imakaeva informed the European Court of Human Rights. Soon thereafter, Russian authorities began harassing Marzet Imakaeva about her application to the European Court. On July 24, 2002, a local procuracy official questioned Mrs. Imakaeva about her application, asking where she had obtained the money to do such a thing. When Mrs. Imakaeva explained that she did not pay any legal fees, the procuracy official told her, “In Russia, everything is paid.”  In early August 2002, a military official also questioned Mrs. Imakaeva about her application and told her, “It is said that a Russian needs fifteen thousand dollars or more to get to the European Court. Tell me honestly, how many thousand [dollars] did you pay?”  The military official then used this false assumption regarding the Imakaev family’s ability to pay a large sum for the application to the European Court to accuse the family of financing rebel groups and thereby sought to justify or explain the detention of Said-Magomed Imakaev.

    The letter also raised eleven cases of verbal or physical threats to applicants to the European Court and victims who pursued justice through the Russian courts. These include the following two cases (the real names of the victims are withheld at their request):

    • “‘Rosa R.’s’ husband was abducted by federal forces during a large cleansing operation in the spring of 2001. His body was later found bearing evidence of extra-judicial execution. Rosa R. submitted an application to the European Court in 2002. Soon thereafter, federal servicemen apprehended Rosa R., took her to the military commandant’s office and beat her severely before releasing her. In separate incidents in 2003, military servicemen visited the homes of Rosa R.’s relatives and neighbors and asked for Rosa R. by name. They also asked, ‘Why is she writing those letters? What are you looking for?’ Rosa R. noted that, immediately prior to these incidents, her representatives had sent letters to the local procuracy requesting information about the investigation into the incidents involving her husband.”60
    • “In the spring 2002, federal forces conducted a cleansing operation in a village in central Chechnya and detained dozens of individuals. Some months later, several family members of some of the disappeared men applied to the European Court. All applicants have searched for their relatives and have appealed to numerous official bodies. In the spring of 2003, the procuracy began to investigate the case more actively. A few months later, two of the applicants received handwritten notes forwarded to them from military officials that read, ‘If something happens to our guys, you will be punished.’”61

    Harassment and Attacks on Other NGOs

    Although harassment of other critical NGOs has not reached the level of a crackdown or centrally coordinated campaign, the environment in which they work has significantly deteriorated. Government officials at both the federal and regional level have stepped up their oral attacks on human rights and environmental groups. In a number of regions officials have used extremism legislation to shut NGOs down through the courts, while in others they have used registration procedures or financial and other audits to bog down the work of these groups.62

    With his charge that many NGOs ignore “some of the most serious problems of the country and its citizens” so as not to “bite the hand that feeds them,”63 President Putin set the tone for numerous attacks by Russian officials on NGOs. Following his lead, numerous federal and regional officials adopted an openly hostile attitude towards human rights and other critical groups, often questioning their good faith and criticizing them for existing on foreign grants. These public attacks have poisoned the atmosphere in which NGOs work.

    Just days after President Putin’s May 2004 address, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused humanitarian organizations in Chechnya of using their humanitarian missions as a cover for “carrying out monitoring activities” and “offering no real humanitarian aid” to civilians there.64 In June 2004, the national television channel TV Tsentr devoted an hour-long primetime program to denouncing the work of human rights groups, accusing them of what the presenter called their “hatred” for Russia.65 Along the same lines, the previous month a Kremlin political adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, rebuked rights activists for being “engrossed” in Western ideals.66

    Ever since, denigrating language about the work of NGOs has remained frequent. For example, in October 2004, Viktor Alksnis, a deputy from the Motherland party, accused the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers (UCSMR) of undermining the defense capability of the armed forces by acting on orders from Western countries, and called for a federal investigation.67 In July 2005, at a meeting of human rights activists in the Kremlin, President Putin lashed out at environmental groups: “Ecological expertise must not hinder the development of the country and the economy. As soon as we start to do anything, one line of attack against us always has to do with ecological problems.”68 At the same meeting, President Putin also said Russia would not tolerate foreign funding for political activities. He did not define “political activities.”

    On August 16, 2005, Nikolai Kuryanovich, a State Duma deputy for the Liberal Democratic Party, asked Russia’s prosecutor general to shut down the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights, an organization that works on racism and xenophobia, accusing it of “using foreign funding to wage a political war against the state” and “living off of money from U.S. intelligence” to portray Russia as a “Nazi society.”69

    Although a general crackdown may not yet be under way, the conditions for one have been created.

    [43] Human Rights Watch interview with Liudmila Alekseeva, Moscow, May 15, 2005.

    [44] Letter from the head of the FSB office in the Republic of Ingushetia to the Acting Prosecutor General of the Republic of Ingushetia, dated June 15, 2004.

    [45] “The Federal Registration Service of the Ministry of Justice asked the court to liquidate the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society,” Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, April 25, 2005 [online], (retrieved April 28, 2005).

    [46] See: “Pravozashchita” No.58, March 2004 [online], (retrieved January 27, 2005); and “Pravozashchita,” No.59, April-May 2004 [online], (retrieved January 27, 2005).

    [47] “Continuing Persecution of the ‘Russian-Chechen Friendship Society’ Its Partner Organization ‘Nizhnii Novgorod Human Rights Society’ Closed Down,” International Helsinki Federation, June 10, 2005 [online], (retrieved June 14, 2005).

    [48] Andrei Riskin and Vladimir Mukhin, “Ingushetia ‘scoured’ Chechen-style,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 17, 2005.

    [49] “Russian Counter-Terror Law Threatens Chechen Human Rights Group,” Human Rights First, September 22, 2004, [online] Article 280 of the Criminal Code reads:

    1. Public calls to carry out extremist activity are punishable by a fine of up to 300,000 Rubles or the salary or other income of the guilty party for a period of up to 2 years, arrest for a period of 4 to 6 months or imprisonment for up to 3 years.

    2. Acts carried out with the use of the mass media are punishable by imprisonment for up to 5 years with the suspension of the right to hold certain offices or carry out certain activities for up to 3 years.

    [50] “FSB and Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Ingushetia are still trying to close down the NGO,” Memorial,  February 16, 2005 [online], (retrieved April 11, 2005).

    [51] Peter Finn, “Chechen Activist Groups Feel Pressure From Russia,” Washington Post, May 8, 2005; and “Russian Federation: Violations continue, no justice in sight,” Amnesty International briefing paper EUR 46/029/2005, July 1, 2005 [online], (retrieved August 24, 2005).

    [52] “Ruslan Badalov: Chechen Committee for National Salvation is continuing with its activities,” Current News Rubric on Human Rights Online website, February 18, 2005 [online], (retrieved August 25, 2005). See also: Press Release No. 709, Chechen Committee for National Salvation, February 1, 2005 [online], ttp:// (retrieved August 25, 2005).

    [53] Human Rights Watch interview with human rights activist (identity withheld).

    [54] “Makhmut Magomadov is set free,” Chechen Committee for National Salvation, February 13, 2005 [online], (retrieved Feb. 14, 2005).

    [55] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with S. Dmitrievskii, head of the Nizhny Novgorod information center of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, January 27, 2005.

    [56] Press Release No.630, “Report from Ingushetia,” Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, January 30, 2004 [online], (retrieved August 27, 2005).

    [57] International Helsinki Federation, “The Silencing of Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya,” September 15, 2004.

    [58] Human Rights Watch interview with human rights activist who requested to remain anonymous.

    [59] See: January 2004 Memorandum to the European Court of Human Rights, prepared by Stichting Chechnya Justice Initiative, the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, and Memorial Human Rights Center. The memorandum is on file with Human Rights Watch.

    [60] The case description is taken from the letter, which is on file with Human Rights Watch.

    [61] The case description is taken from the letter, which is on file with Human Rights Watch.

    [62] See, for example: Archana Pyati, “The New Dissidents. Human Rights Defenders and Counter Terrorism in Russia,” Human Rights First, p. 17.

    [63]  Vladimir Putin’s Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, May 26, 2004 [online], (retrieved September 25, 2004).

    [64] “Rights groups ‘threatened’ after Putin strong-arm speech,” Agence France Presse, May 27, 2004.

    [65] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2005, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005), p. 409.

    [66] “Financing of NGOs by West is not Transparent, Says Russian Political Expert,” RIA Novostyi,  May 27, 2004.

    [67] Simon Saradzhyan, “Inquiry Urged Into Soldiers’ Mothers,” Moscow Times, October 21, 2004.

    [68] “Greens: Putin is Wrong,” St. Petersburg Times, July 22, 2005.

    [69] Carl Schreck, “Deputy Calls for NGO to be Closed,” Moscow Times, August 24, 2005.

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