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The conviction of a Russian human rights defender who highlighted abuses in the conflict in Chechnya is an unacceptable infringement on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 3, a court in Nizhny Novgorod convicted Stanislav Dmitrievsky, executive director of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society and editor of the organization’s newspaper Pravozashchita, on charges of “inciting racial hatred,” and handed down a two-year suspended sentence. The charges stem from the publication in Pravozashchita of two statements by Chechen rebel leaders Aslan Maskhadov and Akhmed Zakaev.

“The state’s case against Dmitrievsky was politically motivated and he should be exonerated,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Freedom of speech is in real jeopardy in Russia, and the Dmitrievsky case sends an unmistakable message to journalists and human rights defenders throughout Russia, that they too could be prosecuted for doing their job.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed the two statements that were the basis for the charges and found that they do not contain any language that could legitimately be prohibited under international human rights law. Pravozashchita published in its April-May 2004 issue a statement by Maskhadov, the Chechen rebel leader later killed by Russian forces, calling for the international community to facilitate negotiations to end the Chechen conflict. In another issue, it published a statement by Maskhadov’s representative, Zakaev, urging Russian voters not to reelect President Vladimir Putin and alleging that the war was in only his interests.

The prosecution initially charged Dmitrievsky 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” (article 282 (b) of the Russian criminal code).

Dmitrievsky has said that he will appeal the conviction.

Dmitrievsky’s conviction is also part of an ongoing government crackdown on civil society, particularly on those non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding or work on sensitive issues.

The government began to systematically harass NGOs that work on issues related to Chechnya after Putin lashed out against NGOs in his 2004 state-of-the-nation speech. Since then, officials have instituted spurious criminal charges against activists, threatened them, sought to close down NGOs or refused to register them, and intimidated victims who have spoken out.

The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which raises awareness about human rights abuses in Chechnya and helps victims seek justice, faced such pressure last year, when the Nizhny Novgorod department of justice tried unsuccessfully to liquidate it. The Nizhny Novgorod tax inspectorate has claimed that the organization owed one million rubles (about U.S.$35,000) in back taxes on a grant, which the inspectorate designated as “profit.” The organization is challenging the charges.

Dmitrievsky’s conviction came the same week that the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs closed the Russian PEN Center, an NGO that advocates for freedom of expression, and froze its bank account on charges that it failed to pay property taxes. On January 27 a Moscow arbitration court ruled that Russian PEN Center owed the equivalent of $150,000 in back taxes for the office it rents.

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