The decision by a Russian court to close the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society today is a blatant attempt to silence a strong critic of human rights abuses in Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said. The ruling represents only the latest in several government attempts to silence the group and harass its leader.
“Russia’s actions to quash the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society fly in the face of international standards protecting civil society,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (ORCD), a nongovernmental organization that raises awareness about human rights violations in Chechnya and provides assistance to victims of the conflict, first came under attack in 2005 when the Nizhny Novgorod tax inspectorate attempted to shut it down on charges that it did not pay taxes on a grant.
In February 2006, the group’s executive director and editor of its newspaper, Stanislav Dmitrievsky, was convicted of “inciting racial hatred” for publishing articles about Chechnya. Arguing that the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society had failed to distance itself from Dmitrievsky, prosecutors moved to liquidate the organization. They also accused it of several administrative violations, such as changing its address without informing the authorities and failing to remove the word “Russian” from the group’s name. A civil court in Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles east of Moscow, upheld the motion.
The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society announced its intention to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.
“This is a politically motivated ruling intended to silence an organization that works to stop abuses in Chechnya,” added Cartner. “The Russian government has moved to systematically eviscerate all checks on its power and civil society is its latest target.”
A criminal court in Nizhny Novgorod convicted Dmitrievsky in February to a one-year suspended sentence for “inciting racial hatred” (article 282 §2(b) of the Russian Federal Criminal Code). The charges stemmed from articles published in the organization’s newspaper, Pravozashchita, featuring statements from leading Chechen separatists speaking out against the war.
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. The proceedings were strongly condemned by human rights and free speech advocates as baseless and politically motivated. A court in Nizhny Novgorod sentenced Dmitrievsky to a one-year suspended prison sentence.
New amendments to the law “on combating extremist activities,” enacted in June 2006, designate “inciting racial, national, or religious differences associated with violence or calls to violence” as “extremist activity.” According to prosecutors, the organization had five days after Dmitrievsky’s conviction to renounce publicly its affiliation with him. In failing to do so, prosecutors claimed the ORCD effectively approved his actions.
Human Rights Watch called on Russia’s international partners to speak out against this latest attack on civil society. The European Union, which will hold human rights consultations with Russia on November 8, followed by the EU-Russia summit in late November, is particularly well-placed to do so.
“The EU should put human rights defenders and civil society at the top of its agenda with Russia,” Cartner said. “Deeper engagement with the EU should be conditioned on the Russian government taking concrete steps to end official harassment and intimidation of NGOs and their activists, including those working on human rights in Chechnya.”