(Moscow, December 4, 2008) - The Russian government should immediately investigate a police raid on Memorial, a prominent human rights organization, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also called on the government to ensure the speedy and safe return of all seized equipment and documents.
In the morning of December 4, 2008, seven masked men, armed with batons, broke into the office of the Memorial Research and Information Center in St. Petersburg, cutting the phone lines and barring the three staff members present from leaving the office. The men, who had a warrant signed by the Prosecutor's Office, included police, special forces and members of the investigative committee of the Prosecutor's Office. They conducted a search of the office that lasted more than seven hours and seized the organization's computer hard drives and other materials, including 20 years of archives on Soviet repression and gulags.
"This outrageous police raid on Memorial shows the poisonous climate for nongovernmental organizations in Russia," said Allison Gill, Moscow office director at Human Rights Watch. "This is an overt attempt by the Russian government to suppress independent civic activity and silence critical voices."
The men did not allow the staff members inside to make phone calls and blocked Memorial's lawyer from entering the premises. Memorial eventually learned that the search was ordered by the Prosecutor's Office in connection with an investigation against a St. Petersburg newspaper, New Petersburg, for publishing "extremist" articles. A Memorial staff member told Human Rights Watch that Memorial has no relationship with the newspaper and knows nothing about the case against it. Memorial fears that the authorities used the investigation as a pretext to close Memorial. Memorial's office serves as an informal gathering point for local activists and provides a forum for discussion and debate.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the hard drives and materials seized from Memorial, which include archives related to the Preservation Foundation, an initiative dedicated to architectural preservation in St. Petersburg, would not be returned or rendered unusable by the authorities.
"Memorial's archives on Soviet history are a national treasure. The authorities should take every possible step to protect the materials and return them quickly," said Gill.