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Russia: Investigate Threats to Civic Group

Mounting Neo-Nazi Calls for Violence and Intimidation Against Research Center SOVA

(New York) -- Russian law-enforcement authorities should ensure that neo-Nazi groups stop their threats against a leading Russian NGO and hold the perpetrators accountable, Human Rights Watch said today.

At about 9:30 p.m. on February 21, 2009, a group of neo-Nazis made a threatening visit to the apartment of Alexander Verkhovsky, director of SOVA Center, an independent research center that monitors ultranationalism and extremism in Russia. At least two of the men fraudulently gained access to the building and stood at Verkhovsky's door, knocking and ringing and trying to lure him out. They dispersed before the police arrived. It was the second time in the past month that they had appeared at his door, and the latest in a series of threats by ultranationalists against the organization.

"These are threats to the lives of activists and to all of Russia's civil society," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Ultranationalist violence is on the rise, and the Russian government needs to treat this as an emergency and protect those at risk."

In early 2008, Verkhovsky's name, home address, and other personal details were part of a list of "enemies of the Russian people" that a neo-Nazi group posted on its website, along with direct appeals to kill the individuals. Others listed included prominent Russian human rights defenders and civic activists. Since then, Verkhovsky and his deputy, Galina Kojevnikova, have received numerous anonymous telephone and email threats.

In July 2008, several neo-Nazi youths tried to lure Verkhovsky out of his apartment building for the first time. They rang the bell at the front-door and introduced themselves as "young anti-fascists" wanting to speak to him about their work. Several days later, a film that included footage of the threatening visit was posted on the web, identifying Verkhovsky as a key enemy and a priority target for violence. The film was circulated among ultranationalist blogs.

In January, on the eve of a SOVA news conference, ultranationalists sent a letter to Kojevnikova stating that they were planning to kill human rights defenders and journalists. The letter also stated that she should stop her human rights work unless she wanted to "join" Nikolai Girenko, a prominent anti-fascist activist and researcher who was killed in June 2004, and Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer who was killed in January 2009. 

After the visit to Verkhovsky's building last July, the prosecutor's office initiated a criminal investigation into "threats of murder." However, the investigation was later suspended with no suspects identified.

"Ineffective, business-as-usual investigations can only embolden ultranationalist groups bent on silencing Russia's civil society," said Cartner. "The authorities need to undertake an effective investigation of those criminal actions against SOVA, take concrete measures to protect their staff, and bring the perpetrators to justice."  

Russia is a party to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which require states to protect the rights of those within their jurisdictions, including an obligation to protect them from harm by third parties. The European Court of Human Rights has on numerous occasions made clear that law-enforcement agencies must take adequate action to deter violations and also to take preventive measures to protect an individual whose life is at risk from the criminal acts of another individual. The court requires state parties to the European Convention to do all that is reasonably expected of them to avoid a real and immediate risk to life of which they have or ought to have knowledge.

"The European Court's rulings have clear relevance in this case," said Cartner. "If this known and real threat posed by ultranationalists against individuals they have identified as ‘enemies of Russia' materializes, the Russian authorities will be accountable for their failures to protect them."

The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders also reminds states that they have obligations to take all necessary measures to ensure that everyone is protected against any threats or acts of violence, including those perpetrated by groups or individuals, as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of their rights (Article 12).

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