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Don't Trample the Olympic Ideals in Russia

The 2014 Games risk being marred by Moscow's assault on property rights and free speech.

MOSCOW -- A delegation of the International Olympic Committee has just visited Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort town and future Olympic host city, to assess the status of preparations for the 2014 Winter Games. Jean-Claude Killy, the three-time Olympic skiing champion who chairs the International Olympic Committee's coordination for the Sochi Games, spoke glowingly of the Sochi authorities' "open and constructive" attitude. "The Russian diamond is shining more and more with each passing day," Mr. Killy gushed.

Many Sochi residents would disagree.

The Russian government faces an Olympian task in preparing for the 2014 Games. The major construction has yet to begin. But early trends for human rights and property rights in Sochi are anything but reassuring. In recent interviews with Human Rights Watch, a number of Sochi residents told of police interference with their right to peacefully express their views and of efforts to expropriate their land without receiving adequate information or compensation.

Many Sochi residents spoke of their frustration with the lack of transparency around the planning for and construction of Olympic venues and related infrastructure as well as their desire to be heard by International Olympic officials. On May 14, the second day of the IOC's visit, a handful of Sochi residents attempted to peacefully express their concerns outside of the sanatorium where the IOC press conference was taking place. The police quickly intervened, tearing up posters that demonstrators hadn't even managed to unfold and detaining a small group for several hours. Seven people were charged with illegally organizing a demonstration.

To Sochi residents, this feels like déjà vu. During the last official IOC visit, in April 2008, a group of Sochi residents gathered peacefully with posters, hoping to attract the attention of the IOC delegation that was inspecting proposed construction sites nearby. Police used force to break up the demonstration. The impression left by that event is tangible: the number of demonstrators this year was considerably lower.

But leadership from the IOC is needed in Sochi. Despite the fact that the 2014 Games will indelibly change the face of Sochi and permanently affect the lives of many residents, Russian officials have not always informed the public clearly and consistently about its plans or taken into account community concerns.

In some expropriation cases, local officials have not established a clear process to inform the residents about which property will be expropriated, when the expropriation will occur, or how compensation will be established. As a result, many families have already been living with anxiety and uncertainty for months.

One woman in her 50s described her situation with desperation. "They told me they are taking my home to build a temporary parking facility," she said. Her family has lived and farmed fruit groves there for decades -- and the street she lives on is not part of the land parcel designated for Olympic facilities. Yet 17 families have already received eviction notices. She and her neighbors have jointly written to federal and local officials, including President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The response, from the local prosecutor's office, was that 119 homes on the street would be expropriated.

There is no doubt that the government has the right to expropriate land that is needed for the Games. But when it exercises that right, it must do so in a way that doesn't trammel the rights of those concerned. Everyone has a right to a home and to a livelihood; to a fair hearing and to protest what they feel is injustice. But too often, government appears to be insensitive to these needs.

One property owner told Human Rights Watch that she had, at considerable expense, converted her home to a private hotel to support her family, including her elderly parents and young grandchildren. An appraiser assessed her home's value but, in the owner's view, did not take into account the property's ability to generate income or its valuable proximity to the sea. She has not been allowed to challenge the appraisal. She said that when she resisted signing the agreement to the expropriation, a local official tried to intimidate her, saying "we'll throw you out of here no matter what."

"Human dignity" is at the center of the Olympic charter, but human-rights problems from forced evictions to migrant labor and press abuses marred the 2008 Beijing Games. Russia's Olympic obligations extend beyond erecting stadiums and staging ceremonies. Just as important as infrastructure is ensuring that rights abuses will not taint Russia's Olympic glory.

The IOC should visibly demonstrate a commitment to transparency by providing an opportunity for people affected by the Olympic construction to meet with Olympic officials to voice their concerns. Just as it now seeks to address environmental concerns related to the construction of venues, the IOC should take up the gathering negative impact of the Games on Sochi's human-rights climate -- what could be termed the "human environment" for the Games -- at the Copenhagen Olympic Congress this October. Since most of the construction has not yet begun, there is still time and opportunity to address these problems.

In addition, Olympic sponsors -- who literally pay for the Games -- should use their financial leverage to ensure the Sochi Games are not tainted. At a minimum, they could encourage the IOC to pay close attention to the potential for human-rights abuses in the lead up to the Games.

There is still time for the Russian government and the International Olympic Committee to learn the lessons from Beijing and set out clear requirements to guarantee rights protections for Sochi's residents. Unless they do so soon, some residents of Sochi who want to share in their country's Olympic dream will not be able to do so.

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