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The Russian authorities should free the human rights defender Aleksei Sokolov and drop unsubstantiated charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today. Sokolov, a prisoners' rights advocate and a member of a public prison-monitoring board, was charged on May 22, 2009, with robbery for an incident alleged to have taken place in 2004.

"The charges against Sokolov appear to be politically motivated, and he should be freed immediately unless the prosecutor can provide credible evidence of criminal activity that would justify his lawful detention" said Allison Gill, Moscow office director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities should scrutinize carefully the basis on which these charges were brought, as well as a possible connection between the charges and his important work monitoring prison conditions."

Sokolov is charged with the theft of welding equipment from a remote industrial facility in Sverdlovsk province. Sokolov's lawyer, Roman Kachanov, said that the charges are based entirely on the testimony of two inmates serving sentences for unrelated crimes at a prison colony in Sverdlovsk province. Investigations into the theft were closed and reopened several times, most recently immediately before Sokolov's detention on May 13 and implication in the theft.

It is also possible that the two men now accusing him did so following ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said, as Sokolov's lawyer noted that both men had appealed to Sokolov's nongovernmental organization (NGO) Pravovaya Osnova (Legal Basis) in the past claiming abuse by the prison officials. Sokolov's lawyer said that he is unaware of any other evidence linking Sokolov to the 2004 theft, and that his client's name first came up in connection with the 2004 incident around the time of his arrest.

Sokolov heads Pravovaya Osnova and has worked to expose torture and abuse in Russian prisons. In 2006, he distributed "Factory of Torture or Educational Experience," a documentary film that revealed abuse of inmates in detention facilities in and around Yekaterinburg, and described how the authorities at one facility coerce prisoners into making confessions. A clip from the film, showing prison guards beating inmates with truncheons, was shown on Russian and international television and circulated widely on the internet.

Sokolov also serves as a member of a public prison-monitoring board, to which he was appointed in January 2009, which is legally authorized to visit detention facilities, speak with detainees, and monitor detention practices.

According to a statement by Sokolov transmitted to his lawyer, on May 13, four men, one in a police uniform, approached Sokolov near his home, where he was walking with his 2-year-old daughter. The men said they were from the police, confiscated Sokolov's mobile phone, tackled him, threw him to the ground, handcuffed him, and grabbed his daughter.

One of the policemen summoned Sokolov's wife to take their daughter. The policemen then drove Sokolov to the local police station. According to the statement, on the way to the station, they hit Sokolov several times and threatened him, telling him the police may not be able to beat him but that they would "find other ways to torture" him. Apparently referring to his prison oversight work, they also told him that "the police aren't under anyone's control."

"The circumstances of Sokolov's charges speak volumes," said Gill. "Sokolov is charged based on the accusations of two prisoners who have complained about abuse and forced confessions in the past, giving rise to serious concern that coercion or duress were used against these men."

Sokolov's colleagues and wife will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. on May 27 in the Independent Press Center (ul. Prechistenka, building 17/9, entrance from the courtyard).

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