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Letter to the International Olympic Committee Regarding the Sochi Games and Murders of Russia’s Rights Defenders

Christophe de Kepper Chief of Staff, President's office

International Olympic Committee

Subject: Sochi Games and Murders of Russia's Rights Defenders

Dear Mr. De Kepper,

We are writing today to call your attention to recent developments of serious concern in Russia, including the abduction and killing of three civil society activists and a journalist in recent weeks.  We would also like to take this opportunity to share with you an opinion piece by Manfred von Richthofen, Honorary President of the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) regarding the need for the IOC to "insist that human rights relevant to the staging of the Games be enforced."

As we have repeatedly asserted in meetings and correspondence, we believe successful Olympic Games cannot be staged in an environment where serious human rights abuses are occurring.  When we met in March, we discussed the murder of leading human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who represented numerous victims of rights abuses in Chechnya, and was shot dead on the street after leaving a Moscow news conference. Anastasiya Baburova, a journalist who was with him, was also killed.

Since that time there has been a marked deterioration in conditions in Russia for the human rights and journalist community, and we are asking the IOC to take action. 

Kidnappings and Killings of Rights Advocates and Journalists

On July 15, unidentified men forced Natalia Estemirova, a leading human rights activist and researcher in Chechnya for the Russian human rights organization Memorial, into a car as she left her apartment to go to work. Estemirova's body was found hours later bearing gunshot wounds to the head and chest. Estemirova had been at the forefront of efforts to investigate human rights violations and work for accountability in Chechnya for more than 10 years. Her efforts brought criticism from the Chechen authorities, including the republic's president, Ramzan Kadyrov. Forces under his command have been implicated in multiple human rights abuses, including killings, torture, and enforced disappearances, yet only a handful of perpetrators have been held to account.

Less than a month after Estemirova's killing, on August 10, two civil society activists, Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband Alik Dzhabrailov were abducted from their office in Chechnya at gunpoint by men claiming to be from "security services."  Their bodies with bullet wounds were found several hours later in the trunk of Dzhabrailov's car. Sadulayeva was the head of the humanitarian organization Save the Generation, which helped children with disabilities in Chechnya.

On August 11, in neighboring Dagestan, a journalist known for his criticism of government authorities, Abdulmalik Akhmedilov, was shot by an unidentified gunman shortly after leaving his apartment on an errand. Akhmedilov was the deputy editor of a daily newspaper and a political monthly, and had sharply criticized federal forces and local law enforcement for suppressing religious and political dissent.

These killings are the latest in a series of attacks and killings of rights advocates, journalists, and others exposing or seeking accountability for human rights violations, particularly in Chechnya. In January, Umar Israilov, a Chechen who alleged he had been tortured by Kadyrov, was shot and killed in broad daylight in Vienna, where he was living in exile. In neighboring Dagestan, the office of a group that has investigated the forced disappearances of young men (Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights) was recently burned down in an arson attack. No arrests have been made in any of these cases.

These targeted attacks on outspoken critics of the Russian government all point to a disturbing climate of violence and impunity in the Caucasus region, where the Sochi Games will take place. Some cases show signs of possible government involvement. The attacks have a profound chilling effect on human rights activists, journalists, and others who might be in a position to expose government misconduct or violations of the law, including those outside of Chechnya or Dagestan.  Recent examples include the killing of rights activist Andrei Kulagin in the republic of Karelia in northern Russia and the arbitrary detention of another activist, Alexei Sokolov, in Ekaterinburg.

"Persecuted on a Systematic Basis"

These killings were widely denounced by foreign governments and international human rights and other organizations. In condemning the three recent murders in Chechnya, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner noted France's "deep preoccupation in the face of these particularly odious and cowardly crimes against human rights defenders in Chechnya, who appear to be persecuted on a systematic basis" and stressed the importance for Russia to protect human rights defenders.

The IOC has been silent on these killings, some of which have occurred within a few hundred miles of Sochi.

The International Olympic Committee is uniquely positioned to send a strong message to the Russian authorities condemning these killings and should call on President Dmitry Medvedev to publicly state that there will be zero tolerance for such crimes. Zero tolerance needs to include independent, effective, and timely investigations leading to the identification and prosecution of the perpetrators, and suitable punishment for those convicted. Without justice and a strong signal that the government will no longer permit such heinous crimes, the prevailing climate of impunity will persist and enable similar attacks in the future. It is hard to imagine the Sochi 2014 Olympics taking place as a festive sporting event in a climate of the most brutal violence and fear for civil society actors, and journalists.

The IOC's Chance to Implement Human Rights Reforms

Given the serious ongoing human rights concerns in Russia, we respectfully reiterate our call for the IOC to establish a standing human rights committee or similar mechanism to monitor the adherence by Olympic host countries to basic human rights standards-it is literally becoming a matter of life or death for Russia's journalists and civil society.

Details of our proposal are laid out in our official submission to the Copenhagen Olympic Congress, which is online here.  

As we have discussed many times, Human Rights Watch is not calling on the IOC to monitor Russia's criminal justice system, for example.  We are asking you to take up specific cases of rights abuses that violate the spirit and letter of the Olympic Charter, and that clearly will affect the climate in which the Games take place. 

As Manfred von Richthofen notes in his August 8 Süddeutsche Zeitung op-ed, "the IOC has proved on several occasions that it is capable of reacting to injustices," including by establishing the World Anti-Doping Agency, an ethics commission, and ensuring environmental standards during the preparation of the Games. Human Rights Watch strongly urges the IOC to seize this moment to adopt simple reforms that could protect the reputation of the Olympic movement going forward. 

We hope we can count on your support for Human Rights Watch's proposal for IOC reform, and we look forward to your response in advance of the Olympic Congress in Copenhagen.


Allison Gill                                                       Minky Worden

Director, Russia Office                                      Media Director

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