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(Moscow) - European Union leaders should address the hostile climate for human rights defenders in Russia during talks at the EU-Russia Summit on June 9 and 10, 2011, in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, Human Rights Watch said today. Specifically, they should raise the harassment and intimidation experienced by a number of civil society activists in the run-up to the summit.

Human Rights Watch said President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, and High Representative Catherine Ashton should voice their concerns publicly with the Russian delegation to the summit, led by President Dmitry Medvedev, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Minister for Economic Development Elvira Nabiullina.

"Despite repeated pledges by Russia's leadership to ensure normal working conditions, human rights activists in Russia regularly face intimidation and harassment," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It's outrageous that activists are being harassed because of their activities in the lead-up to the summit. EU leaders should make it clear they won't tolerate threatening activists for their legitimate human rights work."

Examples of recent government interference with human rights activists include:

  • The recently-established EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, which includes a number of prominent Russian human rights groups, planned a news conference on June 9 as a side event to the EU-Russia summit. The organizers wanted to highlight their suggestions for civil society initiatives related to human rights, the rule of law, and democracy, to be implemented as part of the EU-Russia dialogue. After agreeing initially to host the news conference, the Rosbalt press-center on June 8 unexpectedly and without explanation withdrew their offer for use of the venue. The organizers of the event, including the prominent Russian human rights groups Nizhny Novgorod Committee against Torture and "Public Verdict" Foundation, believe Rosbalt's refusal came as a direct result of government interference designed to prevent human rights activists from making critical statements during the summit.
  • In the weeks prior to the summit, law enforcement officials in Nizhny Novgorod spoke on the phone or met with at least 10 local human rights activists to warn them against organizing any public protests during the summit. Stanislav Dmitrievsky of the Russia-Chechen Friendship Society told Human Rights Watch that the prosecutor's office invited him for a "conversation" to discuss plans to take part in public activities during the summit. Dmitrievsky refused and the official threatened to issue a summons. Another activist and Dmitrievsky's deputy, Ilya Shamasov, was visited by officials from the Nizhny Novgorod police department's anti-extremism unit, who also inquired about his plans to organize or take part in public protests during the summit.
  • On June 8, officials from the Nizhny Novgorod Prosecutor's Office requested that Olga Sadovskaya, deputy director of the Nizhny Novgorod Committee against Torture and one of the leaders of the Civil Society Forum coordinating committee, visit the prosecutor's office for an "informal conversation" about the upcoming Civil Society Forum press conference.

Sadovskaya told Human Rights Watch that while driving to the prosecutor's office for the meeting, she noticed that her car was being followed by an unknown vehicle.

Sadovskaya described the meeting with officials at the prosecutor's office as non-contentious, with officials simply asking her to inform them of the plans of the Civil Society Forum during the summit. However, when Sadovskaya returned to her car after the meeting, she found that the license plates on her car were missing. She reported the apparent theft to the nearest patrol police officer, who ignored her and drove off without taking any action. Within 30 minutes, the same police officer pulled over Sadovskaya for driving without license plates and took her to the police station to document an administrative offense. Driving without license plates is punishable by a fine and possible confiscation of a driver's license for up to three months. In addition, all of Sadovskaya's bank cards, which she holds in three different banks, were blocked for "technical reasons" a few days before the summit and remain blocked as of this writing.

The EU normally restricts its conversations, at least in public, on human rights in Russia to twice-yearly human rights consultations.

"Human rights and the protection of activists shouldn't be confined solely to occasional human rights consultations, which have done little to improve the situation in Russia," Williamson said. "It is high time the EU put human rights discussions firmly on the agenda at the summit level."

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