(Moscow) – Russian authorities should immediately stop harassing Golos, the country’s main independent election monitoring group, Human Rights Watch said today. The harassment of Golos (“voice” in Russian) and its staff in the run up to the parliamentary elections held on December 4, 2011, is a worrying early sign of what may lie ahead for the presidential elections scheduled for March, Human Rights Watch said.
“The ever increasing harassment of Golos is possibly the starkest example of the authorities’ attempts to interfere with public scrutiny of elections in Russia,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The harassment of Golos should stop immediately.”
Human Rights Watch also called for the release of the many demonstrators who protested peacefully against the election results and were arrested on December 5 in Moscow and other Russian cities.
An international elections observation mission consisting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) announced on December 5 that “[d]espite the lack of a level playing field during the electoral process, voters took advantage of their right to express their choice.”
In a separate statement, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly said the Duma election was “well organized overall, but… the count…was characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulation, including serious indications of ballot box stuffing.”
The head of the short-term OSCE observer mission, Petros Efthymiou, said, “The elections were marked with interference from the authorities.”
On December 4, Golos’s website crashed after a large-scale hacker attack. The websites of several independent media outlets that published information about election-related violations crashed too, including Echo of Moscow Radio, Kommersant, and Slon Magazine. The Golos website remains inaccessible.
The email accounts by Lydia Shibanova, Golos’s director, and her deputy, have also been hacked and remain blocked, said a statement issued by Shibanova on December 5. According to Shibanova, the hackers reportedly have access to personal details of many Golos volunteers and to extensive correspondence among Golos staff.
Golos told Human Rights Watch that on election day many of its monitors were threatened and intimidated in various ways. For example, security guards and elections commission officials prevented monitors from entering the polling places or ordered them to leave on arbitrary pretexts. Some were prohibited from filming or taking photographs at the polling places. The mobile phones of a number of monitors were suddenly cut off from their networks. According to Golos, there were sudden cable, internet, and phone outages in at least two of their offices, and one experienced an “unexplained” electricity blackout.
In the week before the vote, several leading state-controlled media, including the Russian government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, published a series of critical articles about Golos, accusing the organization of being biased and corrupt.
A group of Kremlin-controlled State Duma deputies also filed a complaint against Golos with the Prosecutor General’s Office, alleging that the group operated in violation of Russia’s election law, arguing that as a recipient of foreign funding, Golos was trying to undermine the Russia state.
On November 27, in his statement at the United Russia congress, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin remarked that unspecified “recipients of grants” were following “the instructions of foreign governments” and interfering with the Russian elections.
On November 28, a film crew from the state-controlled NTV station forced their way into the Golos headquarters in Moscow. With their cameras on, the TV correspondents started questioning the staff aggressively, demanding to know why Golos was “disrupting” the election process. On Dec 2, NTV aired a half-hour documentary that contained sharp criticism of Golos. The organization is planning to file a defamation law suit against the TV channel.
On December 2, Golos was brought before an administrative hearing, accused of breaking an overly broad and vague law that prohibits publication not only of elections-related opinion polls but also other research relevant to the elections during the last five days before voting. The case was initiated on a complaint by the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, who referred in particular to an online map that showed complaints of election-related violations Golos received from citizens across the country.
Following on a speedy proceeding, the Meshchansky District court of Moscow fined Golos 30,000 rubles (US$1,000) for violating elections legislation. The court did not acknowledge that the information Golos posted was about alleged wrongdoing related to the elections, not party politics, and should have been protected from sanction under international standards of freedom of expression.
On December 3, the head of Golos was stopped at Sheremetevo International Airport when returning to Moscow from abroad. The customs officials confiscated Shibanova’s laptop computer, saying they needed to “examine” the software on it. According to Shibanova, she insisted that her laptop should be searched only in the presence of her lawyer. However, the authorities claimed in response that she had not been “officially detained” and was therefore not entitled to consult a lawyer.
After 12 hours at the airport, Shibanova was forced to leave without her laptop, which remains in the possession of the customs officials.
Under new Russian rulesfor monitoring elections, only government and intergovernmental organizations can qualify as international monitoring bodies, and Russian citizens may not be members of international monitoring missions. Because the government may deny entry to the country for foreign members of international organizations at any time, barring monitoring groups from hiring Russians means that a group could effectively be prevented from carrying out its monitoring activities.
The Russian authorities should put an immediate end to the intimidation campaign against Golos and foster a favorable climate for watchdog organizations leading up to the March 2012 presidential vote, Human Rights Watch said.
Golos, founded in 2000 to protect electoral rights, is active in 40 regions of Russia. It exposes violations of Russian election legislation and relevant international standards on federal, regional, and local levels. It also works to raise public awareness about electoral rights and changes in domestic elections-related legislation.
It is not the first timeRussian authorities tried to sanction Golos to inhibit its work. Before the 2007 Duma vote, the Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit to dissolve the organization’s branch in Samara. The Supreme Court ruled against the ministry.
“Barring Russian citizens from actively monitoring the vote in their own country is sad enough,” Williamson said. “Punishing them for exposing violations is a terrible omen for the rule of law in Russia.”