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Russia: Expert Testimony on the Situation for Human Rights Defenders

Given before PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights

In the run up to parliamentary and presidential elections, Russian leadership continued to make rhetorical commitments to human rights and the rule of law. However, harassment of human rights defenders continued and the working climate for civil society organizations and activists remained hostile. Impunity for past abuses and murders of activists in the North Caucasus prevailed, new attacks and even murders were documented, and the situation of human rights defenders, lawyers, and independent journalists in that region calls for special concern. The start of 2012 was marked by the killing of a lawyer and another local resident by law enforcement officials in Dagestan and the arbitrary detention and interference with the work of a staff member of the Joint Mobile Group of Russian NGOs in Chechnya by police.

On the evening of January 20, law enforcement officials shot and killed Umar Saidmagomedov, a Dagestani lawyer, and a local resident Rasul Kurbanov, in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. Saidmagomedov frequently defended individuals arrested on insurgency-related charges. His colleagues believe that Saidmagomedov was killed in retaliation for his work.

The official police report states that that police officers stopped a car, in which both Saidmagomedov and Kurbanov were sitting and asked for their identification documents. According to the official report, Kurbanov opened fire and the police started shooting in response, killing both men. However, Umar Saidmagomedov’s relatives and colleagues approached Memorial Human Rights Center and provided the Center with a strikingly different description of the fatal events, allegedly based on witness reports. According to them, that evening, Saidmagomedov was visiting Kurbanov, his distant relative in his home. As Saidmagomedov was leaving, Kurbanov walked him to the gate and when they were saying goodbye two apparent law enforcement officers drove up in an UAZ jeep (a vehicle generally used by law enforcement and military servicemen) and shot at Saidmagomedov at close range from a sub-machine gun. After Saidmagomedov fell to the ground Kurbanov attempted to hide behind the house, but the officers followed him and killed him and then showered Kurbanov’s car with bullets to create an illusion of a shootout. An elderly relative of Kurbanov tried to come out into the yard when he heard the first gunshots. He had a glimpse of the bodies but was ordered back into the house by law enforcement officials. More armed servicemen then arrived to the scene of events and took away the bodies and the car. Human Rights Watch has been unable to verify this account by the colleagues and relatives of Saidmagomedov but their allegations deserve a full and impartial investigation.

The situation for lawyers in Dagestan is gravely problematic. In 2010 Human Rights Watch documented 5 incidents of physical attacks and harassment of Dagestani lawyers by police or investigation officials that year. When in November 2010 one of the bar associations in Dagestan went on a month-long protest strike, the authorities pledged to look into the abuses against lawyers. However, 2011 brought no effective investigation into the lawyers’ complaints.

In 2011 Sapiyat Magomedova, a prominent local human rights lawyer, was charged with two criminal offenses — using violence against state officials and insulting police officers on duty. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison and the revocation of her law license. The prosecutor’s office also imposed travel restrictions on Magomedova, which prevented her from attending a prestigious international conference. Magomedova’s indictment appears to be an act of retaliation by law enforcement agencies for her human rights work as well as her personal quest for justice in connection with a vicious beating by police, which she suffered last year. Magomedova told Human Rights Watch that the charges against her were trumped up and, prior to being indicted, she was repeatedly approached by the investigator who attempted to talk her into withdrawing her own claim against police.

Journalists in Dagestan work in high risk conditions. The end of 2011 saw the brazen murder of Gadzhimurad Kamalov, founder and publisher of Dagestan’s leading independent weekly, Chernovik. He was killed close to midnight on December 15, in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. Kamalov had been working late and stepped out of Chernovik’s office to see off a visitor when a masked gunman opened fire, showering the publisher with bullets. According to police reports, after firing 14 shots at Kamalov, the gunman and a number of accomplices fled in two cars.

Gadzhimurad Kamalov founded Chernovik in 2003 and worked as its chief editor in 2005 and 2006, remaining its publisher. Chernovik eventually became very popular, with the second-largest print run in Dagestan. It was known for its editorial independence, investigative reporting, and special focus on such sensitive topics as corruption and human rights abuses by law enforcement and security agencies. In September 2009, leaflets with death threats against eight local journalists, including Kamalov, four lawyers, and four human rights activists in Dagestan appeared in Makhachkala. Their anonymous authors called for the “exterminat[ion of] bandits and vengeance for [killed] policemen.” When commenting on the “death list,” Kamalov told the news media that he thought the security services were behind it.

Chernovik’sjournalists have been the targets of harassment and threats, including through the criminal prosecution of its four journalists and the chief editor at the time, Nadira Isaeva, on charges of extremism and insulting state officials. After a long legal battle, a court in Makhachkala acquitted them early in the summer of 2011. However, Nadira Isaeva, a 2010 recipient of the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists, was forced to leave the newspaper following a vicious anonymous online campaign against her, which she has said she believes was initiated by local security officials.

According to statistics gathered by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the North Caucasus region of Russia continues to be one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world. Despite numerous promises by the Russian leadership to create normal working conditions for activists and journalists in the region, killings and physical attacks on investigative journalists continue.

Whistleblowers in Chechnya work in particularly dire conditions. The situation has significantly deteriorated since the still unpunished murder of Natasha Estemirova, a leading Chechen human rights defender, who was kidnapped near her apartment building in Grozny and killed in July 2009 apparently in retaliation for her courageous human rights work. Several weeks after the murder of Estemirova, two local charity activists, Zarema Saidulaeva and Alik Dzhabrailov, were also abducted by apparent law enforcement official and found dead hours later. The perpetrators in these crimes have not been held to account.

Under these circumstances, local activists are largely paralyzed by fear and are unable to work on sensitive cases of human rights violations, such as abductions, disappearances, extrajudicial killings and acts of torture. For that reason, the Joint Mobile Group of Russian Human Rights Organizations in Chechnya (Mobile Group), was established in November 2009 with lawyers and others from throughout Russia to work in Chechnya on a rotating basis. By now, the group is well known as the recipient of the 2011 Human Rights Prize of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for its supremely courageous work. The group’s staff has been threatened on numerous occasions and is subject to interference in its work by local law enforcement officers.

Soon after midnight on January 21, one of the leading members of the Mobile Group and a lawyer with the Committee against Torture, Anton Ryzhov, was detained by police while exiting a train on his arrival in Nizhny Novgorod after a five-week work trip to Chechnya. Police officers took Ryzhov to the train station precinct under the pretext of an identity check, and held him there until 4 a.m. They did not allow Ryzhov to make any phone calls or to make contact with a lawyer or his colleagues. They asked Ryzhov numerous questions about the work of the Mobile Group in Chechnya, refused to give him a copy of his written explanations, and despite his protests, seized his laptop computer and memory sticks. Police officers claimed they were acting on “operative information” that Ryzhov was allegedly bringing information relevant to “terrorist activities” from Chechnya. Ryzhov and his colleagues in the Joint Mobile Group view what the police did as a blatant intimidation attempt and a direct interference with their human rights work.

Throughout 2011 the Joint Mobile Group noted increasing pressure on its clients and colleagues. In June Supyan Baskhanov, a Chechen human rights lawyer who ran the Grozny office of the Committee against Torture and closely worked with the Joint Mobile Group, helped organize a small rally in Grozny to commemorate the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. The demonstration had been approved by the authorities and did not interfere with public order. However, police still dispersed it, detained Baskhanov and Magomed Alamov, another lawyer with the organization, and threatened them and their families with reprisals if they persevered in their efforts to hold police accountable for torture and other crimes. The Committee against Torture immediately filed a claim about the unlawful dispersal of the rally and threats against its local staff. However, the local investigation authorities refused to open a criminal case.

In July Baskhanov also learned from a senior police officer that law enforcement authorities were planning to accuse him of collaborating with insurgents and to have his law license revoked. His complaint to the authorities yielded no tangible results. By the end of 2011, most of the staff members of the Committee against Torture’s office in Grozny resigned from their jobs as a result of pressure from the local authorities, typically carried out through approaching and threatening their family members. Several clients of the Committee against Torture in Chechnya and Joint Mobile Group of Human Rights organization in Chechnya were also approached by law enforcement officials who threatened them with serious repercussions for their families if they dare continue their quest for justice.

In Chechnya not only victims of human rights violations but even civil society activists are often intimidated into silence and shed no light on threats and harassment that they experience. In spring 2011, a human rights activist in Chechnya was abducted and, according to the activist's account, was beaten by armed servicemen and severely threatened. Upon release, the kidnappers specifically warned the activist to keep silent. The activist also received several similar warnings on the phone in the next few months. Another activist had to flee Chechnya and stay in a safe place for the larger part of the year following explicit threats from a high ranking law enforcement official. Neither of the two made any official complaints or spoke to the media due to well-justified fear of retribution.    

Activists from other regions of Russia also faced serious problems, organizers of an international  civil society gathering, which was held as a side event to the June 2011 EU-Russia summit in Nizhny Novgorod, faced numerous threats and harassment by local authorities.

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 holding any public rallies during the summit. Olga Sadovskaya, deputy director of the Nizhny Novgorod Committee against Torture and one of the leading organizers of the NGO side event, noticed that she was being followed by an unknown vehicle. On the eve of the summit, she discovered that the license plates from her own car were missing and 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. In addition, all of Sadovskaya's bank cards, which she holds in three different banks, were blocked for "technical reasons" and remained blocked till after the summit. No effective investigation followed into Sadovskaya’s complaints to the authorities.

In June two unidentified men inflicted a severe beating on Bakhrom Hamroev, a longtime human rights defender who works on issues related to Central Asia and Islam with Memorial Human Rights. This attack, carried out on the stairway of Hamroev’s apartment building in Moscow, was the second beating that he suffered in just half-a-year. In December 2010, when Hamroev was trying to monitor a law enforcement raid on an apartment in Moscow, a plainclothes officer knocked him unconscious. No one has been held accountable for either attack.

May 2011 saw a series of violent attacks against individuals protesting the construction of a highway between Moscow and Saint-Petersburg through the Khimki forest. The violence against the environmental activists began when a group of about 40 activists set up a camp in the area of the Khimki forest where the highway is under construction and was mainly perpetrated by staff-members of the private security firm Vityaz, which was commissioned to protect the harvesting machinery. Also involved were unidentified men in civilian clothing, some of whom were masked. Activists reported most of the violent incidents to the police, who were slow to arrive at the scene and, in some instances, took no action to seek to identify, locate, or detain the attackers even when they were close to the scene. They also refused to open investigations into the attacks and threatened the activists with repercussions.

The protestors also informed Human Rights Watch of two instances of excessive use of police force. On May 8, about 200 people assembled in the town of Khimki for a peaceful gathering against the motorway project. The rally was suddenly and violently dispersed by riot police, who hit and kicked the protesters and dragged them onto a police bus. The protesters sustained various injuries from the beatings: one person’s arm was dislocated and another one suffered a cracked rib. On May 11, police detained two other activists. While they were in custody, a police officer allegedly hit and kicked one of them in the face, causing bruising and a cut lip, and kicked another one in the stomach multiple times. They reported the beating to the duty officer at the station but no effective investigation followed.

In the context of suppression of civil activism and attacks at whistleblowers, the acquittal of Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial Human Rights Center, on criminal slander charges in June 2011 was a welcome development. The slander case stemmed from Orlov's statement suggesting that Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, was responsible for the murder of the human rights advocate Natalia Estemirova in July 2009. Under Russia's criminal libel statutes, Orlov faced a potential sentence of up to three years in prison and few observers believed in the possibility of a fair trial, especially as Orlov had already lost a civil defamation case to Kadyrov in 2010. A Moscow court handed down the acquittal after a highly publicized trial that lasted nine months. Incidentally, one month prior to this ruling, President Medvedev introduced amendments to Russia's criminal code that decriminalized libel, making it instead an administrative offense. The bill was passed into law in December 2011, which is a meaningful advance for protecting whistle-blowers in Russia.

Another court verdict welcomed by Russian civil society was the conviction of two ultra-nationalists, Nikita Tikhonov and Evgenia Khassis, in May 2011 for the killing of a prominent human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, and a journalist from Novaya Gazeta, Anastasiya Baburova. Markelov, 36, and Baburova, 25, were killed in broad daylight in central Moscow in January 2009. This case stands as a unique example of an effective and prompt investigation into a killing of civil activists in contemporary Russia and is a part of an ongoing major police campaign against neo-Nazis.

In conclusion, I would like to say a few words about the recent developments in Russia – i.e. the massive peaceful demonstrations in Russia’s large urban centers that followed the December 2011 parliamentary vote. These protests certainly signify a resounding public rejection of the authoritarianism that has marked the Putin era. Having faced such a powerful wave of peaceful rallies for the first time in a decade, the Kremlin chose not to interfere with the protestors, largely allowing Russian citizens to exercise their right to free expression and assembly. Though there were some detentions of activists in the provinces, many thousand strong demonstrations were held in Moscow on December 10 and 24 without any police interference. These are indeed very inspiring changes that we’re witnessing in Russia today. However, Russia’s partners in the Council of Europe and the organization as a whole should exercise reasonable caution and refrain from concluding that the climate for civil society in the country has significantly improved.

It is indeed too early to make such optimistic conclusions. While the authorities permitted the demonstrations in mid-December and police largely did not interfere, that was not the case for much of 2011. Police frequently dispersed public rallies held by civil society activists and the political opposition, used excessive force, and arbitrarily detained peaceful protesters. The period between now and the March 4 presidential election is of paramount importance from the viewpoint of the protests’ evolvement and the authorities’ reaction.

Under the circumstances, the key question for PACE and Council of Europe agencies is how to support Russian activists appropriately and effectively, as they are striving to exercise their rights to free expression, free assembly, and participation in decision-making processes. The time is ripe to urge Russia to:

  1. Take specific steps towards fostering a normal working environment for civil society organizations and activists, and ensuring they are protected from persecution and harassment;
  2. Ensure a thorough and transparent investigation into the killings of Gadzhimurad Kamalov, Umar Saidmagomedov and Rasul Kurbanov;
  3. Closely examine the possibility of official involvement in the murder of Natalia Estemirova and other killings of activists and hold the perpetrators to account;
  4. Put an end to interference with the work of the Joint Mobile Group of Russian NGOs in Chechnya;
  5. Desist from undue interference with peaceful assemblies and freedom of expression.  

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