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Russia: As Olympics Launch, Sochi Abuses Loom

Protect Workers, Ensure Fair Compensation and Free Speech in 2014 Olympics Prep

(Moscow) – Russia’s preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi should be carried out with full respect for human rights, in particular for those engaged in or affected by Olympic construction, Human Rights Watch said today.  

Human Rights Watch also said Russian officials should not silence those reporting on human rights abuses or concerns of legitimate public interest in Sochi as the countdown to the Winter Games begins.

“The opening of the Olympic Games in London means that the countdown to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi is underway,” said Jane Buchanan, senior researcher on Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “But in Russia’s preparations for the Games, the fundamental Olympic principle of human dignity has at times been ignored, with workers, Sochi residents, and activists facing serious abuses.”

Human Rights Watch has been researching human rights abuses in and around Sochi in the context of Russia’s preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics since 2009.

Abuses Human Rights Watch has documented include:

  • Exploitation of  some migrant workers working on Olympic sites and other construction projects;
  • Forced evictions and illegal land expropriations of some residents relocated to make way for Olympic venues and infrastructure;
  • Harassment and intimidation of journalists and activists who have sought to report on or protest Olympics-related concerns.

Migrants abused
Some migrant workers working on Olympic venues and related infrastructure have faced exploitation and abuse. Abuses include confiscation of passports, non-payment of wages, failure to provide employment contracts, and violations of basic safety standards. Workers have traveled to Sochi for work on Olympic projects from Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and other countries as well as from other parts of Russia, including the North Caucasus, in search of steady work and decent salaries.

For example, Rustam R. (not his real name), a migrant construction worker from Uzbekistan, told Human Rights Watch that he worked for six months on a major Olympic venue, but received wages for only three months of work. The wages were far less than he had been promised. The subcontractor hiring Rustam R. and the 40 other men who worked in his group did not provide written employment contracts or work permits for the men, as required under Russian law.

“Every month for three months they promised I would get paid,” said Rustam R. “But in the end, nothing happened.”

Forced evictions
In order to realize its massive construction plans in Sochi, including approximately 400 buildings and infrastructure projects, the Russian government has forcibly resettled at least 1,500 homeowners and their families. Hundreds of others have seen their properties or the areas closely surrounding it irreparably altered as a result of construction. The government has not provided a transparent process for compensation and in many cases provided homeowners with unfair compensation or inadequate alternative housing.

In at least one case, the authorities are threatening to evict a family without any compensation whatsoever. Sergei Khlistov has been living with his family in a modest two-story home in the Adler section of Sochi for sixteen years. Since June, the authorities have been threatening to demolish the home without providing monetary compensation or resettlement following a protracted legal dispute initiated by the Russian authorities. Local authorities claim that the family’s home is illegally constructed, despite the fact that they twice issued the house a technical passport and for many years collected taxes on the structure.

“For the government to suddenly decide that the home is illegal is ludicrous, especially since the authorities collected taxes on the property but now don’t want to compensate the family for what is rightfully theirs,” Buchanan said. “This family is in a desperate situation: under no circumstances should the family, which includes two small children, be evicted without compensation or an alternative, comparable home to go to.”

A number of homeowners who protested the compensation offered to them and who remained in their homes have been violently evicted without respect for their dignity and safety.

Journalists and activists threatened
Human Rights Watch interviewed several journalists and civil society activists who have faced threats, harassment, and censorship after publicizing concerns about the Olympics or related construction. One journalist told Human Rights Watch, “The pressure on journalists is unprecedented. For example, we are not allowed to report on Olympic-related housing problems or do stories about people who had problems after having been resettled because of the Olympics. … These stories will never pass through the censorship process. It is extremely difficult and frustrating to be a journalist in Sochi.”

The journalist described a standing expectation that her editor provide materials on certain subjects to local authorities for “pre-approval.” She also described how her editor will revise or cut material she writes on controversial subjects if it gets published at all. The journalist understands that the pressure for this comes from local authorities who want to control negative information about Sochi.

“The people of Sochi and outside of it have a right to learn about all issues related to their community, including related to the Olympics, both the good and the not so rosy,” Buchanan said. “The Russian authorities should immediately stop pressuring editors and journalists and allow objective reporting on all subjects of public interest.”

The role of the IOC
Human Rights Watch has raised these and other concerns repeatedly with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since 2008. One of the IOC’s main roles, according to the Olympic Charter, is to “promote a positive legacy from the Olympic Games to the host cities and host countries.”

Human Rights Watch said that the IOC has taken action on a handful of concrete cases and achieved some positive results, but that these steps have not been enough to prevent ongoing serious rights violations occurring as a direct result of the preparation for the Games in Sochi.

Human Rights Watch called on the IOC to take a number of steps to prevent and remedy abuses in Sochi in conjunction with the preparations for the Winter Games. The IOC should insist that the government ensure protections for all workers employed on Olympics-related sites and also establish an independent commission to investigate and report on labor-related abuses relating to Olympics venues. The IOC should also call on the government to ensure fair and transparent compensation for those facing resettlement or who have already been resettled and insist that the government effectively respond to any complaints about compensation or resettlement, including for those who have already been resettled.  

“The people who are living in and around Sochi shouldn’t be suffering because the Olympics are coming to town,” said Buchanan. “The IOC and Russian officials have the authority and the responsibility to ensure that the 2014 Games leave a positive legacy, beyond sports arenas, for the people of Russia.”


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