(Moscow) – The hostile climate in Russia for human rights work is worsening, Human Rights Watch said today. At a time when legislative amendments impose new restrictions on civil society and the Russian government is seeking to marginalize human rights groups, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher has received a series of text messages making direct and implicit threats to her.
Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch reported these threats sent to the mobile phone of Tanya Lokshina, senior Russia researcher, and urged Russian authorities to launch a prompt and comprehensive investigation and to hold those responsible accountable.
“These depraved threats are clearly designed to make people think twice about doing human rights work,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s essential for the authorities to conduct a serious investigation and to foster an environment that is safe for human rights work.”
The texts, which were sent between two and six times per day from September 28 to 30, 2012, made reference to Lokshina’s pregnancy and many other personal details. The senders of the messages also made a crude attempt to falsely link Lokshina to Islamic insurgents. One message read, “[We] are waiting for the birth of your child for him to join our fight for freedom, so help us Allah.”
Lokshina has been a prominent figure of Russia’s human rights movement for some 10 years, serving as director of the Moscow Helsinki Group and the human rights think-tank Demos before joining Human Rights Watch in 2008. While Lokshina works on a wide range of issues, she is widely known as one of the country’s leading experts on human rights in Russia’s troubled North Caucasus region. Most of the eleven messages referred to Lokshina’s pregnancy and implied that both she and her unborn child would come to harm in the near future. The authors claimed they were “nearby” coming after her and predicted an “uneasy ‘birth.’”
The messages contained direct and implicit threats by referring to very personal details about Lokshina’s movements and those of relatives, details of her pregnancy, and her unlisted home address.
The fact that the threats included this confidential information known only to Lokshina and a very small circle of friends suggests it was obtained through surveillance, with the possible involvement of law enforcement and security officials.
“These threats are serious and were obviously made to obstruct Human Rights Watch’s work,” said Roth. “We have filed a complaint with the authorities because we believe ultimately the authors threaten Lokshina with violence.”
In recent years, several prominent Russian journalists and activists exposing impunity for human rights abuses in the North Caucasus suffered harassment and violent attacks; several of them were killed. All the victims of violent attacks and murders are known to have received threatening text messages, including close to the time of the violence.
The threats also came amid a broad crackdown on Russia’s civil society since the return of President Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin. Laws rammed through the Duma in the summer imposed new restrictions on public assemblies, re-criminalized libel, and imposed new restrictions on internet content. A law adopted in July forces nongovernmental organizations that engage in “political work” and accept foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” On September 21 the Duma approved in first reading a law that, if adopted, would expand the definition of “treason” in ways that could criminalize international human rights advocacy.
Against this backdrop, government statements that criticize nongovernmental organizations and foreigners are on the rise.
“The climate for human rights advocacy in Russia is as bad as we’ve seen in 20 years,” said Roth. “Russia’s international partners should make clear that the surest route to pariah status is to reinstate the bleak human rights environment of the Soviet era. They should urge Russia to end the crackdown on human rights advocates and instead promote an environment that is safe and supportive of human rights work.”