(Moscow) – Russian authorities should stop harassing a leading human rights group and investigate the legality of a raid on its Moscow office on June 21-22, 2013.
Under the pretext that the group’s lease agreement had been terminated, law enforcement officials forcibly occupied the office of the Movement for Human Rights. The police physically removed staff and their supporters from the premises, injuring at least seven of them.
“This outrageous move against the Movement for Human Rights is a part of the unprecedented crackdown by the Kremlin on its critics,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia Division director at Human Rights Watch.
The incident coincides with the peak of the “foreign agents” campaign, during which hundreds of nongovernmental organizations all over Russia have been were subjected to intrusive inspections. At least 62 face sanctions or warnings for failure to register as “foreign agents” and other alleged compliance failures.
The Movement for Human Rights along with several other leading rights groups challenged the legality of the inspections and refused to submit documents to the prosecutor’s office for inspection. On April 18 a Moscow court found Lev Ponomarev, the group’s leader, in breach of prosecutors’ demands and fined him 2,000 rubles (US$61).
In the afternoon of June 21, a large group of police, Real Estate Committee officials, and private security agents entered the group’s office and demanded that the staff vacate the premises. Journalists from NTV, a pro-governmental television channel instrumental in the Kremlin’s smear campaign against civil society organizations, accompanied the officials.
The officials told the staff that the organization’s lease agreement with the Moscow City Real Estate Department had been terminated and that a new tenant – a municipal social welfare center – was to move in shortly. The Movement for Human Rights has been located there since the 1990s under a discounted rent granted by the city.
Ponomarev told Human Rights Watch that on February 15, the group had received a three-month notice of lease termination from the landlord and immediately asked city hall for assistance to extend the lease. He said that a reply from the deputy mayor dated May 24 said, “The Real Estate Department will revisit the issue of the lease prolongation after the debt [for the April and May rent] is paid.” The organization then paid rent for April, May, and June via wire transfer, and the funds were promptly deducted from their bank account and accepted by the recipient.
Staff members showed the deputy mayor’s letter and proof of payment to Real Estate Committee officials on the scene on June 21. The officials dismissed the documents as irrelevant and demanded the staff leave immediately, saying they were following “an extrajudicial procedure.”
Evgeny Bobrov, a housing law expert and a member of Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council, noted that Russian law does not provide for an out-of-court eviction procedure. Russia’s Ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, told the Interfax news agency that city authorities and law enforcement officials “tried to unilaterally solve the issue, which is subject to bilateral dispute, without addressing a court of law. And therefore, it was arbitrary.”
Ponomarev told Human Rights Watch that he had called the demands to vacate “unlawful” and refused to leave. Private security agents and police then blocked the office entrance. They intimidated and threatened the staff, prevented them from using the bathroom, and forcibly removed most staff from the building.
The police and private security agents then searched the office and seized documents without a search warrant. Among other things, they went through case files of applicants to the European Court on Human Rights. Then they summoned workers to install new locks on the doors and sealed them. Ponomarev said that two plainclothes officers appeared to be in charge of the raid.
Around midnight, the private security agents and the police denied Lukin, the ombudsman, access, although under Russian law the ombudsman has a right go anywhere he chooses, including closed institutions. The private security agents also denied three lawyers representing the activists access to the building.
At about 1:30 a.m., riot police in body armor approached the building and an hour later stormed the office, destroying furniture and equipment, and stepping all over documents.
They threw the staff and their supporters still in the building on the floor, ignoring offers by several of them to leave the building voluntarily, dragged them along the corridors and down the stairs, and handed them over to the private security agents at the entrance to the building.
The security agents threw the activists down on the asphalt. Ponomarev said that unidentified plainclothes agents kicked and beat the activists as they were dragged through the halls and down the stairs, leaving seven of them, including himself, with bruises and other injuries.
“This lawless search followed vicious kicking, beating, and dragging of activists and cries out for a complete investigation,” Williamson said. “The plainclothes agents who carried out the beatings need to be identified and punished, and the police officers who collaborated and allowed the beatings need to be held responsible.”
Ponomarev told Human Rights Watch that despite his repeated demands, the group’s representatives were not allowed to collect their equipment and documents from the premises until June 24. On June 27 Ponomarev filed official complaints with the investigative authorities and the prosecutor’s office. According to the authorities, an investigation has been opened.
On June 26 the Presidential Human Rights Council called an emergency meeting to discuss the case, with the participation of state officials. At the meeting, an Interior Ministry representative said that an internal inquiry was being conducted but that “[a]ccording to preliminary assessment, no violations were found in the actions of police officers” and that riot police “were only present there to ensure public order.” City hall representatives did not attend the meeting despite the Council’s request.
Following the meeting, Ponomarev met with Presidential Administration officials and presented case-related documents to them.
The search was a blatant violation of the rights to privacy and security of the person, Human Rights Watch said. It was also a gross interference with the right of victims to petition the European Court of Human Rights. Russia should comply with recommendations by authoritative intergovernmental institutions on the protection of human rights defenders and create a normal working climate for Russian activists.
In its 2008 Declaration on Council of Europe action to improve the protection of human rights defendersand promote their activities, the Committee of Ministersof the Council of Europe urged member states to “take effective measures to prevent attacks on or harassment of human rights defenders, ensure independent and effective investigation of such acts and to hold those responsible accountable through administrative measures and/or criminal proceedings.”
The United Nations Human Rights Council in its March 2013 resolution urged member countries “to create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can operate free from hindrance and insecurity, in the whole country and in all sectors of society, including by extending support to local human rights defenders.”
“What happened to the Movement for Human Rights is clearly a case of political harassment, not a mere dispute over an office space,” Williamson said.