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(Moscow) – Authorities in Sochi have inspected the Sochi office of Memorial, one of Russia’s leading human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch said today. The inspection came the day after the office’s coordinator handed the local prosecutor’s office a complaint alleging serious violations against migrant workers by a company involved in construction for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“The timing of this surprise inspection makes it difficult to draw any conclusion other than it is sheer retribution,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of bullying the messenger, the Russian authorities should investigate the allegations of abuse.”

Semyon Simonov, coordinator of Memorial’s Migration and Law Network in Sochi, told Human Rights Watch that officials from the tax inspectorate, the Federal Security Service, and the prosecutor’s office arrived at Memorial’s office at 11 a.m. on July 23. The officials arrived approximately 90 minutes after Simonov had received a phone call from officials informing him that the inspection would take place. A statement published by Memorial said that the officials claimed there had been a complaint against the group but refused to provide any details. They asked to see all the documents relating to the office’s work and read through several files on migrant worker cases that were in folders in plain sight. They did not try to search the organization’s premises or gain access to their computers and did not remove any documents.

The officials called the landlord of the building where Memorial rents the office space and asked for a copy of the lease.

On July 22 Simonov hand-delivered a ten-page complaint to the Adler district prosecutor’s office describing a range of alleged violations by the construction company. The alleged violations included confiscating migrant workers’ identity documents – in some cases for three to four months at a time – failure to pay promised wages and to provide workers with copies of their contracts, and failure to provide sanitary living conditions.

Among those affected by the alleged abuses are migrant workers who are building the Main Media Center for the Olympic Games.

Russia will host the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in February. Tens of thousands of migrant construction workers from Russia and from outside of Russia have been employed on the venues and infrastructure necessary for the games, which will be the most expensive ever at an estimated US$50 billion. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented abuse and exploitation of dozens of migrant workers engaged in Olympic construction, including on the Main Media Center.

“This inspection is intimidation, pure and simple,” Buchanan said. “And sadly, it is not the first time the authorities have had in their crosshairs the people exposing abuses against migrant workers.”

In April police detained a migrant worker as he attempted to visit Memorial’s Sochi office to file acomplaint about wage arrears. He was released after seven hours and,after an international outcry, misdemeanor charges against him were dropped.

Where cases of mistreatment or human rights abuse are identified – and are clearly related to the staging of the Olympic Games – the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is committed to follow up on those issues. 

“It’s hard to see how the IOC can get the information it needs when the government is trying to harass and intimidate the only organization in Sochi documenting abuses against migrant workers,” Buchanan said. “The IOC should immediately urge the Russian authorities to stop the harassment of Memorial’s Sochi office and ensure that workers don’t suffer reprisals for filing complaints about abuse.”

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