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Russia: Silencing Activists, Journalists ahead of Sochi Games

Six Months Before Olympics Launch, Fresh Concerns about Intimidation

(Moscow) – Local authorities have harassed numerous activists and journalists who criticized or expressed concerns about preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The six-month countdown to the Sochi Games opening ceremony is this week. 

Human Rights Watch has documented government efforts to intimidate several organizations and individuals who have investigated or spoken out  against abuse of migrant workers, the impact of the construction of Olympics venues and infrastructure on the environment and health of residents, and unfair compensation for people forcibly evicted from their homes. Human Rights Watch also documented how authorities harassed and pursued criminal charges against journalists, apparently in retaliation for their legitimate reporting.

“Trying to bully activists and journalists into silence is wrong and only further tarnishes the image of the Olympics,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “One of the non-negotiable requirements of hosting the Olympics is to allow press freedom, and the authorities’ attempts to silence critics are in clear violation of that principle.”

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has committed to follow up on cases of mistreatment of workers and other human rights abuses that are clearly related to the staging of the Olympic Games. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Olympic Charter, which has an entire section on “Media Coverage of the Olympic Games.” The IOC is obligated to take “all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media.” Other by-laws require that “media coverage of the Olympic Games shall not be impaired in any way….”

Starting in 2008, Human Rights Watch has documented the harassment and intimidation of activists, journalists, and others, regarding their actions and comments related to the Sochi Games.

“Preparations for the Sochi Games have been plagued with serious human rights abuses and other problems, many of which have only been brought to light through the efforts of activists and journalists,” Buchanan said. “If the IOC is committed to these issues, it should ask the Russian authorities to immediately stop harassing activists, organizations, and journalists, and investigate allegations of abuse.”

The police have allowed some peaceful protests in Sochi on environmental and other issues. However, environmental, human rights, and citizen activists have also been the targets of attacks, detention for peaceful protests, and police searches. Two nongovernmental organizations actively involved in documenting abuses committed in the preparations for the Games were subject to intrusive government inspections, including at least one organization that had its email accounts examined.

Although media coverage of preparations for the Olympics is diverse, with some media establishments critical of preparation for the Olympics, and others eschewing such coverage, Human Rights Watch spoke to editors, journalists, bloggers, and staff of news outlets who have faced threats and harassment after publicizing violations or concerns about the Olympics or other issues of concern in Sochi. Criminal charges are being brought against at least two journalists and the general director of a newspaper, apparently in retaliation for their work.

Some journalists told Human Rights Watch that local authorities sought to control negative or critical information about Sochi by pressuring editors to present Olympic preparations exclusively in a “positive” light. In addition, several independent online news sources and blogs that post critical materials about Olympics preparations faced highly coordinated, disabling denial of service attacks, where hackers rendered the sites inaccessible.

“Press freedom is a central tenet of the Olympic Charter and no successful Games can take place in an atmosphere in which journalists are afraid to report on stories of legitimate public interest,” Buchanan said. “The IOC should insist that the Russian authorities guarantee full media freedom for each and every journalist reporting in or traveling to Sochi.”

Harassment and intimidation of civil society in Sochi should be seen against the backdrop of the crackdown on human rights in Russia that has been underway for 15 months since the May 2012 inauguration of President Vladimir Putin.

During that time new laws were adopted restricting public assemblies, re-criminalizing libel, criminalizing religious insult, introducing additional restrictions on internet content, expanding the definition of treason, and banning “propaganda” for “nontraditional sexual relations.” A nationwide, government campaign to force nongovernment groups that accept foreign funding and engage in vaguely-defined “political activity” to register as foreign agents aims to curtail a broad range of work by independent organizations.

“Activists across Russia who expose abuses are under unprecedented pressure, and Sochi is no exception,” Buchanan said. “The IOC has a critical opportunity to promote human dignity – a central goal of the Olympic movement – by insisting that the Russian authorities ensure the very basic right for all activists, whether critics or supporters, and that individuals and organizations can voice their views and not face reprisals.”


Harassment and Pressure on Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)

Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC)
Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC) isa leading regional environmental watchdog organization that in recent years has sought to draw attention to the impact on the environment of construction for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. The organization and its criticisms of the environmental consequences of Olympics-related construction in Sochi  was the target of one of the most intrusive inspections during the Russian government’s nationwide NGO inspection campaign aimed at identifying “foreign agents” and forcing them to register as such.

On March 27, 2013, an inspection team visited EWNC’s office in Maykop (118 kilometers northeast of Sochi) without presenting an inspection notice. The team consisted of officials from local departments of the Federal Security Service, the prosecutor’s office, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Center for Combatting Extremism.The officials were particularly interested in the organization’s activities related to preparations for the Olympic Games. They urged the group not to publish its report on environmental consequences of the Olympic preparations in order “not to harm the country.” When the group refused, inspectors said they would examine the group’s computers for unlicensed software and inspect its email account, threatening to fine the organization if anyone tried to hinder them.

“As we had nothing secret in our emails, we decided to give them access to our account,” Andrey Rudomakha, EWNC’s coordinator, told Human Rights Watch. Officials from the prosecutor’s office and the Center for Combating Extremism went through EWNC’s email account for 1.5 hours and left the office.

Following the inspection, the prosecutor’s office issued the group a warning dated April 29, which the group’s director received only on July 20, stating that the EWNC should register as a “foreign agent” because the group’s statutory goals showed it was involved in “political activity” and that it received foreign funding.

In addition, as described in the sections below, in 2012, several of the organization’s activists were the targets of trumped-up criminal and misdemeanor charges.

Migration and Law Network
A program with the Memorial Human Rights Center, one of Russia’s leading human rights groups, the Migration and Law Network works in more than 40 regions in Russia to provide pro-bono legal assistance to refugees and migrant workers. In Sochi, the program documents abuses against migrant workers involved in the construction of Olympics venues and other infrastructure and helps them obtain redress from abuses, for example by assisting them in recovering unpaid wages.

On July 23, 2013, a team of officials conducted an unplanned inspection at the Sochi office space Memorial uses for its Migration and Law Network program. The inspection happened one day after the program coordinator handed the local prosecutor’s office a complaint alleging serious violations against migrant workers by a company involved in construction for the Games.

Semyon Simonov, the network’s coordinator 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., 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, which Simonov said were with the organization’s head office in Moscow. The officials read through several files containing complaints of abuse filed by migrant workers 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 also called the landlord of the building where Memorial rents the office space and asked for a copy of the lease.

Following up on the inspection, on June 25 the tax inspectorate questioned Simonov and stated that he paid taxes in Moscow rather than locally, as he is obligated to do under Russian law. Simonov referred the tax authorities to Memorial’s head office in Moscow.

On June 22, the day before the inspection, Simonov hand-delivered a ten-page complaint to the Adler district prosecutor’s office that described a range of alleged violations by a construction company engaged in Olympic construction. 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.

Simonov told Human Rights Watch that usually when he delivers complaints to the prosecutor’s office, the secretary simply puts it on the desk, and “it takes four days [for them] to look at it.” On July 22, however, “as soon as the secretary got [the complaint] from me, she went to prosecutor’s office and gave it to him personally.”

In April 2013, police detained a migrant worker as he attempted to visit Memorial’s Sochi office to file a complaint about wage arrears. He was released after seven hours and, after an international outcry, misdemeanor charges against him were dropped.

LGBT Pride House
An Olympic Pride House has been organized during recent Olympic Games. Past Pride Houses served to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights and awareness during the Olympic Games, offered information regarding homophobia in sports, and provided a recreational meeting place for LGBT athletes during the Games. The first Pride House was created for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and a Pride House was also part of the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

In October 2011, a group of LGBT activists submitted documents to register a Pride House in Sochi, but two months later, Krasnodar region authorities rejected the request, citing the fact that the organization’s name was not “written in the Russian language” in the registration documents. In February 2012 a court upheld the rejection, citing alleged errors in the registration documents.

The judge also stated that the purpose of the organization would “contradict the foundations of public morality and government policy in the area of protection of the family, motherhood and childhood” and that its activity could “undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation as a result of the reduction of its population.”

In August 2012 the founders of the Sochi Pride House filed an application regarding the rejection with the European Court of Human Rights. Human Rights Watch has written to the IOC to protest both the LGBT Pride House denial and a discriminatory law banning dissemination among minors of information “promoting” “nontraditional sexual relations,” which is widely understood as a ban on any information about LGBT people that is not negative.

Sochi Branch of the Russian Geographic Society
Between 2009 and 2012, the Sochi branch of the Russian Geographic Society (RGS), one of Russia’s most respected scientific groups, has repeatedly come under threat of losing its independent status and closure. 

The RGS’s Sochi branch has been in operation for 55 years and has existed as a legal entity for 13 years. Its members are outspoken on environmental and social issues, including the protection of Sochi’s environment in the context of preparations for the Games. On many occasions, branch members protested against the construction of Olympics venues and infrastructure in areas of Sochi that are federally protected nature preserves.

At a 2009 emergency convening of the RGS’s governing council, the council announced its decision to replace the society’s leadership and alter the organization’s charter. Among the statutory changes introduced by RGS’s new management, which included several senior government officials, was to deny municipal branches of the society the right to legal status.

In February 2012, the new management sent an email notification to the staff of the Sochi branch informing them of the decision, made in compliance with the amended charter of the organization, to shut down the branch. In September 2012 at a meeting in Moscow, the society’s governing council warned the Sochi branch representative that if the branch did not “self-liquidate” within one month, the council would sue the branch for violating the new charter.

In December 2012 Maria Reneva, the executive scientific secretary of the Sochi RGS branch told Human Rights Watch that the staff considered the sudden overhaul of the society and the decision to deprive municipal branches of legal status to be aimed at stifling their independent work. In particular, Reneva said, losing their legal status eliminated the possibility of receiving direct financial support, leaving the branch entirely financially dependent upon the regional offices, which are, in turn, financially dependent upon the organization’s executive management and governing council. Although the staff of the Sochi branch continues to work, the future of the organization remains uncertain, as the branch could be closed by a court decision at any time.

Reneva also told Human Rights Watch that the organization had come under pressure from the Sochi administration, which on numerous occasions expressed interest in acquiring the historic building in which houses the Sochi RGS branch operates and replacing it with a large multistory “expedition center.” Without independent legal status, Reneva said, the Sochi branch will no longer be able to protect its building, which houses the RGS Sochi branch office archives, a geographical library for the city, and a museum of geology of the Caucasus.

In April 2013, a court declined RGS’s petition to liquidate the Sochi branch. According to a letter from RGS to the Sochi branch, further action by the RGS is not expected before the end of 2014, when the society’s congress is scheduled to take place.

DDoS attacks
Human Rights Watch has documented five cases of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on the websites of independent groups, blogs, and news portals that conveyed criticism of the preparations for the Games. The sheer number of these attacks and the similarity of their targets suggested some degree of coordination or direction, possibly by the authorities or their proxies. For example, a staff member of the Sochi branch of the Russian Geographic Society, whose members spoke out for the protection of Sochi’s environment in the preparation for the Games, told Human Rights Watch that in January 2012 the organization’s website was subjected to a large-scale hacker attack that made their website inaccessible for eight days. That month the websites of at least three news outlets and blogs – including Sochi News, Privet Sochi, and Blog Sochi – had their sites interrupted by repeated hacker attacks.

In September 2012, the EWNC’s website was not accessible for almost a week due to a large-scale cyber attack. A member of the group told Human Rights Watch that the attack coincided with the publication of an EWNC press release covering visits to Sochi by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Conservation Union. The group’s representative also told Human Rights Watch that the group’s website frequently experiences hacker attacks, which appear to be linked in time with coverage of controversial environmental issues, including violations connected to preparations for the 2014 Winter Games.

Harassment and Intimidation of Environmental and Civic Activists

Suren Gazaryan and Evgeniy Vitishko
In June 2012, environmental scientists Suren Gazaryan and Evgeniy Vitishko were convicted on criminal charges of causing damage to a construction fence following a flawed, politically motivated trial.

Gazaryan, a biologist, is an EWNC board member and an outspoken government critic on environmental and other issues, including allegations of state corruption and environmental concerns related to preparations for the Olympic Games.

The authorities accused Gazaryan and Vitishko, a geologist and EWNC member, of “causing significant damage to private property” during a 2012 rally they held in Tuapse, a city on the Black Sea. The protesters called for the protection of the Black Sea coast and nearby forest and denounced the construction of a private dacha allegedly belonging to the governor of the Krasnodar region, Alexander Tkachev, on the territory of the state forest there. As part of the rally, some of the activists painted graffiti on the fence surrounding the construction, including, “Alex [Tkachev] is a thief” and “This is our forest.” After reaching a guilty verdict despite a flawed trial, a court handed Gazaryan and Vitishko disproportionately harsh, three-year conditional sentences.

In August 2012 regional authorities opened a new investigation against Gazaryan stemming from events on August 2, when Gazaryan and a group of fellow activists went to a Black Sea resort to examine a private marina, which they believed was being built without complying with legal requirements, to conduct an environmental impact assessment and hold public hearings. While at the site, a private security guard armed with a rubber truncheon approached Gazaryan, grabbed him, twisted his arm behind his back, and tried to take his phone. Feeling threatened, Gazaryan told Human Rights Watch, he wrestled free, picked up a small rock, and told the guard to keep his distance. Gazaryan said he then turned around, dropped the rock, and walked away.

The authorities alleged that Gazaryan’s actions – which they concede in the investigation files consisted only of picking up a rock and a verbal communication – amounted to threatening to kill the security guard. In light of Gazaryan’s probation period under the previous sentence, he could face a prison sentence of up to five years if convicted of the new charges. After learning about the new criminal charges, Gazaryan fled Russia.

In December 2012, the Russian authorities declared Suren Gazaryan a fugitive, and a court extended Vitishko’s probation period and imposed additional restrictions because he allegedly breached a curfew violation, an allegation that Vitishko has disputed.

Vladimir Kimaev
At approximately 3 p.m. on May 28, 2013, investigative teams arrived simultaneously at the apartment and at the dacha of Vladimir Kimaev, an environmental activist with EWNC. Kimaev has documented and publicized environmental and other concerns related to preparations for the Olympic Games, including landslides, river pollution, and deforestation. Kimaev is also a local leader of the opposition political party Yabloko. Kimaev was not at either of his residences when the searches took place, although some of his family members were. Investigators did not remove anything during the searches.

Officials claimed they were searching Kimaev’s homes for weapons and explosive materials (vzrivchatka) in conjunction with the criminal case against a man convicted for attempting to detonate homemade bombs in Sochi. The authorities claim that Kimaev is a witness in the case; Kimaev’s lawyer, Alexander Popkov, told Human Rights Watch that Kimaev has never met the convicted man. The authorities have taken no other investigative steps, such as questioning, vis-à-vis Kimaev either before or since the searches.

According to Kimaev and Popkov, officials committed a number of procedural violations during the searches. For example, at each residence, the authorities presented a search warrant but did not provide a copy to residents at either location, as required under law. The house number in the search warrant presented by the authorities who arrived at Kimaev’s dacha was incorrect. Police left and returned a short while later, too little a time for them to have been able to receive a new warrant approved by a court, but yet produced a new warrant with the correct address. On May 30 Popkov filed a motion to gain access to the search warrants, but prosecutors refused. A court later authorized access.   

Popkov also subsequently learned that neither the warrant for the apartment search nor the corrected warrant for the dacha search were authorized by a court but were rather signed by investigators only, a measure envisaged under Russian law in only exceptional circumstances. 

Following the searches, some members of Kimaev’s family have pressured him to stop his activism.

Natalia Kalinovskaya
Natalia Kalinovskaya, head of a local community board in the Pso district of Sochi, not far from the construction of major Olympics venues and other facilities, has organized and participated in numerous public rallies to voice concern about environmental issues and property rights violations related to preparations for the Olympic Games. She has also filed written complaints regarding concerns related to Olympics construction and sought to publicize many environmental and property issues through the media. Beginning in 2008, the authorities have repeatedly detained, fined, and threatened her in connection with this work, and she has been the target of smear campaigns in the media.

Overt pressure on Kalinovskaya and her deputy on the community board, Svetlana Beresteneva, started as early as September 29, 2008, when they were invited for a “dialogue” on Olympics-related issues to the Sochi administration, but upon arrival they were met by a large group of police officers and two high-ranking officials and were detained on the spot. Police took them to a police station, quickly released Beresteneva without charge, and charged Kalinovskaya with a misdemeanor offense of blocking a road during an earlier protest, for which she was subsequently fined by a court.

In early December 2009, Kalinovskaya participated in a protest against forced evictions and environmental concerns regarding a new asphalt factory built adjacent to the residential area in Sochi where she lives. Following the rally, a television channel loyal to the local authorities aired a story which, Kalinovskaya told Human Rights Watch, distorted the circumstances of the protest, accused Kalinovskaya of causing public disturbance, and falsely alleged that she had a criminal record.

In an incident of police harassment in December 2011, a group of police stopped Kalinovskaya as she traveled by train from Krasnodar to Sochi, claimed she was under federal investigation, confiscated her passport, and held her for approximately one hour. She was then released without further explanation. The complaint she filed about this yielded no result. Kalinovskaya told Human Rights Watch that she believes the police actions were meant to intimidate her.

Kalinovskaya and Beresteneva have been involved in many peaceful protests against the construction of concrete reinforcements on the beaches in the Imeritinskaya lowlands, claiming construction of the barriers was being carried out in some areas – in particular their own neighborhood – without the requisite permits and ownership rights. In February 2012 a court granted an order sought by Olympstroi, the state corporation responsible for overseeing Olympic construction in Sochi, that Kalinovskaya and Beresteneva should “cease hindering work on the beach.” The order was upheld on appeal.

The broad term of the order enables Olympstroi to try to prevent any activity designed to challenge the construction work, regardless of the lawful and legitimate nature of the activity, and even if the work is being conducted in violation of legal requirements. It may also be used to prevent Kalinovskaya and Beresteneva from even having a presence at the construction in their own neighborhood.

In another incident on March 30, 2013, Kalinovskaya planned to hold a meeting of local residents with Sochi Mayor Anatolii Pakhomov on the lowlands beach to draw attention to concerns about the concrete reinforcements. Kalinovskaya told Human Rights Watch that that morning two policemen came to her home to hand her a written warning not to organize an “unsanctioned rally” that day. The meeting with the mayor took place, and no further police action was taken pursuant to the warning.

Olga Noskovets
According to media reports, late in the evening on July 1, 2013, border officials detained and searched Olga Noskovets, an outspoken environmental and Yabloko political party activist, as she attempted to cross the border from Abkhazia into Russia. Two of the officials were not wearing name badges. They detained Noskovets for approximately three hours and searched her. The officials found nothing during the search and released Noskovets at the pedestrian border crossing in the middle of the night, when no public transportation was available. Upon her release, officials told Noskovets that her name had been included in a federal database that would make it difficult for her to travel internationally in the future. Noskovets believes that she was targeted in conjunction with her activism in Sochi.

Citizen Activists

In some cases, the authorities have sanctioned individual residents who turned to single-person pickets to protest unfair compensation for their expropriated homes or voice related concerns about Olympics construction. For example,in May 2011 Irina Brovkina held a one-person picket outside Sochi Mayor Pakhomov’s office to protest the fact that her family received only half the market price for the apartment in Sochi from which her family was forcibly evicted to make way for Olympics construction.Although a one-person protest does not require official permission, police officers dragged Brovkina into a patrol car and charged her with organizing an unsanctioned gathering and disobeying police orders. She spent three days in detention after a rushed, late-night court hearing at which she had no lawyer.

Evgenii Zakharov
At approximately 8:30 a.m. on July 1, 2013, Evgenii Zakharov, an activist supporting the preservation of green spaces in Sochi, staged a one-person picket outside the Sochi mayor’s office to protest the construction of a public water fountain in the center one of the city’s parks. Zakharov fears the location could be easily transformed into a café under private ownership that would dramatically change the character of the park. During his picket, Zakharov held a poster he had decorated himself and had sheets of paper for gathering signatures for a petition against the construction. A one-person picket does not require notification to or permission from the authorities.

Shortly after Zakharov arrived, three men in uniforms, possibly security officers from the mayor’s office, questioned him about what he was doing and his basis for being there. At about 11 a.m., three police officers approached him and demanded that he come with them to a police station but did not explain the legal basis for doing so. The officers told Zakharov to sit in the station’s hallway and left. Police released Zakharov approximately 30 minutes later, after lawyer Alexander Popkov and a journalist had visited the police station and asked whether Zakharov had been detained.

Power Plant Protesters
From May 2012 through April 2013, residents in Kudepsta, a village in Sochi, protested peacefully numerous times against plans to build a power plant – projected to be the largest natural gas power plant in the world – as part of the government’s preparations for the Olympic Games. In some instances, local authorities impeded demonstrators’ attempts to peacefully gather and detained and fined some residents.

Residents sought to publicly voice their concerns that the plant would harm their health and livelihoods and that preparatory construction of the plant began before all legal requirements for environmental assessment and public consultation had been met.

On August 14, 2012, police detained two local community leaders involved in the protests: Anatoly Makhnovsky and Pavel Chesnokov, charged them with organizing unsanctioned gatherings, and pressured them to sign police reports containing false information about the circumstances of their detention, which the men refused to do. Police detained Chesnokov again the next day as he attempted to protest and illegally detained him for eight hours without charging him or drawing up an arrest report, instead of the three hours allowed by national law. Makhnovsky died in September in an unrelated incident from natural causes; the charges against Chesnokov were eventually dropped.

In two separate incidents on September 10 and 13, 2012, police detained four activists, fining two of them 1,000 rubles each (US$33) for disobeying police orders after a rushed court hearing that lasted only a few minutes. In April 2013, police and private security forces forcibly dispersed a group of residents protesting the construction, injuring some while aggressively dragging them off of a temporary bridge being constructed.

In late May 2013 Russia’s Ministry of Energy announced that the Kudepsta power plant would be removed from the Olympic program and all work on it suspended.


Pressure on Newspapers and Independent Journalists

Media coverage of preparations for the Olympics is diverse. Numerous online news and social media outlets publish stories that are critical of preparations for the Olympics, but some mainstream outlets, particularly those that are close the authorities, eschew such coverage.

Human Rights Watch spoke to editors, journalists, bloggers, and staff of news outlets who have faced threats and harassment after publicizing violations or concerns about the Olympics. Some said they believed the local authorities sought to control negative or critical information about Sochi by pressuring editors of outlets that publish Olympics-related materials. 

Mestnaya Newspaper
On June 7, 2013, law enforcement agencies searched the office of the Sochi newspaper Mestnaya (Local), an outspoken pro-opposition newspaper, after charges had been filed against its general director, Oleg Rubezhanskii, for violating copyright laws by selling pirated DVDs.

Officials confiscated all of the newspaper’s computers, which contained the publishing files for the newspaper as well as a database containing names of the newspaper’s sources and contacts, alleging the computer could possibly contain pirated software. Following several motions filed by Rubezhanksii’s lawyer regarding the investigation, investigators closed the case against Rubezhanksii in late July and returned the computers. However, investigators gained access to the database of the newspaper’s sources and contacts, which, under the Russian law on the media, can only be accessed through a court order. Neither Rubezhanskii nor his lawyer is aware of any court order issued for that information. Both Rubezhanskii and his lawyer believe that the search and confiscation of computers was in retaliation for articles criticizing local and regional authorities. The copyright charges against Rubezhanskii were later dropped.

Olga Loginova
Olga Loginova, a Sochi-based journalist, told Human Rights Watch that when she worked for Maks Media group, editors discouraged her from writing stories critical of the Olympic preparations. She told Human Rights Watch:

We [were] not allowed to report on Olympics-related housing problems or do stories about people who had problems after having been resettled because of the Olympics…. I couldn’t write about the protests surrounding the Kudpesta TES[power plant construction]. I wanted to, starting in May 2012 when everything started to happen there. But they refused to publish my material…. I was told [the protests] was a banned subject.

In September 2012 Loginova left her job as an editor of the Sochi news website Maks-Portal.

Svetlana Kravchenko
SvetalanaKravchenko, a local journalistknown for her investigative reporting on local government corruption,told Human Rights Watch that as an independent freelance journalist she faces censorship, harassment, and threats on a regular basis. 

On some occasions, the harassment took the form of criminal and civil lawsuits aimed at intimidating her or distracting her from her work.

For example, in December 2012 a court found Kravchenko guilty on trumped-up criminal assault charges and issued a fine of 10,000 rubles (approximately US$300). Kravchenko said that the charges were directly connected to a piece of investigative reporting she had worked on in December 2011 on allegations of corruption involving the management of a water supply company in Sochi and the local authorities. The charges, Kravchenko said, stemmed from false allegations made against her by a security guard of the water company, who alleged that she assaulted him by “scratching his ear.”

On the day of the incident, Kravchenko said, she went to the office of the company, together with local residents whose water had been shut off, to interview staff. A staff member called security. A guard with a private security firm, accompanied by two other people, came into the room and ordered Kravchenko to turn off her video camera and leave the building. He knocked the camera out of her hands, and blocked the door, preventing Kravchenko from leaving. After a brief tussle, Kravchenko was able to break free and leave the building, with the guard running after her shouting that she had hurt his ear. (A forensic exam documented a .1 by .3 millimeter scratch on his left ear.)

Kravchenko said that she had to be immediately taken to an emergency room of a local hospital and treated for hypertension, caused by the stress she suffered from the incident.

On March 13, 2013, an appeals court vacated the assault verdict on procedural grounds and returned it to the trial court for retrial, which is scheduled to begin on August 13.

Meanwhile, after the trial court’s verdict, the Federal Migration Service refused to issue Kravchenko a passport for foreign travel. After the appeal ruling, they issued her a passport valid for five years, not the ten-year biometric passport she had applied for, and made her pay the 2,000 ruble ($61) fee a second time. Kravchenko appealed to court against the decision to issue her a five-year passport and require her to pay the passport fee a second time, and won, but the Federal Migration Service has failed to implement the court decision. 

In January 2011 the Krasnodar Region Department for the Preparation of the 2014 Winter Olympics filed a lawsuit against Kravchenko and the newspaper Chernomorskaya zdravnitsa, where Kravchenko worked at the time, alleging that Kravchenko defamed the department in an article published in November 2010. The article described property assessment and compensation processes for homeowners evicted for construction of Olympic venues and infrastructure in Sochi and alleged widespread corruption among local authorities involved. The department alleged that Kravchenko’s article was based on false information that harmed its reputation and demanded a public apology and a monetary compensation of 500,000 rubles (approximately $16,000). In May 2011 a court ruled against the department, finding that Kravchenko’s article was not defamatory. Three months later an appeals court upheld the ruling.

Kravchenko told Human Rights Watch that even though she won the court case, it took “an enormous amount of time and energy I could have spent doing my job as a reporter.”

Nikolai Yarst
Traffic police detained Nikolai Yarst, a Sochi-based journalist for the OTR television company on May 23, 2013 as he drove with a cameraman to an interview with a senior official from the Sochi office of the Investigative Committee, the state agency in charge of criminal investigations. Traffic police stopped the car, asked Yarst for his documents, and proceeded to search his car.

During the search, a traffic police officer allegedly found behind the backseat a packet of powdered narcotics. An official video taken by traffic police of the search does not show the moment at which the packet was found. Officials then sent Yarst for a forensic drug test, which was negative. Officials also searched his home and found nothing. Yarst spent two days in investigative detention, and on May 31 police charged him with illegal possession, use or carrying a large volume of narcotics, which carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Yarst is currently under house arrest and forbidden to use any means of communication, to have visitors, or to work.

Yarst’s lawyer, Alexander Popkov, told Human Rights Watch about a number of procedural violations and other elements regarding the case that strongly suggest a political motivation behind the charges. 

For example, traffic police are not authorized by law to conduct searches. Also, Popkov noted the unusual presence in the case files of testimony from a “secret witness” who claims to have seen Yarst in his car with the alleged drug packet the day before the arrest. This witness, who is not identified, allegedly alerted one of the traffic police officers who stopped Yarst to the suspicious packet. However, this traffic police officer’s testimony does not mention any tip from an unidentified witness.

Popkov also noted that there was no photo or video records of the seizure of the Yarst's clothing for examination. Moreover there was no witnesses present during the seizure. The examination found in the pocket of Yarts’s jeans one milligram of the same powdered drug allegedly found in his car. In addition, during the forensic testing of the powder, investigators claim it disintegrated completely, which precluded a second independent forensic test of the material.

Traffic police have given three different reasons for stopping Yarst’s car on May 23: 1) that they had received a tip that he might possess drugs; 2) that he was driving with his lights off during the day, which is a violation of the law; 3) that they saw Yarst throw the suspicious packet into the back seat and hide it when he noticed the traffic police.

On the basis of these and other procedural violations and inconsistencies, Yarst’s lawyers filed a request for the Investigative Committee to open a criminal investigation against the traffic police officers who detained Yarst and searched his car for exceeding their authority and interfering with the professional work of a journalist. On June 13 the Investigative Committee refused to open investigation into the actions of the traffic police.

Rather than forward the case to court, the prosecutor’s office has returned the case for further investigation. As of this writing, Yarst remains under house arrest and the investigation continues, although the investigator initially in charge of the case is on vacation and a new investigator has not been named. Both Yarst and his lawyers believe that the charges against him are in retaliation for his work, which has involved investigations into possible corruption and illegal activities by local authorities.

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