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(Moscow) – Russian authorities in Sochi have rounded up hundreds of migrant workers for alleged violations of migration or employment regulations. Many have been held in arbitrary and inhuman detention conditions. The detentions of migrant workers, many of whom worked on Olympic construction sites, come less than five months before Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Human rights advocates in Sochi told Human Rights Watch that since early September 2013, the authorities have raided workplaces, homes, and public places, and have detained hundreds, most of them migrant workers. Most appear to have been targeted because of their non-Slavic appearance. Police have held many of those detained in police station courtyards or overcrowded temporary holding cells. Most detainees were released after several hours, but some have been held for more than a week. In some cases they were denied access to a lawyer, and police denied they were being held in custody. Others have been expelled from the country, following perfunctory court hearings, without lawyers present.

The detentions continued during the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) final inspection visit to Sochi in late September.

“It’s outrageous for the migrant workers who helped to build Sochi’s shiny new Olympic venues to be herded into detention and deported,” said Jane Buchanan, Europe and Central Asia associate director. “The IOC needs to send a clear message that these sweeps are completely unacceptable for an Olympic host city, and that abusive detentions must stop immediately.”

Russian citizens from outside of Sochi have been among those detained. According to human rights advocates in Sochi, the detentions have been continuing daily since the first days of September. The government should guarantee the fundamental rights of anyone taken into custody, including access to a lawyer, and provide detention conditions that meet international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

The raids began immediately following a September 3 speech by Alexander Tkachev, the governor of Krasnodar Region, of which Sochi is a part, in which he called for “raid brigades” consisting of the police, the Migration Service, the Federal Security Service, and other officials, as well as Cossacks, to go through Sochi streets to “clean them up.”

Alexander Popkov, a lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that on September 24, he went to Sochi’s central district police station following a phone call from a representative of a Sochi construction company stating that police had detained several of the company’s workers. Popkov managed to get into the station’s courtyard, where he saw approximately 40 to 50 men being held in a makeshift shed consisting of large sheets of metal. Popkov recorded a video on his phone that shows the men standing in the garage and explaining to him how long they had been in detention.

Some men in the video, which Human Rights Watch viewed, told Popkov that they had been held for a few hours, while others said that they had been in the garage for two, three, or four days. One man said he had been there eight days. In the video, the men claim that they had not been given food, had no place to sleep, and that the shed did not provide protection from the rain, wind, or cold. During this period Sochi had faced three days of intense storms including heavy rains and high winds. Detainees were allowed to buy food from a food stand for station employees located in the courtyard, but not all of them had money.

Popkov told Human Rights Watch that when he spoke to the duty police officer and asked for permission to provide legal counsel to these men, the officer repeatedly and aggressively claimed, “There are no men in the courtyard.” Popkov filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office about the arbitrary detentions and the refusal to allow detainees to access a lawyer. He has yet to receive a response.

Popkov said that contrary to Russian police regulations, none of the people he saw held in the shed on September 24 had been registered in the police log, which must list each detainee’s name, time of arrival, and reason for detention.

“They are working very hard to hide what they are doing,” Popkov told Human Rights Watch. “The police were lying to my face, saying no one is there, while I saw myself: people are sitting there in the cold, without anything.”

The authorities should acknowledge the names of all people held in the courtyard at the central district police station and ensure that they have access to legal counsel and adequate food and shelter, Human Rights Watch said.

Abusive detention of migrants as Olympics leaders visit
Popkov’s discovery of the shed coincided with the IOC’s final inspection visit to Sochi to assess preparations for the games from September 24 to 26. In a September 26 press conference in Sochi, IOC Coordination Committee Chairman Jean-Claude Killy contended that the preparations for the games were “really magnificent.”

“These abusive sweeps were happening right under the noses of the IOC during its inspection yet the IOC was totally silent about them,” Buchanan said. “That suggests there is something seriously wrong with the way these inspections happen.”

Under Russian law, police may detain people for up to three hours without charge in order to “establish their identity.” After three hours, police must bring charges against a detainee, and, after 48 hours, detainees must be brought before a judge to authorize further detention. Authorities must also provide individuals in custody with immediate access to a lawyer and give them food, water, reasonable medical care, and accommodations that are not excessively cold or hot and with a place to rest. International law provides similar protections.

Popkov and Semyon Simonov, head of the Memorial Human Rights Center’s Migration and Law Program’s Sochi Office, also visited the Sochi central district police station together on September 18, after receiving calls from people as police were detaining them and from relatives or friends of the detained. Simonov estimated that he saw approximately 200 people in custody in the police station courtyard even as it was raining.

Several of the relatives, friends, and employers of the detained gathered outside the station asked Popkov to provide legal counsel to specific individuals in custody. However, police refused Popkov’s repeated oral requests and a written request to be given access to the detainees he named. Police claimed that the individuals Popkov named were not in their custody and said, “We aren’t holding anyone. Nothing is happening here.” 

Following these denials, Simonov filed a complaint with the duty officer alleging that unknown persons had kidnapped the individuals he and Popkov requested to see.

Simonov told Human Rights Watch that police had yet to respond to this complaint as of September 26. Simonov and Popkov said that all of those detained at that station on September 18 were subsequently released, with some people held for more than 19 hours.

Overcrowded cells, denial of legal counsel
On September 12, Simonov and Popkov went to Sochi’s Adler district police station to provide legal counsel to Nurmamatov Kulmuradov, a detained migrant worker from Uzbekistan.  Kulmuradov had sought help from Simonov a week earlier to recover wages owed to him and approximately 10 other workers by a construction company engaged on the Olympic Main Media Center for work performed in 2012 and 2013. Police detained Kulmuradov on September 11, alleging he violated migration law.

Popkov told Human Rights Watch that Kulmuradov’s work permit had expired three days before his arrest; however, Russian law allows migrant workers to remain in Russia 15 days after the expiration of the kind of work permit Kulmuradov had.

According to Simonov, police had kept Kulmuradov and eight other detainees in a small holding cell for approximately 15 hours and had refused to give them the food or medicine that some of the detainees had asked for. The cell was equipped with only a small bench and no beds and was very cold at night. Some detainees slept on cardboard on the cell floor.

Later in the day on September 12, a court ordered Kulmuradov and 20 others to be expelled from Russia for allegedly violating migration regulations. Popkov and Simonov told Human Rights Watch that the authorities prevented them from representing Kulmuradov at the hearing. While Popkov and Simonov waited outside the courtroom for the hearing to begin, Kulmuradov was brought in through a back door.

The authorities transferred Kulmuradov to a deportation holding cell. Popkov has appealed the deportation decision. At this writing it was unclear whether Kulmuradov had been deported.

According to Popkov and Simonov, official court data shows the authorities have expelled hundreds of foreigners from Sochi, many of them migrant workers, following perfunctory court hearings, where individuals are denied translators and legal counsel. Several have been expelled during the 10-day period during which they may appeal the court decision, according to Simonov.

Tens of thousands of migrant workers from Central Asia, other countries, and from within Russia have been engaged in construction of Olympic venues and infrastructure in Sochi. Human Rights Watch has documented exploitation of migrant workers on Olympic sites, including severe delays in payment of wages or nonpayment of wages, withholding of passports or other identity documents, and refusal to provide written contracts and work permits as required by law. Human Rights Watch documented exploitation on key Olympic sites including the Olympic Village, the Central Olympic Stadium, and the Main Media Center. Human rights groups in Sochi continue to document these same types of abuses on these same sites.

“The treatment of migrant workers on the part of many companies operating in Sochi has been appalling, including at key Olympic sites,” Buchanan said. “But instead of taking effective action to stop the exploitation of migrant workers in Sochi, the government seems to be focused on rounding up and expelling them.”

Some migrant workers in Sochi who have tried to complain about exploitative treatment by their employers in the past have been denounced to the authorities and expelled, or detained on trumped up charges.

The IOC should publicly state that such abuses are incompatible with the Olympic Charter’s principle of human dignity, Human Rights Watch said. The IOC should establish a standing committee to monitor Olympics-related human rights concerns to prevent similar abuses from happening in preparations for future games.

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