On December 13 and 14, 2013, Russian authorities in the North Caucasus questioned at least eight activists for Circassian minority rights, including about some activists’ open criticism of the Sochi Olympics. All were released without charge, but the authorities searched several of the activists’ homes and confiscated some activists’ computers, telephones, and publications, which have not been returned. The authorities questioned another three activists on December 16.
“Targeting minority rights activists is completely at odds with Russia’s role as Olympic host embracing people from all corners of the world,” said Jane Buchanan, Europe and Central Asia associate director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop harassing those who are critical of Russia’s decision to host the Olympic Games.”
The activists questioned have been engaged in promoting minority rights in the Krasnodar Region, where Sochi is located. Some have been critical of the Russian government’s decision to host the Olympic Games in Sochi. Many Circassian people and other ethnic minorities claim Sochi is part of their historical homeland from which they were expelled during tsarist Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century.
Human Rights Watch was unable to speak by phone with some of the activists questioned, in some cases because their telephones and computers had been confiscated or in other cases because they were concerned for their safety.
Human Rights Watch spoke with Ruslan Kambiev from the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, Ibragim Yaganov from Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, and Yurii Yakhutl, an independent Circassian activist from the Republic of Adygea.
Kambiev and Yaganov told Human Rights Watch that officials from local centers for combating extremism conducted detailed searches of their homes for about four hours on the basis of a court order. The court order had been issued in response to an order by the Investigative Committee, the state agency in charge of criminal investigation. The order claimed that each of the men had the same suspected terrorist possibly hiding in their home.
Officials confiscated a CD from Kambiev’s home and Yaganov’s computer, telephones, and literature published by Khase. The authorities also searched Yaganov’s parents’ home in a nearby village, where Yaganov has not lived for 10 years. Yakhutl said that officials searched his home for a shorter period and did not confiscate anything.
On the evening of December 13, officials drove Kambiev and Yaganov each several hundred kilometers to Krasnodar, the capital of Krasnodar Region, arriving very late at night, and put them in a hotel. On December 14, officials from the Investigative Committee, the state agency in charge of criminal investigation, and the Krasnodar Region Center for Extremism officials questioned each of the men for approximately three hours as witnesses in the criminal case concerning the suspected terrorist. In both cases, the questions focused overwhelmingly on the men’s personal lives, professional activities, and their public criticism related to the Sochi Olympics.
Kambiev said the authorities questioned him about a trip he made to the Matsesta region of Sochi in response to a complaint that a cemetery where mostly ethnic Circassians are buried was being destroyed to make way for other construction. Kambiev confirmed that he had made the trip and had published photos of the cemetery. Kambiev said authorities asked only one or two questions regarding the suspected terrorist whom they alleged was hiding in his home.
Yaganov told Human Rights Watch that the questions to him focused on Khase’s “No Sochi 2014” campaign and the organization’s other activities, including partnerships with a Circassian rights organization in Georgia. Yaganov said the authorities asked him only one question about the terrorism suspect.
Kambiev is the director of Abaza, a nongovernmental organization supporting cultural projects, interethnic cooperation, and tolerance on behalf of the Abazin, a minority group with a population of about 35,000 closely related to Circassians. He is also an active blogger on minority rights and other issues.
Yaganov is director of Khase, a national civic movement supporting the rights of the Circassian people. Yaganov and Khase have been openly critical of the government’s decision to host the Sochi Games, as well as what they believe are negative impacts of Olympic construction on the environment and areas of historical significance to some ethnic monitories, including many Circassians. They have organized a highly publicized “No Sochi 2014” campaign.
The authorities also drove Yakhutl approximately 40 kilometers from his home in Adygea to Krasnodar for questioning in relation to the same criminal case involving a suspected terrorist, allegedly known to Yakhutl and possibly hiding in his home. Yakhutl said he refused to give testimony as a witness, as is permissible under Russian law. The authorities accepted his refusal and released him after 10 minutes.
The three activists said that the authorities brought several other prominent Circassian activists to Krasnodar also on December 13, including men from Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessk, and Krasnodar, also as witnesses in the same case.
The Russian online news source Caucasian Knot (Kavkazskii uzel) reported that authorities in Krasnodar questioned an additional three activists for Circassian rights from Adygea on December 16, also as witnesses in the same case.
Human Rights Watch has documented various forms of pressure, harassment, and prosecutions of journalists and activists who have documented and publicized human rights, environmental, and other concerns related to the Russian government’s preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
“This is not the first time we’ve seen Russian authorities use a flimsy pretext to search the homes of activists critical of the Sochi games,” Buchanan said. “The Russian authorities should stop using the Olympics to justify muzzling critics.”