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(Moscow) – A leading Russian human rights activist was attacked on the street on July 1, 2014, in Voronezh, southern Russia. Police should immediately open a thorough investigation into the assault on Andrey Yurov, one of several incidents in which unidentified assailants have recently attacked or harassed activists in various Russian regions.

Two men whom he did not know attacked Yurov on the street as he was speaking on a phone. Yurov is a member of Russia’s presidential human rights council, and is honorary president of the Youth Human Rights Movement in Voronezh. He has actively monitored developments in Ukraine for the past seven months, and is a member of a human rights monitoring mission in Crimea. A large poster threatening a group of local human rights activists appeared in Voronezh five days before the assault.

“Law enforcement should seriously examine all possible theories behind the attack, including the possibility that Yurov was targeted for his legitimate human rights work in Russia and Crimea,” said Tanya Cooper, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Human rights defenders shouldn’t face retaliation for their work, and failure to investigate could send a dangerous message that would make other rights defenders vulnerable to attack.”

Yurov told Human Rights Watch that he was attacked outside Human Rights House, which provides office space to several nongovernmental organizations, including the Youth Human Rights Movement. He said he had just finished talking on the phone when he felt a blow from behind. When he turned around, two men in black ski masks sprayed his face with zelyonka (Brilliant Green), a Soviet era antiseptic with a bright green color that contains alcohol.

Yurov said that he heard the attackers mutter some insults but he could not discern what they said. He said the attackers immediately ran away, most likely because they were afraid of being seen by passers-by. None of Yurov’s colleagues witnessed the attack.

Because his eyes were burning, Yurov said, he went to a clinic and was diagnosed with a light chemical burn of his right eye’s conjunctiva, the inside of the eyelid. He told Human Rights Watch he filed a complaint with the police on the same day. A neighborhood police officer also visited Human Rights House and took statements from Yurov’s colleagues.

In March, two former members of the punk group Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were attacked and similarly sprayed with the green antiseptic liquid in Nizhny Novgorod, where they had arrived to conduct prison monitoring work. The front door of a Syktyvkar human rights activist, Igor Sazhin, was set on fire in February, allegedly by members of an ultra-nationalist group. 

A few days before the assault, the Human Rights House together with other partners organized the “City of Rights Festival,” which was well attended and covered in local media, according to the activists.

Aleksander Druk, head of Youth Human Rights Council in the Voronezh region, told Human Rights Watch that people known for harassing human rights activists attempted several times to interfere with the festival. Druk said that one of the groups, “The Group for Change”, was especially active. A webpage of another anti-Western activist group on the Russian social network VKontakte posted a statement of the Group for Change saying that among its aims is “to demonstrate the anti-Russian work of human rights organizations, and also to show that there is a fifth column in Voronezh that undermines the state policies.”

In Russia, a “fifth column” is a pejorative label given to activists, political opposition, and other independent voices critical of the Russian government’s policies, especially those that accept foreign funding.

Druk said that on June 25, posters and signs on the Human Rights House door were stripped off and damaged. The same day, The Group for Change put up a big sign in central Voronezh that read: “The fifth column is in Voronezh. They are traitors, bastards and simply freaks! Know their faces.” The sign showed photos of activists from the Human Rights House and other civic activists in the city. Yurov’s photo was not among them.

“Russian authorities should make clear that they will not tolerate intimidation and violence against those who speak their minds,” Cooper said. “An effective investigation will send a strong signal and protect other activists from attacks.”

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