Human Rights First reports:
Human Rights First is deeply concerned by the Saint Petersburg City Court’s ruling against the leading Russian human rights organization Memorial today. The decision allows the authorities to remain in possession of all materials confiscated from their St. Petersburg offices during a police raid in December 2008.
“The December raid on Memorial’s offices was unwarranted interference in the legitimate, peaceful activities of an independent human rights research organization. Now this injustice has been compounded by the appeals court upholding the confiscation of years of work,” said Neil Hicks , International Policy Advisor at Human Rights First. “We welcomed the January court ruling that the raid had violated the law. We reiterate our call to the authorities to return the materials they confiscated.”
“It is disheartening that our colleagues’ work has been stalled for two months and their entire archives displaced because of groundless allegations and official harassment.” further stated Hicks.
The Saint Petersburg City Court handed a further blow to Russia ’s embattled human rights community by overruling the January 20, 2009 district court verdict that ordered the return of all research materials to the Memorial Center . Memorial plans to appeal the latest verdict, but the organization will have no access to its archives and research materials in the meantime. The ruling comes less than a week after a Moscow jury acquitted three men on trial for the 2006 murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, and a month after the murder of leading human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and trainee Novaya Gazeta journalist Anastasia Baburova in downtown Moscow.
The activities of the Saint Petersburg-based Scientific-Information Center Memorial, a branch of the human rights organization that researches the history of authoritarian oppression in Soviet Russia, have come to a halt. The organization’s electronic archive and research documents remain in possession of law enforcement authorities, who confiscated the materials during an investigative search performed by several masked men armed with batons on December 4, 2008. Since then, intergovernmental bodies, international human rights groups and scholarly institutions have followed the case closely and appealed to the Russian authorities for the return of the materials.
Allegations of extremism against Memorial represent the latest example of misuse of anti-extremism legislation to target human rights advocates and other non-violent critics of the Russian government. Extremism is defined broadly in Russian legislation and this latitude has been exploited to by the authorities to restrict freedom of expression and to prosecute peaceful dissidents. The law on combating extremism has not been effective in countering the many extreme nationalist or neo-Nazi groups that openly espouse and engage in bias-motivated violence, the ostensible purpose of these laws.
Human Rights First has identified support for independent human rights defenders and efforts to combat extremist violence as crucial to human rights promotion and protection in Russia . The organization advocates for consistent support of human rights as an integral part of the United States bilateral relationship with Russia . The group’s policy Blueprint for the Obama Administration, How to Promote Human Rights in Russia, argues that an increasingly authoritarian Russia risks spreading instability throughout the world and cannot be a reliable strategic partner.
The January 19 district court verdict declared the December 4 police search illegitimate, marking a rare court victory for Russian civil society organizations, particularly in cases challenging the actions of law enforcement agencies. The verdict pointed to numerous procedural violations during the initial search, specifically noting that the organization’s rights were obstructed because its lawyer was not allowed to be present during the office search. However, the ruling concurrently justified the authorization of the December 4 raid, stating that the General Prosecutor’s Office had sufficient reason to believe that Memorial was possibly responsible for a portion of the content published in Novy Peterburg, a local newspaper, that was alleged to be “extremist.” Memorial has denied any connection to the newspaper.
The February 24 appeal hearing at the City Court overturned the earlier decision questioning the procedural validity of the raid. The December raid on Memorial’s office was sanctioned by the chief investigator in a case against Novy Peterburg, a newspaper that published information about protest marches organized by government critics as well as articles sharply critical of the work of government and law enforcement bodies.
According to the Investigative Committee of the General Prosecutor’s Office, the search of Memorial’s office was tied to a criminal case against Konstantin Chernyaev, the author of a June 2007 article alleged to be extremist. The Investigative Committee announced that the newspaper’s editor Andrei Andreev had on two occasions in 2008 allegedly entered the building where the office of Memorial is located, which led the investigators to believe that Andreev may have stored financial and administrative documents on Memorial’s premises. During the trial, the Prosecutor’s Office repeatedly refused to present evidence of Andreev’s visits to Memorial’s office. Memorial has denied having any connection with Novy Peterburg. The newspaper was allowed to resume operations at the end of 2008.