MOSCOW—After years of toiling in relative anonymity, a small, Dutch-funded human rights group attracted international attention last July when it convinced a European court that Russia was responsible for making a suspect disappear.
In October, Russia shut down the group's Moscow office.
The Russian Justice Initiative's struggle is a microcosm of a crackdown by Russia—and by President Vladimir Putin personally, some think—on critics and potential opposition.
The government's first major target was independent television, followed by major newspapers and the political opposition. Now it's focusing on nongovernmental organizations.
Putin accused the United States and Europe in a major speech this month of trying to subvert Russia in part through foreign-funded NGOs, and he promised he'd do whatever was necessary to stop them.
When he was challenged at an international gathering of top security officials in Munich, he said his actions were normal for any state and that they drew international criticism only because of an anti-Russian bias.
But the Russian Justice Initiative's case—and others like it—may indicate that something more is at work. Critics fear the restoration of a Soviet-style tyranny of bureaucracy.
The group's victory before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, the first of several last year, centered on a moment, captured on international television cameras, when a Russian military leader completed the questioning of a 25-year-old Chechen by ordering his soldiers to "Take him away."
The young man hasn't been seen since, and the European Court, ruling on the group's suit, said there was reason to think that he'd been executed. It held Russia responsible for illegal detention and summary execution.
Two months later, Russian officials, using a new law requiring NGOs to register, found three technical mistakes in the application for the Russian Justice Initiative's Moscow office, and shut it down until they were corrected. The second application was rejected for two further technical reasons. Now closed for five months, the group awaits a ruling on its third application.
"I hope it's only zealous civil servants," said Jan ter Laak, the chairman of the group. "If it is political, I guess we are a small enough group to go after without causing too much of an international stir, but large enough to be useful (to the government) as an example."
NGO staff and opposition politicians think that with parliamentary elections looming in December and a presidential vote in spring 2008, Putin is consolidating power across the country and sees NGOs as a threat.
Russian officials have harshly criticized the NGO community. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Federal Security Service, accused international NGOs in December of harboring foreign spies. He said Russia had seen a "sharp increase" in spy activity in 2006, under the cover of such international organizations.
Putin threw down the gauntlet at the annual Munich Wehrkunde conference. "What bothers us? I can say—and I think that it is clear for all—that when these nongovernmental organizations are financed by foreign governments, we see them as an instrument that foreign states use to carry out their Russian policies," he said.
The Russian Justice Initiative's supporters are all private human-rights organizations.
Some cases appear blatantly political. The Rainbow House, a gay rights organization set up a year ago, was turned down during the registration process because, according to the rejection letter: "The work of the organization ... undermines the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation in view of the reduction of its population."
In other words, gay sex doesn't lead to babies. Human rights workers here said it might look like an act of provincial overreaction: The Rainbow House was to be in Tyumen, a Siberian business center of a half-million residents. But on Feb. 1, in a nationally televised annual news conference, Putin gave the underlying rationale: "My attitude to gay parades and to sexual minorities is simple. It stems from my performance of my official duties and it is this: that one of the main problems in this country is demographic. But I respect and will continue to respect freedom in all its manifestations."
As Igor Petrov, a spokesman for the Rainbow House, noted, "It's clear there is no room for gay rights in the Russian political world."
Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition Duma deputy, said that since this government came to power in 2000, state-owned companies, such as Gazprom, and friends of the government had taken control of the major television stations and most major newspapers.
Putin also used anti-terrorism legislation to overwhelm his political opposition, closing down 15 of the country's 32 political parties last month.
NGOs, Ryzhkov said, "are the last strong, critical voice left, so he's going after them now."
He added that the timing—in an election year—isn't accidental. Russian officials think that NGOs led to the Orange and Rose revolutions, mass demonstrations in Ukraine and Georgia that led to the downfall of pro-Russian governments.
As Bobo Lo, the head of the Russian and Eurasian Program at London's Chatham House research center, noted, "It's certainly helpful for the Kremlin to have a bogeyman heading into elections."
Ludmilla Alexeeva, the chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a Russian human-rights organization, said the intimidation of some groups was intended as a warning to others to watch their step.
The well-known former Soviet dissident said Putin's plan included burying human rights organizations in paperwork, so they wouldn't have time for their real purposes.
"To ask for a report seems fairly tame, but to do what they ask, we would not have time for anything else," she said.
Valentin Moiseyev, the deputy director of a legal aid NGO, said that after winning a series of cases that seemed to embarrass the government, his organization had been the subject of three government inquiries, each lasting months. At present, it's been given a back-tax bill of $180,000.
"We were charged taxes on the value of the free legal advice we give to those who cannot afford lawyers," he said.
The investigations aren't over. Seven lawyers who volunteer for the organization have come under official pressure. Earlier this month, two were detained at an airport on their way to represent a client. Government officials "hint to attorneys that if they work here, they will have trouble," Moiseyev said.
"They want us to be forced to fight for our survival, and not have time to fight for others," he said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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