Putin criticizes human rights groups

A day later, an attack smashes the office of an activist group

May 29, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - One day after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin criticized human rights groups in a speech, two masked men in the city of Kazan, 450 miles east of Moscow, entered the offices of the Kazan Human Rights Center.

"Don't move," one of the intruders ordered the lone employee left in the office late Thursday afternoon, according to an account by a lawyer for the group. Then the masked men smashed two computers, a scanner, television and printer. And left.

The attack is highlighting the precarious position of human rights groups in Russia. They are criticizing what they say is Putin's drift from democracy even as they face growing pressure to remain silent, with the Kremlin growing less tolerant of critics and popular support for democratic reforms continuing to ebb.

Lev A. Ponomarev, executive director of the For Human Rights group, said Putin used the annual state-of-the-nation speech this week to warn rights advocates to steer clear of politics at the risk of facing harassment by government agencies.

In his speech Wednesday, Putin portrayed himself as a democratic reformer. He also hinted that his detractors were serving the interests of shadowy foreign enemies.

"It is far from everyone in the world that wants to have to deal with an independent, strong and self-assured Russia," Putin said. "Political, economic and information pressure have become weapons in the global competitive battle today. Our efforts to strengthen our state are sometimes deliberately interpreted as authoritarianism."

Later, he attacked Russian-based nonprofit organizations. "In our country, there are thousands of public associations and unions that work constructively," he said. "But not all of them are oriented toward standing up for people's real interests. For some of these organizations, the priority is to receive financing from influential foreign foundations. Others serve dubious group and commercial interests."

Ponomarev said, "It sounded like the command `Attack!' as you would give to a dog."

Putin may have been referring to the philanthropic work of Mikhail B. Khordokovsky, the Russian billionaire jailed on charges of large-scale fraud and tax evasion and whose Open Russia foundation supports several human rights groups. The oil magnate, who has spent seven months in custody, attended a court hearing yesterday in preparation for his trial.

Putin may also have had another Russian tycoon in mind. Earlier this month, Valery Krayev, deputy head of the Justice Ministry department that runs the prison system, told reporters that some groups defending the rights of prisoners were being financed by what he called organized criminal groups.

Krayev singled out the former media magnate Boris Berezovsky for financing 163 Russian nonprofits with monthly grants ranging up to $15,000. The financier, once called the Godfather of the Kremlin but who has been granted political asylum in Britain, is wanted in Russia on fraud charges.

Krayev blamed several recent inmate disturbances on rights advocates and named Ponomarev and For Human Rights as among those supported by allegedly "criminal" organizations.

Ponomarev estimates that nine out of 10 of Russia's human rights groups receive support from foreign foundations and governments. "I believe [the government] will stop the biggest and most oppositional groups -especially those which oppose the Chechen war -from getting foreign grants," he said.

Pavel V. Chikov, a lawyer with the Kazan Human Rights Center, said he did not believe that anyone in the Kremlin ordered Thursday's raid on his group's offices. But Putin's speech, he said, sent a strong signal to foes of such organizations.

"I think that his words may be used by some people down there in the regions in their activities to repress human rights activities, that's for sure," said Chikov, who was in Moscow this week.

Lawyers at the Kazan center issued a report last month detailing alleged human rights abuses by Ministry of Interior Affairs police in Tartarstan. A few weeks later, Interior Ministry officials started poring over the center's books. The ministry told Chikov's group that if it discovered any financial irregularities, the state might go to court as early as next week to close the group's doors.

That same day, a live hand grenade was discovered in the hallway near the apartment of one the Kazan Human Rights Center's staff members.

Among the Tartarstan group's current donors are the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, financier George Soros' Open Society Institute and London's Penal Reform International.

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